It was April when I learnt about the plans of the wildlife department of Haryana to conduct a census of the wildlife in the Morni Hills. The census is generally conducted during the dry season as most of the water sources dry up in the higher hills and the animals are forced to emerge from the forest and visit the ponds and reservoirs on the fringes of the scrub forest in the foothills. The rangers spot the wildlife near the watering holes and also study the pug marks to estimate the numbers of different species. The upcoming census was an opportunity to learn about the methodology followed by the wildlife experts and also the techniques of reading pug marks. Moreover, the chance of finally spotting a leopard in the wild was exciting and I requested the Department to allow me to join one of the field parties as a volunteer. A nosey cop is, however, rarely welcome anywhere in the world and they ‘forgot’ to associate me with the exercise. I swallowed my disappointment and tried to elicit the details from a friendly official. I learnt that a party had spotted a leopard on a tree near the Aasrewali reservoir and I vowed to check out the reservoir on my next visit to the hills.
It was a hot Saturday afternoon when I started for the hills in Doc’s rickety Honda that did not look too promising for the off-road journey I had in mind. It was 43 degree Celsius and my pals at Chandigarh labelled me a nut case for embarking on yet another one of my crazy capers in that impossible heat. ‘One of these days its the leopard who is going to find you,’ warned the Doc half-seriously. There was no question of anyone accompanying me for the drive to the foothills, much-less for a walk on a hot and dusty track through the scrub on a wild goose chase. I was, however, determined not to waste the afternoon and I pulled on my favourite camouflage-material jungle hat and sun glasses to beat the heat.
As I drove through Chandigarh I wondered whether it would be fair to ask Zorba to join me for the trip. We had decided to check out the rose cultivation in the greenhouses near Barisher someday, but suggesting a drive in a peak summer afternoon seemed too outlandish a suggestion even for the indomitable Zorba. After all, he is touching sixty and you need more than the wild spirit for such ventures. I finally decided to make an open-ended call with only a mild suggestion that he could join in if he cared. He was having his lunch when I sheepishly inquired whether he would like to join in given the heat. ‘What about the heat,’ he demanded, ‘I was not born in Japan! Let’s go.’ I smiled at the characteristic style of his response and changed my course to pick him up on the way.
I found him waiting outside his house, smoking contentedly. He had his Gypsy ready in anticipation of the drive and I was relieved to park the Doc’s relic. I reminded him about his loud declaration of having quit smoking after facing a string of health issues including high sugar levels. He scowled at me belligerently for having cornered him on an uncomfortable issue and muttered that he would give up the habit ‘by-and-by’. As I got behind the wheel he cheered himself up by telling me about a recent encounter with burglars. How he and his servants had chased a gang of burglars from a house they had broken into in the locality. How he had got a skin allergy from the scratches he received as he ran after the ruffians through the undergrowth. ‘They are usually armed with country made pistols,’ I cautioned him. He shrugged-off my suggestion and shamelessly asked me to stop by a road-side cigarette seller. As soon as we stopped a boy appeared with a cigarette pack from the pavement across the road. He knew the brand and obviously had a running account as Zorba did not pay for the pack. His plans to quit smoking were quite obviously having a very wide time frame!
I had checked out the route to Aasrewali on Google earth. The village is located a couple of kilometres west of Bunga that I had visited earlier with the Doc. The Government has built a series of earthen dams to create reservoirs for providing water for irrigation and other needs of the locals. The largest dam was built at Bunga which also has a smaller second one, adjacent to the main dam. Belwali village that lies between Aasrewali and Bunga has its own dam. Aasrewali has two check dams, one immediately above the village to the East and another higher up in the hills to the West across the seasonal rivulet that flows past the village.
I took the National Highway 73 and crossed Ramgarh and Bhanu before turning left towards Billa on the road running parallel to the TBRL boundary to the west. The road was in a state of reasonable repair and we crossed a series of farm houses and the deserted building complex of the now defunct Golden Forest Company. Zorba seemed to know all about the owners of the farms and had something to say on the means used by the rich and the famous to acquire such properties. We reached the T-junction with Bunga-Aasrewali road near Belwali village. We turned left and after driving a short distance reached Aasrewali.
Aasrewali is a predominantly muslim gujjar village with a prominent Masjid along the main village road.
We stopped at the narrow entry and I was still figuring out the way to the dam from the stored google image when Zorba confidently waved to a tailor working busily at his shop at some distance. I suggested that it would be more civil to walk down to the guy to seek directions but he dismissed the idea. ‘These are simple village folks and he shall definitely not mind,’ he said with the confidence of the accomplished ‘awaaragard,’ as he likes to describe himself. Anyhow we described the dam to the tailor. He told us that the one high up in the hills had dried up while the one next to the village had some water. We drove on till we reached a group of youngsters and children playing in the dust. We picked up a youngster and a kid who volunteered to act as guides. They happily clambered aboard Zorba’s Gypsy and I politely dissuaded the rest of the horde that wanted a jeep ride. We took the track along the large seasonal rivulet that joins the Ghaggar at some distance from the hills. The track turned eastwards as it climbed a levelled high ground to the rear of the village. The track was used by tractor-trolleys and the deep furrows created by the tractor tyre tracks had left a raised rocky ridge in the centre. There was a risk of damaging the jeep’s under-carriage and I decided to leave the Gypsy and walk the rest of the distance. My young guides got off the jeep reluctantly and trudged along the rocky track. Zorba chose to stay back and enjoy his smoke oblivious of the scorching heat. We crossed a grove of Palash trees with fresh green leaves that stood out against the dried up scrub vegetation of the Morni foothills.
