Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Tracks in the Jungle [Short Story]

It had been Stanley’s dream, since the arrival of his rough and tough machine years back, to try it on rocks and rubble lining shallow rivers, à la advertisements. Let’s say, he wanted to experience SUV advertisements in flesh and blood. As a doting family, we decided to grant him his wish, before he forgot it in due course of aging. In my defense, the kids were too young to take on a road journey so far, and frankly where are women supposed to pee while on the road. Anyway, I decided to give in before Tara got out of diapers. Thus, Stanley, Rose, Tara and I decided on Jim Corbett.
We blocked our calendars, made reservations and packed our luggage. At 5:00 A.M. on the D day, the alarm rang on all the phones. I woke up instantly and shut them, lest the kids wake up. Stanley and I had to get ready before the kids, else we would never manage to leave the house on time to escape the city traffic. I nudged, pushed and punched Stanley. But he refused to budge. In the process, Tara twisted and turned and as hope would play foul, Tara opened her eyes. I jumped onto the bed and lay dead. It was useless, she was awake. I gave up my fight at both ends. That’s when it struck me to send Stanley a WhatsApp message, “wake up”. His phone pinged and he jumped from his sleep to check. Then turned around and gave me a stare. Muttering “technology!” under his breath he lay down again. “Yeah, technology!” I sighed in relief. “Can you stop dilly dallying Mister, the kids are up, lets get this going or we’ll be stuck in rush hour traffic today.”
Handing the kids over to Stanley, I ran to the kitchen to pack some snacks for the journey. In my enthusiasm, I made halwa sweetened with brown sugar (a travel staple for my kids), not too sweet owing to the brown sugar and fulfilling as a meal. I was on a roll that day and fried some healthy palak pooris as well for the journey and decided to close with apples and water. ‘A wicker picnic basket with red and white checkered cloth napkins would have been ideal to pack all the food.’ Alas! I had none and so I packed everything in a reasonably sturdy Forever 21 black paper bag, threw in some paper napkins and we were set.
Our driver arrived at 6:00 A.M. as per instructions given to him. I quickly got Tara and myself ready. Stanley had managed to push Rose, who was ready now, and then we waited for the husband. It was 6:30 A.M. and the kids were already on vacation mode and were rolling each other on the suitcase. I heard the phone ring, stop and then a ping. I cringed when I saw a message “Too much noise; yoga class in progress” flash on my phone. “Oh no! Girls keep it down,” I screamed in loud whispers. But, no amount of hushing could get the girls’ adrenalin down. Finally, we locked the doors at 6:45 A.M. as I messaged my neighbor in the floor below an apology for perhaps disrupting a meditation.
The world outside was new and bright, with the sun splaying its oblong rays through narrow spaces between skyscrapers. The stillness of a long weekend pleasantly covered the city with its sweet morning dreams. Life was beginning to wake up from its sleep. Dogs stretching up on the streets and an odd security guard cycling to his apartment to begin his shift. A group of cleaner ladies in printed cotton sarees in earthy yellows, browns and olive greens, lazily walking towards their workplaces to disrupt some unlucky Saab or Madam from their sleep, perhaps. An odd car with a health enthusiast returning from the gym, gear in place, sweaty but upbeat. The shutters down in the malls, that would otherwise be chock-a-bloc with cars spilling out on the roads. The road side cigarette stalls outside towering glass offices shut on a holiday, maybe to open later. Huge cranes and machines at construction sites moving purposefully to complete project after project in this young city. Vehicular dust, pollution and count still not at full blast owing to the sleepy or holidaying long weekend that lay ahead.
We soared ahead on the empty roads and crossed two state borders to see some traffic on NH 24. By then, the thought of going by road and leaving the city malls behind started getting to my bladder. “Do stop at an appropriate location for breakfast dear,” I told Stanley who was in the front seat next to Ravinder.
“Relax girls, we’ll stop at Gajraula for breakfast. Most people have recommended it on the foodie group on Facebook.”
“How far is that?”
“About two hours.”
“Okay, we need to stop now. I hope you are getting the hint.”
“Oh ok!” Finally, he gets it.
He told Ravinder to stop at the next petrol pump.
Eww! I thought. This is exactly why I don’t take road trips. The anxiety of the unknown adds so much preassure.
