Sunday, May 11, 2008

Don’t try this at home

I was looking for a high, a psychedelic moment, where the magical and the mundane merge into a tangible experience…an induced trance, if you will. So here’s how I went ‘tripping’, but follow me, if you must, at your own peril.

If you take the Nagpur-Jabalpur highway, your nose facing the latter, a 100 kms from the former, you’ll find that on your left stand the proud forests of Pench, where roam mighty beasts; on your right will rise the dark shadows of the Seeoni hills, and this is where I was headed.

The gentle light of dawn had given way to the muted fury of a young summer sun, its white hot fingers boring little smouldering holes in the back of my head. The tiny forsaken trail I was following was lost under a forest floor covered in dead brown leaves and all around stood short slim trees, their branches bare and white, standing out against the black rocks of Seeoni. “Follow the trail till you see the red grove and hear the song of the cicadas…”, Nanhulal, a Gond tracker from the nearby village of Amodagarh, had said, “…and you’ll find the ‘green valley’.”

In the heat, my head hung low as I trudged along the trail until I heard a sound, like that of a dentist’s drill amplified manifold; I looked up and saw a patch of sky buzzing with little black dots – the song of the cicadas. All around, the bare branches had given way to a cluster of red leafed trees and the trail had disappeared into the sky. I was standing on a cliff-edge overlooking a beautiful valley. Two dark hills, almost bare except for an odd tree or three, like the flanks of two great buffaloes, rose from the depths of the valley. Between them was flowing a gentle blue-green river. Perhaps cooled by the river’s waters, trees had sprung on its banks, green, red and lush, and it was this contrast that made this valley – ‘the green valley’ so beautiful.

High up on the cliff, under a red-leafed tree, I sat down with a book, read for a while and then gazed down at the valley before closing my eyes. The cicadas stopped singing; the wind had stopped playing with the noisy brown leaves and the forest was quiet, almost in anticipation…

And then, deep down in the valley, I heard the sound of little feet in shallow water, then a child’s laugh… the trance was working. The sound drew closer. The child, a boy of about 11, stark naked, was not alone. Frolicking along the banks, with the happy child was a pack of wild wolves…

Suddenly one of the wolves, a big grey beast, stopped, and sniffed the air. The others, including the boy, stopped too, and sniffed. They weren’t playing anymore… their hair bristled. One of the wolves looked up, saw me and snarled. The others followed his gaze, pulled back their lips, flattened their ears and started loping up the hill in my direction. But I couldn’t move. I was transfixed by the change in the little boy. The little cherub had become a little goblin, eyes red and dilated, he was snarling like a dog and clambering up the hill with his pack… I knew this was not a greeting… I opened my eyes. The cicadas returned, the leaves rustled and the valley was empty. I closed the book – The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling.

Written in 1894, one of the stories, the story of Mowgli the man-cub, had captured the world’s imagination. Kipling had based his characters in these hills, and even now, Akela the wolf, Bagheera the panther, Baloo the bear and Sher Khan the tiger roam these forests. But what of Mowgli? Actually, before closing my eyes, I had been reading some photocopied pages that I keep folded in my copy of The Jungle Books. These pages are about a book by General W. Sleeman – A Journey into the Kingdom of Oudh (1849). Sleeman’s deputy, Lt Moore, had been trying to catch a pack of man-eating wolves. In this very valley, he came across their den, outside which he found the body of a child that had been partially eaten by the wolves. However, the teeth marks on the child’s skull were not just those of a wolf but another animal’s, unlike any other carnivore. Moore gathered his men around the den and killed the first wolf that came out. He was about to kill the second one when he stopped, for what was standing at the mouth of the den was no wolf but a teenaged boy, stark naked, hair matted, on his hands and knees. Around his mouth were traces of fresh blood, the half-eaten child’s blood. Moore took the boy with him and it was Sleeman’s account of this incident that had inspired Kipling’s pen.

If you go to Amodagarh today, you will still find the green valley where the real Mowgli once hunted with his wolf pack; where still hunt their descendents, as do those of Sher Khan, and Bagheera.

So, if you fancy such a ‘trip’, just pick up the book. But for heaven’s sake, don’t just try this at home… go on a holiday to the ‘green valley’ instead, and together, these words and the valley, they’ll take you to your ‘high’.

It’s all in the book

If the Jungle Book doesn’t catch your fancy, there are many other books that you could take ‘tripping’. After all, one of the delightful abilities of prose is to transport its readers into the realm of the real. In fact, at times the convergence is so great that one is but compelled to retrace the site of original action and you find yourself chasing a holiday in the pages of a book. Sample these:

Green Hills of Africa: When Ernest Hemingway and wife Pauline camped out at the great plains of Serengeti, his experience of the big game country was so overwhelming that his recount in the Green Hills of Africa is still the only guide one needs around those parts of Africa, even a good 75 years later.

Call of the Wild: In case you don’t think you’d ever have the pluck to venture into the boreal boonies, Jack London’s classic is all you’d ever need to know of them. In the travails of Buck, the great dog, who found himself uprooted out of a cushy life in California and thrown to the mercy of gold rush seekers in the icy landscape of Alaska and Canada, survival emerges as the moral of the story.

