One of the first things people learn about you in Kutch- a dusty district in western India, is what your footprints look like. This is not very surprising given that in most parts of Kutch, the ground under your feet is a fine clay that retains memories of whatever passes over it. If you look closely, it tells you stories of who or what passed by and when. The Kutchi people are very good at being able to read these stories.
“Oh, you were here yesterday!” someone or the other always tells me. “I noticed your bike tracks and footprints”.
Kabul bhai, the cook in our field station often declares that we have visitors, after glancing at a pair of footprints in the sand. To my untrained eye, these looked like any other footprints. But slowly, I start noticing little details in the footprints. Worn or cracked soles, a dip in the sand that tells you how the person walks- there is always a kink that sets them apart.
These skills come in handy in the field when I lose things and have to retrace my footprints to find them. When in need of some exceptionally good tracking, though, I call Habu bhai who is detective extraordinaire. He arrived early one morning with his forehead furrowed to investigate the theft of my rodent traps and started wandering around from where the traps were stolen. A little while later, he announced that he found one set of footprints which was joined by another smaller pair. He followed them until he reached the road. Then after some searching, he found their trail again and tracked them all the way to their village which was a kilometre away. What happened after that is another story that I will reserve for later.
It is fitting that my work in the field involves examining footprints too, albeit a different kind- gerbil!(a kind of rodent found in arid, desert-like regions). In wildlife biology, footprints and tracks of animals are often used as an indication of their presence when they are hard to see. Every evening, I smoothen the soft clay around my experimental plots only to come back the next morning to find tiny rodent footprints waiting for me.
Sometimes it appears that they have run around in a frenzy while eating the food I had left out for them. “It looks like the rodents came and played garba last night!” Sherkhan my field assistant would tell me on these days. Sometimes there are tracks of other animals on my plots. A hedgehog was a regular customer; I always enjoy looking at its tiny, almost human-like footprints. There are also snakes, birds, jackals, goats and buffaloes that leave their tracks in the sand. A set of human footprints around the plots are common. I imagine they inquisitively walk around wondering what I am up to. And on two occasions, I am surprised to find ‘namaste’ and a phone number written in the sand I had smoothened out.
There are footprints everywhere once you start looking. I notice some sections in the sand which look like an army of gerbils had passed through- we fondly call these ‘gerbil highways’. Elsewhere are the gigantic footprints of a common crane next to maybe a wolf; a monitor lizard had waddled past here; a fox might have paused to sniff something there. On one sunny morning, a snake- maybe a saw-scaled viper which moves like a sidewinder- had slithered past sometime after me.
And then a wind blows taking away some sand with it, leaving a clean slate for a fresh set of stories.