Soon we stopped at a pump of Ravinder’s choice. At the pump, Ravinder got off for a break, Stanley disembarked for his smoke and nodded at me to proceed for my needs.
“No way, I’m not going in there.”
“Okay, I’ll go and check it out first,” Stanley volunteered.
“You’re lucky, looks like they just did their early morning clean up.” He confirmed on return.
“I don’t need to go,” my daughter announced.
I looked at my husband in desperation “I can’t go with all the men at the pump letching as I proceed to the loo in this open, roofless pump.”
 “Ok, I’ll walk with you.”
So I casually got out of the vehicle, made it look like a stretch of tired legs and decided to take a couple’s stroll around the pump, while the driver filled the fuel tank. When I reached the toilet door, I quickly jumped in and shut the door behind me. It was clean and thankfully Indian style. Nonetheless, I looked at the ceiling as I relieved myself, lest I spot something that would stay in my mind the whole day adding with each memory all that I had seen in public toilets in my past adventures.
A few minutes later, bladders relieved, tanks filled and smoke, chips and water bought from the vendor standing at the corner of the pump, we proceeded further through the villages of Uttar Pradesh.
Our next stop was an hour later for breakfast. It was much ahead of Gajraula, but we could not wait for that long. The dhaabas were beckoning us to taste their earthen cuisine. When we saw a reasonably crowded dhaaba, we knew the food would be tasty and clean. The dhaaba was a big, semi-permanent structure. An open hall with an asbestos roof surrounding a courtyard on three sides. We parked on the red and yellow tiled courtyard in the center and the smell of parathas, ghee and butter wafted our way to greet us. Screams of lassi and jalebi made our mouths water and we could no longer resist the temptation. We grabbed a table and ate some delicious onion parathas and drank lassi in kulhads. As we left the Shiva dhaaba, I noticed a room on the right. A reasonable sized room for people to perform namaz. The India I so love, the India that defies the politicians and their divisive politics!
Later in the afternoon, we bought bananas from a sabji mandi and munched on all the food we had stocked up as we looked out the window at the fields and lives of people. Vendors by the road selling produce from their lands, tractors overflowing with sugarcane, children playing alongside the road, farmers working their fields, people going about their busy business, weighbridges, small and large industries, canals and streets meandering their way into the villages, roadside vendors selling cane mudaas and a double-decker train in yellow and red marking the horizon between green fields and a spotty blue and white sky.
There were contrasts everywhere: industrial chimneys puffing out white smoke away from their adjacent fields, machines next to manual labour, a village bazaar to which the villagers were dragging their cows and bulls, band members with their French horns and brass drums resting in the fields checking their mobile phones perhaps for calls they missed while playing their instruments at some wedding, mosques and temples at close proximity, people consulting astrologers on the road, and schools and huts intermingling to form life.
After a seven-hour drive, when we reached our hotel in Jim Corbett our joints felt fatigue, but our souls were refreshed with the sights we had seen, our minds were satiated with diversity and reality that covered nearly 70% of my country. Living a busy life in the city had taken us away from the truth, a truth that enriched us with its honesty. I was glad to be back in nature and how.
If that was the journey, the destination was picture perfect. As we stepped out to the balcony of our room, Earth hit us with her beauty. The Kosi river lined the backyard of our hotel. It was filled with large grey rocks and pebbles as a shallow stream of clear, transparent water flowed across garlanded by the lush, green mountains of the Shivaliks. The hotel was situated in a valley and horses and donkeys were quenching their thirst by the shallow Kosi. Clouds were beginning to gather in the sky and within an hour it looked like the mountains had pierced the clouds open and drenched us in the outpouring. The green of the mountains becoming brighter as if God had tuned up the Brightness and Contrast of his Earth.
We spent that evening walking the streets of Jim Corbett to get a feel for the place, to be one with it. At the local store, we bought some juice and band aid and checked out the travel agent at the next store for the line of adventure sports on the menu. There were jungle safaris by jeep and elephant. There were tours of the place on the menu and walks along a rope bridge on Kosi.
We had booked our safari via the hotel and so after a heavy lunch, the following afternoon, we rushed to the hotel reception for some adventure. The driver was waiting for us in his military green eight-seater open Jeep. Ravinder accompanied him in the front, Tara and Stanley in the middle seat and Rose and I in the last seat. Hats on, sunglasses adorned, walking shoes on, a backpack with a DSLR and water bottles set, we set off for our jungle safari. It took us an hour’s drive to reach the DurgaDevi gate of the Jim Corbett National Park, though we had wanted to get in through the Bijrani zone for photographs with tigers from that zone had started trickling on our Facebook feeds. Unfortunately, we had not managed to get entry passes for Bijrani.
