The sloth bear had turned in for the night, that too stoned, so it was alright our Gypsy didn’t move anymore. I and the tracker returned to announce breathlessly that we saw it disappear between a set of boulders not very far away, a mound of fur trundle clumsily in the fast falling dusk. It’s rather long nuzzle nearly upon a thicket or trunk before it retreated and changed directions. My forest tracker, whose marijuana-induced misanthropy had limited our conversation till then to matching birdsongs with their Latin clan names, was suddenly loquacious: the sloth bear doesn’t have good eyesight and hearing but more than makes up for it with an exemplary sense of smell. They are so good they can smell fear even. Good, I was suffering from the consequences of imagining sloth and sons emerge from the cave I could see from behind the paltry outcrop. Snouts in the air, fangs bared. My hirsute arms resembled the tropical forest around.
“But they will soon go to sleep,” he said matter of fact than to allay my I hoped not-very-obvious trepidation. The bear, it seemed, had been snacking on the intoxicating mahua flowers from the forest – also used by natives to make a colourless, potent liquor.
“Come on, let’s go. It’s not going to come out now.” My tracker stood up and stretched – in full view of furry and family. I kept crouching. He then began sauntering back like it was the Lodhi Garden. Whether it was a courtesy extended by one intoxicated creature to another or a prosaic truth I wasn’t sure. But I followed him nevertheless – peering back cautiously, ready to run – it was dark by now. News of the stalled Gypsy greeted us – the fuel pipe was ripped by the thick undergrowth as we tried to close in on our high and mighty friend earlier.
“It will not move,” the driver announced.
“Call for another vehicle,” I proffered.
“No network,” he replied gesturing with his chin at the trees now looming in large, dark silhouettes, hemming us in. Things were eerily quiet all around – not a single sneery langur kept us company. But on the upside the tracker could be right about the sloth snoring away.
“So what do we do now?” I asked knowing the answer fully well.
Followed by the peroration:
“The nearest forest check post is 10 – 12 km only.”
That was where we had any chance of finding transport. If we walked fast we might reach before the guards turned in for the night – their working hours were between waking up and sleep. My obsequious driver offered to carry my water bottle which I refused. Instead I gave him my camera bag which he ignored.
Probably proximity to the sloth bear some of its magnificent olfactory prowess had rubbed off on me. Or maybe I was just plain gut-wrenched hungry. I detected roasting chicken even before I espied the dimly lit checkpost. The guards had caught a wild fowl which they were barbecuing over wood. Deepika Padukone inviting me into her vanity van boudoir wouldn’t have made me happier. A flurry of updating in the vernacular was followed by appraising the sorry urban dweller, glances darted and then nods. Work station tables were relieved of transmitters and radios, steel plates brought in from wherever they were forgotten after lunch, and. And out came from under the bunk bed a bottle of the sheerest mahua I had seen till then. I didn’t know what to say. Maybe I walk into the aforementioned boudoir and find Anushka Sharma too?
Delish wafts from the grill outside was punctuated by sizzling, fatty ruptures into the fire. A clear starry sky above. A brook bubbled near the portakabin, cicadas hummed like a mass of gnashing teeth, toads did their bit from a bog in the purlieu. The solar-powered bulbs wouldn’t hold for long and candles were brought out. Meanwhile the property where I was staying reported a missing guest; the guards reported back his discovery and good health.
That night listening to half-drunk forest guards in remote central India communicate over wireless radio, I learnt the effective use of inflection in communication. Not once did the exchange resort to the filmy ‘over’ or ‘over and out.’ But words and sometimes even whole sentences were modulated to convey that. Not just mandatory queries but jokes too were shared without disruption from either end. I who never learnt grammar in school was suddenly percipient of the finest nuances of language.
Later that night I reached the property riding triad on a pip-squeaking, rim-thudding 100cc motorbike which never saw first gear. A piquant me – still gushing over the inflection lessons – was met by a petulant manager. Maybe worried about the supper going cold.
“We heard there were poachers on the prowl,” he said as the bike groaned back to shape.
“Did you inform the forest guards?” I asked.
“I am unable to wake them over the radio,” he replied and did a severe once-over each at the driver and the tracker who rode back with me. The bike’s spring fork suddenly grew irresistibly appealing to them.
“We just left them, what, 15 minutes ago?” I asked my fellow riders whose gaze never left the forks. They nodded.The manager now looked long and hard at me.
Soon we all left in another Gypsy to rouse the guards.