It was noon near periurban Dhaka. The sun was at its full strength, blazing the fields that laid across. I and Abu Bakar Siddik – visiting the place for an urban wild feline – sought refuge nearby underneath a plantain grove.
That was not much of a shed and there was not much to do either — we were done swearing at the forecast for it suggested something different, rain. The course of discussion changed to cats. We, both being cat people, got plenty of cat characters to analyse. And, then, it happened. I looked up. It took me a few good seconds to grasp what was happening. There was the cat.
Right on the path by the grove, out in the open, the cat was slowly pacing away and oblivious to all the noise we were making. We made eye contact but it did not budge except only when we went within 10 feet of it. It leapt across the road and dived into the dry meadow. Both colours blended perfectly. The whole incident took about 10 seconds. The streak of extraordinary events, whenever I and Abu Bakar Siddik pair up for a photography trip, continues.
In 2018, the BBC aired a miniseries named 'Big Cats'. Using the latest technologies, the show revealed some baffling, never-seen-before footage of a dozen of different elusive felines. The promo of 'Big Cats' started with a subheading: 'One family, 40 different faces'.
Biologically, the cats of the world belong to a single family, Felidae. Interestingly, except for about six species — the tiger, lion, leopards, jaguar, snow leopard and sometimes clouded leopard — wild cats are grouped as small cats, often termed as the lesser cats — according to the BBC show. The jungle cat is one of these small cats.
It is likely that the jungle cat (Bangla: Bonbiral, Wab) is among the most common cats in Bangladesh. It occurs all over the country and can be found in any old, undisturbed homesteads and backyard jungles. Its brownish straw-coloured coat is often confusing with the feral ginger cats; the jungle cat-domestic cat hybrids are also common. Visibly long ear-tuft, white muzzle, slender legs, cheek stripe and black stripes (generally paired) inside of forelegs are the tell-tale signs of the species.
Undoubtedly, this is the only cat that still lives in the suburban areas — even in Dhaka. But their heydays are long gone. For food and habitat, cats this small, too, come into conflict and are readily struck down. For example, in 2017 I saw one in Purbachal, Dhaka. Now, the area has been completely cleared off of any vegetation.
It appears that half of our small cats live around us. But they are being treated poorly. The other half are like mystic creatures. We know they live in our remaining eastern forests. But that is all. Apart from the sporadic encounters, we don't know much about their lifestyle. How they are getting food in ever-receding habitats is also shrouded in mystery.
We waited there for the rest of the day. The sun slid down to the west, the road became busy. There was more chaos than usual. The straw-coloured grasses between the paddy field and the road, a wandering ground for these cats, remained empty. At dusk, the edge of the paddy field moved suspiciously. But nothing peered out.
We decided to call it a day when all colours had been washed away with shades of grey. Our bike was crossing the meadow. Then, there was the cat, again – this time on the farthest end of the meadow. It was sitting by the edge of the paddies – our guess was correct. The cat looked back warily, not familiar with the revving noise of the engine – ours was one of the first bikes there. It went in the direction of a nearby pool, a home for a medley of common birds. For the cat, the meal was waiting.
The resilience and perseverance of small cats always strike me with awe. With almost everything less and wanting, they know how to hang on with grit. But the rising and creeping concretes on the horizon look closer and more suffocating for them than it might appear.