We reached the high ground with a large thatched hut in the centre. I was surprised to spot a camel feeding on the kikkar leaves. Apparently the village owned several camels.
Some buffaloes were seeking refuge under the thick shade of the Bistendu tree.
A bearded man with soot on his face and clothes was resting on a cot with two emaciated dogs by his side. We crossed the hut and walked across to the reservoir created by the earthen dam. Some cows and buffaloes were swimming in the large pond.
I spotted numerous Green Bee Eaters with the tell tale quill-like tail feathers in the vegetation around the reservoir.
A large, glistening black jungle crow was fighting a one-sided battle with the noisy lapwings.
I clicked pictures of the dam and the village that lay downstream. The dam was created primarily for meeting the irrigation needs during the dry season but the pipes were now buried under silt and the reservoir was more of a large pond frequented by the cattle and jungle life alike. I spotted the thorny nightshade with striking yellow berries and I clicked a picture for sake of record much to the amusement of my youthful guides.
We walked back to the hut and the man stirred himself up and offered us water from the earthen pot (gharah). I politely refused the water and started quizzing him about the wildlife. He enquired who I was and why I was clicking so many pictures. He then told me that neelgai, kakkars (barking deer), sambars, geedar (jackals) and gorals visited the watering hole in the early hours. He suggested that I reach his hut at 4 AM if I intended to click wild life pictures. I enquired about the ‘Cheetah’ (as the locals refer to the Leopard). He told me that he had spotted one near the kikkar tree where the camel stood feeding. ‘Oh. You must have kept these dogs to warn you about an approaching cheetah,’ I ventured. ‘They don’t even dare to breathe while the cheetah is around,’ he grinned. He had got the black soot all over him while collecting fuel food after a forest fire. ‘It did better rain,’ he said, ‘or else we are in for a tough time.’ He lived there all alone in that simple thatched hut with only his dogs for company oblivious of the world that lay beyond. He was surprised to learn that the village Bunga, a mere 3-4 KMs from his village had two very large reservoirs. Apparently he never ventured out of the village. The boys were better informed and had recently visited Morni and the tals when they accompanied the saplings being transported by the forest department. They had studied till class V and had never seen a computer.
We walked back to the jeep. Zorba gave me a wide grin when he spotted me clicking him with his Gypsy against the jungle scrub.
On the way back Zorba told the boys that they were lucky to be riding the jeep that had been specially bought for use by the famous fakir who roamed the Morni area as also the hills of Himachal and Uttaranchal. The difficult terrain frequented by the ascetic made Gypsy with its high ground clearance an ideal vehicle for his believers. Zorba has a firm faith in the divine powers of the roaming hermit and vouches for the miracles performed by the man. There is an unwritten rule between us that I will not kid him about the fakir even though he suspects that I am quite not convinced about the miracle bit. He is always on the lookout for garnering support from additional witnesses of the miracles. He quizzed the boys about the fakir’s visits to their village and whether they had seen him perform miracles. The boys were, however, non-committal and only complained that he got their CDs confiscated every time he visited the village. Zorba frowned at the louts disapprovingly and reluctantly loaned me 50 bucks to tip them for their assistance.
We drove back towards Bunga crossing Belwali on the way. I stopped to click a brilliant blue bird the size of a pigeon. Zorba identified it to be a Neelkanth. The kings used to release a captive neelkanth at Dushehra and it was considered auspicious to spot one. It was incidentally the 51st bird species clicked by me in the Morni area.
We stopped at a farm short of Bunga where I clicked a horse tied under the shade of a tree.
I drove through Bunga streets and parked at a mandir near the large reservoir. We walked to the dam but the heat was oppressive and I shelved my plans of going further towards the scrub behind the reservoir where I had spotted the jackals with the Doc.
Zorba told me that a large number of patients suffering from paralysis visit a girl at Bunga who has been blessed by the fakir with magical powers of cure for the ailment!
We drove back towards Kot but turned left at Dabkauri to Ratewali to check out Tibbi. I missed a perfect opportunity to click a an Indian Gray Mongoose looking at us through the scrub and only managed a fleeting shot much to the disappointment of Zorba who spotted it first.
The heat was getting exhausting and we again turned right at Ratewali (leaving Tibbi for another day) to head back home via Toka and Khangesra.
On the way back he received a call from back home that the burglars had been spotted again in the locality. He immediately busied himself in mobilizing his servants and the local police in trying to apprehend the pesky intruders in his happy fiefdom.
On reaching his home we settled in the living room for a chilled lemonade to get the heat out of our systems. A large, brutish English mastiff ‘pup’ of six months strained violently at his leash, impatient to bite my head off. Zorba expressed his satisfaction with the growth and hoped that it would eventually match the size of the evil-eyed Great Dane who rested in his cage in the backyard. As I got ready to leave a horse keeper (sais) appeared with two mares at the gate. A fine leather saddle had been fastened on one of the mares. Zorba planned to go riding that evening and was obviously not quite as tired as he ought to have been after a day in the summer sun. He fondly hugged the duo and asked the sais to make them perform his favourite antics like saluting, dancing, bowing etc. He pointed to the knots in the mane and explained that this was a sign of their rarity if not divinity as only the great sages (rishis) had hair with similar tangles (jatas). Zorba is a greater believer in signs and the occult! I bid adieu to my favourite ‘awaragard’ friend and headed home after an exhausting afternoon.
P.S. For more on Zorba my friend, you may read an earlier post http://www.hillsofmorni.com/morni-diaries/driving-with-zorba/