We cheated death thrice

It was autumn and nearing September end of 1991. Only the most disenchanted souls can stay aloof from the rumbling excitement that starts to grow within you for the upcoming holidays of Durga Puja celebrations.

In West Bengal, India broadly speaking, there are two sets of the crowd – One that stays in the city who tend to actively take part in the five-day festivities that puts the state virtually out of action. Everything comes to a standstill. The word “routine” disintegrates into smithereens.  

Walking through the jungles of Betla forest reserve, Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The forest road between the sal trees. We walked on as far as we could and then we heard that cry of the predator

The other set departs to seek solace and thrill elsewhere – they run away from the million people who throng the cities and their roads. They go to less crowded places.  Within the second set, there is another extreme kind who travel the unknown, venture out into the deep remote pockets, like jungles or mountains, if time and money permit. 

The Koel river flowing through the Betla forest, Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The North Koel river, a distributary of the Son river proved near-fatal but we survived

Five of my very close friends, all college mates, thought of visiting a place, far from the maddening crowd. To the woods of Betla forest reserve, in the Jharkhand state of India. Unknowingly, we had qualified for one of the “extreme” breaks of our lives.

We were young, about two years out of the college, had just joined professional life to earn. We had saved months for a holiday and it would be the second time, that we had bunched up together to explore. Our budgets were limited. None of us had our own vehicle and our self-respect prevented us from approaching our parents to take one of theirs.  We took the train instead. The excitement was immense. 

Haversacks, water bottles, hunter boots, a six battery fitting torch, maps, dry foods, a couple of books that narrated jungle stories. All were meticulously packed. Most importantly, we were on our own. We had it all.

It was an overnight journey that reached us Ranchi early morning from Kolkata. Our breakfast consisted of puri, the roundish deep oil fried Indian bread, and sabji, made from fresh vegetables was simple, tasty and filling at the railway station helped us keep our stomachs happy. We hired a Maruti Omni, the most versatile, five-seater transport in India that has the great capability of ferrying humans, animals, goods with ease. Our next stop was Daltanganj, which stretched about one hundred seventy-two kilometres north-west from Ranchi. Jolting over the un-metalled roads, at places we finally completed the last twenty-five kilometres and reached our final destination – Betla.

With the Jeep ready, we were all set to drive into the Betla forest reserve in Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
At Betla, we changed vehicle and hired a Mahindra Jeep to explore the jungle

A long slender whitish road made its way from the main road to the cottage entrance. The bungalow that we had reserved was a British built, tiled roof over the concrete-walled building. It was over sixty years old. Basic maintenance was good so it held well.

The wooden doors and windows were secured by a wire mesh to ward off flies and mosquitoes, as we heard, they had a habit of giving visitors a serious company. With every step, the planks squeaked and a distant ‘thud’ could be heard when someone opened or closed the doors. The bathroom was not the modern one; however, were large in dimension. It was functional and I would say it was clean, given the fact, the cottage was well within the jungle and about five kilometres away from the nearest town.

Our duck bunglow road at Kechki, Jharkhand, Indua by Gautam Lahiri
The clearing of a road, that made its way to the far away bungalow which we had camped in for two days

We met three people who came with the cottage – Haru, the gardener, who looked after the forest area, with a perfunctory nod at us, went on cleaning the patch of land, removed the dry leaves and on request, doubled up as domestic help for the occupants of the old jungle lodge. A cook, and our hired Jeep driver, Bishu. We ordered our dinner for the day and were all eager to see the jungle.

With permission from the forest officials, and using forest Jeeps, one could visit the forest twice in a day; either early morning drive or a late afternoon when the sun sets over the western fringe of the forest.

We were quite ready in every possible way …

With one round of tea, our energy level was at its peak. We boarded our ramshackle diesel Jeep to touch the forest. Tall sal trees, dominated and huge bamboo trees were scattered around. Long grasses with thousands of bushes made the surrounding. The road was undulating and a good one made relatively flat which the Jeep was able to mount without much effort.

We spent about an hour driving through the cool, sundown forest.

In the afternoon, we drove in the Jeep into the Betla forest reserve at Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The dense jungle looked quite formidable and we retreated to our quarters

As it became quite dark, and the Jeep did not have any searchlight to see any animal, it was futile to hang around in the fading light so we came back to our refuge for the night.

