I was late. It was Delhi again. Anybody who has had the experience of moving in to this ‘City of Djinns’ knows how the mega-polis discourages the newcomer from making the entry. It can be years before you reconcile to its undecipherable maze of unending roads, its congested gullies, the packed markets and the soulless malls. Even the colonial opulence of the ‘Capitol’ at Raisina and the majestic bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi is lost to the dirty, gray sky and the stench of the millions of tired souls that are condemned to a life of helpless coexistence. But the Djinn-of-Dilli, much like the Medusa of Greek mythology, does not reveal the extent of her perversity until you attempt to leave the folds of her terrible tresses, the serpentine traffic snarls. She hates you for your seeking respite from her vile captivity, even when it is only a day spent amidst the freshness of the hills. She will try to deny you that tiniest relief with one malicious jam after another, her mouth curled in a wicked smile. The more you honk in exasperation, the more you fuel her perverse pleasure. That and my inability to take an early start to beat the goddamned traffic!
I drove non-stop all the way to Derabussi, turning right under the overbridge to take the dusty Punjab road to Ramgarh. My wife and daughters have learnt to put up with my eccentric ways and did not protest at my skipping the compulsory loo-break at Karnal!! My wife did appear astonished, however, when I stopped by the Guga-marhi temple at Kakrali (just short of Ramgarh) and hopped-off to get a quick picture of the quaint cement sculpture of Prince Guga on his fabled blue steed.
I was back at the wheel in a jiffy and pretended not to register the incredulous looks being exchanged by my family. Zorba was waiting with his jeep at Ramgarh fort as planned. I grabbed my jungle hat, camera and sun-glasses and we were off to the destination for the day.
I have earlier recounted my trip to Aasrewali, one of the numerous gujjar villages that dot the Shivalik foot hills. The forest department has built two earthen dams across seasonal choes in the village, under the water-harvesting and soil-conservation programmes. The dams have created two small lakes in the village one of which lies just above the village to the east of the nadi that flows past the village. The other, larger lake lies higher in the hills to the west of this nadi and is surrounded by a thick forest and the hills that lie to the north-east of Berwala bird sanctuary. Zorba had bought a hat identical to mine but preferred wearing a cap that he claimed to be identical to the one worn by US Army chief! We crossed a herd of cattle as we neared Aasrewali.The brick-paved village streets were layered with cow dung and were full of potholes. I ignored Zorba’s protests at my undue caution in negotiating the numerous potholes, which he thought betrayed my lack of trust in the robustness of his jeep! We crossed the village masjid. A couple of youths crossed us on motorcycles carrying firewood loads tied across the rear seat. We reached the nadi and I drove through the wide meandering bed taking care to avoid the large stones that threatened to cause damage to the jeep’s exposed engine chamber.
I had already visited the smaller dam near the village the previous summer and only had a vague idea about the location of the second, larger dam that lay amidst the higher hills. Just then we came across a young married couple who were walking back to their village from the hills. The bearded, tall man looked at us with curiosity and I used the opportunity offered by the eye contact to seek directions. He evinced no surprise at my plan to visit the dam and started explaining the path in detail while his wife continued to make her way back to the village without acknowledging our presence. I was taking too long to understand the way and he decided to accompany us to the site. We could drive up the nadi for some distance and he climbed into the rear seat. Zorba immediately started quizzing him about ‘Abdullah Sai’, the miracle man of the hills. I have never really figured out Zorba’s motives for these question-answer sessions. I initially thought that he was merely seeking to impress me with the ascetic’s prowess at performing miracles by having locals recount their experiences with the man. But then I have bought my peace with Zorba long back by joining the ranks of the ‘faithfuls’ and have avowed my complete faith in the mystical powers of the wandering Baba. I have often had this nagging suspicion that maybe Zorba does get bouts of self-doubt and seeks to reaffirm his faith by hearing the locals repeat his favourite stories about the wonders performed by his beloved hermit. Or else he suspects my professed conviction in the genuiness of the miracles and has decided to bombard me with the narrations by the faithfuls until I capitulate completely! Zorba is a complicated character and its impossible to figure him out completely!!
