The deep green curtains on either side of the never-ending forest path are so resilient that they don’t take a break, not even for a moment. Suffocating tunnel vision. After trudging for hours along such claustrophobic corridors of foliage, how desperately one might want to liberate the eyes to sweep them across vast expanses of woods, hills and dales!
Trekking in Silent Valley National Park in Palakkad is no fun because of its uneven terrain and thick vegetation. The only life we came across since morning was a kaleidoscope of butterflies mud-puddling on the banks of Kunthi. It seems, animals any larger, those which could stop travelers dead in their tracks, have all retired to some distant planet.
All this climb, all this sweat, all this pumping of hearts for nothing.
The uneven trek path rises and falls after some uncanny page of notations we couldn’t read. Each one in my team is adrift in his own little bubbles of forest thoughts, slowly relinquishing tiny baggage of worries we have carried from far-off cities. I don’t know when I kicked a little stone down the path as I walk, but when I finally catch it, the stone is skittering down, only to stop a few paces away from where a snake wakes up from the forest floor.
A crisply-defined snake head rises up from the earth to see what could disturb it sleep.
We stop holding our breath. The creature from the leaf-bed now regards us with crystal-clear eyes that are spaced generously apart on tiny mounds on its head.
Deep in the long and winding track of Silent Valley, suddenly we find ourselves challenged by one of the most beautiful creatures of this planet - a snake. Long, slender body, light coffee-shaded scales on the dorsal, and a lightly-banded white on the belly that could blind eyes if held against a bright sun: one cannot help admiring the snake as eyes glide along its glistening length that thins out into a fine trickle. No skirting around possible, the snake lies exactly at the center of our path. The sunlight, otherwise sifting through those lattices of leaves, falls directly, copiously, on the path, sunning the creature. The tree snake, now I identify it, might have dozed off and dropped from a branch, or came down last evening fancying a prey.
Or sometimes it simply wants to know how reveries grow in the sun after a long night soaked in the dew.
There the snake lies, holding us in its thrall - turning from face to face fearlessly, searching our thoughts, our intentions, perhaps asking us silently to solve some forest riddle to get past this coiled Sphinx of the wild.
We stand perplexed. How do we relate to the other in the woods? I think about Vava Suresh, the snake-man. Though I always hold in high regards his noble deeds of righting the skewed perspectives of Malayalees regarding their irrational fear of snakes, suddenly I feel a little queasy about the spectacles we make out of his adventures. When was the last time I saw a picture of a beautiful snake without a man inside the frame, pinning its dignity down, distracting its instincts, and finally like a modern day gladiator, lifting it off the earth into the sky as a trophy, as a hundred mobile phones stalking it go goose bumps to catch the capture.
But here we stand before a snake that is deeply immersed in a snake-ness we can hardly understand. It will not give way until the tiny embers of curiosity sparkling in its eyes die out. Deep in the wild it might be seeing men for the first time. It may stay until our shapes and air confirm to its satisfaction. We wait minutes on end, stripped off our ego, just as an object for its perusal. A moment of role-reversal, a koan, a flash of enlightenment. Then we see the snake making a slight turn to the right, towards the bushes, then turns right back at us for taking another look, and turns away again with more conviction, ponders over the dark comforts of the undergrowth, moves, slowly unspooling it long coil, and finally slithering away from our path in the most unhurried manner.
It might wonder for the rest of its life what those strange shapes that woke it up from a reverie under the sun.
(Photos by Manu Remakant)