What does a jungle do to human nerves? It allays, soothes, and drapes a cowl of serenity over the racking brain with its long patches of silence interrupted by syrupy birdsongs which then taper off once again into silence, save for one embarrassment of a cuckoo who fails to notice the pattern. Throw in the philosophical depth of the wild, and the mystic lore and strange creatures that abound it. Take me in.
One reason I chose the Government assignment of writing Coffee Table books on a few jungles of Kerala was this. I like letting the woods do with my soul ''what spring does with the cherry trees,'' ah Neruda!
So a couple of years ago, I reached the Silent Valley National Park one evening as part of my work. The following day, a jeep would go a long way up to chuck me and a few guards at a place where Kerala meets Tamil Nadu, far away from any tourist track. Civilization ends there, they told me. From that point, we should walk along the ridge of blue mountains for nearly eight hours through the woods to reach a cliff named Sispara.
Already I could hear the silence of mountains tinning in my ears. And the shudder in my lungs imagining all that cold air sloshing in. Now only a few hours left, I felt thrilled.
''You got your sleeping bag ready?'' asked Joshil, the Range Officer of Silent Valley. I nodded. ''Well, we have arranged provisions for your stay. It is a long walk from Bankitapal, you know?'' I asked whether I could have Maggie noodles instead of rice for a change. In the last trek, I had rice gruel for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was burping all the time as I walked, which I thought was driving away hordes of animals from our track. ''This is no five-star hotel you are into,'' Joshil laughed, patting my back. ''When you are into the woods, you must live out the woods.'' I nodded with a burp. ''Here comes your jeep,''I turned and caught a glimpse of my vehicle coming through the dark. ''So wish you the best, man,'' Joshil said and shook my hand.
I was the only inhabitant that night in the sprawling Inspection Bungalow at Mukkali. That meant I had to take care of two doors, one to my room, the other, the exit door that led me out to the crisp dark front yard (Oh, a third door too, I forgot about the one, firmly shut inside me, behind which I could hear all the clamoring ghosts I carry from my childhood). I locked the doors firmly and came to my bed. I didn’t like this a bit, sharing a room with half a dozen unoccupied beds strewn around mine. Empty beds in the darkness could turn into breeding nests for multifarious fears. The rumble of Kunthi running her carefree course far below formed a deep background. I turned off the lights, pulled the blanket over me, and tried to focus on a tuktuktuk of a forlorn nightjar far away. A hoot of an owl butted in occasionally. I listened. They were all seamlessly woven into a rich and continuous tapestry of frog cries. I didn’t know when the jungle soothed me into deep slumber.
I was awoke. Staring into the darkness. Sitting on my bed. What happened!
My first instinct was to ask my wife to turn down the TV volume. What noise, what cries, what commotion! In a moment I realized where I was. Alone, on the border of a virgin forest. Silent Valley! Inside the IB! I listened again. There were screams. I heard a blast, a tire going off. Another. More screams! ''Fire! Fire!'' I saw on the window pane the telltale color of fire blazing somewhere not far. Is the IB on fire? Suddenly I thought about my car that was parked outside. My God! I threw the blanket away and rushed toward the window to peer out. I saw figures! Madly running hither and thither in the darkness. I screamed! Hey! Hello! Chetta! Nobody cared at first! Then one of them caught me yelling from the window, and he came running. A forest guard. ''Sir, you stay inside. Don’t open the door until you make sure it is us. Don’t turn on the lights. We must all go to put out the fire at the office.'' He took a few steps, stopped and came back again. ''You heard that sir? Whatever happens don’t open the door.'' He now joined his friends dashing to the Silent Valley forest office on the other side of that wall. I breathed heavily. What is happening? Is it forest fire? Am I still in bed, dreaming. What did he just say! Warned me not to open the door to anyone else. Why warning! That meant only one thing. We are under attack. ATTACK. I thought backward sifting through the clamor I heard while I was waking up, my mind suddenly struck on one word I thought I heard, a shout: ''ZINDABAD.''
The last organized Maoist attack in Kerala happened decades ago. I swallowed hard.
I was virtually thrown out of my bed by a sudden, hurried, panicked rap on the front door. A shudder ran through my bones. This could be a ploy. They could have set fire on something to call away the attention of the guards. And now with the last of the forest guards gone they could be hitting at the target now, they’re right outside this deserted building to take away the inhabitants - only me - as hostages. What should I do! Even if I don’t let them in, they would have the means to ram in. Another series of rap. ''Sir, open the door. Come on! It is us.'' My heart was still thumping against my ribcage even when I made sure they were the guards.
As we hurried to the Silent Valley office, I saw houses slowly waking up to the unprecedented violence in their neighborhood, old women tottering out in shock to witness thick smoke still spiraling up from the office portico. All the commotion I heard a few moments ago had now given away to a mortal silence. The jeep that was supposed to take me for a long journey in the morning lay in the middle like a corpse, almost gutted down in the blaze. Forest guards, thoroughly shaken, stood in little circles around it in the darkness, talking in hushed tone, sharing how each one of them was woken up to this horror of a night. Some said they had seen them through the window shouting slogans. Some only heard. I moved around, trying to figure out a single unbroken story of the night from their talks. I gathered more sighs than words. I saw the walls and roof of the portico charred to black. The front door to the office was broken, a few files were strewn outside. While a guard told me in low voice how he saw the jeep in fire, I saw over his shoulders crude posters scribbled with slogans glued to the wall, slogans demanding social justice.
I was on the epicenter of a Maoist attack. I felt frissons as commandoes wielding machine guns came rushing in on a flurry of jeeps and trucks soon. This was war for my eyes. And I stood on the battleground surrounded by men in arms. There, I looked beyond the commandoes; from the wooly darkness of the forest, the Maoists could be watching us. Words were ineffective to etch the high drama unfolding around me. Still I flipped out my phone and woke my distant home up with muffled words loaded with electricity. ''I am news. Put on the TV,'' I whispered over, and turned the mobile off the moment I felt the weight of a commando’s eyes falling heavily on me. I hardly knew how to act in strange times like this. As the first streaks of light came from the east, I was walking in and out of frames set by a host of TV channels, airing the incident.
I came back to the IB. The whole building had transformed into a huge war room. All the top officials of the forest department were there, belting out arguments on how to tackle the menace. Joshil, my friend and Range Officer of Silent Valley, was hurriedly moving about from room to room giving out orders and taking a few. In uniform, he hardly reciprocated my pale friendly smile. There won’t be any journey uphill, I knew as much. I must try my best not to throw before them that image of a stupid boy still rooting for his sadya even when he is told that the marriage is called off. So I moved around as they discussed, avoiding curious glances, picking surreptitiously my dress - mostly inner wears - that I had spread out most lavishly on various tables (to get them dried last night) around which they now sat and talked.
Half an hour later, I was the only one driving out of Silent Valley; I drove against a river of people and vehicles gushing in, mostly reporters, police personnel, forest officials, and locals.
Hardly a man noticed.
(Photo credit: Free As I Can Be via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Free As I Can Be via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA)