When I put pen to paper, thoughts and emotions rush to my mind in a sudden Brownian movement. However, sorting and penning my thoughts in a coherent fashion is kind of impossible. 25th December when most of the people , all over the world, are involved in exchanging pleasantries and Christmas greetings, we were all packed and comfortably seated in the Tista Torsa, heading towards New Jalpaiguri. Since Christmas and cakes are synonymous, we had our share of Flury's Blackforest, a gift from my mother's colleague.
Travel is incomplete without certain mishaps and Hardy's chances and coincidences. Unlike Hardy's , these are not premonitions of a person's final destiny; but definitely it did give our trip a bitter sweet taste. Having booked for a conveyance, we expected it to arrive on time as scheduled, at the station in the early hours of the winter morning.Unfortunately, we had all momentarily forgotten that we were still within the precincts of West Bengal, whose people follow their own Standard Time. The chilly morning, the platform stench, the awkward wait, everything, made up for an uncomfortable beginning--so what were we in for?
We had planned to demand an explanation from our pilot but his happy face made reprimanding a wee bit difficult for my sober mother and soft hearted father!
We had reached the Medthla Tower. An elevated, spiraling monolith that supposedly stood testimony to previous spotting of our junglee kins. We had been provided with a guide from the lodge, Jungle Neer (it was called so), who had not as much knowledge as my already knowledgeable sister and mother, and was shattered when my mother rubbished his description of a plant or corrected him when he identified wildflowers and vegetation, each time coining something innovative. He'd be a writer of sorts, he was good with cooking up stories for sure. But his lack of knowledge added that little more spice to our prejudiced hearts. Once we huffed and puffed and climbed the tower, Shyamal, with all good intention, coaxed us to watch the pride of peacocks and unimpressive pea-hens. Delighted by his innocence and to relieve us from the monotony of waiting, our father showed exaggerated interest in the peacocks and Shyamal not being able to sieve through that mock appreciation began describing how there were innumerable peacocks in India and that peacock was our national bird.
|Evening descends on Gorumara|
Bengalis love to travel. No wonder the crowd at the Medthla Tower were predominantly Bengali, most of them gloriously filming the peacocks. Sometimes the antics of the traditional Bengalis pique me and I feel so embarrassed. Somebody swore he saw a wild boar and everyone rushed to the spot. What came upon my highly educated and sophisticated parents, they too followed the crowd to see nothing but some leaves moving in the winter breeze. I looked at my sister, the only other person I realized was experiencing the same disposition. She chuckled. For sure there was no boar. There was not even a pig in the vicinity.Yet my parents vouched they both saw it. I considered it wise to agree that there sure must have been one. But my doting father was hellbent on showing me where it was. To retrieve myself from this taxation I even agreed to seeing the wild boar (in my wild imagination I must have added under my breath!). The sun was returning home and the birds chirp filled the air. We were almost sanguine and only ma's veto to our unanimous 'lets retire for the day' saw us waiting for a stretch of two hours or more. We were yawning, laughing, joking and observing the general drama.
Suddenly the chaotic cacophony fell silent. One of the rarest in the world, but common in the forests of India, especially in Assam and North Bengal had been spotted. Three trained tusked elephants guided by their mahouts chased and brought them out in the open.
I'd seen them many a times--in pictures, on Discovery, in movies but never for real. They were little bigger than the size of my foot, when looked at from this distance. They were indigenous the rhinoceros unicornis. I was carrying a Sony Handycam but to use it you'd have to buy a ticket worth 300 bucks. There wouldn't be anything worth filming we'd thought. But for the next few minutes I shed my ethical garb and defied my conscience by indulging in some dishonesty. I tried filming but before I could adjust the shot, ma poked me to stop.
|Pic of one of the rhinos we saw, with Photoshop's help!|
Who said the peacock was proud, the gait, the stance, the pose, were so photogenic. Two more of the family emerged from the hideous tall grasses that shaded our vision. From the thicket, the sturdy, daring elephants appeared. The wild had a language of its own. While in hushed voices, like thieves we watched them from the tower, the two clans stood on two separate strips of sand and the river flowed in between. The rhinos stared the elephants, scanning the deceit and observing how the human intruders (read mahouts) had guided their own wild clan to betray the sanctity of their homes, exposing them to the hoards of megalomaniacs huddled together under a shady protective tower-shed. The jungle world had its own code of conduct and the politics of the call of the wild was beyond human comprehension.
