24
Aug
11

Breathing with the Chitals

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
– Chief Crowfoot

This incident happened 17 years ago, when Dhikala wasn’t the monkey-infested, jeep-cartel ridden, dirty, noisy place that it is now. It was always great to reach Dhikala after the long and exhilarating drive from Dhangarhi gate. Ignoring the tourism department’s restaurant we would head straight for Kaleji’s Dhabha; sit under the thatched roof waiting for aloo paranthas that would be washed down with steaming cups of tea and, checking what was being planned for dinner.

Those days, people like us – who couldn’t afford the luxury of hiring taxies or jeeps – would always take the solitary bus that departed from opposite the CTR office at Ramnagar. I can’t remember the name of the old man who used to drive the bus…think we called him Rawatji. One could also get back to Ramnagar in the same bus if so desired. It was extremely convenient and very reasonably priced. The bus service was always a thorn up the derrieres’ of the jeep-wallahs and their cronies (in and outside the CTR office), and was terminated ages back and I have no idea what happened to the poor old man and the conductor.

 *

Getting to Dhikala is now an expedition which costs phenomenal.


It actually feels like a place of incarceration now, with its solar fence enclosing the heartless concrete buildings that have replaced the beautiful log huts, guest houses and the rustic dormitory.

The wooden floor of the open air cinema hall behind the tourist guest house and restaurant has been replaced with cement. The observation platform around the massive tree in the centre of Dhikala overlooking Ramganga has collapsed. The library is no longer the quiet place where one could sit and browse through books in the evening hours. And, Kaleji’s Dhabha, has moved to the centre of this ‘detention mall’, housed within  an ugly four walled enclosure that is dirty, smelly and fly-infested. The gypsy-jeeps cartel rules the place along with the willing forest/wildlife officials who are so unmistakably hand-in-glove with the drivers and agents. Hardly any tame elephants left either for the morning and evening safaris. Everyone is surly and sour-faced. Shamelessly greedy and artificial smiles are visible only on the arrival of rich guests; political big-wigs; entourages of erst-while maharajas and resort owners with political connections.

The Dhikala, I write about in this post, used to be a beautifully temperate place with wonderful smells and sounds of the forest.

*

Ramnagar too was a sleepy little town in those days. It was a walk from the station to the local bus-stand. The Corbett National Park (as it was known then) had its main office close by and we had to wait there till they opened for the collection of relevant permits and other official documents.

I was there with Anudeep, Sandip and a group of young people. It was a new awareness for the children to walk through a small town that was just about waking up. Then, reaching the one-and-only chai shop opposite the bus stand and gulping down ‘rusks’ dunked in piping hot sweet tea! The eyes of the children would pop-out with excitement as the locality gradually filled-up with the racket of the early morning buses leaving for Almorah, Pithoragarh and other places. We would be back here in about a week’s time to board one these buses that would take us to Kalimath.

 *

We had encountered a tusker between Sarpaduli and Khinnanauli. It was a standoff between the tusker and the bus with the stalemate continuing for over twenty minutes. Eventually, after two false charges and registering its superiority, the tusker had moved away into the bush going down towards the Ramganga River. So, the kid’s were on a definite high by the time we reached Dhikala.

We all had accommodation in the old dormitory that had bunks and a very small enclosure for people to pee during the night.

The reason behind this, at times whiffy and tinkly place was that the actual bog/outhouse/privy/dunny was situated a little away from the dormitory; with all doors of ‘evacuatory’ places facing the forest. Nobody would want to ‘go there’ in the dark. There was electricity but most of the light bulbs outside were fused and generally they were never replaced. And yes, it could be little uncomfortable if you were trapped within the confines of a toilet! It had happened to me once, in the past, when an intense call of nature, had me scampering to the toilet…and, then I couldn’t get out for a long time because there was some animal outside. Probably a wild boar digging for succulent roots, but the fact-of-the matter was that if you had to go – you either went before going to sleep or hung-on till day-break. Many-a stomach rumbling and other mild snoring, grunts, groans and curses were the standard lullabies!

