Every year, as summer progresses, the rising heat becomes the focal point of conversation. Friends emerge from air-conditioned rooms only to moan and groan. Visitors from other cities, especially Delhi, where summers are as mild as on the planet Mercury, complain, “Oh, Madras is so hot.”
Out here on the farm, summer is a festival of colours, sounds, scents, and tastes. The hot weather, which sends some of our friends fleeing to cooler climes, seems to make a whole range of plants and creatures feel sexy. The beginning of the sweaty season smells of neem.
Rom couldn’t have chosen a better moment to propose. It was a particularly beautiful evening; the moon was full and the scent of numerous neem trees in full bloom had already made me feel giddy. I was a goner.
Then, it’s the turn of the extravagant and sweet-smelling yellow blooms of laburnum. After a few days of providing delight, the petals drop, and long, phallic, green pods dangle from trees.
By early May, the farm smells of honey, the fragrance of numerous myrobalan flowers. When neem and jamun fruits ripen, birds go crazy, chirping, gorging, pooping, fighting, mating, and rearing babies. Melodious birdsong rises to a crescendo during the soporific afternoons.
Now, in early April, the magpie-robins are furtively scouting the eaves for nesting sites. If they catch us looking in their direction, they scoot away like they’ve been up to mischief. However, if they do nest in the roof, their shyness vanishes. The parents become flying devils, dive bombing us and screaming hoarse curses.
We become interlopers in our own home. Even though there is no threat of rain, I leave the house with an unfurled umbrella to shield my head from these avian monsters, or I make a dash for the safety beyond the birds’ territory. The dogs are harried the worst, and they slink away with tails tucked and heads held low.
Even the normally sluggish crocs at the Croc Bank go into reproductive overdrive. Egg laying starts in February and a few stragglers are still at it. When we lived at the Bank, I was up early toiling hard with the rest of the crew, digging up eggs laid during the night, and ferrying them to the incubator. As I passed Rom’s office, I would hear him sing the Beatles’ song, “I am the Egg Man.” That strange, psychedelic song was both anthem and earworm for the season. By the end of the morning, when all the eggs had been marked, checked for fertile embryos and tucked into incubators, I was sweaty and completely exhausted.
Reptiles, such as crocs and turtles, are dependent on warm weather in more ways than one. Since these animals don’t sit on their eggs like birds do, external warmth is essential for embryo growth. But more importantly, heat decides whether the hatchling will be a boy or a girl. In humans, the Y chromosome dictates our gender. But crocs and turtles have no sex chromosome.
This is how it works. Croc eggs incubated at lower and higher temperatures produce girls. Boys are formed in the in-between range. Dr. Jeffery Lang conducted a nine-year research project at the Croc Bank on the subject, and today we can produce any sex ratio by flipping the thermostat on the incubator.
That’s not all. Since crocs are cold-blooded, they get warm by lying in the sun. Boy and girl crocs incubated on the warmer side choose to bask for a longer time, getting hotter than their siblings incubated at lower temperatures. The “hot” animals digest their food faster, get hungry earlier, and want to eat oftener. The result: They grow faster and bigger. Large bull crocs have an edge over smaller males, while large females produce more eggs.
It makes reproductive sense to be hot whether it’s a neem tree, magpie-robin or a crocodile.