Anyway, Imran (the youth) seemed very well aware of all the famous exploits of the roaming hermit. He readily recounted the god man’s best known miracle where he is said to have blown his breath into the empty fuel tank of a disciple’s scooter and asked him to drive the scooter back home without a worry while warning him to never check the fuel tank again. The scooter ran without fuel for a number of days until the believer’s curiosity got the better of him and he violated the edict of the Sai and checked the fuel tank. The tank was empty of course and the miracle promptly came to an end. One thing which is obvious from all the different tales is that the Baba is extremely temperamental and can chide you in shockingly profane language if you try to put on airs in his presence. He dosent stick to any one location for long and compulsively moves from place to place, often disappearing into forests for long periods of time. Imran reported that the ascetic had stopped visiting the village after the village Maulvi annoyed him by refusing his advice to prune the banyan growing inside the masjid to prevent the birds roosting on its extended branches from soiling the neighbour’s courtyard with their droppings! To set the record straight, while I have little belief in miracles being a normal, rational man, yet, I am extremely curious about the character of this elusive hill hermit and would definitely love to meet him.
I drove till we reached a large clear patch by the side of the nadi and Imran advised me to park as the track was not motorable beyond the point. Zorba decided to wait at the spot while I checked out the dam and lighted a cigarette as I followed Imran. The path followed a stream that had clear water running through it. There were no fish in the water unlike the stream I had seen at Bharal that was alive with fish and freshwater crabs. ‘Its the water flowing from the dam,’ he informed me.
The soil around the stream was colonized by dense stands of the kans grass and the woolly white flowers (kash-phuls) swayed dreamily with the breeze.
There were also numerous, small ‘khakda’ trees growing in the area. I had on my earlier trip to Aasrewali identified the tree to be none other than the dhak (palash) tree, the tell tale dhak-ke-teen-paat helping to identify the tree. I was determined to photograph these ‘Flames of the Forest’ in full bloom during spring and vowed to undertake yet another trip in early April. We were required to cross the stream and I managed it with some difficulty as my knee had decided to give me trouble. ‘Your hiking days are numbered old man!’ I reminded myself as I struggled to keep pace with the energetic Imran.
He inquired about my profession and grinned broadly when he learnt that I was not an official of the forest department. ‘Oh! Those poor fools,’ he exclaimed mirthfully. ‘Who are you talking about?’ I inquired ‘Did you not notice all those people running away all along the way, leaving behind the firewood they had collected?’ he asked incredulously. I had noticed no such person and wondered why anybody would run at my sight. ‘They must have spotted your jeep from a distance and thought that you were high officials of the forest department on a surprise check and fled from the spot as its illegal to collect firewood,’ he informed me. ‘Must be the jungle hat coupled with the sarkari looking jeep,’ I figured out. Some monkeys sensed our approach at a distance and made loud threatening sounds to discourage our advance. Imran cursed them roundly and pointed to the large earthen embankment to our front. ‘That’s the dam,’ he told me. He showed me the large metal pipe with a big control valve emerging from the dam and explained that it carried water for irrigation to the fields that lay downstream of the dam. ‘Who manages the pipes?’ I wanted to know. ‘We do,’ he said proudly,’my fields also receive water from the dam.’ This was the first water-harvesting dam of the many that I had visited thus far, including Aasrewali’s other dam and the twin dams at Bunga, a nearby village, that was actually providing water for irrigation. He pointed to the jhunds (stands) of kans grass and explained how they were used for thatching of roofs of cattle sheds etc. I asked him about wildlife. He told me about the wild boars, the kakars (barking deer), the ban-bakris (gorals), the sambar deer and of course the leopard. I immediately bombarded him with numerous questions about the leopard. ‘It’s hard to spot one,’ he told me. ‘The goat-herders often encounter it in the forests,’ he told me. ‘He is a bastard, I tell you,’ he continued, now warming up to the topic. ‘The ********ker will kill five when he has to eat just one.’ ‘How come?’ I wanted to know. ‘He ll pounce on the first kill and the terrified flock shall flee in all directions to save themselves. But goats are stupid.They’ll return to the spot after some time and sniff at their dead companion. The leopard shall then kill a second goat. If the goat-herder is careless and lets them graze on their own the leopard will massacre the entire flock one-by-one and the dumb beasts will not learn till all of them are dead!’ This was an incredible story. I wanted to know whether forest department compensated the villagers if their goats or cattle got killed by the leopard. ‘Why would they do that?’ he asked me. I was sure that I had read about the compensation in the newspaper and was surprised that there was no such practice in the area. He pointed to the hoof marks of the deer, the wild boars and the gorals.
