Uninhibited joy and thereafter
The day was ending. Our forest walk was over and it was now on the way back to the small three roomed brick building across the roaring river Koel. All of us were totally relaxed. Only vaguely aware of our surroundings we never noticed the way we were going. We knew the green trees were our friends, the small deer whose hoof sign we saw an hour back now must be resting in some shelter.
Wandering in the core forest
The birds returned home with lots of chirping a while ago. A typical evening fell in the jungle.
Our guide walked in front—silent vigilant responsible leader. We followed him without any thought or worries in our minds. A wonderful forest walk had just ended. We were immersed in the moving experience of visiting, touching and smelling the heart of the forest just a while back.
In the heart of dense darkening jungle
We still carried those wonderful moments of walking along the narrow animal trail head down in a single file with a faint tingling of apprehension of danger and then the downpour, standing together, sheets of rain isolating the small group of humans from the jungle and at the same time connecting them through the sound of rains falling on the leaves and then on to the ground. Soaking wet to the skin was an added pleasure. A feeling of well-being permeated us. Sharing the feeling brought the friends closer. As if we existed in a bubble. The bubble chattered, laughed and walked with relaxed quick aimless steps towards the assurance of warm cosy lighted rooms in the midst of darkness all around.
We felt as if we were the only living beings in the world. The whole jungle the sky the river all belonged to us. It was a wonderful feeling.
We didn't notice when the guide had increased his pace. We followed him without any thought. Time had no meaning for us. Darkness fell some time back. The powerful torch held forward by the guide created a spreading beam of light that quickly merged with darkness in front and on two sides. He moved silently, with stolid determined steps forward.
Our poet friend wanted to recite a special piece written by him. After a light bantering he was permitted to recite. Somehow my mind was not with the group. I was only vaguely aware of the poetry that my friend recited with total abandon, but didn't follow the words at all. Only his joy in letting the jungle hear his poem I remember. He wore a thin strapped slipper on his feet that we use only inside our homes. He was the poet, the thinker, the confirmed philosopher in our group.
Another friend Kamal was in his night dress and a pair of light slippers on his feet. As if just before going to bed he came with us into the jungle for a few minutes of evening walk. The third friend Abhijit was our story teller. Even today we enjoy his story telling. He has a great way of making even a simple incident spring to life. All through the past hour he was bantering, joking, and telling short anecdotes, but slowly his fervour was a little on the wane.
Tapas and I joined college from the same locality in our city and moved together more often during our college days. He is not a very talkative person. He was enjoying quietly. The last friend Partha was also from Physics and was a friend of one of us. We knew him well. He had a rather straightforward simple personality and merged easily with our group of five. The poet found a ready listener in this friend of ours. All of us had just finished graduation in Physics.
Somehow by some chance this group had joined together and by the quirk of fate were walking in this small tiny group through the vast dark jungle now, totally oblivious of what the jungle held inside it.
Though we six moved together, two of the friends walked little head. I walked with Tapas and two others walked a few steps behind—close together but still separate. We were participating in each other's streams of purposeless talks and at the same time remained separate.
I walked with a slightly disconnected mind. I watched the clumps of darkness around and on the path ahead; tried to hear chance animal calls. It would have been so nice to hear a wild animal call while walking in the night forest. We don’t have such jungles potentially full of animals in our city.
First hint of danger
Like all things, sameness change, new situation arises. I noticed first that we were walking too long. My internal clock alerted me. I had an idea of the time we had taken to reach the fork from the bridge on Koel from where we took the animal trail further inside the forest. I felt more or less sure that now on our return path we were walking much too long after coming out of the fork from inside the forest onto the wide path that led towards the bridge.
I called out to the guard and stopped him. All of us stopped. I told him my concern and tried to explain with not much of a concrete proof that we were walking too long after coming out on the wide stretch leading to the bridge. “By now we should surely have reached the bridge”, I told him. The guard patiently listened to me and with just a shake of his head turned round. He was the leader. He was the man in the know. How could we, the city-bred lads know anything that he didn’t know! On top of it we were much younger than him. We might be more educated than him, but how can we know about the forests that was his home ground!
But this brief halt changed the mood of the group. Our pace increased and voice lowered; words spoken fewer. We were apprehensive—not really afraid, but somehow the group felt something was wrong. A faint whiff of danger blew in.
