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Saturday, December 09, 2017

Tales from bygone days, part two

I have always been fond of dogs (and they have by and large reciprocated the feeling – as I have often said, any dog which doesn’t like me has something wrong in its character!), and only the fear that I will become stuck at home round the clock, all year round, has prevented me from having several of my own. Maybe I will, someday, when I am at last surfeited with travelling for pleasure. But dogs have sometimes got me into trouble. In my early teenage days, I used to go to a coaching class to learn how to play the guitar. I rode across several streets on my bicycle, the guitar box slung from one hand – how empty and safe the streets were in those days, and how unworried my parents! – to my tutor’s house for an hour’s practice once or twice a week. He had a huge young female Alsatian called Lucky. Being childless, the couple adored and doted on her like a human child. Lucky and I fell in love with each other. Her favourite way of greeting me was to lie in ambush behind the potted plants, imagining I couldn’t see her, and the moment I pedalled into the little garden, she would fly out and pounce upon me with a loud ‘Woof!’ More often than not I would fall off with her on top of me: heaven knows why I didn’t break an arm or the guitar. More than one passer-by gasped, imagining I was about to be torn to bits, but she would only lick my face wet and then turn around and brush it off with her soft, bushy tail, before trotting into the drawing room behind me. Then she would fool around the room, distracting both my tutor and me with her antics, until he scolded her out.  While we settled down to play, she would wait outside until she thought we had forgotten about her, then with infinite patience she would slowly make her way back, slinking past the curtain, under the sofa, until she was just below my feet, her wet nose tickling the back of my ankle and making me laugh. Believe it or not, my tutor got so jealous by and by that he eventually made excuses for not being able to carry on with the classes and cut me off.

Countless people have asked me if I believe in ghosts, have met true godmen, or have had a supernatural experience. I have always been mildly curious about such things, but fortunately or otherwise, never been edified. A few odd things have happened, though. The one that comes to mind right now happened during the school trip I organized – for the first time in St. Xavier’s Durgapur – to the Garhwal Himalayas, in December 1989. One crisp wintry afternoon, the whole troupe, around thirty odd I think, pupils and teachers included, had just finished lunch at the famous Dada-boudir hotel in Hardwar. The entire crowd had stomped out and were loitering about in the pleasant sun, leaving it to me to pay the bill, I being the treasurer for the team. I had just scanned the bill and put some sounf and sugar in my mouth prior to counting out the money, when a quiet bass voice spoke in my ear: ‘beta, khaana khila do’ (son, stand me lunch). I turned around to see a sanyasi on the threshold of middle age, tall, dark and sturdily built in saffron and with a shaven head, a jhola and blanket on his shoulder, stout cudgel and lota in hand, looking calmly at me. Now I must mention at this point that I have always been an agnostic at best and a scoffer at worst when it comes to ‘holy’ men: I never visit temples if I can help it, and have never gone to see a babaji or mataji. But there was something in those eyes… I grant you that it could have been a mere trick of hypnotism, but in broad daylight, and on a crowded roadway, with me distracted and busy as I was… it seemed those eyes told me that far from asking me for a favour, he was bestowing a huge favour on me. I nodded at the man behind the counter, indicating that he should add one more meal to the tab – evidently he was quite used to such things, so he didn’t bat an eyelid – and the sadhu walked in without so much as a backward glance, let alone a word of thanks. Yet he left behind a man feeling deeply grateful. I have done countless acts of charity before and after, to the tune of vastly larger sums, but I have never felt that way again, alas.

The same friend who had once played the surgeon on me took me on a most memorable trip across Bihar during my college days, in the course of which we visited Munger and Bhagalpur (I wrote an article in The Telegraph about a most interesting octogenarian wildlife enthusiast who was my namesake and whom I met in Bhagalpur during that trip. I remember the live python loose in his house, and the only parijat flower I have ever seen in my life carefully preserved in his collection). I stayed in his tumbledown house in his ancestral village for a few days. Many, many impressions of that trip are forever etched in my memory. Tasting wild honey freshly drawn from a hive – it goes down your throat like fiery liquor – finding out how hard it is to catch a chicken if it is allowed to run free around a large compound, listening to the Ganga lapping at her banks all through a moonless night as we lay on the ghat in a cannabis induced stupor. That was the only time I saw a baby leopard being dragged at the end of a leash by a forest guard, and the only time, too, that I was entertained with haanriya and homemade snacks (a mix of different kinds of lentils soaked in water and flavoured with salt and pepper) in the middle of the night by the womenfolk of a Santhal family in the courtyard of their own cottage while the men slept away blissfully. Someone among the men with me, a local, assured me that the women were in no danger: they were all armed with knives and knew how to use them, they could move like lightning, and any man who tried any hanky panky might not live to rue the day. I have always respected women like that, and it’s a pity I rarely meet the like in our cities. Strangely enough, though, one of the most memorable of those experiences was something that might come as an anti-climax after the things I have already mentioned.

We were staying in my friend’s country home in a small village close to the Bhimbandh Wildlife Sanctuary.  The same place where he had warned me the previous night to be careful while stepping into the makeshift toilet in the backyard, because apparently all sorts of snakes used it now and then as a comfortable refuge. Nothing untoward happened, of course, and the next afternoon I plunged into the pond alongside to take a refreshing dip. It was surrounded by taal (palm-) trees, I remember, and the water was muddy and opaque. Except for a dove or two whistling drowsily, the surroundings were quite silent. Well, so I took a deep breath and dived in, meaning to cross the little pond underwater. However, in the event I couldn’t, because I felt an immoveable barrier across my path, into which I gently bumped my head. It was big and hard and – hairy! I lifted my head above water, gasping, only to look into the slightly bemused eyes of a buffalo with enormous horns. He had been taking a dip too, and I had surprised him. We just looked at each other quietly for a few seconds; the buffalo did nothing, just kept staring at me without rancour, until I decided it was prudent to back off. I am dashed if I know why I am recalling this little incident so many years later and laughing over it…

There have been nearly three thousand page views since I put up my last post, but hardly any reactions! Whereas so many people have told me, by email, whatsapp, phone and face to face, that they enjoyed reading it. Why not here? As I have said, I write primarily for myself (and Pupu), but it would be nice to see comments from people whom I have managed to entertain, if nothing else.


Subhanjan Sengupta said...

Such wonderful narration! This, and the previous post, have been a wonderful read; just as several others before these two. Thank you Sir.

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for sharing more of your tales; I would consider myself fortunate to have a tenth of these wild and interesting experiences. Reading about your trip to Bihar reminded me of the movie 'Aranyer Dinratri'. What an excellent time you must have had and the memories you made! I would love to read the article on 'The Telegraph' some time.

And it seems that you have a 'tryst with swimming', be it anywhere. I will not be shocked if you have had more dangerous encounters in water; I am happy that all ended without any serious consequences.

The lasting impact of that small act of charity upon you is something I can fully comprehend only if I have a similiar experience some day.

I am always excited about the prospect of you having a dog. It will limit your movements but hopefully something will work out in the future. It always makes me smile when I think that all visitors will have an 'identity card' that will have to be approved by the dog first and then they can come inside and meet you!