We had been sitting in the dark for a couple of hours, waiting for the moon to rise, our bodies having collapsed after a long walk through an uneven dirt road. It is a challenge to tread on like a blind man in the dark, carrying a heavy load of tent, food, water, sleeping bag, mat and backpack.
We started walking again. At one point the road ended and we were in the middle of the Hail haor – a vast expanse of water that dries up in winter, inviting birds from all over the world.
We had arrived here before the Shelducks, who are sure to fly in a few weeks' time. Right now, they were waiting out the night by the shores of Yamdrok Lake in Tibet. A few years back, we had seen them resting along their long, tedious journey to escape the gnaw of the advancing cold. We had reached here even before the Falcated Ducks, who left their tundras weeks before. Before the Godwits and Pochards as well, who would be taking off from their promised land of Ladakh.
But now we waited here for the moon to rise. It was impossible to say which way east was in the pitch black night. Only the myriad stars and the milky way gave us some comfort. We scanned the earth to trace out the first sign of glow, but found none. The last of the frogs croaked and the crickets chirped.
But we needed the moonlight to pitch our tents. Headlamps were out – we had tried to switch them on but then swiftly put them out, as millions of strange nano insects hounded us with fierce inquisitiveness. They bit us as they landed on our bare hands and necks. No amount of mosquito repellent could deter them from their probe missions.
With a flash from our headlamps we had seen thousands of lotuses in bloom, ahead of us, flanking us. However far we could see, there were lotuses standing lonely and weary in this late autumn.
We heard the owls screech, seeking out that lonely rodent scurrying for food in the lotus seeds we call 'Vaat". We had tried some of it to fight hunger, they tasted really good.
Then the red moon broke out from the most unexpected angle and the whole world was awash with a ghostly silvery light. We could now see each other -- our lips, cheekbones, and even eyelids – such was the brilliance of the light. Only the colour was missing. We were living in a world of monochrome. In that shadow of the moonlight we could see the lotuses, their petals falling off in the light breeze. They will die out soon and vanish in the mud on this expanse, before the farmers come to plough and grow rice.
The haors are mysterious places, a unique ecosystem, brimming with lapping water during the monsoon. The water rolls down from the hills, through the rivers, and fills it out like a bowl of soup. There are haors that look like an endless spread of water, much like a sea, that become dangerously choppy as the wind rises. And then they dry out in winter and the land surfaces for agriculture. The winter haor is altogether a different landscape, barren and yet alive with the songs of life.
It was then that the Godwits and Shelducks and the Pochards come.
We finally noticed that the solid black wall that blocked our view on the rear was in fact a Hijal forest. We sat their mesmerized looking at the moonlight playing with the wind and leaves. Pale light glistened on the grass blades.
It reminded me of Ansel Adams capturing the American landscape in black and white; the Mexican town sitting quiet and still under a big moon. Today, we were witnessing that Anselian transformation of the haor.
We walked up to the Hijal forest and sat under a tree. We could not keep track of how many moments we spent there. The stillness of the night was suddenly broken by deep growls coming from behind a bush very close to us.
We froze, realising what it could mean. The cadence grew louder and louder. And then from the shadow they appeared – two grey figures. They crossed the patch of Hijal trees onto the open field in front of us. Two beautiful fishing cats. Their white coat with grey patches glistened in the moonlight.
I held my breath. What I was witnessing was a very rare scene – fishing cats themselves are on the Red List of IUCN's vulnerable species and in Bangladesh, they are even more endangered, because of habitat loss and indiscriminate killing of the beautiful animals.
A long time back they were more visible and I remember my relatives talking about how they sat out the night with shotguns to kill fishing cats that raided their chicken coops. They were widely dispersed along the wetlands of Bangladesh. Fish is their main food and hence the prefix in their names. But they also prey on rodents, chickens and even goats. As their natural habitat of wetlands shrunk, fishing cats found their hunting grounds vanishing and domestic animals became their easy prey. And thus the conflict with humans began, which ultimately took a toll on their numbers.
The last time I saw a fishing cat, it was on a night just like this, on the outskirts of Bhairab town. I was driving from Srimangal and the fishing cat suddenly appeared on the edge of the road. It froze for a moment under the beam of the headlight and then shot across to the other side of the road. Living so close to the urban areas is testament to their versatility and power of survival. And yet it is a losing battle.
But for now, on this autumnal night, under the moonlight, we heard the cats calling in their existential rites, face-to-face, for an eternity. Their eyes blazed green. Two shadowy characters in all their magnificent splendour. Here on this haor, their chances of survival are high because of an abundance of food and the vast space to hide from prying human eyes.
We must have made some noise, for they suddenly jumped and ran in opposite directions. The female one - it must have been the female because of its smaller size - disappeared into the vast field ahead and the male ran into the Hijal forest.
We sat there still under the influence of the most beautiful sight in the world. Many more moments later, the male cat reappeared. Walking on its soft paws, it again sneaked onto the field, looking for the female. Not finding her, the cat loped into the darkness, into the emptiness of the haor.
In about a couple of months, we hoped, the cubs would appear on this earth.