As the train stopped at K R Puram station near Bangalore, I hurried out of my early morning dream. I just had about four minutes to pack up my i-pod, my cell- phone charger, find my glasses from underneath the rumpled up blankets and sheets, pee, brush my teeth, dig up my chappals from my rucksack and step out of the train. I was visiting my aunt in Bangalore and I thanked god a million times to help me remember that I had to get off at K R Puram. This was the station that was closest to their home in C V Raman Nagar. In three minutes’ frenzy, I managed to complete all of the aforementioned tasks and set my foot on Kannadiga soil. Well, actually it was cement rather than soil and instead of the humid morning air, I was greeted with a blast of the coldest breeze. The station was cute and small and as I expected, clean.
After saying ‘no’ to about half a dozen auto-wallahs, I finally boarded one that agreed to take me to my aunt’s at half the quoted price. Even though it wasn’t the warmest of the welcomes, quite literally, I found out that I enjoyed the 20 minutes of auto ride through the city that was yet to wake up. It wasn’t yet six in the morning. Houses looked quiet with their windows shut and curtains drawn. A little away from the railway station, there was not a soul on the street save for the pariah dogs that huddled together on sand pits to keep themselves warm. I was unprepared for this sudden change in weather and it was telling on me after two or three sneezes! I pulled out a stole from my rucksack and wrapped it around my neck. I had just enough time for three drags on my cigarette when the apartment loomed up in front. It was set amongst untamed land in the DRDO site. The roads were divided into tree lined avenues and at the end of one such avenue was my aunt’s apartment.
The door opened after 3 knocks and my kid brother Simba looked up at me with a mischievous smile. He was seven years old but talked like he was seventeen. “Oh so it’s you now. You will have to make your own breakfast as Mama is busy getting Dada ready for school.” Dada was Boomba, his older brother. Mama, my aunt. I entered the warm apartment somewhat relieved. The cold winds really had the better of me. My head was throbbing and my nose felt runny. I am extremely sensitive to weather changes. My aunt emerged from inside the house and welcomed me with a smile. In seconds, Boomba dashed out of his room all dressed up for school.
In the next one hour, the whole house was a abuzz with activity: The kids finishing breakfast, dashing off down the stairs into a waiting schoolbus, I, in the loo brushing my teeth for the second time in two hours and my aunt busying herself over breakfast for the newly arrived guest. Two jam-toasts down, I disclosed to my aunt my intention of visiting her.
“…And how do you think you are going to reach Mudumalai?”
“Oh I have already spoken to a friend based in Bangalore. He’s arranging the car and…”
“Do your parents know about your plan?”
I felt vaguely irritated with her for asking unnecessary questions. Of course they didn’t know about it. Why would any Bengali upper middle-class-parents of a twenty-something girl even dream of their daughter ‘vacationing’ in the dense forests of Tamil Nadu?! But that ‘twenty-something’ girl was actually twenty-five, had been staying on her own in various cities as a student and journalist for the better part of her adult life. And she is not afraid of visiting a random jungle in South India when she had experiences such as getting lost on the highways of Goa- Karnataka with a car to drive and with very limited fuel at two o’ clock at night. This is just one of the many ‘harrowing’ but extremely exciting experiences of my life. I was kicked about embarking on another but my aunt’s questionnaire dampened my mood considerably. What she didn’t know was that my sister Bee was also a part of the plan. She would be in Mysore the day I was planning to start the journey. She had a dance performance there. That’s what she does when she doesn’t study- deliver dance recitals. She is twenty one and is doing her bachelor’s in Biotechnology. The plan was to pick her up from Mysore youth hostel where she was staying and head towards Mudumalai.
It was actually she who had engineered the whole plan. Her love for adventure and wildlife made her book two nights at Deep Jungle Home- a mud-hut in the middle of the dense forests of Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. I am not really of the jungle types. I would rather prefer a long weekend at the beach in Kerala or a trek on the hills of Mussourie. But the pictures of the place on the web looked very inviting. Bee booked a room there for two nights using my credit card- I was trapped!