 *

Anyway, it was our third or fourth night at Dhikala. We had just gone through a series of electrifying ghost stories. With all the kids, except Samira, duly huddled in their sleeping bags, the three adults – Sandip, Anudeep and I, decided to go outside for a stroll. We didn’t want to tell the children that we were actually going out for a smoke (not that they were unaware). So, we told the children that we were going to check that everything was all right with no wild animal (read Tiger), around.

Samira, all of eleven years – not necessarily the oldest of the group but the most experienced of all the children, as-far-as wildlife trips were concerned – looked at me with eyes that said, “Give me a break!”

I parried this with my best outdoorsy-father stare and held it with, “You are in charge till we return and latch the door from inside and don’t forget to let us in later.”

“Darna nahin, hanh!” said Anudeep in a much embroidered manner, “Hum bāhar jā ke, idhar-udhar check kar ke āte hein. Sab ko safe rakhana hai na, isee liye.”

Samira’s indignant snort accompanied us as we stepped out of the dormitory. I waited for her to latch the door. She knew that I was on the other side, because I could hear her fierce whispering, “Not fair! Not fair!”

 *

It was around 09:45 pm when we crossed the large open ground in front of the dormitory; past the library; the little road and then towards the bulwark that overlooked the Ramganga. Except for a few guards there was nobody around. Most of the tourists had already tucked themselves in for the night. The guards knew me from my earlier visits and so we stopped to update our mutual jungle grape-vine and talk about this, that and nothing!

The northern side of the Dhikala complex overlooks the Ramganga River and there is a fairly elevated parapet from where one gets a spectacular view of the river and the grasslands on the opposite bank that merge into the forest that eventually leads to the North Zone Ranges. (Steps going down to the river bank have now been blocked)

A small section of the open-air cinema extended away from the parapet, like a deck of a ship and was generally our favourite place during the day and even night. We picked-up chairs and made ourselves comfortable. It was a cold but clear night. The forest was peaceful, the Crickets were chirping and the night birds made occasional swoops down to feed on insects and other tit-bits.

We spent some time softly discussing the following day’s plan for the children but soon all conversation came to a natural halt as we sat there, quietly enjoying the sights, the smells and the sounds of Dhikala.

I was satisfyingly tired but didn’t want to fall asleep there, and part of my mind was still with the children. We had been away for about an hour and I wanted to get back. I knew Samira would be awake and waiting for us.

“Let’s go,” I said to the others and then it suddenly hit me.

There were no sounds.

The crickets had gone silent and the forest was still. We were about to get up when the sharp cry of a Red-wattled Lapwing from across the river ripped the fabric of the night. We strained our senses but could neither hear nor spot anything….but it was time to get back. I asked Anudeep and Sandip to move towards the dormitory whilst I put the chairs back.

 *

Jungle-lust is a very persuasively perilous passion. A craving of sorts, that keeps you wanting to linger a little more, to hear a little more, to watch a little more. So, I lingered.

“Whrraou!” barked the elusive and shy Kakad (Barking Deer), followed by the “Wouw Eiu” alarm call of the Chital.

Even though there had never been any recorded incident of a big cat coming up over the parapet, I thought it prudent to start walking back. With my insides liquefying, I cut across from behind the restaurant kitchen and keeping to the right of the Field Director’s Dhikala residence, quick-stepped back to the dormitory. I paused to catch my breath once I reached the metalled road that cuts through Dhikala and lingered again…..listening.

I could see the lights of the dormitory.

The sharp “Dhankk” of the Sambar Deer shattered the night. The call came clearly from the Eastern Chaur just a little away from where I was.

 *

Events in the forest are astounding and magical. One always hopes to sight the tiger – it’s a great thrill – but there are other things that can also leave an indelible memory.

The tiger is one of the deadliest and most feared predators in a forest. Their art of stealth hunting is par excellence and even though, I had this great yearning to hang around on for a few more moments; be able to catch a glimpse (who was I kidding!), at the back of my mind I knew that it would be extremely foolish and that the barbed wire was in no way any barrier, if the big cat decided to come towards me and, I didn’t want to be its meal.

