What Happened in the Mountains

(a sensationalized account of real-life events: my summer 2009 camping trip)

Being woken up twenty minutes early for guard duty was scarier than the nightmare I’d been having. It could mean many things, all bad, all too likely to have happened. Aishu was visibly shaken as he shook me awake; the sweat stood out in tiny beads on his nose, and his glasses were askew.

It was 12.09 AM and I was being shaken awake, twenty-one minutes before I should have been. In the ghostly glow of my cheap cellphone’s screen, where I had seen the time, Aishu looked pale.

I’ve known Aishu for 15 years and never had I seen him so tense. Shaking off sleep, I crawled in the darkness and got out of the false womb of the tent into the chilly jungle night air. Over me, through the perforated roof of leaves and branches, I could see the stars, shining coldly in the dark. The moon was a low crescent.

Slowly my senses woke up. As my headache receded in throbs, my vision grew clearer, and once again I marveled at how the jungle had transformed, in the space of a few hours, from a warm, wistful dreamscape to an oppressive landscape of nightmares. Gone were the browns and greens and spots of blooming red; gone was the scattered beauty of dry leaves and pinecones; instead, the leaves were now noisy traps broadcasting my presence; the pinecones seemed like wooden grenades to my unrested brain; and every branch shaking in the breeze held foreboding.

My mouth tasted of old chewing gum, which I’d stuck back in as soon as I’d woken up. Camp rule: everyone chews gum. It reduces thirst, and when the nearest source of water is 5km away, no measure is too draconian.

I could see hushed activity around the camp, and when my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw that it was Ishita trying to control the dogs. In the flickering firelight, she looked terrible: scared, hungry, tired, sleepy. The dogs were growling in low whirrs, barking intermittently, whimpering in fear. Both were staring fixedly in one direction. In hushed yet desperate tones, Ishita was telling them to shut up and stop growling. For a moment, this surprised me —

— until, as sleep wore off, one sound broke off from the jungle background noise and expanded in my consciousness like the proverbial mushroom cloud.

“Twoo-twoo”.

From the direction the dogs were staring at.

“Twoo-twoo.”

And suddenly, in a flash of terrifying realization, everything became clear.

***

In the forest in the Himalayan foothills after dark, there are a few sounds you can hear that will make every hair on your arms and neck stand up, that will freeze your blood, that will paralyze you with dread.

A mate screaming in pain (a fracture there is almost certain death).

Crackling, burning, spitting flames (a forest fire, spreading faster than a man can run).

Crumbling, rushing, falling rocks (a landslide, blocking roads and trails, cutting you off from civilization longer than you had bargained for, leaving you at the mercy of the jungle and its law).

And a nightjar. It has a soft “twoo-twoo” call, almost beyond hearing: it’s that low. You’d think it’d be unnoticeable, but when a nightjar calls, everyone, man, woman, child, animal, EVERYONE shuts the fuck up.

Why? Because the nightjar follows the stalking leopard as he roams the night, sounding its terrible double “twoo”, warning the jungle of approaching death.

***

People of the plains packed into cars rushing up into the mountains, some to remember, some to forget. UV sunglasses and cameras, sunblock and jackets, rucksack-straps unfamiliar to our shoulders, minds emptying as the air thins. Landlubbers loving hills, pointing at jungles, nylon and aluminum tents rolled up tight to pitch up and stare at pitch night lying inside.

Mountain roads follow winding mountain contours. We drive along the arbitrary history of rock. Many millions ago, this tectonic plate crashed into that one, and this buckled under and that one was pushed upwards, like a t-shirt bunching up, some parts going up and some down. Many millions later, random shiverings of rock are hollows, hills, trail paths we follow.

