As we drove into the forest, I wondered what good deeds I had done in my previous birth to be this lucky. Wandering through this verdure is now my “job”! Physically tiring at times, but mentally it is fantastic – I guess this is what LSD must be like. An early stint of volunteering in a drug deaddiction camp meant that I never made the mistake of trying drugs. I guess now I am old enough to, but with the highs I get through my travels, do I really want to?
And I am rambling.
I am in Melghat, just a little South of Bharat ka Dil. Last I came here in March, when winter was over and summer was setting in. While there is a lot of talk and festivity around Basant, I really don’t think we have spring in the true sense. Before Holi it is cool and cold, while after it is hot. Of course, in Madras it is just hot all the time, but that is not relevant.
So summer was just starting and the days were still bearable. As this was a dry deciduous forest, all the leaves were brown and ready to fall. From somewhere, a memory popped in from my school geography class – I actually learnt what a dry deciduous forest was. Our teacher was quite firm and I had no option but to listen to her and imbibe all that knowledge. Suddenly what I had learnt 20 years (ok – 27 years really!) ago was all around me. A completely brown forest and as we drove on, whole hill sides covered with brown trees. For me, it was surreal like I had stepped on Mars or the area had just been bombed by one of those bombs that just make trees brown (I am sure some crazy has made one such). In March I had spent three days going through that shades of brown forest and even the increasing heat each day had not dimmed my wonder. I clicked away till I ran out of memory cards and batteries. And finally settled down to just being amazed and wondering at the magic that is this earth.
Now here I am again after the rains – a failed monsoon to be sure, but still rains. And now it was a rich green bordering on the vulgar in its abundance. No brown – the tree trunks were covered in this verdant growth. I had thought that only in Kerala would I have this confusion over how many shades of green there are, but here in Central India was the same chaos in my head. I simply surrendered this time. No need to understand this or count the shades – just rejoice in it and be. Hmmmm! I guess old age makes Zen philosophy easier.
Our first stop was Wan (vaan – as in monkey). Perched on a hill top was the Forest Rest House. Down below on one side is the Wan River and on the other, the railway station. Eight trains go up and down on this metre gauge line every day. Once it connected the royal kingdoms of Hyderabad and Ajmer. Today it connects Indore with Akola. A train came by – quite a long one; the reserved coaches were empty. The rest of the train was full up and more than a dozen people got down at Wan.
However first we had to enjoy the sight of the river. A check dam had been built across more than a century ago and the British used the railway line to lug water from here to the town of Akot below. The mind boggles at the thought. Today, the dam contains enough water through the year to bring in the smaller animals of the forest for a drink. Sitting in the verandah of the Forest Rest House we got an eyeful of rolling hills, green green green and the river at the edge. As if on cue, a bunch of langurs came to the edge of the check dam and stopped. They looked around carefully and then slowly, one by one began to cross the dam. Each would wait for the previous one to cross almost fully before setting out. The rear was brought up by a mother with her child struggling to keep pace.
Later in the afternoon, we walked down the railway line – I have always wanted to do that! We walked up to a lone soul sitting on the platform - an elderly man in a dhoti and a blue jubba carrying an old umbrella. The lines on his face were like the furrows on the fields in the plains and his skin was a chocolate colour. He sat and watched us steadily as we approached him – not blinking or turning away. Why should he? This was his turf. We asked him what time the train would come. He answered with a smile, “It will come some time and then I will board it.” The sheer luxury of just sitting; not knowing when the train would come and in no hurry to board it all, but sure that you do want to go when it does come. I would have gladly exchanged places with him just then!
The station office itself was placed above at a height above us and we climbed up to take a look. The station master was sitting in just a lungi chatting with someone. One look at us and he scrambled away. We saw the train timings on the notice board and the ticket prices next to it. Really? Is it that cheap to get around this country?
The Right to Information Act has obviously had a huge impact – a newly painted sign was hung up informing you who the RTI contact person for this railway division.
The Station Master came back with a shirt on, ready to talk to us. The village of Wan consists of a railway colony of seven families and two “local” families. The railway line needed a lot of maintenance up in the hills and so the gangmen were based in Wan.
We continued on to Gullarghat driving right through the Melghat forest. The core area of the forest is a Project Tiger Sanctuary – so it is out of bounds. This part of the forest was good enough for us. There are still three villages inside this part of the forest. So occasionally we would see a motorbike or a milk van. Else we had the whole forest to ourselves. It is impossible to see animals here – the topography doesn’t allow it. So all we saw was langurs and some sambhar. That’s all?? We saw a million varieties of birds and a zillion varieties of butterflies. Of course I don’t know the name of a single one – they were all new and fascinating for me. But that doesn’t make a good story right? “I saw a yellow and black butterfly” Or “I saw a yellow and black animal” – which would make you perk up. Sad though that may be, that is how we all are.
So it was a good thing that I wasn’t interested in telling tall tales – I was just soaking in all this colour with a green background. There were really these yellow and black butterflies. Bright yellow outlined carefully in black; is there someone up there doing the outlining so meticulously? I particularly noticed them because they were gathered all in clusters over the many damp patches along the road. As the car approached they would disperse in a cloud of yellow which of course my camera skills don’t allow me to capture. Do my word skills do any better? At each cloud I would sigh and wish I could be part of this mad yellow splutter. Finally we stopped at a point where there was a clear stream flowing reflecting some beautiful tree formations – but more importantly for me, where these butterflies were in extra abundance.
After some time the tarred road gave way to a red mud road adding to the beauty of the scene. Nature is the ultimate artist – playing with colours so splendidly that the oddest colours come together to create perfection.
At Gullarghat we stopped at the Forest guest house which is a cottage painted all over with pictures of the local flora and fauna, set on a stream. In March we had tasted the water from this stream – sweet and chilled, even in that heat. Today the stream was flowing, not wildly, but gently allowing me to sit with my feet dangling in the water. What I really wanted was to throw myself in. However, since I can’t swim and didn’t have a change of clothes, I resisted and tamely sat on the edge. I could feel all the tension of non-stop travel leave from my shoulders. Every time I see the scene in a movie where a heroine is singing in the stream, I wonder why I have never done it. Not sing (I might be arrested for noise pollution), but sit in the stream. After all I travel so much and cross so many streams. But that is the point – all I do is cross those streams, never stop in their midst. And finally I could do it. I could sit in this stream as long as I wished – or at least till it became dark – and it was my “job” I was doing. As I was saying, must have been one helluva lot of good deeds in the last birth!