The termite mound Karadi had his eye on was about a mile away, and with only a half moon to guide them, they would have to be careful. There was no chance of losing the way: he knew this scrub forest like his own face. But it was the home of venomous snakes like the saw-scaled viper, which are small and easy to step on, and get bitten. “We should buy a battery,” said Rani, not for the first time. She said this at least once every time they were out on camp. But her husband didn’t like the look and feel of the torches that some Irular had purchased. “It’s a waste of money,” he grumbled. And he grumbled even more when he discovered that you had to keep changing the batteries, or it would stop working. There was no limit to the way people cheated you.

Half-asleep Thenee had to be carried by half-awake Mari, who hoisted her across his strong back. He and his amma followed Karadi down a narrow track dividing thickets of thorn bushes, which looped and curled around in a puzzling zigzag. “You’re sure you haven’t forgotten the way?” asked Rani every now and then. The answer was an offended silence: Karadi was proud of his inbuilt compass and often boasted that he never got lost. Soon he was able to point at the termite hill he’d hunted for many monsoons, year after year. Like most animals, termites choose their building sites with care.

This one was almost as tall as him and stood on a patch of red soil behind a perfect crescent of thorn bushes on the sunset side. The bushes protected it from extreme weather, and they made good clothespins for the sheet Rani started tying around the hill to keep out the wind. Karadi circled the mound, sniffing and peering like a predator. He tapped the sun-baked mud turrets and cones with a questioning finger. “Yes,” he said. “Yes. Listen, I think we’ve come at the right time. Tie the cloth properly.”

He never called Rani by her name, and she never called him by his. In Irular culture, saying your wife’s or husband’s name is not only disrespectful but also alerts the many evil spirits waiting for an excuse to emerge. Until he was six or seven, Mari used to think his parents’ names were Listen and Look Here. Karadi lit the small oil lamp he used for termite and crab hunting. In its flame he heated a piece of camphor and the husband and wife did their short pre-hunt pooja to the goddess of the Irular, Kaniamma. Other hunters did much longer ones but Karadi believed in summaries, in both speech and prayer. Mari placed his sleeping sister on the poky ground and joined them.

Karadi dabbed some of the red powder on Mari’s forehead and cracked his knuckles against it, bringing a rush of joyful pride into the boy’s heart. He then asked his son to roast the eechel kottai – the termite-catching seed – on the small flame. This had to be done using a green Y-shaped twig as tongs so that his hand didn’t burn. In a few minutes the eechel kottai had turned a bright purple. Karadi crushed and grated it with stones, and the fine powder rained into his palm. “Breeze,” he complained to Rani. She stood in front of him to block it. When he had enough powder, he returned the seed to its matchbox and carefully closed it and placed it in his bag. It was a precious hunting tool because the tree that yielded the eechel kottai had become rare.

He walked around the mound, tapping the ground with the crowbar to find a good place to dig. He squatted on his haunches a metre from the edge of the mound and began: boom, boom, boom. It looked easy but required strength and that special Irular digging expertise. The pre-rain earth was hard, and Karadi’s arm muscles rippled like snakes. The sound woke Thenee and she sat up to watch and advise. “Hit hard, Appa, no not like this.” She demonstrated with a little twig. “What would we do without you!” grunted her appa, sweat beads rolling down his face.

Mari watched carefully as Karadi twisted the crowbar this way and that to align the blade. The boy was learning that digging wasn’t just a skill, it was an art. Thatha, his grandfather, had said such a nice thing once, that Irular inherit the art of digging the way high caste people inherit gold. Karadi slowed down and measured the hole. It had to be as deep as his forearm and as wide as his spread hand. Once satisfied with its dimensions, he got up to look for sticks and Mari proudly handed him the two straight twigs he’d located. Karadi looked at them critically and his nod of approval made the boy’s heart swell. He constructed a bridge with these over the hole and balanced the oil lamp on it.

Now it was time to sprinkle the seed powder on the mound – but not a random sprinkling. It was no use wasting it on the wingless and blind worker termites who were the servants of the royal pair. (The king and his pot-bellied queen were the gods of the mound.) Or on the soldiers, also wingless and blind and quite sinister-looking to boot. The soldiers’ job is to guard the castle and its inhabitants, using various strategies. They block its air holes with their bodies, emit fierce microscopic sounds and perform war dances.

No, Karadi wasn’t after the workers or soldiers. He was after their relatives in the tall turrets dotted with thousands of tiny air holes. These are the eechel, the third category of adults, which are winged and sighted, and yummy. Apart from the Irular, they are hunted by jackals, mongoose, bullfrogs, scorpions and even bigger animals like the panther. Irular elders say that during the eechel season, people and animals look healthy because of this free flow of flying protein.

Mari and Thenee’s thatha, Karadi’s father, was an authority on termites and knew the names of the different species. Each one made a different kind of mound and these too had their own names. He used to talk about the caste system among termites and end with a joke. It was better than the human one, he’d say, because termites can switch castes, but we can’t.

Excerpted with permission from Termite Fry, Zai Whitaker, Bloomsbury.