Our drive to the National Park was through a forest reserve. Forests of the Shivalik on either side of the road, albeit not as dense as the National Park would be. Nonetheless, we could spot a dear or two on these roads filling us with anticipation and excitement.
At the DurgaDevi gate, we got our IDs and passes checked as guide Manoj Khumri joined us in the jeep. Thus, with an acceleration of the jeep, DSLR out we started our safari.
“No stepping down from the jeep.
No noise in the jungle.
No littering in the jungle.
No feeding, disturbing animals.”
“Sure Mr. Manoj, we abide by the rules of the jungle,” we pledged.
“Not our land, but theirs,” I turned to Rose faking a roar.
As we drove in, the raw beauty of the jungle wowed us. The thick jungle was carpeted in tall Sal trees. Predatory trees wrapped themselves around younger juicy ones only to throttle them to death, the warped structures showing off masterpieces by the creator. The mountains on the one side, breaking out into little springs crossing over on the path to flow out into shallow streams on the other side of the path. The kallol of the spring reminding us of musical notes hidden in our very being. The afternoon sun playing hide and seek as the guide looked up at the mountains, tall trees, ditches, patches of shrubs trying to spot rare wild sightings to show off his jungle to us the visitors. We were in awe of the wild, sights we had never seen or imagined, sounds that pulled musical notes in the strings of our hearts: birds, insects, water, leaves, animals, quiet.
A half hour into the jungle, Tara was hungry. I passed her some apples, the only snack we carried because the safari would finish by 5:00 p.m. and we would reach hotel for evening tea. With Tara fed and asleep, we clicked away pictures of sights and sounds so alien to us city beings.
Every few minutes, the guide would ask the driver to stop. Shushing us, he would listen carefully to some sound, look around to where he thought it originated and either pass on or show us something our eyes could feast on. We started looking around like wild animals on a prowl, looking for a kill for our camera and natural lenses.
The deer was a common sight in our zone. We also saw a heard of elephants wading through the forest towards the Kosi. From the mountain we could see the river down below. It was about half a kilometer away from the elephants. It was fascinating to see a baby elephant who was left behind and was trying to catch up to his family meandering through the trees and path left behind by years of wild trips to the waterfront.

As we drove further in the jungle, the guide pointed to a tree where the carcass of a deer hung from a tall branch, “a leopard’s left over lunch from a few days back.” A machan was erect in the jungle for visitors to catch a glimpse of the beautiful Kosi from above, as she swung her hips through the forest.
At the machan, my heart had seen it all and I thought I’ll ask the driver to return. But my greed forbade me. We carried on and about half a kilometer later, we were crossing a small bridge on the Kosi. This was the last point of the safari.
To return, we had to cross the bridge, turn around and drive back and out the route we came. The wooden bridge lay lower than the river banks. As the driver accelerated to get onto the higher banks of the river, the jeep roared and came to a halt. The driver tried again and my husband frowned. “Oh relax!” I chimed in.
By now, the driver’s head was behind a raised hood.
“Ravinder, can you check what’s wrong?” Stanley asked our driver.
Ravinder went over to the front and confirmed my husband’s worst suspicions.
“Sir, its gone he said. This won’t start now. We’ll have to get down.”
Rose and I were ecstatic. “Get down in the middle of the jungle, where we were not allowed! Yaay!”
We jumped off onto the wooden bridge. We could feel Kosi gurgling under our feet and fishes tumbling and tossing in the water. The evening sun still bright in the sky and pristine, clear surroundings welcomed us to click pictures. We posed on the rocks along the river bank, while the men decided the future course of action.
“Sir, we’ll have to reach that check post at the top of the mountain behind us,” screamed the driver. “We can either climb the mountain or walk a path that winds around the mountain. It’s a small climb, 10 minutes tops. The path, however, can take up to 30 minutes.”