The Safari had not finished yet. That night we spent discussing the scene, reiterating every movement so that years later the memory remains afresh. Next morning was Thursday. As per the jungle rules the jungle remained closed to tourists. So uphill we went fifty kilometers to Samsing. On our way we saw the Chuba Tea Estate, the disputed land which made headlines a few days ago. At Samsing there wasn't anything in particular that would entrance us. Instead the suitably located momo-hut served as a good stopover for a steamed momo brunch. We nagged Prasun, our dear pilot to take us to the Rocky Island, a local picnic spot. The road to the island was rocky indeed and my father never missed the opportunity to crack hilarious jokes about the outcome of this rocky adventure! We had a hearty laugh.No sooner had we managed to walk down to the hilly stream mom somehow in her cute and broken Hindi cajoled a teeny local boy to collect algae along with her. Ma has always had a weak corner for algae and whenever we crossed a bridge, my sister would immediately hold on to her arms in a mock-saving stance, in case she jumped into the river below to collect samples. The poor child in all excitement hopped from boulder to boulder and suddenly his loose trousers fell off and he tumbled on a thin strip of sand. My sister and I were rolling on the ground and my father found it so amusing that he added fuel to the child's embarrassment by asking him whether his 'pachu' (that's colloquial for 'bottom') was hurt. Ma's genuine sense of dignity was at stake and she gave the child a chocolate and a few bucks on my father's insistence, thanked him and dismissed him.
On our way back while mom was planning our next moves with Prasun, we ran over the day's incidents. Then Prasun hit the brake. Our car came to a standstill. We looked to our right, at the outer, rarefied jungle that fringed the national highway. There right under our nose about four inches from us stood a bison eating to his fill. Huge, horned, dark brown, the colour of a buffalo but with feet as white and fluffy as if it was wearing socks. It did not attack us. Strange? Prasun verified it was an old bison and has been spotted for the last few months on some occasions and was too weak to attack humans unless threatened.
|Old Fellow: The aged bison|
So it was. The jinx of never sighting any of the wild creatures that tread the jungle was broken--for once and for all. It is just to inform my readers, thereafter on our second jungle safari, when we stayed at the Gorumara Forest bungalow, we tasted a real Safari, riding on elephants' back and chasing the one-horned rhino and her baby out of their hiding. This time the mother and the child stood at the foot of our elephant. We did not stir and let them be. We'd got what we had come for.
|Second time lucky: The mother and her calf that we spotted just inches away when on our elephant safari during our second trip to Gorumara National Park.|
Having left Gorumara behind us we now found residence in the Mongpong Forest bungalow, saddled between the lush green foothill vegetation and the gurgling Tista river. Sometimes from the distance the roar of the train alerted us about the civilization that existed beyond this tranquility. The distant echo of the wild, the cooing of birds, the murmur of the river, the soft rustle of the leaves in unison created a cadence intrinsic to the foothills of the Himalayas. Nature orchestrated the music to suit the mood of the day from dizzy morning to the yearning nights.
At the Bungalow I came across the illustrated and informative Wild Bengal by Dr Debal Sen. I was more than pleased to find it here among the decade old magazines in the library rack. The long introductory article on Gorumara National Park, records his experiences. Many of the creatures that he had spotted have now moved deeper into the forest to avoid the trespassing tourists. While reading his description of the forest I was filled with a thrill indeed. He mentioned the "fireflies winking in unison" and at once like a dream our jungle safari came rushing to my mind, and the images recreated in my 'inward eye' were the 'bliss of solitude'. Dust and dense flora crowd the path that we followed. And besides the car's headlights, the telepathic bluish twinkle of the fireflies served as a torch to our eyes blinded by the darkness. And we like Dr Sen now "...leave the fireflies to their communion with stars."
It's a bright winter morning here at the foothills of the Himalayas. True that life has many more mysteries complexities than the ones we know of. For instance, can we conceive in entirety the myriad hues of Nature's ways! With that note let us enjoy the happiness and overlook the pathos. Before me the lush green trees of Mongpong forest, are nodding in agreement. It's time we stepped back into the din of the dusty Kolkata life. We are heading home!
PS: Pictures courtesy my Sister and her digicam!