In the libraries of this world, there are books that can bring a story alive and there are places that take you back in time. This holiday season, put the two together and go time travelling.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

The old friend

“Pawan’s special! That’s why I wait for him here, every Sunday” said Raghu. Short, muscular and without a whisker on his young face, Raghu looked wiser than his years should’ve allowed. He was sitting on his haunches on the grass, waiting for Pawan. Some children and a blue bird twittered nearby; hawkers hawked, thrusting packs of stale popcorn under our noses till I waved them away…and Raghu waited. “Pawan and I lived on neighbouring farms in Ferozabad,” Raghu said. “The people he was staying with wanted to throw him out. They said he was a lecherous lout who stared at women, groped and teased them…and then the master of the house caught him masturbating. He was thrashed black and blue and they might’ve killed him if I hadn’t offered to bring him to Delhi. They just misunderstood him. He can’t think like us and there are times when he can’t help his passions…but his heart is good and kind…and brave, very brave.”

“In Delhi,” Raghu continued, “Pawan and I stayed with my maternal uncle – a taxi driver. Pawan and my uncle would often go out together and both grew very fond of each other. I worked in the garage downstairs while Pawan helped clean the taxi. He slept in the garage at night. One night, woken by the sound of a window being broken and the screams of a man, uncle and I rushed to the darkened shed. There, lying on the floor was a crowbar and a man bleeding from his ear. There had been another, for we could hear the sound of heavy feet beating down hard and fast on the cobbled lane outside. And Pawan? Where did he go? We called out his name again and again...but nothing…the shed seemed empty. The commotion had woken up the neighbours. They poured in with advice and assistance. Some trussed up the bruised burglar, others were reassuring uncle, but almost all of them were shocked at the ghastly gash on the burglar’s ear – Pawan hadn’t held back! And there he was…I’d gone out to close the door and saw him sitting in the corner…shivering. His head was on his knees. He looked up at me with eyes that said ‘I didn’t mean to do this’. He held my hand and I helped him to his feet. As we walked in, hand in hand, tongues wagged. ‘Pawan drove the other one away’, ‘he is a brave one’, ‘but did you see that wound…he could’ve died’, ‘dangerous…, can’t trust Pawan.’ But uncle did, always...”

“He was in love once, you know. And then he was dangerous – your typical she’s-mine-and-I’ll-hook-your-eyes-out-if-you-so-much as-look-at-her kinda bully. Jealous, violent and madly in love! The girl couldn’t care less. Beautiful and vain, she hated Pawan. She even hated me for being his friend. A pity really…she was very pretty,” said Raghu wistfully.

“But something happened two winters ago…we’d gone to uncle’s village in Haryana. That morning, uncle was cycling through the fields. Pawan was pillion riding. While cycling up a slope leading to the highway, Pawan got off. He could sense uncle straining under the weight. On the highway, Pawan jumped back on. Almost immediately, uncle lost balance; the cycle crashed and uncle collapsed on top of it, right in the way of a speeding truck. He’d had an epileptic fit. As he lay there, twitching and frothing, Pawan could see the big orange shadow growing big on them. Pawan heaved and pulled uncle onto the shoulder as the truck thundered past. The villagers took him to a hospital, where Pawan sat by him through the night. Next morning, a stranger walked up to uncle... Uncle called Pawan and after stroking his back for a while, handed him over to the stranger. We never saw him after that day…until now…”

“My uncle ha…” Raghu stopped abruptly. Leaving the sentence hanging, he ran past me; as I turned, I saw Raghu reach out and touch a dark little outstretched hand that reached out from across the wire mesh of a dinghy cell. We’d been standing in front of it all this while but it had been empty. Perhaps while we’d been talking, the tiny wooden door at the back opened and Pawan would’ve entered unnoticed.

The children and the blue bird were still twittering, the hawkers still hawking, but for me, my Sunday at the zoo had come to a stand still as I watched a man and a monkey talk; their hands told each other of love even as their eyes told each other of pain.

Pawan, the Hanuman langur, had been sold by Raghu’s uncle and on that fateful day, was being taken to his new owner. His uncle needed the money. Raghu knew it but couldn’t help it. Pawan was then used by langurwallas to drive away macaques in the Delhi University area until an NGO confiscated him and handed him over to the zoo. Because he was so strong and stubborn, the langurwalla had pulled out his canines with a plier.

Bruised, battered and betrayed, Pawan was living out his last few days in the zoo…that infected wound in his gums was killing him…slowly.

“And to think he’d been free on a tree in a forest once…” Raghu said, his eyes misting over…Pawan reached out through the mesh with both arms, as if to comfort him.

Abducted destinies

Monkeys (Rhesus macaques) have been a menace in Delhi and other cities in India for a while and Hanuman langurs are often used to drive the marauding hordes away from areas where they can come into conflict with humans. Unfortunately, the langurs for these ‘langur patrols’ are trapped illegally in the wild and then smuggled in bags across borders. Then they reach handlers who train them either for patrolling or for begging. Gentle and sensitive, langurs succumb to stress and disease and usually die within four years of being captured. Renowned primatologist, Dr Iqbal Malik, raised her voice against this practice, “Langurs are brought in from the forests of Rajasthan. They are protected under Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which means chaining them and using them for these purposes is illegal.” The langurs only provide symptomatic relief because the macaques always return and in trying to solve one problem, the government (whose ministerial offices are prime employers of langur patrollers) has added to the misery and necessitated the torture of this free spirited leaf eater. Once revered by devotees of the monkey-god Hanuman, trapper tribes now use inhuman methods to capture entire troops to supply langurs for the patrolling trade, unmindful of the Rs. 10,000 fine. But then as long as the protector (the government) resorts to short sighted exploitation of the protected, monkeys will roam, and so would langurwallas, with battered, bruised and betrayed langurs in tow...