He taught me how to distinguish between the hoof marks of a deer and the boar and also between those of a goral and the domesticated goat. He told me how early mornings were the best time to spot wildlife. How gorals could be seen on the hill tops against the sky. How gorals could not be bred in captivity and how they were extremely shy animals and would die early if captured, generally out of fright.I spotted a beautiful alstonia growing wild, that looked very different from its typical pruned variant planted along the city roads. We climbed up the embankment and surveyed the lake that lay beyond.
I wanted to know if we could locate the leopard’s pugmarks and he immediately embarked upon a search along the bank. Not finding any on the embankment-end of the lake he suggested that we should make our way to the far end to hunt for the pugmarks. Two seasonal choes converged to form a wide sandy bed that served as the bank of the lake. As we hunted for the pugmarks we came upon bare bones scattered on the bed. Imran quickly identified the skull to be belonging to a cow. Some of the bones belonged to Sambar deer as could be made out from the fur still sticking to the ends.
‘These have been killed by the leopard,’ concluded Imran. ‘He probably gets his kills to this spot for feeding,’ he muttered, as he continued his search for the pugmarks. He discovered the remains of a wild boar killed by the leopard behind some bushes. He called out to me and I rushed to see the kill. ‘What’s that cloth with the bones?’ I asked. ‘Its the boar’s hide!’ he said with amusement.
I proceeded to make a video of the area and the kills.
‘Best not venture too deep into the foliage,’ he warned, ‘you may accidentally come upon the leopard feeding on a fresh kill somewhere in these bushes.’ I withdrew from the scrub and we continued our hunt for the leopard pugmarks but could find none.
The kills were probably not very recent we concluded and decided to head back to the spot where Zorba was waiting. On the way back he showed me the remains of a monitor lizard that had probably been killed by a mongoose. As I went close to get a picture, he warned me to steer clear of the bones as everything about the ‘goh’ was highly poisonous. Any kind of contact with the ‘goh’ was potentially dangerous and I would require the services of a witchdoctor to perform a ‘Jhadah’ to undo the damage!
‘Do you want to see my fields?’ he enquired. I was eager though we had already spent over an hour-and-a-half at the dam and Zorba would be getting impatient. We took a short detour and climbed up a small hill to reach a large level patch with beautiful green fields.
Imran’s grandmother was working in the field and said something rather crossly to him. She seemed to be speaking some alien language and I could not follow a word of what she said. His overenthusiastic dog was making me nervous though he was probably barking only out of curiosity for my hat. ‘We keep dogs for company, as one of us has to spend the night on the machaan in the fields to guard the crops against the wild boars and the deer,’ he told me. ‘You must be shit scared of a leopard attack at night being all alone in the middle of the forest?’ I enquired. ‘Oh! We sleep through the night if the baghera is around as it scares off rest of the wild life,’ he boasted. He pointed to an army of langurs looking at us with curiosity from the opposite hill.
There were peacocks playing at a distance. The fields were enclosed within a strong thorn fence and we climbed over the steps of the stile to make our way down to the nadi.
‘It’s so heavenly out here. I wish I could live and farm here,’ I confided. ‘A party from Sadhaura has bought some land in the village but they rarely visit the fields and have let them out on contract to the villagers for farming,’ he told me.
We crossed a large herd of brown cows who mowed threateningly on our approach. Imran warned me to maintain a respectful distance. ‘Oh! They’ll get scared I suppose,’ I wondered. ‘No, they’ll run their mean horns through our backsides,’ he said with a laugh.
He exchanged pleasantries with the old man tending the cows. ‘Do the villagers still leave the village with the cattle to graze them in the far-off pastures ‘ I wanted to know. ‘Yes, of course. The village owns thousands of cattle head and there is not sufficient fodder and water for them. The old men in the village take them on grazing trips to Punjab during the summers and return only after the rains when fodder and water becomes plentiful,’ he explained. The kandi area in the foothills of the Shivaliks receives decent amount of rainfall but the soil-structure being highly porous the water percolates deep down and only deep submersibles can extract groundwater. The area grows extremely dry during the summer season. It did seem strange, however, that a large section of the gujjars of the 21st century were still leading the nomadic-life of their ancestors, following the same patterns of seasonal migration that their forefathers had followed for the past so many centuries.
