The movie, ‘Zorba the Greek,’ immortalized by Anthony Quinn’s characterization of the rustic, full-spirited Zorba, left quite an impression on me. I thought and talked about Zorba until I had my wife worried. ‘You are increasingly mistaking eccentricity for style,’ she complained, ‘ and I hope you are not nursing a secret desire to live life like one, for it is not going to happen.’ Wives do like to keep you grounded! But then, not everybody can be Zorba. Zorba with his zest for life. His easy manner and good cheer. His indomitable spirit. His earthy, rustic wit. His disarming ability to engage and befriend. His spontaneity. His sense of justice. His impatience with the superficial. His flashes of temper. His ruggedness. His gentle heart. His curiousity. Who could forget that character? And then one fine day, he landed at my office for no reason in particular. One could not miss his large bare head and the impressive silver handle-bar that set him apart instantly from the routine social caller. A query regarding his line of work was met with a blunt, ‘I’m a loafer’ statement, followed by a thunderous, full-bellied laughter that rattled the office window-panes. An irresistible laugh. We struck an instant friendship.
He is a good two decades elder to me in age. Has got by some money in life and has fashioned himself into some sort of a community ‘pradhan’. But he is no politician. Not by a long shot. He is the most candid guy I have come across in my life. Outspoken to the point of embarrassment. Is openly suspicious of any conversation that is not absolutely frank. He spends his life around causes. Could be the welfare of the community temple. Or the sanitation facilities of the mohalla. Or a guy not getting justice at the police station. His interests are numerous. He is intimately interested in everybody and everything. An overwhelming curiousity to know things first-hand drives him to call out and talk to any passer-by who may happen to look different or interesting. A lover of the Willy Jeep and horses. And hats. And big, nasty dogs. And hills. Wistful about the Bullet he once had but can no longer ride. He believes in miracle men and faith-healing. And good food. Is steadfastly loyal to his friends but will not hesitate to convey his disapproval of anything that he does not like through exaggerated scowls. A champion of the underdog. Scoffs at the pretentious, city-bred over-grown lads whom he labels ‘English Boys’! He smokes but disapproves of alcohol! But more about his story some other time. This is about our driving together.
I have occasionally driven to Morni with him. He is always game for travel and is ready to leave at a moment’s notice. The best thing about him is that he will never pretend to be busy when he is not. And will not sulk when you don’t take his call! He is too self-assured to get miffed by your failure to observe social niceties with him. I called him one evening to know his availability for a day-long drive in Morni. He had not been keeping well but immediately cheered up at the prospect of a drive and time to connect. I promised to join him for breakfast the following day.
I was late in reaching Chandigarh that night and it was well past the breakfast time when I reached his house the following morning. He was waiting patiently and had not eaten in his characteristic style. He is a warm host as well! We enthusiastically discussed our plan as we hogged on the desi-ghee paranthas, curd and butter. The curd and the butter were special as they were prepared from the milk with 100% fat from the cows at his nearby farm. The home made butter melted in the mouth. We got our lunch packed for the ‘picnic’. It was decided that I would drive his sparkling new 4 X 4 Gypsy that he had lovingly got modified with a power-steering and radials. I had not driven a Gypsy for a decade and it felt good to behind the steering of this old world style icon. As I donned my cloth jungle hat and the shades to get into the holiday mood he got off suddenly and disappeared into the house. He emerged minutes later with a broad grin, sporting a cloth cap and his Raybans. He was not going to be out-done in party spirit.
We drove sedately on the Shimla highway till the Jallah road turn. The new eight-lane toll-road was a pleasure to drive on. A right turn under the flyover took us through to Chandimandir and Burj along the road to Jallah. We were crossing the stone crushing zone. The machines had fallen silent after the Courts put a stop to the quarrying and crushing along the Ghaggar river bed to protect the fragile Shivalik eco-system. The dust covered ‘Dumpers’ with their reckless novice drivers, the noisy tractor-trolleys, the iron-clawed diggers, the polythene-roofed hutments of the labourers and the foul clouds of stone-dust were all gone. The large rusted iron fabrications with conveyor belts that had moved so incessantly not so long ago now dotted the river bank like the carcasses of some evil giant species that now lay dead. The entire area looked like the ghost towns of the gold-rush days in the wild wild west!