Tacked onto the side of the mountain is the one-road-town of Koti. Hanging precariously above a thousand-foot drop into the wooded valley below, tucked under the immense overhanging jungle above, it’s a spark of order in the surrounding entropy. A few shops selling vulgar packets of Lay’s and bottles of Coke. Three tailors, all of whom we visited to ask for scrap cloth to make mashaals with. Two dhabas offering the same menu every day: rajmah, curry, rice. Children rosy-cheeked playing cricket on the one road. Handpump, focal point of the town, a most wondrous magic: you push the lever up and down, and sweet mountain water flows out.

We rushed into Koti looking sideways, both sides. On one side was the drop into the valley; on the other, the mountainside sloping upwards. We were looking for a trail, any trail. When we found one, we promptly parked and got out, looking like tourist trekkers with our caps and glasses and nylon rucksacks, and we rushed off into the jungle following the trail. It was just a little break in the trees, and the faintest of dust paths going uphill, wide enough for one man to walk at a time.

(Single files of trekkers are so romantic.)

Whoever came up with the phrase “uphill climb” to mean hard work was obviously ill-acquainted with mountains. Given the choice, I’d take an uphill climb every time. Going downhill is not only more taxing on the knees, calves and ankles, it’s also mentally fatiguing as you constantly worry about not falling down, not slipping, all while staring down into the green misty abyss.

We lay track as we went upwards but obviously not well enough, because later that night, three of us got lost trying to follow it back to the road, and we spent a, shall we say, *interesting* hour off the track scrambling down the hillside.

There’s comfort in that one fact: if you get lost, if there’s jungle every way around you, go downhill. Over the bushes and trees and creepers, scramble downhill. The logic is that sooner or later, you’ll hit a road, and from there you can walk along it and find someone and get your bearings.

If you survive the downhill climb, that is.

***

In and around Simla, over the last 250 years, the leopard’s main diet has become the domestic dog. It’s an easy, nutritious and plentiful food there. The poor animal is usually tied down outdoors in the night, and can do little but bark and whimper as it smells the approaching leopard, stinking of rotting flesh.

And so a camper, going into the jungle there to stay a few nights, is faced with a dilemma.

Without a dog, you are at the world’s mercy. However terrifying the idea of a leopard is, you are far more likely to be robbed and murdered in your sleep by the locals than to be attacked by a leopard. Besides other humans, there are bears, wild dogs, civets and monkeys to worry about. Without a dog, there’s no warning when something approaches; besides warning, our dog, a huge German Shepherd named Dieter, could ferociously attack and disable nearly anything besides a leopard.

On the other hand, two big loud smelly dogs — Dieter, and a black Lab called Chicky — frolicking in the jungle would make every leopard in a two-mile radius prick his ears and wake the fuck up.

Good news: there’s probably only one leopard in that two-mile radius.

Bad news: one’s enough.

***

Guns are illegal in the jungle: too many poachers. Guns are also useless in the jungle: by the time you’ve lined up the leopard in your sights, held your breath to keep the barrel from swinging, steadied your shaking hands — and shake they will — and squeezed the trigger, the leopard has already visited awful, clawful death upon you.

Why, you ask, are they illegal then? How do poachers kill the leopards if it’s so damn difficult? Simple explanation: poachers hunt at daytime. During the night, the leopard stalked and killed, and during the day it is resting, up in some tree, heavy in belly and drowsy. With the leopard in this state, a man accompanied by two or three locals, carrying food and water and first aid, in radio touch with other men in civilization, can sneak up boldly, and crouch calculatingly, and with a menacing sneer on his face take careful aim, fire a .32 into the beast’s head or heart, and call the whole sordid affair glorious.

But the night belongs to the cat.

You know what else is illegal? Fire. Fire is illegal because forest fires, like teen pregnancies, have a habit of *happening*. The first place we came to that had a bit of flat ground and well-observable avenues of approach was our campsite. After arriving, the first thing we did was to look for a good place to light our fire.

(Of course we broke that law. Look. I’m here to tell this tale. If we’d been lawful, I wouldn’t be.)

