Thursday, December 29, 2005

M a s i n a g u d i

Blue valley on my mind. So, this december, I run away from Hyderabad, and escape to the Nigiris. My intent is to sit quite and lay peaceful for a couple of days - amid those green hills and waterfalls. I make a reservation for a single room in a resort, aptly named Blue Valley Resorts. It is a jungle-lodge located in Masinagudi, at the heart of the Mudumalai forest reserve. It is down in the foothills of the Nigiris, 30 km from Ooty, offering spectacular views and temperatures between 14 to 23 degree celcius.

But solitude in a forest lodge turns out to be more than what you have bargained for !

Sipping my tea and lazing on my wicker chair, I gaze at the beckoning mountains. The early morning mist has not cleared off yet, and sprightly waterfalls sparkle up in the heights. I make up my mind. I will go trekking !

But however, I decide to relax for the first day. I enjoy the delicious meals, trot around the minor hillocks and make friends with George, the driver of the company jeep. George, Jungle George.

In the evening, I run into Mr. Joy, the proprieter, a gentleman with a thick Malayali accent. I enquire about the possibilities for trekking in the next day.

"Sure, Mr. Kiran, you have to get up by 6:00 in the morning. You will get a guide and can be back by 8:00 for breakfast"

So I get up in the morning, sip a hot cup of tea and venture into the forest. Keeping me company is Raj, a thin brooding man in his early thirties. He is to be my guide; he doesn't understand Hindi or English. However, he speaks the barebones of the English language - "Come, Back, This way, Elephant, Forest, Bison"

The two pockets of my pants hold a Nikon Coolpix camera and an Apple iPod - both borrowed from my dear friend Sashi. Raj carries a thin bamboo stick - 3 feet long, which will be our only defence against the undergrowth and the wild animals.

A couple of dogs from the village bark at us before being shooed away by this stick.

"Dogs, I am more afraid of them.", I smile. "Not so much of the really wild animals"

Raj smiles.

After a brisk walk for 10 minutes, we find ourselves into the thicket. A couple of langoors are up on the tree-tops but I don't have success in photographing them.

Soon we run into a mountain stream. I cry for help when crossing.

"Jump", Raj gestures at me.

"No, my only shoes." I say pointing at my shoes. "I don't want them to get in water !", pointing to the stream below.

Raj gives me his hand and I get onto the the other side.

Later, I would slip into this stream for atleast 3 times. This particular stream has an important role to play at the end of my narration.

On the way we encounter a huge pile of animal dung. Raj points at this with his stick and says "Elephant. This place full of elephant."

In innocent delight, I snap a picture with my camera. But as I soon find out, these pieces of dung are littered all over the place, some of the traces extremely fresh.

Raj points at a curious piece of mud that is scraped off the ground. "Bison slipped."

At another point, he points to a hole dug into the ground - about 2 feet long. He says "bear".

I am amazed. I take this picture of the ground where a Nilgiri brown-bear has dug up some of his dinner.

But it turns out that these holes too are not uncommon on this territory. To my alarm, I find them everywhere, some of them very fresh !

The undergrowth becomes thicker and more difficult to pass through. But we press ahead. With his stick, Raj bends the shrubbery and moves ahead; with me hastily following him. Sometimes, after the release of his stick, the shrubs bounce back on my face. And with no pleasure, I find that the undergrowth is replete with thorns.

Raj is all ears for the minor sounds that envelop the place. In contrast, all I can hear is one single sound - the sound of the jungle, which is omnipresent. At one point, he gives me a quick alarm "Stop". I freeze into attention.

"Bison... "

I look at him with surprise. I can hear no footsteps of any animal. But suddenly, an enormous bison leaps into the air in front of us. With a thumping trot, it rapidly disappears into the jungle below. Before I can recover from the shock, I see several more bisons running into the thicket below.

"They are all running" Raj chuckles "They running"

I become extremely alert from this point onwards. I listen to a thousand different sounds - all of them alarming. They seem to come from behind me, from the side, from below, from the top.

At one point, I stop.

"Raj, there is a sound"

He looks at me with a smile. "No"

But I can hear a distinct sound, like the grunting of a boar. But he dismisses it away and keeps walking. I would later find out that this sound is that of one bird.

Finally, we scale a minor peak. And from above, I look at the forest warming up to the sun-rays. It is enchanting.

Raj motions to me and says "River. Go ?"

There is a persistent gurgle of the mountain streams but I have no clue of their proximity.

I agree, "Okay." And we reach the edge of a precipice and peak into the river below.

There is a clear track that is visible from our viewpoint - that leads us down to the stream.

"Animals. Drink water" Raj provides the obvious explanation.

We quickly descend down to the stream and take a couple of pictures. I am longing to spend more time but Raj disapproves. I understand - this place stands too open and naked, sandwiched between hills on both sides. Animals are prone to come here for quenching thirst, and not all of them could be friendly.

