Vista-71: Letter to my Nephew


Monday, July 26, 2004

Letter to my Nephew

By Mahendra Rathod "Paintist"

My dear Ganny,

I received your letter of the 12th instant only today. Three weeks! It always takes three weeks for mail to come from abroad. First the post people try to remove the foreign stamp and then they try to see if there are valuables inside. And they take their time doing it. But let’s leave it – the letter is here. When I opened the envelope I was stunned. 10 pages of letter. WOW. You finally wrote me a long letter. God bless you! It is so difficult to get anyone to write a letter these days. It is all email this or SMS that! What use is it for an old man like me who likes to read slowly and then reread my letters? I used to try and get your appa to write to me when he moved to Canada but all he would do is send me a telegram – “ALL FINE HERE. HOPE OK THERE! LOVE RAJA”. Now you tell me, how can one reread that! Just one line! Of course there was no email then. Thank God for that! You write a beautiful long letter. So unusual these days to find a kid who writes a letter, leave alone a long one! You are a good kid.

Thank you for filling me in about your life. I know now that you have become a truly universal child – comfortable with the west and loving the east. Nothing better to mould you, son, to be a good citizen. Living here in the remote hills of Coorg, I have time to ruminate on my life and if I have been a good citizen. You know something, I feel close and remote to the world at the same time. Close to God but remote from the hustle of living. I read books, go to the temple, tend to my garden, go once a week to market and look through my telescope every night. Life is full. One day your life too will be full – you will have a family and worries and happy moments and a sense of having lived a full life. I was thrilled to read about your planned trip to India next month – it’s been what, 5 years since you came last? Long long time. Too long I think. But I know Canada is a long way and you can’t come often. But still I miss all of you. I read and reread your letter several times. I am really thrilled; I am already floating in air. It will be so nice to see you again and I promise not to embarrass you this time by kissing and hugging you in front of your friends.

You ask if you can stay with me. What a question! Of course you must. All four of your friends too. Just because I am alone you should not worry– or is it because you have to do your own beds and your own breakfast, hunh? I didn’t understand your plan to stay 10 days. Only 10 days, coming all that way? Come on Ganny have a heart! And even in those ten days eight will be spent roaming. Corbett Park, Ranikhet and so on. When will you spend time with me, son? Well all I can say is that you have definitely taken after your Ajja. Restlessness and adventure are in your blood.

But I can’t really complain. Not really. A chance to go to Corbett Park is worth leaving me starved for company. Well I didn’t mean the way it sounds. No guilt trips. Go on feel the might of the jungle and the mystery of the primeval world. Corbett Park is great - the perfect place for a city dweller to touch first hand the mystery of nature. I’ve been there, you know? Haha, you are surprised that I know about the Tiger sanctuary? Well I never told this story to you did I? How you loved to listen to my stories when you were young! I remember those times when your mom and dad used to leave you with me for weeks at a time whilst they went visiting family all over India. Yes, those were wonderful days – do you remember any of the stories at all, I wonder. Well you can tell me, when I see you next month.

I went on a long trekking trip in 1976. Yes-trekking trip! I know, I know, you think I am an old man but I was young and restless once like you. Your father Raja is different; he loves his family and loves the city. But I always loved the wilderness. I was full of adventure and took all kinds of risk. But this was all a long time ago. When your appa was young and you were not even born.

…….. Well to come back to Corbett Park. One day I read about Jim Corbett and his adventures and my mind was made up to go and see the place where he hunted the majestic beast and later worked hard to make it into a sanctuary. I never got the chance for many years but one day I came across the book again and my desire was reawakened. I said that’s it now.

I love the intimacy of the unknown- it hugs you with its mixture of fear and anticipation. In 1976 my friend Ashok got married and I went to accompany the Baarat….well that’s another story. But I decided one day to finally go trekking in the Kumaon hills. Everyone thought I was crazy. It will be so far they said, it will be so cold they said (it was end September), it will be rough and tiring, it will be scary going all alone, how can you go with just a haversack and a leather jacket they said. But I ignored all that. Such is the arrogance of youth. But don’t think I wont say the same things to you! I will. But I will understand if you ignore me too.