HSIDC has built an astonishingly wide road till Jallah from where the ascent for the Mandana hills starts.
We were still short of Jallah when I spotted the small bee-eaters on the overhead transmission line. There were loads of these pretty green-gold birds that flew from their perches, diving and tumbling through the air to catch insects in mid-flight, with curious quill like twin-feathesr sticking out from the tail. It’s a pleasure to watch the aerobatic display of the bee-eaters and I had my pal amused at my excitement to spot some green ‘chirhies’ (sparrows).
The slopes of Mandana hills were well covered with the dry, scrub forest and I wondered for the nth time whether a leopard was on the prowl somewhere deep in that scrub.
I clicked the bee-eaters and a pied-bushchat.
I then spotted a khair tree with tens of weaver-bird nests in the fields by the river bank. The nests swayed with the breeze and somehow looked eerie and deserted, no different from the ghost town we had crossed earlier.
I had planned to locate the water harvesting dam in the vicinity of Jallah that I had spotted on google earth. I enquired about the Dam from the locals as we crossed the turn for the narrow hill road to Chandi-ka-bas. Nobody seemed to know anything about it. Finally, a villager loading cement bags on his donkeys realized that I was looking for the silted dam made by the forest department and directed me towards Bharal village.
‘Zorba’s’ knee was giving him trouble and he decided to take a smoke while he waited for me. I warned him that it might take a while to locate and click the dam but he waved me off cheerfully. I have been after him to quit smoking and he wanted to enjoy a quiet smoke.
I walked towards the hills along a wide-dry choe. I saw a teenaged youth studying under the shade of a tree and he directed me towards the dam. A lady was grazing her cattle and goats on the grass and shrubs growing along the banks. The dam was a good 30 feet high. A stream of clear clean water escaped through a breach near the top to form a gentle waterfall. There was a shallow green pool at the foot of the dam and I wondered if wild animals visited it for a drink.
There was no way to get behind the wall to check out the reservoir that lay beyond. The lady informed me that the dam was mostly silted up and was of no utility. She grumbled about the wall blocking the natural grazing path along the choe into the hills and blamed the ‘sarkar’ for wasting money on ill-conceived projects. I spotted a white-capped red start and a blue whistling thrush.
I wanted to find a local to take me through the steep scrub covered slopes to the reservoir and I toyed with the idea of requesting the youth. But the project would have taken a long time and I decided against testing my friend’s patience and good-humour. I trudged back to the jeep and explained how difficult it was to spot a new type of bird. ‘I have pictures of some 50 birds, getting the 51st is a challenge.’ He nodded in agreement keeping his thoughts on the subject to himself.
We drove on climbing the narrow winding road that meets the main Panchkula-Morni road beyond Mandana. Thereafter, we turned left for Morni. Zorba had settled down to a good mood after his smoke and started on his favourite theme, the good-old days of his misspent youth! The brawls and the guns. The open jeeps and the Bullet motorcycles. The camaraderie. The food at the rehris. And cops. The good cops and the bad ones. The student politics. The brush with the terrorists of Punjab. The encounter with Rajeev. How everything is destined. I kept an eye out for the birds as we turned left for Barisher, short of Morni.
The road descended sharply till we reached the bridge across Ghaggar at Chhamla.
We drove on towards Barisher, the last village of Haryana on the road to Naina Tikkar. I had planned to check out the Tipra Hills and I turned left to climb the 25 KM long hill road to Thapli on a Ghaggar tributary. The road was in reasonable driving condition and we halted at a newly constructed Forest Guard’s Lodge under a pine hill.
It was a scenic spot and the fast breeze blew-off my hat. Zorba stopped a local heading towards his village and enquired about the crops and the greenhouses visible at a distance along the river bank. The greenhouses belonged to one ‘Vijay Babu’ who grew roses inside them.