With regret, we move from this Eden and return into the thicket. The jungle becomes more impassable. At one point, I scream to Raj "Let's go back."

He says "Yes, we go back." but heads in the same direction. I feel we are like two rodents, crawling through the underground sewage. It becomes miserable. Not to make things any nicer, the ground underneath turns slippery and shallow. There is the danger of tripping over something and tumbling into the depths below.

I recollect my schemes about trekking for the entire day - they look so ridiculous now. I am finding no pleasure when thorns and the wet grime rub against my skin. It goes on forever. I look at my watch in exasperation - it is already 9:30.

Finally, we get into some open space and I can feel the rays of the sun.

I suddenly remember something. "Do we have snakes here, Raj ?"

Raj retuns with an expressionless face "snakes ?"

"Yes snakes. Are there any around here ?"


And we resume the trek to the ground below.

With an even pace, we descend to the ground. And I can hear the gurgle of the stream that we passed before venturing into the forest.

There, we hear the curious shouting of some animals. "Krrrrr. Phrrrrr. Krrrrr"

Raj tells me with his usual stoic face "Langoors shouting"


"Panther.. or tiger"

I remember reading about this before. Langoors have evolved this communication as a warning mechanism against predators. So the animals of the jungle - deer and bison, listen to these signals for warning.

With silence, we slowly we walk down to the stream. The gravity of the situation does not sink into me immediately.

I find a shrub of memosa. I am tempted to touch these leaves as they slowly curl up inwards. There exists a shrub which looks similar to memosa, but which does not exhibit this property. So I touch my feet onto the leaves as a test. Yes, indeed they curl inwards.

Then I look at Raj. With blank eyes, he says "shhh."

I look around, I see no jungle cat. But the entire place is filled with bushes.

This picture is one which was shot earlier. But it gives a glimpse of what I am seeing at this point. I can feel my camera in my left pocket. But I do not dare to bring it out. My mind is racing. Both of us stand together without any expression.

The langoors continue to shout hysterically. Apart from this and the gurgling of the water, we hear no sound. Never keeping a distance of more than 4 feet between each other, we move ahead slowly.

We know we are being watched. And we know we are being smelt. But from where ? - we do not know.

Panthers do not attack humans usually. And no animal attacks without a reason. If it attacks, it is either for food or for protection. Leapords and panthers are known to take the weakest prey - infants, old people or frail women. The fact that we are two people together - it is our only reason for calm.

Raj crosses the stream slowly and I follow him with my eyes to the back. But he stops in midway "Back. Not here".

We retreat our steps slowly. Raj keeps looking for shrubs, rocks or thicket - potential hiding places for a panther. We walk some 300 feet and venture to cross the stream. Again we stop in midway and retreat.

Now I suddenly see one long tail from a tree top. I freeze to horror. But it is not the panther, it is one of the langoors. They keep chirping hysterically.

Now I start to pray that the panther gets into our sight. The knowledge of us being aware of its presence but not of its position is the scariest part. We advance for several minutes but retreat again.

Several questions come popping up in my mind.

"If the panther rips off one of my legs, what do I do in the future ? Should I continue with my plans for PhD, or should I think of something else ?"

"If my face gets disfigured, or worse if I become handicapped, will I find a girl to get married to me ?"

The question of what happens if I die doesn't come into my head. The answer is simple, no complications.

Then more questions come in. "How long will it take before the lodge sends a rescue party to fetch us ?"

"Would Raj help if the panther chooses to attack me ? Ofcourse, he has a responsibility" I take that for granted.

"What should I do if Raj gets attacked instead ?" At this point, I have to admit honestly. The answer that has come to my mind was not one to help heroically. "I should raise some shouts and run away. Maybe I will throw some rocks at the panther and shout like a maniac. " My mind begins to feel numb.

"Take it", Raj says.

I come back to the reality. He is pointing towards something. I look there with alarm. But I don't see a panther.

"What is it ?"

"The stick". I find a thin bamboo, lying on the rocks. I pick this up as my weapon. This souvenir is still with me.

We cross the stream at 4 more positions but we do not go forward. But eventually, this happens. We reach to an open space. The time shows 10:45.

After I feel we have reached a relatively safe position, I motion to Raj, "Take me a picture"

And I take a picture of his.

I feel the iPod in my right pocket. I plug the phones in and turn the music on.

It is a tune that I know but which I do not recollect. "Motorcycle Driver" by Joe Satriani. This will remain with me to the end of my life.

However the best part of my trip is not this. It is the feeling that stayed throughout. The feeling at night - where I think, where I think about myself. About my weaknesses. About my fears. The feeling of being alone.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

O w l (55 words)

"Ouch", Diya screamed. The owl glared at her, camouflaged under the soiled clothes that dotted the place.

"Sorry", smiled Maya, standing beautiful, in violent contrast to her room.

"He is usually harmless, but not today"

"Why ?"

"On the day I have sex here, I keep him starved"

"..Did it ever .. ", Diya stopped wide-eyed, " Bitch !"