Place: BR Hills, Karnataka, Southern India (houses a wildlife sanctuary)

Shangon, Renuka and I were in BR Hills at the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana Kendra (VGKK) on a writing assignment. We were to write about the life of Soliga tribals who lived in the remotest parts of the jungles of BR Hills and how VGKK was enabling access to healthcare for them .

We had arrived there late in the evening from Bangalore and chalked out our programme for the next day with the VGKK team. We were to be taken deep into the jungle by a jeep, from where we had to cross a little rivulet Bhargavi by foot, to reach the tribal podu (hamlet). On the banks of the Bhargavi was the famed sacred tree called Dodda Sampige (Big Champak). We were advised to stop and offer worship to the tree as it was a tradition and the consequences for failing to do this could be negative.The route had been explained to us by Dr Prashanth of VGKK, who was to also accompany us the next day. He had described the  podu to us and it all sounded very exciting, even exotic. I couldn’t wait to begin our assignment.

I don’t know if Shangon and Renuka felt the same, but excitement prevented me from sleeping much that night. The images of an old, wizened Dodda Sampige, with somewhat vengeful emotions running through it, a rivulet running by it, playing its way over rocks, and then, at the end of it, a little podu with tribals living in it were enticing enough to keep me awake.I felt in my bones that adventure awaited us.

A wet morning dawned and we learnt it had been raining on and off all night. More rain was indicated, but we were undaunted. The jeep waited for us; it looked a little tired, but we didn’t pay too much attention to it. Around mid-morning we set off for the podu, clad in casual clothing and slippers (most inappropriate in retrospect). Over the next hour or so, we drove deeper and deeper into the jungle, heading to the podu. Sitting securely in the jeep, everything around us looked beautiful; the forest was dark and dense and quiet, almost in a stupor. The rather noisy engine of the jeep seemed to be the only sound in the jungle. I wondered why there was no birdsong or other forest sounds. Maybe the rains were making them sleepy too, I told myself.

When we had travelled around eight kms, the jeep stopped. Prashanth explained we had to now reach the podu on foot. Climbing down the slope by the roadside, we got the first evidence of what inappropriate footwear and clothes can do. My feet slid down the slope, made slushy by the rain. My shawl fell into the slush and I was struggling to hold all my things together.

Carrying my footwear in my hand, I climbed down and saw my colleagues too struggling, but they seemed to do better than me. We had reached the Dodda Sampige by now and gingerly stepped into the waters of Bhargavi. A delicious coolness worked its way over our toes, as the clear water of the stream flowed past. Stepping over slithery rocks, struggling to get a grip, we made our way across the stream and reached the other end.

Our visit to the podu is incidental to this story so suffice it to say, we took our photos, recorded our interviews with the tribals living there, and made our way back across the stream, and into the jeep. And somehow, we forgot to pray to Dodda Sampige. My calf muscles were beginning to grumble from the forced and strenuous walk, where I was fighting against the will of the slushy ground to pull me down into its arms.

We sat in the jeep, somewhat relieved that we would soon be back in the VGKK campus. Afternoon had fallen by now. The jeep started, but would just not move! The wheels, made bald with frequent use, were turning in the same place and no amount of pushing or urging, made it move forward.

Three hours to a new life

Prashanth then pronounced the decision, which was to change all our lives! “Darkness will fall soon. It’s also going to rain. Let’s not wait; let’s begin walking. It’s a long trek back, but we have to get back. Staying in the jungle is not safe.”

Shangon, Renuka and I looked at each other and nodded without hesitation. It was just a trek through a jungle, which seemed so friendly and benign. Only that we had no umbrellas to save us from the certain rain that was looming; we had no drinking water, and we had no socks to protect us from the leeches that the jungle around us was full of. Looking back now, I realise how vulnerable we were. That day, we were shiny eyed and even excited at the prospect of the trek ahead.

Thirty minutes into the trek, the heavens were attacked by LBS (loose bowel syndrome) and they gave in! It seemed like the Biblical deluge. The rains poured down upon us in great, warm, molten sheets. I remember wondering about the warmth of the rainwater; it soaked us and our clothes stuck to us in odd ways, making it difficult to walk. I looked least like Sridevi and more like a wet crow. When the rain falls to the ground in a pristine jungle, it has no drains to disappear into. It makes its own fierce way around on the ground and we got pushed around. And my errant slippers! They decided to give a fierce fight till my feet were getting battered by the water gushing past and my slippers going hither and thither.