I left for Mysore early next morning. I made my aunt vow not to share this knowledge with anyone, not even her husband. The white lie was: I’d be visiting my sister in Mysore and staying there with her for two days and two nights and then get back to Bangalore. The truth was, I had reached Mysore, picked up my sister from the youth hostel and we were already on our way to the wild. My journalist friend from Bangalore had booked a luxurious Toyota SUV for us for our journey. We chose to self- drive as having a driver meant added accommodation and food costs. My sister was at the wheel and I was in the passenger seat beside her adjusting the radio volume. We had another forty odd kilometers to go before we arrived at the Karnataka- Tamil Nadu border. Even though my sister was a student, she spent big bucks on the up-keep of her physical self. The hands on the steering wheel had been French manicured last week and her long dark hair was always perfectly blow-dried. Sometimes people found it hard to believe that we were indeed sisters. While I was the athletic one, she had the grace and poise of a dancer. Though we both had the same height, her body was long and sinewy, mine square and broad- shouldered. She wore her dark hair straight and long. My hairstyle changed every season! Right now I was passing through the ‘eighties’ phase. So my hair which reached just two inches below my shoulders was left loose and open with a red bandanna acting as a headband, completing the look.
We passed the last check-post in Karnataka and stopped for some refreshments at the border. The check post was in an area called Bandipur- another tiger- reserve. The terrain, so far had been fairly level with good roads as bonus. It was strange how the landscape radically changed as soon as we crossed the border. We were now in Tamil Nadu and by the sound of the automatic gearshift, I could make out that this was far from level land. The car slowed down quite a bit and we had to dodge potholes that dotted most part of the road. The weather changed too. We were lucky enough to have the sun smiling down upon us from Mysore till Bandipur but beyond the border, dark rain clouds shrouded the sun. There was also very less traffic on this side of the border which was quite odd as this was the same road that connected Ooty, the queen of hill stations of the South. This was unknown land for both of us. We had been till Bandipur quite some years back but never proceeded beyond. I lowered the volume of the radio which was now a steady static hiss. We also ran out of mobile network coverage, I noticed.
In ten minutes, a sheet of rain started pounding the roof of the car. Though my sister was an expert driver, I begged her to pull over to the side and wait for some time till the intensity of the downpour decreased. I admit that I was feeling a tinge of nervousness especially since we were stranded on the hilly highway adjacent to the forest. I had heard stories of wild elephants descending from the slopes above and beating cars to a pulp. And with visibility down to almost nil, we both had no idea what lay beyond the windshield. It wouldn’t be too difficult for cars coming from the opposite direction to skid and collide head-on with ours. And it was evening already and getting darker.
“What do we do Di? Looks like we ain’t getting anywhere at least for the next thirty minutes…”
Bee tried her best to conceal her own fears. She was the wildlife expert and knew what could happen to a car stranded on a jungle highway.
“I don’t know…Lets brainstorm…” and I lit a cigarette.
If we drove on, there is a sixty percent chance of skidding off the road and either falling into a raging river that ran beside the road on the right or smashing into the wall of the slope on the left. If we stayed, we could be safe until an elephant decides to play ball with us or an unfortunate driver suffers a skid and comes straight at us. Either way, a chance had to be taken. We sat debating on what to do when I caught something moving towards my left. This was the forest slope side. The windows were shielded by the rain water running down and there was no way I could make out what was it that moved. Not until it came and stood right next to the window!
The dark brown skin shone slick in the fading evening light. The ponderous mass of its head moved close to the window as if trying to see what’s inside. For a moment, it’s dark black eyes met mine. It was a huge wild elephant and it wasn’t alone. From the windshield I could see a whole herd crossing the road. From inside the car the herd looked strange, their individual shapes distorted by the splashing rain water on the windshield. There must have been about twelve medium size wild elephants in that herd and the one that stood beside my window was probably an older female. Elephants move in herds when in the wild. And these herds were mostly all-female. In the strong matriarchal elephant society, a young male elephant upon reaching adulthood is deserted by his herd and left to fend for himself. The females sort of get together and protect each other and their young ones by adopting this herd behavior.