The dense jungles started of the Betla forest reserve, Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
A gray langur within the grass as we drove by the green grass carpet, bumping along the forest road in the Jeep

The night was as interesting as it could be. Imagine, four young city dwellers, all bachelors away from all the seniors, no control mechanism in place. We ordered chicken nuggets or kebabs, quite profusely as starters. We laid down the table in the diffused light, with no electricity as the power stayed about two to three hours a day in those days. Two lanterns with their white light lit the room. Beyond the wire-meshed windows, all we could see was a violet sky, with thousands of stars. The only outside sound was the distant calls of some animal and the continuous roar of the cricket.

The cling of the glasses meant the rum and whiskey bottles would be served and that put our senses racing. My favorite, Old Monk was delicately kept. Unlike me, all my friends were whiskey drinkers. We had carried from Kolkata, this load to relish in solitude among the jungles. With the glasses brimming with rum and Thumps Up, a slice of kebab going down with it was quixotic and utterly refreshing. Putting a couple of ice cubes was a luxury, so the cold water tried what it could do to cool our senses.

Within an hour, we were all philosophical. We started lecturing by turn, all that we should not do that we strictly loved to do. Next came the narration of ghost stories. We had lost track of time when the door creaked, and Haru, came in, as expressionless as ever. He asked if he could serve the dinner. We could not speak and nodded. I was the youngest of the lot so all the hard work always came to me which I had to do with a smile. The dinner was a bliss – handmade rotis or Indian bread, dal makhani, a lentils preparation, two plates of green salad. The last but not the least was the very spicy, country chicken dish, murgh musallam. The environment was electric. The alcohol had done its wonderful job of blanking where we came from so the city thoughts were vanquished.

The appetizer had whipped up the sweet hunger to its highest level. We were almost finished and hardly had the energy to talk when we saw Haru coming in, to clean the tables and this time we saw three maids, with him and they loitered around us even after the cleaning was over. Haru’s wheatish complexion under the light did not give in anything and all he asked if any sort of extra help was required for the night. We were too inebriated to make a decision and declined and crashed out in euphoria. Later on, the driver told us, the maids offered very special optional services, if any bachelor cared to explore. We kept the knowledge at the academic level and smiled.

The next morning, we got up early, after a sound sleep. Ready for the day, the driver asked if he could take us around. Having seen the jungle, on a Jeep earlier evening, and not much we saw other than few deer and monkeys, we thought something very different. This day would be ingrained in our memory for the four of us, as long as we live. We wanted to walk the jungle. I carried my father’s compass and his camera.

Armed with a wooden stick in one hand, a cap, two water bottles, a haversack with some biscuits we four set off taking directions from the local gardener. He asked us to stick to the forest road at all times. The sun was bright and the day was quite cool. The jungle looked quite friendly too and we trudged on.

Started our morning trek through the Betla jungle at Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
Our team leader leading the pack of four. The road ahead took a left and turned right sharply. Guess what we saw on the road…those are dried elephant dung, brown in color and not so very old

It was another twenty minutes when an interesting event occurred. The jungle density slightly reduced and tall wide-spaced sal trees were visible. My friend up front stopped and waited for us to join. We saw about thirty or forty langurs or black-faced monkeys hanging from the branches and trunks and few of them were shaking the branches vigorously, staring at us, again looking away over the trees and jumping from one tree to the other. We were perplexed at their behavior so the thought of clicking the camera did not occur. We waited and looked at them. We gathered together and not moving away from each other. We thought about an imminent attack but somehow they did not follow, we slowly went on with our trek. Was it some sort of a warning? Did the monkeys try to tell us something? We blew the thought off.

The gardener had told us about eight kilometers into the forest, there’s an ancient relic of a fort. He asked us to see it but before we approached it, he told us to clap and make a sound before going in it. Why would we do that? The reason being, the rocks remain under the trees and have a relatively cooler temperature. So, chances are leopards can be found among them, relaxing or waiting to ambush.  About ten minutes on, we saw the ruined fort. There was nowhere any caption or board which told us what fort was it. It was all broken up.

As directed, we clapped and made all sorts of weird shouts but all we could hear was the hush of the wind and the sound of the trees. We also did not see any animals until that point.

The broken fort of Betla ruled by Cheri kings, at Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The broken Betla fort ravaged by nature. We explored it and came to a sight which was quite unpleasant

We did not go deep into the fort but made a cursory inspection and as we climbed a set of stairs, we were blocked by a mesh-like structure that hung from one wall to the other which was impossible to break.