“Let’s climb.” My daughter and I were so excited at the opportunity of adventure, and it was hardly steep. In 10 minutes, we were at the dilapidated check post. There were four men sipping tea on a charpoy on the terrace of the single room structure. They welcomed us amidst a flurry of enquiries and phone calls. Our phones had no range, so the driver requested to use the check post’s landline phone to call his office. As we waited for another jeep to come, a forest guard made tea and served us with a toothless grin. He was perhaps in his sixties and his warm accommodating smile told us all was right with the world.
Tara, who was now up from her nap, was hungry. But, we were left with no food. “We’ll be back before tea,” we had said while packing our backpack, ‘and, who packs for a disaster, anyway’ I wondered. But, we were stuck in luck’s test.
I took her to the edge of the mountain. We could see the beautiful Kosi and the bridge we had disembarked upon. I tried to distract her with beauty. The rays of the setting sun shining through the trees forming a halo on the ground. But, she refused to budge. Her wail grew louder and more irritated. Ultimately, we asked the old guard if he had some biscuits in this jungle. With a toothy grin, he ran up to the kitchen on the terrace and brought a packet of butter cookies back.
Fed and free the kids began to venture around the check post verandah marked out by boulders, beyond which lay the jungle. We were told not to leave the verandah as the men sat on the terrace smoking and chatting. It was beginning to get dark as the driver of our Jeep screamed down that another jeep had left his office. That would mean at least 1.5 hours to reach us, long after the closing hours of the jungle and the setting of the sun. Reality dawned on me, and I felt fear creep into my brains. ‘Driving through the jungle in the middle of the night!’
As I prayed and saved the only biscuits we had, I could see myself imagine all sorts of possible situations. ‘The return journey in the dark, the possibility of wild animals, the kids, alternate vehicle not arriving, having to spend the night here…’ and a shudder passed down my spine.
On the ground floor, I could see a room with windows and ragged bed sheets for curtains. Outside the room, a flight of steps led to the terrace, which had another room being used as a kitchen. There was smoke puffing out of the open front of the soot-layered kitchen and men’s underwear drying out on a string across the breadth of the kitchen. As we sat on a cemented slab in the verandah, a teenaged boy carried a bucket of water from a tap on the left of the building all the way round to behind the building. “Madam, the toilet is behind the building, if you want to use.” He came back and let me know.
I thanked him with a smile. Rose refused to use it, so we had to discreetly perch her up on a rock behind the toilet and let flow on the mountain that hoisted the check post.
We had one bottle of water and two biscuits left, which we saved for the kids, who seemed to be enjoying themselves in the jungle, oblivious to the dangers of our return journey. As dusk fell, mosquitoes began their dinner. We fought for as long as the Odomos we had applied in the hotel lasted on our skin, but soon we were dinner.
Somehow, two hours later we heard the tires of a jeep. The sweet sound of arrival was greeted by joys of relief from us. The alternate jeep had two drivers, packets of chips and biscuits and bottles of water. Relief was beginning to creep in. We were glad to leave after tipping the old toothless guard for his kindness.
We jumped in to the jeep. Ravinder and the jeep’s driver in front, us in the middle seat, the guide and two new drivers in the back seat. We drove down to the river, tied the old jeep to the new one with one driver in it as we started our return journey.
The night commanded us to stay silent through the return journey, as the children hungrily ate the snacks. We huddled because cold and the fear of darkness froze our bones. The guide and driver on the back seat stood tall looking out for the wild. There were owls hooting, bats flying, crickets chirping and leaves silent. As we passed each spot or covering, I could hear animals look up from their slumber, turn around and look at our tracks in the jungle. Or maybe I was imagining that.
Soon, we were being guided by Night Jars, who preceded us for almost two kilometers. A rare species, but we decided against their pictures, for fear of our endangerment.
At every accelerated movement of the jeep, we worried about a repeat of the breakdown. The drivers scolded the current driver and I could hear fear being contained in each voice.
After driving for about 1.5 hours, we reached the DurgaDevi gate. We were so relieved when the guard opened the gate and let us out. We were back among humans.
On our drive back to the hotel, we spotted some deer and wild pigs by the road. But neither of us clicked pictures, instead we thanked them for their kindness. That night Stanley and I decided, “no more venturing into the lives of the wild.”
Live and let live!

P.S. Be prepared (perhaps, for the worst) when you travel.

NOTICE: You Do NOT have the right to reprint or resell this story!
You also MAY NOT give away, sell or share the content herein!

© 2016 by Donna Abraham