We found a hollow, slightly depressed into the ground, with the mountain sloping down to one side and the flat bit of ground on the top of the mountain on the other. A branch curved low over the hollow, and we hung our kettle on this. Directly underneath, we cleared a two- metre wide circle of ground of all leaves, twigs and stones. Finally, we placed rocks in a small, one metre wide circle, and inside we placed some pinecones.

Fire.

Pinecones burn beautifully, a pyromaniac’s delight. If you light it at the top, it burns downwards, in careful choreography; the pinecone is arranged like a Christmas tree, with several levels. And that is how it burns: one level at a time, a blinding flash (when a level first catches fire) followed by a few seconds of heat. Aromatic pine oil smoke fills the air.

Fire.

Not too high, not too hot, just smoldering away, embers for our dangers, tears for fears, giving pale shelter.

Fire.

***

There was nothing to do but wait. Long periods of staring at the darkness, punctuated by awkward attempts at conversation.

“Do we have enough firewood to last the night?” I turned my head and asked Aishu.

He looked our pile over. We could both see it was too small.

“I think we do, if we keep the fire burning low.” Denial works.

I turned back to the fire. Then: “Want to go on a round?”

We got up, slowly, stiffly. The dogs startled at the movement. Their fear was palpable. After an hour or so of their worried barking and growling, they had tired, and had fallen into fitful sleep. Occasionally, one of them would wake up, whimper pitifully, and then fall back to sleep, exhausted by fear.

I shone my flashlight into the treetops, a useless but reassuring gesture. In the night, you see, the leopard walks on the ground. The tiny circle of blue-white LED light lit up the night roof. Still leaves, like a thousand moths’ dismembered wings; arching branches, like the extended, bony arm of an ancient beast; the endless tree-bark, falling off at places, clinging by habit to the body of the tree, diseased, mottled skin.

Nighttime’s a bitch.

We sat back down. “What’s the point making rounds, anyway? Just making it easier for the bastard to pinpoint us.”

I nodded and went back to staring at the fire. We could have told horror stories, but they lose their charm when you’re in the middle of one.

***

Me versus you. Man versus beast. The ancient battle again; the ancient fears come rushing back. Me versus you, cunning versus claw, intelligence versus instinct, my brand of ferocity against yours.

An eerily appropriate fragment of a speech ran through my head again and again, just like it ran looped over the giant overhead screens where I had heard it: “… helpful at times like these to remind myself that our true enemy is Instinct. Instinct was our mother when we were an infant species. Instinct coddled us and kept us safe in those hardscrabble years when we hardened our sticks and cooked our first meals above a meager fire and started at the shadows that leapt upon the cavern’s walls. But inseparable from Instinct is its dark twin, Superstition…”

It is at times like these when our species-defining advantage becomes most apparent. In anticipattion of exactly this situation, we had, earlier that day, gathered eight especially long and sturdy sticks, and bound rags of cloth at one end of each. We put a bottlecap of diesel on the ball of cloth at the end, so that the whole thing — called a “mashaal” — was like an oversized matchstick, ready to burst into fire as soon as we touched it to the campfire.

I could imagine myself holding one up as it burned, posed against the backdrop of the campfire, boldly holding the wild at bay. Fond fantasy: the mashaals were emergency-use only, because they would burn out very quickly. Even so, they would be fearfully effective at scaring away and hurting animals, and as good a symbol as any for our situation.

Meanwhile, we had to hear the foul bird constantly. Round and round, all the time, screaming skywards. We couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t forget the circumstances and focus on some trivial, familiar hassle like keeping the fire going, or making coffee, because the “twoo-twoo” *never stops*.

How we cursed it! And yet, were it not for the bird, we would never have known what was causing the dogs’ distress; not knowing what lurked outside the circle of firelight, we might even have done something as foolish as venturing out of the campsite.

***

We did.