Final proof and terror
I was by then very restless. I was sure that a great mistake had been committed, but I didn't know how it happened and still more important, I had no proof. Suddenly the guard veered a little from his straight walk avoiding something on his path. We also saw it soon. A large pile of elephant dung still smoking lay on our path. That was the time fear swooped down on us. But we had no option but to follow the hapless guard onwards ahead. I was sure the guard also understood his mistake but couldn't believe it.
Then suddenly, I got the proof. The realization came to me all of a sudden. While coming from the bridge into the jungle along this path, I remembered that the ground rose in a mild slope gradually upwards. And now after a few hours of walking, the ground was still rising upwards. Without any hesitation I ordered the guard to stop and explained the ground rise.
To this day I remember his face in the light and shadow of his torch when he heard me through. He was a dark skinned man. When I finished, all colour drained, his face was literally ashen white. He understood, I understood and all of us understood. On the way back when we came out of the forest onto the wide path leading to the bridge and then onto our temporary home, our friend the guard had taken a left turn instead of a right and led us for more than an hour in exactly the opposite direction deeper into the night forest away from the bridge.
We huddled together in the middle of the stretch and the guard ran from tree to tree with his torch, examining the white markings that perhaps he himself had made on the tree trunks as a part of his work. Within a few minutes he finally convinced himself. He could recognise the trees.
He walked towards us; to his credit he admitted his mistake to us, tried to comfort us and told us not to run or talk loudly. We were to follow him silently, fast but not running. In this dark wet forest running may bring danger.
We turned back and then started our very long half run towards safety. We were at least one and half hours deep into the forest away from the bridge. It was nearly eight in the night. And only two days ago two men were trampled by the elephants near the village across the bridge, outside not even inside this jungle where the elephants live.
The after lunch story now took shape. Large elephants stood in front on two sides and also behind waiting for us. On any moment some of them may charge and trample us. Didn’t we know so many stories of how deadly elephants are!
Every large bush in front formed a suspicious shadow till we came abreast and past it. Our young hearts continued beating. Temporary insanity gripped a few of the group. The poet suddenly left all caution to the winds and while on the half run on his by now torn slippers started reciting poem after poem with total abandon. Another one started pestering a third friend. Sanity left us. Terror reigned supreme. It spread far and wide, deep and near. It seeped in and enveloped our soul.
The dim torchlight in front swayed on and on forward. Hoping against hope we looked ahead with strained eyes for the sign of the bridge. Interminable minute after endless minute ticked away inside our heads. Won’t this torture ever end!
Like all things terror also ends
If you ever have experienced sheer terror, you would know that after some time, mind and body adjusts somewhat. Wild fluttering of the heart turns into numbness. We trudged on and on. I am more or less sure we didn’t have much faith in reaching safety that night. As in life we move on by habit, mind unthinking our legs moved us forward. Eyes peered from side to side and occasionally behind. Who knows, the elephant at our back might just have turned its attention on us.
At last, after the longest stretch of hopeless time for each of us, the bridge lay ahead. On a near run we stepped on the bridge, the jungle lay behind. Still we looked back frequently. The elephants can also cross the bridge like us!
Bridge ended, road started. Only a little distance away stood our three roomed safety. The gate opened hurriedly, the last few yards to the room and at last into the room. Oh we are saved, still alive!
None was interested in food. But thirst had to be quenched. The difficult question—who would go out to fetch water from the well in the compound. We looked at each other.
Tapas and I went out. Tapas drew the water from the well while I held the kerosene lantern high to see if any elephant was trying to pick me up in its trunks standing in the shadows just outside the fence.
The small building had three rooms. All of us slept in one room. The fear was so deep. We even looked at the small ventilators high up the wall with apprehensive eyes expecting something creeping through it.
Next morning we woke up late. It was a slow morning. At noon we boarded the lone bus honking along an empty road back towards civilization and home.
But traces of violent feelings remain
Forty years have passed. Till today those of us who were there meet, we avoid any mention of that night.
Note: The two images are created for evoking an idea of the scenes the young friends had seen.
Photo credit for "Wandering in the core forest" goes to Sri Abhijit Basu Roy Chowdhury. This is a part of the forest in Garpanchakote, Purulia.
Photo "In the heart of the dense darkening jungle" was again from a forest patch in Chhotonagpur Plateau.