I had no plan, just a notion. I will not talk about the whole trip – it will be boring. Maybe some day when we have nothing to write. I travelled along the usual path Nainital, Ranikhet, Kausani and Almora. On my return I came to Corbett Park. First you take a bus to Ramnagar or is it Rampur? I don’t remember now. Then you wait at the bus station and catch a small bus from the Corbett Park. I recall, at my bus stop I had 5 hippies also wanting to go there. I struck up a conversation with them. They were reluctant to talk at first but then became friendly. One of them asked me the bus fare. I was soaked in American jargon picked up from a diet of comics and westerns, so I said “10 bucks”. They jumped in their shoes and almost had a heart attack. “What, Ten Dollars?” they asked me incredulously. “No” I said, “rupees”, not realising that a buck was not the natural term for money.

The small bus came trailing a cloud of dust. We were bursting out of our skins with anticipation. As the bus approached the park you could sense, slowly at first, the majesty of Nature – vast and daunting. We reached the Park at just about dusk. The orange hues in the sky mixed with the flocks of birds going home, celebrating the day, a cacophony of medleys – a sight not to be forgotten in a hurry. “Alive Orange” I called it. You know the painting in your appa’s study? – that’s the sky I painted. At the reception window we were asked if we wanted a tent or a room. The hippies said “tents”. I thought it would be great to be with Nature, and I thought - I’m cool guy, so I too said, “Tent please”. It was night and darkness had fallen. The darkness of the big jungle is scarily strange – it is so dark so dark, as if there is a shade of black beyond black. There are no lights within 100 miles and on a moonless night you can get lost just going to the bathroom (nearest shrub).

Well Ganny I guess you are ready for a break now... I can see you fidgeting. Go on get yourself a beer from the fridge… but don’t tell your appa I told you to. I know what you kids get up to when you go to the Malls in Canada. ………

Now that you are back, settle down son. Here comes the interesting part….. Since there were so few of us, being off-season, and it was dinner time (they eat early there) we went straight to eat. We chose to have dinner by the wood fire outside. The smell of semi-green wood burning is wonderful with its mixture of herbal smells and smells of the village hearth. The rough rotis eaten sitting cross-legged with a kerosene lamp (have you ever seen one?), the chatter of teeth as the cold wind bites through the city clothes and the satiation of absorbing everything new –all adds up to a feast. The spicy mutton was too much for the Hippy gang and they cried for a coke but settled for the cold cold river water. I enjoyed every moment of it.

Now the laughable part… When I reached my tent after dinner I was in for a shock. It had no door!! Just a flap. I ran back to the park office to change to a room but it was closed and the officer had gone home. Boy was I scared then! But what to do? Just as I was returning back to my tent I heard a tiger roar. Ganny, I tell you it is a sound you cannot imagine. It is like a 2000-watt amplifier system in your living room turned full blast. Not just the loudness but the enveloping closeness. I thought the tiger was 10 feet away. The watchman saw my look of terror and laughed. He said the tiger was at least a mile away. Go on; don’t be afraid, he said. They never come here. Never.

I am not sure now if I slept or not that night. I rather think I did. I kept the lights on; I kept my haversack against the flap – as if that would have stopped anything! I kept my Swiss army knife – all of 3 inches that your appa had given me – under my pillow and tried to figure out the distances from the different roars and squeaks and grunts. Many a time I thought they were closing in on the park – but I found out later that, that was a “sound illusion”. Apparently Tigers have some quality –timbre or something – that makes the roar “throwable” to a great distance – it seems to travel long distances. I remember your ajja; he had a similar throwable roar - must have been a tiger in his last incarnation – he could call us all with one shout.