Around 2.30AM, two things became clear: we were fast running out of wood, and we were getting dangerously sleepy. In our fright, we had kept the fire too high, and, too tense to sleep, we hadn’t stuck to our schedule of guard duty and sleep. Instead, by 2.30, six people were wide awake, huddled around the fast-dying fire, guarding the other two as they slept.

We had all woken up at 4.30AM the previous morning, trekked several miles uphill with rucksacks, collected firewood, cleared the camp, pitched tents, dragged stones for the fire, cooked, and gone down the mountain in twos and threes to get more water. We were dead tired.

The inevitable happened.

First, just a few moments, but then whole minutes. I would force myself to snap out of it; I pinched myself, burned my thumb on the hot stones around the fire, but I couldn’t stop it. My head would fall, hit my chest; my eyes would close with heaviness.

Worse: I saw it on the others too. Each of us was fighting a personal, internal battle against sleep, and losing. And behind it all: “twoo-twoo”.

I gave in to the temptation, and, sitting there, squatting near the fire, I let myself go. One by one, after me, everyone else did too.

Picture this, if you can: a soft glow of firelight on tree-leaves, on the top of a mountain. Three tents pitched nearby, a million blazing stars overhead. Eight humans asleep. Somewhere in the surrounding darkness, a waiting, watching beast. And, slowly, the glow of fire dies, until it is barely visible even in the nude darkness.

I awoke a few minutes later to shouts: “The dogs are gone! The fire’s out!”

***

And they’re gone. No sound. No track. Nothing to lead us to them. No reason for them to be gone — but they’re gone.

We had to go looking, but before we could do that, we would have to get the fire going again. The wood was nearly finished, so we would have to collect some more. Thankfully, there was some nearby, only 30 feet or so away.

Of course, “only” 30 feet is something people say in the daytime. Nighttime’s a bitch, and this is the jungle, baby.

The fire was nearly out, to the point where there just a few smoking, post-coital embers. We piled dead leaves on it from the ground; they let off clouds of horrible, stinging black smoke as they caught smolder. We closed our eyes and let it wash over us, let it surround the camp.

Then we grabbed our flashlights and ran. Imagine it: torchlight beam cutting a murky, underwater path through smoke; monstrous regiment of trees above; crescent moon, rustling leaves, a stinging in the eyes, eyes half-closed; a terrible sulfuric burning in the nose, mouth parched — and behind it all the constant, infernal “twoo-twoo”.

The smoke screen probably saved our lives. Halfway through our wood-gathering excursion, the dogs came back, running silently with their tails tucked underneath. Drooling and delirious, they were scared out of their lives.

So were we. It took a few minutes at most, but in the two weeks since then, I’ve had some of the worst nightmares of my life, and they were all the same: me, surrounded by black-grey smoke, unable to see the others through the smoke and darkness, gathering armfuls of dead, rotting wood in the shaky, scattered light of the flashlight.

***

Over the course of the night, the leopard circled us twice. In the beginning, we had hoped that the leopard was only passing by, that it would go away, but the movement of the nightjar’s call and the pattern of the dogs’ attention — they kept staring in the general direction of the nightjar and whimpering — made it obvious: it was circling us, stalking us, hunting us, waiting for a chance.

For a while, the solitary nightjar was joined by another. It went away after a while, or maybe the first one went away and the second one stayed. Maybe we had witnessed a change of guard.

***

And then something very strange happened. We stopped being afraid. The fear left. After being bunched for hours, my muscles relaxed, and I looked up. And, despite everything, it was suddenly fine.

It was full of stars!

***

Around 3.30AM, the bird stopped calling. I think it was the smoke-screen we did, but I could be wrong. I slept. I woke up around 4.15AM, and soon, before my eyes, the sky turned orange. It was dawn.

I took a picture, and I saw that it was good. Next to me, Abhinav stood looking at the infant, fiery sun, and slowly said, “The sun also rises.”

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