I had once spotted a stack of coir-pith manure at the Barisher turn awaiting transportation to these greenhouses. Seemed a big enterprise and we decided to check them out someday. My friend loves flowers and has an amazing garden. It’s his dream to settle down to growing flowers like this Vijay Babu, whoever he may be. A wizened gurkha walking down the road stopped by us out of curiosity for my jungle hat. I enquired about the presence of the leopard in the area. He confirmed seeing one once in a while. A man at Bharal had also confirmed the presence of the ‘Baghera’ in the Mandana Hills. We drove on to cross a section where major repairs by PWD were going on. The workers confirmed that the road was ‘jeepable’ till Thapli.
We decided to have our lunch at Thapli. The drive was enjoyable and we crossed a number of scenic villages.
I stopped to photograph some cute school kids heading home at Jamti. To my astonishment, the child was still using a wooden ‘Takhti’ that belongs to an era long gone.
We stopped at Daman a large village built at several interconnected levels. My friend caught hold of a local to find out about ginger farming. Daman was one of the ‘Pandit’ villages, the Rajputs having their villages on the lower slopes.
Daman has a big school by hill standards and it was undergoing further expansion. We crossed a sheltered watering-point and a lady grazing her goats.
We drove by Gyanan a hamlet of Bhoj Tipra. Bhoj Tipra was visible on the top of the hill above us but the track seemed risky for a jeep.
The road deteriorated as we neared Thapli. Large parts of the road had been damaged by landslides. We met a nomad family taking their curious golden-brown buffaloes to Ghaggar for a drink as water sources in the higher parts had dried up. He intended heading on for Shimla. ‘They are Hirs from the Jammu region,’ my friend educated me. He knew their chief in that area, one Kaku Shah! I thought they were Gujjars but did not dispute his knowledge lest he should insist on our driving back to the herdsman to settle the issue. My friend dosen’t take too kindly to being contradicted on such things.
The road broke on to a clear view of the cultivated plains along the Ghaggar. A beautiful country home by the side of the river with fields and mango trees all around looked perfect for settling down to a life of quietude and idleness.
I spotted some plum-headed parakeets on a Simmal tree.
We reached the river bed at Thapli only to discover that the path along the bed towards the Jallah road was blocked by the ongoing work on a bridge.
We were left with no option but to turn right for Pinjore through the Bir Shikargarh Wildlife Sanctuary. It was 4 PM and we had still not had our lunch. I decided to visit the Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre near Jodhpur village on the fringe of the sanctuary. I knew from my google earth research that it was somewhere close to a large choe that flowed down the Kalka-Pinjore hills. A local directed us to turn left along a forest track near the bridge on the choe. I spotted a peafowl and a large bee-hive and we reached the Centre.
The Centre has been established by the Haryana Forest Department in partnership with the Bombay Natural History Society with funding support from UK. The Centre consists of a basic and unpretentious set up where resources have been concentrated on the functional aspects. The head scientist, Dr. Vibhu Prakash of BNHS is an unassuming dedicated professional who started his career in ornithology under Dr. Salim Ali and is an expert on raptors. We were offered tea by the scientists who were happy to share their work with us.
We walked around the green campus that sits quietly at the fringe of the Bir Shikargarh Forest. I clicked a Great Barbet and a Grey Hornbill on the Banayan inside the campus. My friend wanted to know if it was the elusive 51st!
We saw the vultures on CCTV and collected the printed brochures. We were told that a leopard frequented the area till a year back and had been photographed by a scientist. We talked about vultures, their peculiar habits and the issues involved in their breeding in captivity. We thanked the team and drove on to Pinjore to head back for home crossing the Kaushalya Dam to our left. We had traced out one long circle through the hills and the forest driving close to 100 KM by the time we reached home. We had spent eight hours on the trip and had missed our Lunch but had enjoyed the day of driving and idle talk, me and my unusual pal. We promised to check out the greenhouses on our next trip to the hills.