The trees were brimming with sound. The cicadas were out, each one calling out only to trigger another. I was in Matheran at the height of summer. With the sun too hot to walk on the unsheltered, red mud paths, I had decided to wander off track into the forest, following trails in the undergrowth made probably by the locals.
The afternoon sun cast sharp shadows on the forest floor, a maze of light and dark patterns changing continuously. I stumbled past old Parsi mansions, with marvellous gates and driveways, all reclaimed by the dense forest now.
The chorus would grow over time and then stop abruptly, as if pausing for a breath. It started from my left, and then travelled across me to my right until I was enveloped in their song. Even the birds seemed to join in.
I spent all afternoon in that forest perched on a rock, hiding from the sun, as wave after wave of cicada song ebbed and flowed past me.
“Cicadas define a forest,” says Nirmal Kulkarni, herpetologist and field ecologist. “We’ve all heard this sound in the darkness, long notes the males produce by ‘stridulation’ (rubbing their feet together), an act by which they mark territory and attract mates. A tympanum on their abdomen produces this distinct sound, often referred to as the ‘Cicada song’.
“Cicadas are unique because they emerge from the ground after long stages of dormancy, almost at the end of their life cycles. The nymphs bury themselves after birth – probably to avoid being eaten as prey – only to emerge years later in large numbers. The average cicada lifecycle is three years, but some species have extended lifecycles with juvenile stages lasting up to 17 years; a fact that continues to boggle ecologists today. Many conservation scientists see the presence of cicadas in a forest as an indicator of a healthy and active ecosystem.”