The silence is deafening.
Last night too there was silence, when we were sitting out on the verandah of our little cottage. It was quiet then too, but a different quiet – the dense forest around us was alive, filled with a sizzling, electric, watchful kind of silence, a silence strangely intensified by the rhythmic breek-breeks of an orchestra of crickets, muffled bumps and thuds, sudden bird calls, a startled cry from some unknown animal (a fawn? a bear cub?), the excited chatter of a faraway monkey, the rustling of leaves, the steady drip-drip of raindrops from a billion leaves…
But now, at dawn, the silence is absolute. The air is clear, cool, still but for an occasional stray breeze; the sky is overcast, a great brooding grey presence that portends more heavy downpours. The creatures of the night are deep in slumber; the leopards and civets and owls and other nocturnal hunters doubtless dreaming of sweet meals had and yet to be had, while the deer and squirrel and countless other hunted ones are only now wakening wearily yet watchfully from the shadowy realms of half-sleep, thankful to have survived another dreadful night, already gearing themselves to brave a day filled with perils old and new…and the night to come.
I look to the right, up the road. About fifty metres away stands a small spotted deer, nibbling leaves off a bush. It looks up at me and then gets back to its repast; but its ears are cocked now, there’s a new tenseness to its limbs. I turn and hesitate…should I wake the others? Udai is in deep delta sleep; the door to the other room, where Rekha, Nisha and Tarini are, is shut. Quietly – or so I think – I step back into the room and open the side door, thinking to step down the path that leads to the road. The door swings open silently, but the deer is gone.
I walk down the slippery, mossy flagstone path and amble along the road, looking in vain for signs of animals among the mist-blurred thickets on either side. Giant carpenter ants march busily among the inch-thick avenues of dead leaves on both sides of the road. Countless black centipedes wander about like tourists lost in a metropolis; one runs headlong into a soldier ant, pauses and scratches its head thoughtfully with about seventeen limbs; doubtless it is asking for directions? But the ant offers no assistance; instead it executes a remarkable backward spring of about three inches, capers around the centipede several times in an ever-widening circle, and then sprints away at about 60 kilometers an hour. Clearly put off by this discourteous behaviour, the centipede flexes its mandibles, shakes its head in disgust and moves on.
I wander into the gently sloping forest on the right, walking as silently as I can—the faded blue bathroom slippers make this task easier, but I am acutely conscious of how vulnerable my toes and ankles are to uninvited explorations by all manner of creatures, from leeches and spiders to centipedes and snakes. A slight flicker of movement in the corner of the eye…and I see them! A group of five, no, six spotted deer are standing about a hundred metres away, staring at me; their bodies are barely visible in the deep shadows , but the occasional twitch of an ear gives them away. After a long moment they decide I am harmless; with twitching tails they turn and walk away deeper into the woods, soon to be lost among the dark green caverns beneath the tall trees.
I move on towards a small hillock where the road ends in a flight of steps, leading up to a low, rectangular building with CI-sheet roof; this must be the canteen. The steps are covered in bright green moss and treacherously slippery. Emerging on to a large paved courtyard, I stare at the sightless windows of the canteen; there is a large lock on the door. To the right of the door is a small shed—just a roofed enclosure with low walls, inside which are piled rusting table fans, broken chairs, a cracked plastic table, and similar junk. As I approach the shed there is a sudden scuttling noise from within; I freeze and hastily move the other way, towards the low wall around the courtyard. All of the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary is visible from here. Beyond the wall, the forests fall away into a valley; above the tree-tops, and behind and all around, are high forested hills, their outlines blurred by the moisture-laden air.
A steady drizzle begins as I make my way down the steps. I see Nisha wandering through the woods where the deer were browsing. We meet on the road and walk slowly back towards the cottage.
“When does Krishna take his morning walk?” I ask, a tad anxiously.
“Around 9.30, I think,” Nisha replies. Krishna is the lone, slightly psychotic tusker who resides in magnificent isolation in the forested hills surrounding us; last evening we’d been told by Loveleen – the Veterinarian in charge of the Bondla Zoo and the Sanctuary – that Krishna enjoys taking a stroll down this very road every morning to inspect the lower reaches of his kingdom.
Nisha pauses and points towards an overgrown path leading off the grassy verge down into the wooded valley. “Here’s one of the nature trails.”
“Ah…so should we walk down it a bit?”
She nods. We move slowly and cautiously down the path, she leading the way, treading as silently as we can on the wet leaves. The slope is steep and slippery in parts; I stumble now and again, trying hard not to make so much noise as to scare away every living thing from Bondla to Kaziranga. At one point the path curves sharply to the right, ducking behind thick undergrowth. I decide on a short-cut and plunge bravely into the thicket. The earth seems alive beneath my feet…I look down and realize that it is, with large, fierce red ants. I execute an agonized leap that would have turned a spotted deer green with envy, and narrowly escape the ignominy of landing rear-first on the other side of the path.