Few vague shapes moved in the mesh. When we peered, we saw a half-eaten dried body of a sparrow, then another bird almost shriveled up. I had my torch with me and flashed it into the darkness below beyond the mesh. We saw small but shinning circles of diamond gleaming at us. Fixed and motionless. A lot of white hair was around it. We realized then what is actually was – it was a huge spider with almost three inches in diameter of its rear sack looking right at the torchlight and us. The mesh was the web that it had made to capture birds and other hapless prey. We retreated.

The broken fort of Betla ruled by Cheri kings, at Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
We bid goodbye to the old fort. Wanted to really spend more time but we had to see more

Back on the road, we kept on walking. There was a hint of tiredness, gulped small quantities of water to ration it. We came on to an opening and saw a very tantalizing sight. A riverbank, and we hurriedly ran to touch the cool water. Perhaps this was the Koel river. How about taking an hour’s break. We settled. All around us was nothing except dense forest that seemed to go for miles. Of course, we did not lose sight of the place on the road from where we came to the river. The road was the lifeline. If we lose it, we had it.  Fished out, a chocolate bar, to keep us alert. Actually, that was our lunch. We wanted to keep it light and energetic.

The sun was to our left which meant we were heading south, and on our way back, all we had to make sure to keep the sun again to our left; very soon it would be after twelve.

Koel river flowing through the Betla forest reserve in Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
We were running as fast as we could towards the river in pure delight. Never seen before a river so close in the forest

It could not be better. My friend suggested something, which was completely new. We did not see a single human being around, we did not even see any car or Jeep on that road. We were maybe ten or eleven kilometres into the forest. How about taking a dip into this forest river now. We would never get a chance like this. And guess what..we planned to take a bath in mother nature’s lap, in the wild.. and we will do it in the buff. No one’s around.

So, we went for it. Kept all our clothes on the branches, felt terribly excited, at home we hang them on hangers and steel hooks, and here on branches, amazing indeed. Everything looked, smelled, felt unique.

Without a whiff of cloth on, we headed to the river. The water was slightly on the cooler side, slow-moving, and it was murky, and the level was about knee height. Plodded on the floor, which was littered with stones, and pebbles. Took one out and it was rounded, which meant the pebble had moved far away distances by the river. I tried my geography knowledge to feel and learn practically what we had learned in our theory classes.

Koel river flowing through the Betla forest reserve in Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
Suddenly, the river started flowing with a speed, we were rolled and thrashed and were getting pushed near the middle

We splashed on and on and saw the sun tilt slightly on the western fringe. I took dip after dip when we heard some ruffles on the bank. We all got tense, but we were not afraid. Since morning nothing bad had happened, so we took it easy. Oh Gosh…we saw bobbing in the distance, sari-clad heads coming on to the river. We dipped back deep into the river. We could not afford to come out more from the water surface. And then the giggles started. About ten or eleven village lass had gathered to take water from the river.

All had some kind of earthenware to collect the water. They looked at us and then found our dresses on the trees hanging. They were rolling with laughter and saying something which we could not distinctly hear. All four of us could do nothing except watching in complete frustration. Praying that they will keep our clothes intact. It was perhaps ten or fifteen agonizing moments that crept on and finally, they were gone but the damage was done..they had thrown our trousers, jeans, and shirts around the forest bush.

Our challenges started now…

Suddenly, I found that I was not able to keep my feet straight, it was being dragged by the river. The level of the water had also risen. In 1991, I did not know how to swim. Before I could realize what was happening, I was swept off my feet, and came crashing down on the rocks but still intact. I was flung about six to ten feet from my nearest friend. I tried to stand but the feet went down and I was caving in. Fear had settled in. It was semi-solid ground, clay and mud lapped on me. I went out of my friend’s reach. One of my friends yelled at me to remain flat on the water surface and not to stand, I did that. The downward movement stopped.  Perhaps, for two reasons, I did not die – as I was flat on my tummy, my surface area had increased and downward drift lessened and the second, I was holding to rock with both of my trembling arms. The others had somehow made it to the bank. I was dead in the middle. One friend had proffered me a long, dead branch of a tree towards me.

The leopard was sitting at the bushes near this Koel river in Betla, Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The water receded and the far edge you see in this photograph, on the right in the darkness, the leopard sat crouched and looked at us in awe

Holding on to one hand, I tried to reach the branch head and after several attempts, I could grab it. Two friends, all expert swimmers came to my rescue. As they dragged the branch, I inched my way towards the bank but then we all stopped and the third friend who did reach the bank made it back to the fast-flowing water. What happened..why are we coming back? We were all shouting now. The peace was gone. My friend showed us why. At first, none of us could make out. By now the water had started to fall back. This was a torrential river and inflates and deflates at a moment’s notice.