I tried to read in bed but it was impossible. I could swear the roars were getting nearer. I tried to count sheep but the tigers drove all the sheep away. Yes, now I do remember .. I was tired from all that walking and I worked out that the hippies’ tent was between me and the park border – so they would be eaten first. With this comforting thought I must have eventually fallen asleep, because I awoke at the crack of dawn with this huge tumult of early birds singing away to their heart’s content. I stepped out – the air was pure and fresh with a sharp nip. The sky was a clear crimson with dawn around the corner and the smoke from the kitchen was signalling a welcome. People were up and about – carrying wood for burning, cleaning the park and so on. O how I loved that moment. I wish I could live there forever.

Well it is late here Ganny, I am feeling tired and I must have my A-Z alphabet of tablets now- one for blood pressure, one for cholesterol, one for sugar, one for vitamins and one for sleeping. See what old age does to you! But you have hundred years before you become old!

Second day.

Well Ganny, I am up early trying to make your room ready. I have still kept your pyjama suit but I guess that wont fit you now. Kids grow like a beanstalk – here today there tomorrow. I have my fresh cup of coffee with me and on with my story. After a cold-water wash we had a breakfast of eggs and bread and I mentioned to all around me about the tigers’ roaring at night, but strangely everyone else had fallen asleep as soon they hit the bed and no one heard it! After breakfast I decided to explore the forest near the camp and wandered off. As soon as you enter the forest you are hit with the “elephant grass”. Boy that grass is aptly named – it is 7 – 8 feet tall and dense; you could easily hide an elephant. The forest was very alive with rustling, grunting, squealing, squeaking and the mad cacophony of the birds. The rustling was as if someone was stalking me- always following me - really eerie! But no roar! Maybe the Tigers were asleep!

When I returned back to the camp, the watchman was angry with me for going off alone and warned me never to go into the forest without a local guide. He was really angry I could tell and perhaps a bit frightened at what could have been had I been lost – and in that elephant grass you don’t know where you are because there are no paths. After an early lunch we arranged for a “tiger watch”. I tell you, this experience will stay with me forever. They bring in these trained elephants fitted with the howdah (a wooden saddle that seats 4) and the mahout (the “driver”) and, – something that thrilled all of us - a big rifle toting guard with each elephant, sitting up there with the mahout. I think there were three elephants. In front of each elephant is a “āgéwāllā” meaning the guy in front who walks alongside and helps to guide the group on which way to go. We wandered off into the elephant grass. Our howdah just came up to the grass tips. It was as if the attack could come from any side and we wouldn’t be able to see it. Rifle, elephant, local guide would all be useless. Scary. After a few yards there was no path. The elephants just yanked the grass with their powerful trunks and made the path. Impressive. We went deep into the jungle. With good rains the vegetation was lush and thick. The elephant is a gauche animal and walks with a big rolling gait. The howdah would tilt to one side or another at every step to such an extent that we thought we would fall off any moment. We clutched the wooden frame tightly. Our legs were hanging out of the howdah through big holes. The howdah is very shallow and you cant curl up inside. As we went deeper we saw many kinds of deer, boars and a fox or two. But no tiger. In we went with the “āgéwāllās” making noises and beating the grass with their sticks. Courageous bunch I tell you. They would be the first to face the attack! After a futile search for two hours we decided to rest the elephants. To get down you have to make the elephant kneel and the process is decidedly risky. The elephant goes down on one knee, the Howdah tilts precariously to an angle of 75 degrees and then another knee and you are down 75 degrees in another angle and then you jump off, if you haven’t fallen off by then. Boy I tell you the two hippy women in our group were screaming their heart out. But all in good innocent fun.