‘What is the impact of NREGA? Do you folks get employment under the scheme?’ I asked him. ‘Yes we do get seasonal employment for doing work for the forest department. The payment is a problem though. They pay us in installments and money goes into a bank account,’ he said with some dissatisfaction. ‘Do they demand bribes?’ I continued. ‘No,’ he said most emphatically and showed surprise at the question. I was very happy to hear the answer.
‘Do you own cattle that you send out for grazing in dry summers?’ I quizzed him further. ‘No, my father and I are drivers. We drive trucks. We also rent out our two tractors to the stone-crushing units near Ramgarh,’ he told me. He then went on to narrate how he had recently got a traffic ticket in Delhi as we trudged back to Zorba. He was waiting patiently and did not protest at my being that late.
It was around 5 PM when we started back for the village. Zorba asked Imran about the going rate for a ‘desi-murga’. On nearing his home Imran invited us for a cup of milk. It was getting late and I had other plans for the evening. I tentatively took out some money from my purse to gift to my guide but his loud protest made me change my mind. He was a proud, young man who had enjoyed showing me around the jungles that were his home. He was not going to accept a tip from any shehri babu. I thanked him for his time and we drove off towards Bunga where I stopped to photograph a Shikra and a Kingfisher.
Zorba was game for a short trip to Morni and I headed for the Parwala-Tikkar tal road. I was curious about his having enquired about the rates of a rooster. He immediately warmed up to his latest series of strange encounters. It was a eunuch who had visited his home to congratulate him on the birth of his grandchild. He turned out to be a follower of Abdullah Sai and refused to accept any money. On Zorba’s insistence he asked for a bed as a gift. This is a great omen as per Zorba as only the blessed get to gift a bed to a eunuch. He added a top-of-the-end bedding for good measure. The eunuch blessed the child and foretold a great future for him and also brought a rooster by way of a gift for his benefactor. It was cooked with due honours and the eunuch shared the meal and then disappeared to wherever he came from. ‘They are very unhappy souls, the eunuchs,’ he said gravely and with lot of compassion, ‘we must be kind to them.’
I took the road to Tikkar village from Parwala and stopped to a click a peacock. There are a number of freshly constructed water harvesting dams in the area and I stopped to photograph the two that lie along the road near Ambawala village. It was getting dark by now and one could see the near full-moon getting beautifully reflected in the lake waters.
We crossed the Tikkar tal and stopped at the Lakeview Cafe that had been lit up rather gaudily with ‘Made-in-China’ string lights. We were greeted by a large Alsation and an enthusiastic Garhwali caretaker-cook-waiter all rolled into one. The cafe is built right at the edge of the Draupadi tal, the smaller of the twin lakes of Tikkar. There are nice, green,. stepped-terraces by the lake-side. It’s a pity that one can’t get an angling licence for the Tikkar lakes as one could have a jolly time lounging on a deck chair on these inviting terraces, reading and fishing in the winter sun. The restaurant and the kitchen was spick-and-span and the caretaker got us a cup of tea. He stood by our table and hard-sold his joint to us. The vegetables used for the preparations were farm fresh and were grown in an adjoining field. The fish was from Chandigarh, which is an irony as the fish farming contractor to whom the tals are leased sells his catch of Catla and Mrigal in Chandigarh! He told us about sambar stags grazing in the cafe’s garden at night. The room tariff was Rs. 1200/- to a room for a night. ‘Ah! We all know the kind of clientele such lonely cottage-cafes attract!’ remarked Zorba in his characteristic style. The man suppressed a grin and protested mildly, ‘No! No! This is a family hotel.’ ‘Just last week we booked all the rooms for a large family that had come to celebrate the parents’ wedding anniversary. The old man was so impressed with the level of cleanliness that he tipped me an extra 5oo bucks!’ he announced proudly. ‘This is a hint for me,’ I thought wryly, as I too had appreciated his excellent upkeep of the place. But then, Zorba is a no nonsense man and would not allow me to tip an idle loafer out of sheer embarrassment for simply doing a job he is paid to do! We drove on, climbing the road to Morni and then descending the road to Jallah to hit the Pinjore-Panchkula highway. I had been driving and trekking for over ten hours at a stretch by the time I decided to call it a day!