“Dhankk!” called out Sambar again.  This was to be taken very seriously as unlike the Chital or Kakad, the Sambar’s repeated call is a sure indicator of a predator.

Then, I heard this weird scrambling-rumbling-reverberating sound…not exactly a pitter-patter of feet but more like a patter-pitter of hooves!

With the dormitory approximately 30 metre away from me, I aimed the beam of my heavy-duty flashlight towards the chaur from where the sound was coming. The tall grass seemed to be heaving with dark objects. It was a herd of Chital loping full speed towards me.

I knew what they were running away from and I couldn’t move. Not because I was frightened but because I was amazed with this sight! And, even before I could really grasp the enormity of the situation, the Chitals had leapt over the fencing and I was surrounded by – I don’t know how many – Chitals. I was transfixed!

 *

Unbelievable but true! Here I was – middle of the night, surrounded by a herd of Chital as panicky as yours truly – with all of us now looking towards the eastern chaur. Was the wind blowing towards us?

I didn’t know what to do? I could smell them. I could hear them breathing. I could see that their tails were up and not one of them was looking at me. As if, I did not exist or was it that my own fear had made them momentarily bond with me? I was not the threat and I could have stretched my arm and caressed the heaving sides of Chitals around me. My blood was rushing so strongly through my veins that I thought I would faint.

Mind you, all this happened within seconds. It seemed like a long time but not even half-a-minute.

I suddenly realized that I was holding my breath and then abruptly, “Dhankk” went the Sambar; “Eiu” went the Chitals and “Hahhai” squealed I.

The Chitals, en masse turned and sprinted away to the west and I followed suit with maladroit leaps of my own, to the dormitory.

 *

To use a clichéd term – ‘making haste slowly’ – I tried to get my system under some control before entering the dorm. The door, mercifully, had been left unlatched for me and all seemed to be asleep – except Samira!

With a huge wacky grin across her face, she gurgled, “Did you hear those calls? Anything…..hunh? Anything?” And, I just stood there looking at her with the breath of the Chitals still rippling through me.

How does one paint these happenings? These ‘anythings’? How does one explain that these are inimitable and have to be experienced at a personal level, for there are really no words to articulate the undulation of the soul.

 *

Maybe one day, I’ll remind Samira and Arjun about some of their trips with me – travelling on top of a bus; walking through Ranthambhore; the Sagai forest….and then ask, “Anything?”


7 Responses to “Breathing with the Chitals”


  1. 1 Anisha Chacko
    August 24, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    These anythings are really something Arun! Have goose bumps from reading this post though I’ve heard this story from you before. But most of all I’d like to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience my share of unforgetable ‘anythings’

  2. 2 Samira
    August 25, 2011 at 5:04 am

    Yes, of course we remember all those trips with you – those memories are indelible. And at least for me, the seeds of that jungle-lust planted so many years ago have grown fathomless roots, that begin to wither if kept away from the forest air for too long.

  3. August 27, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Enjoyed reading this. I miss the experience of hearing all these and other stories from you now. I was going through your archives and realized your blog completed two years!!

  4. 4 Amishi Gandhi
    August 29, 2011 at 7:01 am

    Beautiful photographs. Love the way you tell the story – I can picture it in my mind.

  5. December 19, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Hello,

    I am visiting corbett since the last 3 years now. After staying at Dhikala on my first trip, I have always preferred some of the other rest houses that are more serene. But your description so makes me want to go back to those days and visit the place.

    I am just going through the rest of your entries now. Great job! 🙂

  6. August 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    I’m always scrounging the net for anything related to the indian jungles. for a few years now.Stories, blogs, travelogues anything that takes me there with my body still at the office desk! and this is the first time that I came across here. and what a pleasant pleasant surprise. this story will now remain with me forever. thank you man. uv been really lucky yes. not because of just this event but for being able to see these places in their innocence.


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