Shangon and Renuka were not having an easy time either. Prashanth decided to give us lessons in wildlife studies at that juncture. Completely unaffected by the rain, he discovered droppings of assorted varieties of wildlife – a tiger that had eaten a deer and thrown out the fur mixed in feces – he found this out by digging with a stick into the pile of shit – literally. A bear that had passed by and dropped its thing nonchalantly littering the jungle – biodegradable after all! Elephant dung mixed with the rain water and slush, running away.

We were also told not to stop because stopping meant inviting leeches to choose the choicest places on our bodies and feast away on our blood – well-nourished blood was hard to find in those areas. I then detected several comma-shaped black things on my unprotected toes and knew I was already leeched! Our hearts were bleeding with terror by then and adding their own marks to the damage that the leeches had already begun wreaking with bloody glee.

Shangon, the brave one, the composed one in our midst took matters in hand. Halting us in our tracks, the rain pouring down on us undisturbed, she spoke to us. Prashanth was at least a furlong away, earnestly hunting for more dung and droppings. “Look around,” she patiently explained, “how many people in this world can boast of an opportunity like this? Look around you. Have you ever seen anything like this? If we come out alive from this, we can boast of having had the adventure of our lives and overcome fear. Come on, let’s enjoy this!” And that’s what we did thereon.

We looked around. The most marvellous sights surrounded us. Centuries old creepers which had thickened and hardened into canopies stretching across the jungle, rare plants, age-old trees and huge water bodies with birds in them. It was really an exotic and wildly diverse world out there. So we slowed our pace and decided to enjoy the trek. Renuka regaled us with tales of movies like Anaconda and other scary films. We climbed onto a metal machan (lookout tower) which Prashanth swore gave the best view and would also give us some relief from the rain. But as we climbed up, we saw the floor was rusted completely and a hard step on it meant all of us hitting the ground in a heap. I was particularly warned to only stand on the fringes, given my generous girth and weight!

We continued our trek because the machan was a no go. And then it happened! I felt a jerk in my back and soon after, my left leg felt heavy and wouldn’t listen to me after that. Renuka hunted around and found a twig for me to support myself while walking. She couldn’t find anything more sturdy. Needless to say it didn’t help and then it was her comforting shoulder that I rested on. We plodded on.

Soon, our stomachs, completely unaware of our situation, began to remind us nothing had gone in all day. We had nothing with us, except little packets of salt and pepper that Renuka had picked up on a (now defunct) Kingfisher Airlines flight. Licking just salt and pepper to appease hunger? Try it, it works.

The rain had stopped by now; we had already walked for about three hours and covered what seemed like a mere two or three kilometres. Prashanth had gone ahead realising that we needed help fast and that he could fetch it as he could walk faster, being used to this terrain.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, we had reached the fringe of the jungle. We looked back. We were alive, hadn’t encountered any tigers, bears, snakes, nothing… I couldn’t walk anymore and my buddies respected that, scarcely worried for their own lives. So we flopped down on a pile of stones by the side of the road – painfully because the sharp edges were somewhat harsh on backsides used to plush sofas!

After we had got our breath back, Shangon gently reminded me of what can happen when darkness falls in a jungle. Kohl seems less black than that. At that time, even if we walk broadside into a waiting elephant, we wouldn’t be able to tell. So it was a choice now. Bad back? Life itself? The latter won. Two kind shoulders on either side of me, we walked. Suddenly, we were all hearing things! The sound of an engine. Yes, it was good old Prashanth back with a jeep. Clambering in, we reached the campus, sodden, tired, aching limbs and all – but also strangely liberated. Shangon had said it right! We had broken the glass ceiling of fear.

I reached Bangalore, lying prone on the back seat of a car, to weeks of bed-rest. But rid of fear and rid of the feeling of being a helpless woman. We had done something not many can do, not because they don’t want to but because they never broke boundaries. Shangon and Renuka, I love you both! And Prashanth, the honorary woman of this group, we love you too! And we love those moments of bonding, don’t we?

P.S. I went back a few months later and offered worship at Dodda Sampige in deference to tradition!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

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