“Unneow, unneow,” came the monotonous call of the barbet, from the topmost branches of a deodar.
“Injustice, injustice!” is the English translation of its call. The barbet is said to be a reincarnation of a moneylender who died before he could recover all his dues. Sufficient reason to complain.
I could hear the barbet from my cottage, Maplewood, where I spent the first ten years of my sojourn in these hills. It was summertime, and I could hear it whenever I happened to be rambling. The cottage was near the forest, and I have described it in “Song of the Forest.” Some of the forest dwellers who visited me are described in “Guests Who Come in from the Forest.” But it was only when I discovered the stream at the bottom of the hill that I became fully aware of all that my natural surroundings had to offer by way of birds, beasts, and green growing things.
It was a shallow stream, running over a rocky bed, and I could roll up my trousers and wade in it, disturbing the tadpoles and minnows who fled to the shelter of little inlets. Also wading, at some distance from me, was a spotted forktail, an elegant bird, who hopped from rock to rock rather like Fred Astaire, that wonderful dancer in the old musicals. There were long-tailed magpies, a noisy lot, and a woodpecker hard at work, trying to extract a small beetle from its fortress in the trunk of
an old oak tree. Don’t woodpeckers ever get tired? This woodpecker would be knocking away for hours. Knock, knock, knock on wood!
Oh, I must tell you about the fox.
You don’t see many foxes in these parts, but one of the first wild creatures that I encountered was this beautiful, bushy-tailed fox. It was late evening, and I was walking home from the town when I saw this fox dancing in the middle of the footpath. Later, I wrote a poem about it. I don’t write many poems, but this one just happened, and I called it “Lone Fox Dancing”:
As I walked home last night
I saw a lone fox dancing
In the bright moonlight.
I stood and watched,
Then took the low road, knowing
The night was his by right.
Sometimes when words ring true,
I’m like a lone fox dancing
In the morning dew.
I was to see that little fox quite often. Unlike me, he wasn’t into poetry, but intent on making forays into Major Powell’s poultry farm higher up the hill. Major Powell lost a lot of birds to that fox, and to various wild cats, and he lost money on his enterprise. “A fowl subject,” he would grumble. “I should have stuck to growing mushrooms.” In his younger days he had been a shikari, a hunter, and had shot a number of tigers and leopards, all man-eaters, or so he claimed. The population of man-eating tigers must have been enormous, judging by the frequence of their mortality.
Anyway, I must tell you about the major’s invention, a contraption that was supposed to replicate the mating call of a leopard. He put together a wooden box – about the size of a hat box – and pierced a hole in its side. Into this hole he inserted a coil of metal wire. When you drew the wire back and forth it made a sound very similar to the “sawing” of a leopard on the prowl – presumably in search of a mate.
“Let’s try it out,” said the major enthusiastically, and led me to a grassy knoll above the stream. It was late evening, the sun was just going down. Major Powell began working the wire, to and fro. The sound it produced was quite eerie. We took turns working on the box but we heard no responsive call. The “Indian Love Call,” to be effective, must be sung as a duet. But the forest was silent.
We were about to give up when we heard a grunt from behind, and looking up, we saw a beautiful leopard perched on a flat rock about fifty feet above us. He (or was it a she?) was watching us with some interest, obviously puzzled by the strange sound we were making. Major Powell swung round with his gun (almost knocking me over) and fired it at the beast, missing it by some distance. The leopard took off, vanishing into the woods.
“Perverted brute,” complained the major. “Coming at us from behind!”
“Corbett wouldn’t have missed,” I remarked, after which he refused to talk to me for a week. But I had
to admit that his invention had, indeed, summoned up the leopard.
I felt safer exploring the stream without the presence of Major Powell.
A leopard had been active in the vicinity. I found the partially eaten carcass of a cow on the banks of the stream. The small hill cows are easy prey for a leopard. The barking deer or kakar, its natural prey, was quite abundant in the surrounding hills; but it is always on the alert, very sensitive to the presence of danger, and it is swift in flight. A lazy leopard would just as soon seize a domestic animal; a goat or a dog makes a good dinner.
On my exploration of the stream I came across someone who wasn’t bothered by leopards, jackals,
snakes, or other forest dwellers. Walking upstream for about half a mile, I found a small clearing and a covered platform which turned out to be a cremation ground used by local villagers and the poorer residents of the hill station. (The more affluent were taken to Haridwar for their last rites.) Beside this
platform was a small hut occupied by a caretaker, who lived there night and day, keeping a watchful eye on a large pile of firewood that he had gathered from the forest in anticipation of an occasional cremation.
He was a small man, not very communicative but quite friendly. He was used to living alone for long periods, and the nature of his work couldn’t be described as cheerful or exhilarating, but he had three
lively companions – three terrier-like dogs, very similar to each other, and all three decked out in colourful jackets. One had a green jacket, one an orange jacket, and the third a purple jacket. These were designed to protect the dogs from the cold – down there in the shadowed ravine, winter nights could be very cold – and this strange man had stitched them himself. Each dog also wore a collar studded with steel spikes.
The collars were meant to protect them from marauding leopards, for a leopard will usually seize its victim by the neck and then fling it into the air (if it’s a small animal), breaking its neck in the process. These collars must have been effective, because the caretaker hadn’t lost any dogs. A wily leopard wouldn’t care to have its jaws full of sharp steel impediments.
The caretaker always had a fire going, and he cooked for himself and his dogs. He was paid something by the municipality. But the spot was so hard to reach – a steep descent from the town – that cremations were now few, most people preferring to take the road to Rajpur and Dehradun.
During my years in Maplewood I would see them quite often. The silent man in search of firewood, the silent dogs in their colourful jackets following him everywhere. The dogs were silent too, I never heard them barking.
After I’d left Maplewood and moved further up the hill, I heard that this little cremation ground had
been abandoned. I wondered what had happened to the caretaker and his dogs. I never saw them again but they appeared to be good survivors. A silent place the hillside, except for the sound of rushing water – and that barbet! Would he ever recover his money?
Naturally, I preferred walking downstream. As the hill grew steeper, the stream grew bigger, collecting the waters of springs and tributaries. Small pools were formed. There were waterfalls. Clumps of ferns sprang up on the banks. I was followed downstream by the langurs – those handsome, long-tailed simians, leaping gracefully from tree to tree; and by the inquisitive forktail, hopping elegantly from rock to rock. It was all downhill, and I was far from elegant, stumbling amongst the jagged rocks and moss-covered boulders. No Spiderman, I had to give up and retreat to calmer waters.
The stream rushed on, of course – down to the valley to join the little Song River, and the Song would join the gentle Suswa, and together they would wander about the wide valley, picking up friends and followers, flowing into the Ganga above Haridwar, and then continuing their long journey as one great river across the wide flat plains, to become part of the Indian Ocean. And my little stream was an accessory to this great adventure.
All this is memory, of course. I am now far too old to be scrambling up steep hillsides or negotiating boulder-strewn streams. But I keep my good memories stowed away in my mind – my “thinking heart” – and I return to them from time to time, as one returns to memories of old friends and far-off times and faraway places.
Excerpted with permission from The Last Tiger: My Favourite Animal Stories, Ruskin Bond, Aleph Book Company.