I was still looking at the mighty shapes languorously crossing the road. Some were uncertain about which way to go and stopped in the middle of the road blocking it half way. There was no way we could squeeze through this herd and exit. We have twelve juvenile and one matriarch to contend with. Right at this moment, there was a flash of light on my right. Bee had her Nikon D40 out and invariably clicked a picture to capture our hapless situation. But she had forgotten to turn the flash off.
“Damn…the flash was on…!” She cursed under her breath and turned a few knobs and pushed some buttons to turn it off. But it was too late. The matriarch had been momentarily blinded by the strong flash of light from inside the car. She trumpeted with all her might. Immediately, the movement in front of the car stopped. There was dead silence for a painful sixty seconds as thirteen pairs of dark eyes were on us. And then…it started.
The first push was gentle almost like a caress. We felt nothing except raw fear. Slowly, the push turned to strong jolts. There were now two elephants on my side of the window, both young adult females pushing the car with their trunks. The car skid closer and closer to the edge of the road. A metre or two and we would be plunged into the roaring river. The fall itself wouldn’t be bad. At the most, the car would be caught in the shrubs and brambles that lined the slope on the river side—thirty or forty feet at the most. It was the raging river that scared us. The river, otherwise calm, is also called Mudumalai and flows along the entire length of the Mudumalai forest. When it rains, the river fills up and becomes wild, erodes the banks and becomes red with mud and slush. Falling into it trapped in a car was a thought that both Bee and I avoided. But we had to do something!
“Di, lets get out of the car and run. We can hide somewhere till the big girls decide they’ve had enough with the car…”
“Are you crazy! If we tried to run, we won’t get far…we’d be mauled by the herd anyway. Plus we are in a forest, its getting dark. And no cars have approached this road for a long time. There is little chance of being rescued Bee!”
“…That means we just have to sit here and wait till the herd pushes us over the edge..! Di, come on…think..!”
My mind was racing. The only way we could be safe was by remaining inside the car. And somehow if we could frighten these animals and race ahead…
“Bee, turn on the headlights when I count ‘three’.”
“No way…that’d make them more mad. They’ll attack us…”
“Yes, that’ll frighten them but it would also give us a few seconds’ time to rev up the engine and speed away…”
“But Di how do you plan to break through this herd?”
She was right. The rest of the animals blocked the road. Their heads were moving in random directions and they were trumpeting at regular intervals. But even if we had even the remotest chances, I didn’t want to miss it.
Bee turned the headlights on. The herd in front suddenly froze. They stopped trumpeting. Bee started the engine and let it race. At this sudden noise coming from this strange contraption, the matriarch backed up and so did the rest of the herd. There was now enough room on the road ahead for the car to pass.
“Bee, turn on the indicator lights and also the dipper…”
Upon doing so, the herd started dispersing. The road in front was now clear and Bee suddenly revved up the engine, threw the car into gear and we raced away to safety.
I looked back at the herd. It was completely dark now and they were ominous shapes on the road lit by the reddish glow of the receding tail lights. In a few seconds, they all vanished, vaporized, as though the forest had swallowed them.
“Phew Di…had a close shave!” I looked at Bee and nodded. My knees were shaking and I needed a smoke but instead I just sat tight in my seat and didn’t say a word.
Our stay at Deep Jungle Home was well…uneventful and even boring. There was pretty much nothing to do because it rained all the time. No jungle hikes, cycling on the narrow hilly roads, night safaris and bird watching. The stupid weather completely ruined our stay there. We checked out after spending just one night there. We spent the other night relaxing in sunny Mysore. We went to the Dussera Fair in Mysore and saw huge tuskers decked up in jewellery and colorful clothing walking in a parade. It was a fantastic sight to see these gigantic animals taking part in a celebration for the humans. The tusker seemed to be almost smiling! What a dandy, I thought…