Friday, February 18, 2011


“There he is….,” whispered the good doctor in my ears as we stopped and I followed his gaze and that long thin finger pointing straight ahead. I peered through the trees and the bushes and saw a tall dark figure sitting on his haunches under a tree. He was looking away from us, leaning lazily against the tree. His long powerful arms were resting on his knees and those sad eyes were looking away into the distance, perhaps reflecting on the years spent on the road… years of untold agony. The wounds on his body had healed now but the memory of that festering wound, the humiliation and searing pain of being castrated while he writhed on the ground, tied to pegs that pulled him apart, and the dull gnawing ache of slow starvation had scarred him forever. He wouldn’t have been a year older than twenty and yet he seemed so old. There was great strength that still remained in his limbs but his spirit seemed to have grown weary of the world.

“Don’t make any sudden movements…”, warned the doctor. “He hasn’t gotten over the trauma of the torture. We don’t know how he might react.” I nodded as I kept staring at the hulking figure under the tree. Mesmerised by the scene, I had forgotten about my camera. Ever so slowly, I raised the camera to my eyes, took aim and pressed the shutter button, and even as I did so, I realised I had made a mistake. The muffled whirring of the camera as I shot the frame had been magnified manifold in the quiet stillness of the evening. My heart skipped a beat and the doctor’s hand gripped my shoulder in a gesture that conveyed both concern and fear. Shimmering in the fading light of a setting sun, the figure under the tree shift ed his weight slowly and turned towards the sound. His eyes seemed to search for something to focus on and found me… with a scream he lumbered towards us as if in a rage, and then just as suddenly he seemed to remember something that had been burnt into his very soul that stopped him in his tracks. He rose to his full height and that scream of anger merged into one of pain. He folded his arms and shook his head and body from side to side, gyrating to a strange rhythm – it was a grotesque dance that would have made me laugh had I not known the pain and fear that had gripped Bhola when he saw me… and realised who I was – a human being.

I stood there for long, perhaps a whole minute as I watched Bhola dance his funny dance, standing tall at more than six feet, his head moving round and round in giddying circles like a man possessed but his eyes… his eyes, they just begged and pleaded for the pain to go away… from his head.

His mother had been murdered while he was still a toddler, and he had been sold off to a master who trained him to dance in front of an audience. The punishment for not dancing on cue was terrible torture. His teeth were broken, and he had his nails pulled out. He was starved and branded with hot irons. He was emasculated, without pain-killers or medication while still very young because his master thought Bhola would be easier to control as he grew older and stronger. When Bhola saw people clapping as he danced, he wanted to rip their throats because he blamed them for his pain but his master’s presence stopped him. Th at day when he saw me, all that pent up his anger and hate erupted inside him. He wanted to strike me down and hurt me the way he had been hurt for so long but then he remembered the pain that always stopped him… the pain that would never go away unless he danced… the pain that would never go away until the day he died...

“Let’s go…”, the doctor said. “He will keep dancing as long as we stand here”. We turned to walk away but aft er a few steps I was tempted to turn and steal a glance at Bhola again. I turned just in time to see Bhola slow down when he realised we had walked away and saw him come down on all fours, take a step or two towards us, twitch his nose and then gently walk away towards the shadows. An electric wire-fence is all that separated us from that large male sloth bear but Bhola was so terrified of us humans that he would never come close… always seeking seclusion like a hermit. I had come to this bear rescue centre near Agra run by Wildlife SOS, an NGO committed to wildliferescues and anti-poaching operations seeking stirring stories of rescues and heart warming stories of the bears and their keepers. And sure, all that was there, but the most powerful memory I walked away with was the memory of Bhola dancing to drown out the pain in his heart.

Dancing bears were a common weekend sight during my days in junior school. And I loved to see them dance. The bear looked like a large cuddly dog and to see it rear up and dance was almost to see a talking animal from a fairy tale step out of the pages of a book and walk through the lanes of my childhood. At that time, I didn’t know that the bear danced because a red hot spike had been driven through it muzzle and one end of a rope was inserted into that burning hole. Th at rope ensured that the wound never healed and even the slightest tug would send the beast into paroxysms of pain. Then as the wildlife laws started being taken seriously in the cities, they moved to other towns and busy tourist highways like the ones that go to Jaipur and Agra until the eff orts of NGOs like Wildlife SOS and enforcement agencies across the country ensured the complete rehabilitation of all the Kalandhars (bear trainers who trace their family trade to the wild animal trainers of the Mughal court) and all the bears had found homes in rescue centres like the one in Agra. Th at, one hoped, had brought down the curtain on a terrible tradition and secured the future of a species for a long time to come.

But one had hoped in vain. The dancing bears were gone and no one was poaching them for the Kalandhars now and yet the sloth bear was disappearing from our forests. While the country clamoured and laboured to save the tiger in a place like Ranthambore and celebrated the slightest jump in numbers, no one noticed that the sloth bear population in the very same park had been reduced to less than 15 per cent of its original population in a little over a decade and a half. Where had the bears gone and why? I will try and answer that question next week. Meanwhile, you could go and pay Bhola a visit… but speak gently and tread soft ly. Remember, he is hurting still….


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