We were concentrating on other things and then we saw.. first ever, in the wild, perched upon a tree, a full-grown leopard was sitting and was watching us. We too looked at it, not sure for how long. The enormity of the moment never touched us then. The memory keeps coming back now. We stood there for five, ten minutes, not sure. When we looked back, it was gone. This was even more disconcerting. Is it waiting for us somewhere else? No more of it. Let us get back.  We spent another twenty minutes finding our dresses and the morning composure had vanished.

With mud all over, we got into our dresses, and I requested my friends, to wait for me so that I can take these pictures which you see here. Not from those exact angles but as close I could get.  We headed back on the road and started for the cottage. The time was little after two-thirty in the afternoon. We had about ten kilometres to cover on foot and there was no Jeep to rely on.

The fear, the vacuum in our heart, and constant running to brisk walking had taken all the hydration off our bodies. The water bottle hung loosely without a drop in it, for all of us. We were scared to the hilt.

I do not really remember how long it took but we reached the same spot where we had seen the monkeys jumping. Two of my friends, had more speed so they cantered away. The world was a tough place – save your own skin first, then think about others. Nothing wrong with it. The only two of us knew that we were on our own if we live we will talk about it; if we die, we will die together.

The near dry stream in the Betla forest reserve, Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The stream which we were crossing. The bush you see far away in the center had something behind it, was stalking us

We were crossing a stream and then we heard it. The reverberating, gut numbing call of a predator. The sound came from behind a bush, which was about twenty or fewer feet away. Perhaps I saw the face of death. I stood still, not because of fear. I had given up the hope of survival. Nothing was working. My brain refused to function. My limbs were shaking. There was a huge lump at the base of my throat which did not allow me to speak. I think I lost my voice too. My dear friend, who was with me, asked me one question ‘Can you climb a tree ?”.. my pulpy, tear laden eyes, scoured around and we saw a tree. With a scuttle, I tried to reach it but my knees were too weak to hold me. I kept on thinking the sharp, piercing claws of some animal, coming round my neck from behind, and it would be extremely painful.

Will I die, on the first bite or will I be left in the wild, half-eaten? Will the predator strike my legs first? My stupor broke, and instead of the growl, I heard something from the human world. It was a ‘toot’ of a horn, which meant a vehicle. My friend who was badly shaken too, had perhaps few ounces of strength more than me, flagged a forest Jeep which was coming from the opposite direction. A driver and an official sitting next to him. I just looked on still not believing what I was seeing. So, the cards said that my end has not come yet.

Clambering with difficulty, both of us were asked to go in the back. We did and then started the questioning of what we were doing in the middle of the forest. My friend explained a bit, we kept the river incident out of the content. We learned that a leopard was sighted, about two days back which had indeed come close to one of the nearby villages. They asked us how far we had gone. We told them with the few strands of voice left, that we had only seen a bunch of monkeys. About ten minutes crept by and we trundled across the road we had walked earlier, and reached the forest end and the familiar cottage came into view. We thanked them and with a lot of warnings of not to go in the forest on our own, they drove away. People shiver from cold, but I think I shivered far more than that. We met our two friends who by sheer will force, had walked back, or maybe they ran.

We were again together. Night descended. No more ghost stories, no more good food. I remembered what I did. I drank five or ten liters of water and crashed out in one of the old bedrooms and still wobbling with the fright of a lifetime.

Since my childhood, among many of my “love to do” activities, one was of seeing and watching fast-moving trains.  After our most eventful day, the next day we drove in the Jeep to a place called Kechki. Another nine kilometres to the north-west, this quiet place had an old bungalow or maybe a circuit house.  Another British installed old tiled cottage, on thick concrete pillars, sits amid the forest and near to the Koel river.

The bunglow at Kechki where we stayed for the night, in Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The bungalow at Kechki, sprawled across a wide expanse is perfect for anyone looking for silence, punctuated by natural sounds of a forest

About two hundred meters away from this cottage, ran the train tracks that connect Howrah and Daltonganj. After we drove down, I heard the sound of a passing train when we were coming. I asked the caretaker of that place when was the next train due?

He told me that it was sometime around six in the morning, the next day.

The Shaktipunj express raail road through Betla forest reserve in Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The train line that connected Daltonganj to Howrah station. The area had all the thrills – deep forests, undulating mountains, a nearby river, and chances of an elephant herd crossing the tracks. What more can you ask for ..

