Wild Part 1, chapter 14 of Memory, a novella
Written for Nanowrimo
Copyright(c) Soumya Mukherjee
The tourists spotted some movement in the grass and a flash of colour. Alerted by their excitement, the forest ranger focused his binoculars. To his alarm, he noticed some people hiding in the grass. The tourists’ initial disappointment that it wasn’t a big cat gave way to renewed excitement at witnessing the capture of some poachers at first hand. The ranger sent a wireless message to his colleagues, and soon a posse of guards started giving chase to the unauthorised humans in the tiger reserve.
The interlopers being chased were actually four college kids, having an extraordinary and highly unlawful travel adventure. The fugitives were Ron from Shillong, the crazy guy who was game for anything; Desi from Mumbai, who was the wildlife expert and an extremely law abiding citizen until recently; Jo from Australia who was trying to travel the world on a bicycle; and Boy, the originator of all such harebrained schemes.
It all started a few days back in Delhi, when they were planning to go backpacking in Goa, when Desi wanted to join them, to have an adventure before starting his career in government. He also had some camping gear. So Boy borrowed his sleeping bags and backpacks and promising to show him the real India AND bring him back safely, took off in the Bombay Mail. Being low on funds, they dispensed with buying tickets, and huddled on the floor of the general compartment, where the vast majority of our countrymen travel gratis, being too poor to buy tickets, and not much concerned with legalities. Few ticket checkers brave those crowds to catch offenders.
On the way, Desi spoke of the Ranthambore Tiger reserve, which he hadn’t been to, and which was not far from Sawai Madhopur, a station they were passing through. So a toss of coin decided that they get off there, and continue their journey after a detour in this forest. From Sawai Madhopur, they hitched a lift on a tractor up to the village at Rantambore. While waiting for a lift, Boy met Jo and his bicycle, with a fund of stories of cycling around the heart of India. Fascinated, he promptly co-opted him in their team, and dragged him along.
Utter disappointment awaited them at Rantambore. There was no budget accommodation, and to enter the forest they needed a permit,which was available at Sawai Madhopur.
Dejected, Boy decided to explore the ancient ruins and temple in the nearby hill and look for some food and shelter in the tiny hamlet there.
Here the warm embrace of Bharat awaited Boy.. Not knowing the dialect, and Desi the only one with passable Hindi, they mimicked eating and sleeping to the ladies in all encompassing ghunghat, who seemed the only people there. They were invited into one of the homes, and fed what seemed to be large lumps of roasted dough with ghee and tall brass tumblers of buttermilk. This was Boy’s first introduction to the famed Dal Bati and Chach. The giggling ladies whose faces remained firmly behind veils found everything about them extremely amusing; Their lack of appetite, when they couldn’t consume the mountains of food offered, not knowing the language, seeking shelter in the village, and desire to explore the forest on foot. Falling over each other in laughter, they laid some charpoys in their courtyard and directed them to take a siesta, which they gratefully accepted
Refreshed, they explored the ruins and visited the ancient temple, where a Rana was said to have offered his own head as a sacrifice to Shiva, and been suitably rewarded. They bathed and swam in the ancient tank by the temple, then got scared off by the resident turtles, which they took to be crocodiles, plenty of which they had seen by the lake.
In the evening, the men folk returned, and over communal chillums they promised to take Boy to the forest the next day, along with them when they go to illegally graze their cattle and collect firewood and other forest produce, which the law denies them but tradition promises them. Thrilled, Boy politely declined further hospitality, and went to sleep in the ruins, with many warnings from our hosts to never let the fire go out at night, or else.
So they decided to take turns to stay up and tend the fire, and ate bajre ka rotis and achar and gur which the villagers had packed for them, made tea in Jo’s billycan, without which all Australians are incomplete, and slept off in the deep silent forest, among ancient ruins where people offer heads to Gods, after sharing a companionable chillum. Jo’s cycle was kept in the village.
Boy was woken up early in the morning by their hosts and strongly admonished, for they were all sleeping soundly, the fire was off, which was good, for they could at most have been eaten by predators, but an untended fire can cause a forest fire and do untold damage. Duly chastened, Boy meekly followed them into the core area, in the spirit of civil disobedience. After a thrilling trek, where every bush seemed to hide lurking beasts, but spotting nothing more ominous than the herds of cheetal and neelgai, and packs of langoors and numerous birds, especially peacocks, they were escorted to a cave, said to be occupied by a sadhu, the sole human resident of the forest, who was to be their host that night, the villagers shared a meal and the communal chillum with them and left rations of chana and gur, telling them not to stray, stay out of sight, away from tourist jeep routes, animal paths, and forest guards, who in their view were more to be feared than the resident animals. They were also shown the escape route if spotted, as the guards had no jurisdiction outside the boundaries, and the nearest police station was Sawai Madhopur. Boy’s offer of monetary compensation was turned down with hurt pride. He apologized and parted friends.
They bathed in the stream by the cave, and settled down in the coming dusk, waiting for the Sadhu in his cave, listening to the myriad forest sounds.
He came in silently, unsurprised by strangers in his abode, and taught Boy how to make rotis on bare rock among small flames, and curry from some wild roots and berries and the right way to fill, light and smoke a chillum. He spoke of his life and the reasons for this solitary life, his philosophy, the forest, and living in harmony. But that will be another story
.Thus started the second night in the forest, deep inside, but not pitch dark, as stars twinkled and moonlight filtered in through the trees, and not silent either, as the forest sounds from the stream, wind, trees and unseen creatures filled the night. The herbal stimuli were making Boy’s minds see animals at every shadow, and the unaccustomed diet was making his stomach rumble. Fear prevented Boy from moving out to the bushes to relieve the rumblings, and his companions prevented him from polluting the environment near the cave.
As to how this was resolved, and further encounters with wild animals and wilder guards, and how they survived to tell the tale, will come in episode two, as I am tired from typing and you from reading if in fact you have reached so far…
See you later, alligator, quite literally….. wait for part two