My work in Jungpana was as hectic as my stint in the past year in Goomtee but the real challenge was the uneven, wild terrain and the wildlife that came along with it. The bara bungalow was a kilometer and a half away from the factory so I walked back and forth a number of times. Most workers moved around in groups and I too, was discouraged to walk unaccompanied, a warning I often ignored.
In the evenings, since there were no lights in the garden area, the night duty chowkidar accompanied by another factory worker (so that he wouldn’t have to return alone) would walk me back to the bungalow with lanterns or a torch. The chowkidar would come armed with a thick wooden staff or lathi. Most locals prided themselves on their self-made lathis. The chowkidar would strike one end on the ground to create a resounding echo, sometimes even shouting to announce his approach to any wild animals strolling about.
Every now and then, a wild cat would hurriedly cross the road a few meters ahead of us, its bright eyes glistening as it threw us a glance, unperturbed and unimpressed by our presence. These cats were smaller than leopards and tigers. Every other night, an owl’s constant hooting warned us of its presence. Large bats could be seen flying about before they disappeared into the darkness. Occasionally, a grazing deer in the distance would catch our attention, while wild rabbits and fowl were seen almost daily. The predators to really watch out for were bears and tigers. Locals fighting off big cats in order to protect themselves and their cattle were common, but in the first two months of my stay in Jungpana, I had not encountered any.
Since recreational hunting was allowed in the 60’s, professional hunters would frequent the garden, with thrilling accounts of encounters with the wild, ferocious tigers, roaming bears and hanging pythons! It irked me that animals were being hunted mindlessly. Even then, in my 20’s, I truly believed that animals occupied a unique place in creation and had as much right to the planet as human beings. (Subsequently, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 banned the killing of all wild animals.)
One late evening, I walked back with the night chowkidar and another factory worker. It must have been a little after seven. Except for those who worked the night shift, it was way past dinner and time for bed. There was no electricity in the labour lines and most people wrapped up their day by sunset. By seven, dinner was done, the cattle locked in, children and pets put to bed and houses and gates locked, some houses remained lit by a single tiny kerosene lantern that would last for a few hours if they were lucky!
We had barely walked for five minutes when an unpleasant odour hit my nostrils. It was foul and nothing like I had ever smelt before. The night chowkidar halted suddenly and in the dark, held my upper arm, preventing me from walking any further. Lifting the lantern to his face, he put his forefinger to his lips, gesturing to keep quiet. I did.
Turning down the lantern flame to minimum, he whispered in Nepali “Don’t move at all!”
The stench became unbearable. I didn’t recognise the smell and closed my eyes and focussed on the silence. I could hear something rustling in the distance but I couldn’t be sure. An owl hooted in the distance as if sounding an alarm to everyone around. Something was lurking in the dark and it wasn’t good!
It must have been a good twenty minutes but it seemed like hours. I wasn’t sure whether the rotten smell had decreased or whether I had grown used to it in those few minutes of stillness.
After what seemed an eternity, I felt him nudge my arm
“It’s gone!” he said in Nepali.
“What was that smell?” I asked
“Bhalu theo!” (It was a bear!) he said casually, adding “Whenever you smell a bear, you must remain completely still. They will attack if they sense any movement but they never attack the dead!”
All this while, I had thought the only way to scare a bear was to make loud noises!
Clearly, I had much to learn! The chowkidar went on to tell me about a girl who was attacked and eaten by a black bear in the Chimney Basti, not too long ago. You could see a tiny twinkling light in the distance. That was the basti, I was informed, and it wasn’t too far away! I suddenly felt grateful to be alive.
Relieved to be home, I worried about how they would walk back.
“Nothing will happen! We’ll be fine! We are used to it!” they both assured me.
For them it was just another evening, nothing out of the ordinary. For me, it was the day I found out that for the past two months, I had been walking back and forth on a bear track, mostly by myself!
(ElByte has the express permission to publish this excerpt from the book.)