I asked my friends if they were interested to have an early morning walk, the next day. Most of them declined. However, I was hell-bent to see the passing train in a forest. After our dinner, I spoke to the caretaker, if he could set an alarm and wake me up. He was at his best and informed that he gets up very early and will do so. I kept my father’s camera handy, with about two exposures left. In those days, the digital camera was nonexistent.

I was woken up as hard, rough hands shook me gently, off my slumber. I turned and heard a simple whisper Babu, uthiye ji, aap ko to savere ka railgari dekhna hai..bas, aur das minute mein pass karegi” ..that was in Hindi language, the local dialect. It meant Won’t you get up. I believe you want to see the early morning train. The next train is due in another ten minutes”.

I was dressed in my night attire, white pajamas, and Panjabi dress. I tiptoed out of the room, even with the utmost care, the door made its long creak and I was out in the open. I ran through a patch of the forest towards the train tracks. I heard the faraway whistle of the approaching train. The camera on my right hand, I ran with happiness. Only me, the camera, the train, and nature. After a while, the excruciating pain started to creep my legs. I looked down.

In my excitement, I had completely forgotten to put on footwear. I was standing there beside the tracks, bare feet, perhaps bleeding too because of the loose gravels that were strewn around and I made a dash over them barefooted.

The wagon train blasting through the level crossing in Betla forest reserve, in Jharkhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
The passing train at Kechki, early morning with her piercing whistle echoing over the valley, she nearly got me killed after she passed..not her fault

I touched the cold steel tracks with my bleeding right foot. My pain vanished. The whistle deepened and among the two hillocks, and with belches of burned diesel fumes, the huge mass of the WDM 3A of the Indian railways blasted in front of me at eighty kilometres an hour. The Doppler effect of the whistle mesmerized me, and how handsome she looked; rows of goods carriages, about thirty of them clanking and rattling across the fish-plates and the tracks. Dust and smoke all rolled into one of the fast revolving metal wheels whipped them in the air.

Within minutes the long train whisked away and complete silence engulfed me. I had captured the passing train. The morning started to glow up the forest, the sky and me.

I waited till the train disappeared into a dot and started my return. I was not able to walk fast, as pain ravaged my feet. Both of them were hurt and bled. I entered the forest area, and then I realized what I have done. I was about two hundred meters or more away from the cottage. An eerie silence began to fill all around me. The train will not protect me here. No one knew I am here. I started to canter. My ears became warm, my sixth sense alerted something was behind me. I did not look back. Was it the third attempt on me? Yes, it was… I glanced for a second and saw about fifteen big monkeys or langurs were coming over the trees and bounding right behind me. They thought the camera was food. Or was I the food? I thought Baboons were the flesh-eating types..not these ones. I could see their white teeth flashing. I ran for my life once again in less than twenty-four hours.

One came right over my shoulder, I moved my hand and it made a contact with a furry skin. It moved away. I saw another holding my pajamas. I kept on running. My feet perhaps by now was bare to the bone. I again waited for the biting teeth or a claw gnawing at my body. Finally, I saw the cottage and the caretaker as I rounded the narrow edge of the road.

I shouted for help and he sensed something ahead of me, so he came towards me and was holding a makeshift gun, which made a peculiar muffled sound, filled with gunpowder with lots of smoke. He was holding vertically over his head. I jumped at him and slipped, came sprawling on the courtyard. The teeth never made it into my flesh.

A typical example of a langur in the Betla forest reserve in Jharkhand, India.
Langurs are extremely agile and are always found to exist in packs. Photo courtesy – https://www.123rf.com/

He said that last summer, a herd of very swarthy langurs had attacked and killed someone near the tracks. He looked at my feet and called for help. Sand, gravel, and dust stuck on the dried blood on both my feet.  My friends were still fast asleep.

He gave a big container of hot water with salt in it to keep my feet drenched. It was both painful and soothing.

The same day limping away, I boarded the Jeep with my friends. They looked at me and grimaced their faces but said nothing. Only put their hands on my shoulder with a smile. After all, we were buddies for a long time. The most memorable holiday, with priceless moments of life versus death written. I will cage this incredible story for a long time.

Hope you felt the remarkable moments, which I felt as they had happened. I look back and ponder in wonder.

We humans are so vulnerable when exposed to wildlife. We use our brains to develop technology that we deploy to save ourselves. Even with a brush with a near end, I still love wildlife and they look so fascinating in the wild and I keep respecting them.

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