Thursday, June 10, 2010

THE HUNTING PARTY

It’s autumn and you can tell from the trees in the Dale. They stand at the foot of the green hills like a tall forest of willowy women standing and talking in whispers of the wind, dressed in leafy gowns of different hues, from a fading green to a yellow bold, from a brown so deep to a cluster dipped and dyed in the finest wine. A scattered herd of sheep and a mottled cow graze the pasture, in gentle peace, unmindful of the travails to come, while a brook gurgles by a tree standing alone from the others, at the foot of which I sit sharing the shade with a pair of long-tailed squirrels looking for hidden treasures to hoard for the winter. Far away from the smoke clouds of London, on this grassy meadow in the country, I finally begin to understand Wordsworth and his muse.

Across the gravel path, I could see shadows against the steamed up kitchen window… Must be Carolyn, our lady of the land, fixing up something just as English as it is delicious (a rare and difficult culinary feat) for brunch. I dusted the dry leaves off my khakis and stood up. And then I heard it… A long lonely howl from far beyond the trees... It filled the heart with a strange sadness in the light of the day… The sun had retired behind the clouds and a light drizzle began to settle on the village. I began to walk toward the farm gate and there it was again… That long lonely haunting howl. The rain was falling harder now… I hurried towards the gate and latched it after entering… I looked at the yellow fields, the emerald green brown and gold of the forest and rolling hills and above them the dark clouds rolling across the inky blue sky and the sheep and cow, now staring into the woods, waiting, like I was, for that lonely howl… In the falling rain it was a beautiful picture still…

I must have been a little lost because I did not hear the car behind me… Carolyn was smiling at me. I opened the gate for her and she waved and drove past. The horse trailer was hitched to her bright red Saab and I could see her thoroughbred Don Juan’s massive head peering back at me through the trailer window as she drove away past the bend. I wondered where she was going… And what about lunch? I jog-shuffled to the house door past the stables… Even in the rain the earthy and sour smell of horse dung was strong. It was a steady downpour now and I ran the last few yards to the door, rubbed the shoes clean at the door and entered the 400-year-old manor house and headed straight for the warmth of the kitchen. It was rather crowded. There was Bertie the cat, curled up by the fi replace and the dogs, Harry and Humphry, stretched out at either end of the dining table… “Ready for lunch, are ya?” bellowed Keith as he looked up from his chopping board. He had a glint in his eye. “Carolyn had to leave. She forgot to tell you I’ll be preparing lunch… You better pretend to like it,” he chuckled. I smiled. Keith was a big bear of a man, with a ready wit and smile. “Keith, what’s that howl,” I asked. The bacon sizzled in the pan and Keith was quiet for a while… I asked him about the howl again and this time he turned towards me and said, “It has begun.”

The ‘it’ that had begun was an ancient English tradition… One that celebrated death, just as much as it did the spirited joy of being truly alive. The inglorious or just glorious tradition of fox hunting. Keith and Carolyn, it turns out, have been hunting the red fox for a quarter of a century now. And so I began to notice the old oils in the hallway. I could hear the paintings now… The hatted hunters urging their steeds over hedges and ditches in their red jackets and bright brass buttons, the baying pack of hounds and the silent fear of the fox in flight. And now I noticed the silverware on the mantle, glories won by man and wife in the field of hunt. “Carolyn’s gone to join a hunt and that sound you heard was the howl of the lead hound…
They’ve found the fox’s trail.”

The words seemed to stir an old longing in the man. “I don’t hunt anymore…” he said, perhaps what he meant to say he can’t anymore, but I couldn’t ask why… “But there was a time I could and I was good,” he drift ed back to another time as he spoke, more to himself than to me, of the smells of the forest and charging horses, the hot-blood in their thick veins, pulsing and pushing against the rider as his own blood rising and rushing in the heat of the chase. And then he spoke of the traditions after the hunt, so deep and old, the whys forgotten and yet a joy to behold. And what of the hunt itself, the fox that the dogs rend, the killing and the bloody end? Well, it just seems to happen as an aside…

Amiable ol’ Keith was now a fireball of passionate storytelling, recounting tales from hunts gone by… Of horses shot and foxes lost… The love of the chase no matter the cost.

At this point the lay reader must know that fox hunting has been as contentious an issue in most countries that allow hunting as job reservations have been, back home in India. And though hunting is a punishable offense in our country, on two separate occasions, for different reasons, there have been calls from people in government to allow the hunting of the extremely endangered Tibetan antelope on one hand and the far too numerous Nilgai on the other. And these situations definitely beg the question, “What, if any, are the circumstances that justify hunting?” If you ask Keith, who glories in everything about the hunt save the killing itself… “The fox when cornered is killed by a single bite, or a single bullet; it does not suffer. If even for a moment I were to believe that the fox suffers in the course of the hunt, I wouldn’t do it. The farmer needs the fox removed, for it takes his poultry. And is it not better to kill in the manner nature intended, hunting and weeding out the weak and old, rather than to trap or poison the young and the bold?”

I knew it to be empty logic, for never have such hunts controlled numbers and I oft en agreed with Oscar Wilde when he said of the fox hunt that it was ‘the uneatable’ being hunted by ‘the unspeakable’. But I didn’t tell him that… He was still making me lunch.

A conscience beating upon tradition, like waves upon an ancient cliff … Will carry the discussion forward, but after lunch… Will keep you posted.

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