After some rest the guide wanted to return back but we moaned and beseeched him to show us a tiger. Reluctantly he agreed to take us to another place known to be tigers’ eating/sleeping place. We trudged off. After about 15 minutes the elephants started to slow down and finally stopped. They emitted a pitiable sound I had never heard before. The guide said the elephant was smelling a tiger. After much use of a small curved sharp instrument (I forget the name now –ankush is it?) that is used to make the elephant obey by jamming it in his ears or temple, the elephants agreed to move forward. They stopped again after 10 minutes and would not go forward and started to pee desperately. Good, said the guide, now the tiger is really near. We froze. Our desire to see had vanished completely. I slid closer to the rifle man. The elephants were now crying, but the mahout would not let them turn back which was their natural instinct. And mine too, I tell you. All my coolness and bravado disappeared in a flash. The birds in the trees sensed the presence and were fluttering up in circles and making a terrific din as if warning all the prey – run, here comes the killer. And not just one bunch but half the forest, it seemed. The rustling was loud. The “āgéwāllās” had disappeared. The guide told us they had gone to drive the tiger towards us. The rifleman took out his gun and told all of us not to make a noise. He loaded the gun and clicked off the safety catch. The elephants were still peeing and crying. The mahout had his instrument in their temple. He was nervous too. The rustling was loud, to the right. We looked in the direction of the rustling but out came some foxes. Whew, we thought. Relief.

Suddenly the guide said look left, but slowly and don’t make a sudden movement or noise. We looked left and – THERE HE WAS! Just 50-60 feet away. He had come up stealthily from the grass and had stopped on seeing this big armada with people and elephants and “āgéwāllās” who had disappeared somewhere behind him. They had guided him here, we were told. There he was - standing majestically, surveying us with eyes that were assessing whether to have dessert or to let such a juicy spread go to waste! His chest heaving quickly, as all big cats do. His eyes were the clearest I have seen and his coat was shining with waxy gloss. Well that’s what I can say lightly now sitting in a comfortable chair, thousands of miles away, but at that moment we were mesmerized. The gorgeousness of such an animal is 100 times what you see in the zoos. He is healthy, in his own territory with no equal, has just hunted and eaten all he can with this abundant game in such a lush forest and he sees these strange weirdoes sitting on elephants. It is like evening soap for him. We were all still, very still with everyone praying – even the elephants who were absolutely still with their eyes riveted on the tiger. After what seemed an eternity the tiger gave us one last disdainful look and sauntered off back into the grass without even a backward glance at us. No roar, nothing. No one moved for several minutes. We couldn’t be sure if he would return and lunge at us. We waited. Finally we heard a rustling again and the elephants’ ears pricked up but it was only the “āgéwāllās” returning. They told us he had gone. What a relief. I tell you there has never been a bigger collective sigh heaved out by any man or beast. The elephants seemed to be relieved too and we returned back to the camp.

On the return journey we all claimed that we had not been afraid one bit and had actually wanted to get down and be closer- but I don’t think anyone believed anyone. The camp lights were very inviting and the smell of food being cooked was a signal to breathe easy again. I wandered off to the adjoining lake (safe place, the watchman told me) and saw the flock of birds doing the nightly journey back to somewhere. Commuting, I thought, suddenly in a flash my thoughts going back to the daily local train journey that I used to make, that’s my daily routine like the birds. But I never sang like the birds – they were free!

That night I slept like a log. Perhaps the fact that the tiger had seen me had something to do with it – I must have felt as if the tiger would not eat an acquaintance!!

Well I must stop here. I don’t want to make this a long trip report. Just that my nostalgia surfaced like a gasping fish and I was taken back in time by your letter. It seems like yesterday that I was there.

I do realise Ganny, now things may have changed. Commercialisation will have converted everything into a business. Everything in India is under people pressure. Tourists are flocking to off beat destinations neatly marketed and packaged by smart MBA’s. The tourists go in shiny new cars with their families and want good food and all the comforts. They want a quick and easy trip. Something to tick off from a list. They want their mobiles and transistors (does anyone use them anymore?) and they want to take a million pictures. Well I am old fashioned, dear Ganny. But I will take my old views for nature’s sanctity and solitude for this new value system any day.

I don’t want to spoil your trip by an old man’s nostalgia. Go and enjoy – have fun. But it will be cold so get proper gear. And it is good that you are having company. I would have been worried otherwise. And don’t go alone into the forest anytime. Take pictures –lots of them. And tell me all about it when you return. TAKE CARE!

I am looking forward with great anticipation to your visit to India. Be careful changing terminals in Heathrow. Sometimes it can take an hour. Be early so that you get a good seat. See you soon.

Yours affectionately with lots and lots of love and blessings.



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