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.


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