As we descend, the forest closes in on us. It is like walking through a colossal green cathedral; a hall pillared and arched with countless trees of every imaginable size, shape and hue, tall and thickly leaved and so densely gathered in patches that the grey sky above is completely obscured. Many tree-trunks are festooned with creepers that swing lazily in the slightly chill breeze. The air is filled with a cocktail of scents, the primary ingredients comprising damp soil, crushed leaves and rotting wood. The earth is carpeted with a thick layer of sodden leaves. Bushes gather in fraternal clumps; some tall and thin with tendril-like leaves, others short and thickly leaved, with huge curved thorns; still others sporting flowers blue, white, yellow and red. Mushrooms poke their yellow-white heads from rotting twigs and fallen boughs. There is water everywhere; myriad little trickles of rainwater flowing down the slopes, coalescing to form larger channels that eventually merge with the stream that bubbles and chuckles its way along the bottom of the valley.
Nisha pauses, holds up a warning hand, points to her left. I squint in the direction she’s pointing and see nothing but a large tree with thickly-leaved branches. And then, one of the branches shakes violently and I see two huge squirrels leap off it on to an adjacent branch, where they sit on their haunches and make derisive faces at me. They’re the largest squirrels I’ve ever seen in my life; each the size of a well-fed cat, and as agile too. “Malabar giant squirrels,” Nisha murmurs. The squirrels stare at us awhile, chattering their disapproval of the current political climate, and then turn in unison and leap out of view behind the foliage.
The drizzle is now a heavy rain; Nisha steps off the path to find shelter under a huge tree. I join her and we wait for the rain to subside. Incredibly, not a drop of rain falls where we stand; so thick is the canopy above us. I am acutely conscious of the gaping hole in the tree-trunk right next to my shoulder. A perfect nesting place for a cobra, I think to myself gloomily; perhaps there’s an entire joint family of cobras in there, the young ones even now fighting over who among them gets to take the first nip at my scrawny neck…
Nisha touches my shoulder, startling me out of my serpentine reverie. She’s pointing towards a tall tree about a hundred metres away. I stare hard at the tree, bringing into play all my powers of observation honed by two decades’ wanderings in the wilds of Meghalaya and Assam. All I can see is the tree. Like a befuddled visitor at some gallery of modern installation art, I study the tree very carefully, closing one eye and then the other as I examine and appreciate its features. No doubt it is a fine tree, with a thick tapering trunk and many branches. The lowest branch is long and twisted, with a large oval-shaped knot halfway along its length…
“It’s an owl…a tawny frogmouth owl,” Nisha murmurs helpfully. She’s now aiming her camera at the knot on the branch.
And then, at last, I see it. The knot is not a knot; it’s an owl. It’s huge, perched on the branch with its back to us, shoulders stiff and slightly hunched, its ruffled feathers clearly silhouetted against the slate-grey sky. “It’s sulking,” whispers Nisha. “Maybe because it’s wet…or maybe it doesn’t like being photographed by strangers.”
The rain thins; we leave the owl to its sulking and move on. Suddenly the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds, bathing the green hall in golden light from a billion glittering leaves. But only for a moment; like a curtain dropping, the thick grey veils of cloud conceal the sun again.
Now, slowly but surely, the creatures of the forest are waking up. The air is filled with the hum of insects; dragonflies hover, butterflies flit about. A sweet, fluting bird call wafts through the trees. Nisha pauses, holds up a hand. “That’s a ruby throated yellow bulbul…the state bird of Goa,” she murmurs, scanning the tree-tops above us. After a moment or two she points; I see only a bewildering tangle of leafy branches. She takes a few pictures, and then all of a sudden there is a flash of brilliant yellow amidst the green, and the bulbul does a fly-pass high above my head, a distinctly sardonic tone in its musical cheeping as it stares down at me. “Whee wit wit whee…Now do you see me?” it seems to chant.
The gurgling and murmuring of the stream grows louder and deeper, the light grows dimmer, as we near the base of the valley. Suddenly the stream is before us, about five metres wide, its dark but clear waters foaming among rounded rocks and pebbles and rushing between the bushy banks. I step down to ford the water, and pause as a faint but pungent aroma reaches my nostrils. It’s a distinct odour, evocative…
“Elephant dung!” I whisper hoarsely. Nisha nods, eyes wide.
Silently, cautiously, I cross the stream, clamber up the bank on the other side, and emerge into a small clearing. On all sides the dense forested slopes press in; in the foreground on the left stands a light-grey rock formation; a monolith with an extraordinary shape…
It’s Krishna. He stands at least four metres high at the shoulders; his tusks are like giant yellow-white pincers; his legs as thick as tree-trunks. His eyes are open, but he is as still as rock from giant rear to pliant ears, from slender tail to stupendous trunk.
Nisha’s already crossed the stream and is climbing the bank. I point towards Krishna. For a moment we stand there, frozen, staring at our colossal slumbering colleague. And then, we turn and hasten back across the stream. Our ascent through the forest is far more rapid than our descent. I bravely lead all the way, happy that I’ve redeemed my reputation as a keen-eyed wildlife spotter.
After all, I’ve successfully spotted a three-tonne elephant at ten metres.