Life of a Geologist series 1960 to 1964 – Circumventing a danger at Ranikhet, Uttarakhand

The gneiss-granite rock sample made a heavy sound as my father, Dinabandhu Lahiri, a geologist by profession kept it on the table. He was reviewing the reports on granite that typically originated during the partial melting of the meta sedimentary rocks millions of years ago.Loads of files always formed a heap around the table, which he flipped through for hours on end. He was making a report on his study on the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas. His field of study had hovered around the three towns of RanikhetSomeshwar, and Bageshwar.  Apart from Bageshwar, the other two reside in the mountain district of Almora in Uttarakhand, India.

The Himalayan mountains in this area offer simply breathtaking views of snow, rock, that play hide and seek with a visitor through the curtain of pine, oak and deodar trees under the occasional azure sky.

An old mountain lady, from the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal Himalayas, looks on at the geologists who were always found clinging to the hills and rocks for sample collection by Gautam Lahiri
An old mountain lady, from the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal Himalayas, looks on at the geologists who were always found clinging to the hills and rocks for sample collection

My father regularly traveled between Ranikhet and Someshwar as the offices of the Indian Bureau of Mines spread across various small to big towns in this district. It was Ranikhet which qualified as a big town had its local postal offices, well equipped to handle the huge packs of dispatches that had to be processed to be sent to the headquarters every week. In the 1960s’, the mad rush of creating houses was not present, everything from buses, cars, and population were far less than what it is today, so the visitors were mesmerized by the natural beauty that the mountain ridges presented. Raneth, about a kilometre away to the north of Ranikhet where the team lead by my father had camped to study the geological formation of the area. Amidst the tall trees of deodar, circuitous roads ran along the hilly terrain, the views that surrounded were stupendous.

A remotely located local guest house was reserved for the members of the team. Along with my father, were my mother and sister too. The seven to ten days of the excursion was delightful for the family, as every day, nature painted hues of color and shades over the valley. A patch of opening shrouded with trees and shrubs formed the rear of the guest house. A makeshift swing adorned the middle of the small opening and it was the favorite spot where my mother spent the whole of the late morning with my sister in her lap and she only left it when the sound of the crunching pebbles under the approaching footsteps of my father broke her sleep. During this time, an American geologist from the United States, Mr. Johnson was also visiting and was working with my father. 

he slanted roof of the guest house at Raneth, Uttarakhand, India with its balcony overhangs presented a pleasant view when seen from the top by Gautam Lahiri
The slanted roof of the guest house at Raneth with its balcony overhangs presented a pleasant view when seen from the top 

Just like every day, my father stuck to his usual routine of coming back for his lunch at the guest house. Mr. Johnson was also with my father that day, discussing the rock samples which they had collected and been carrying. Traces of quartz stuck to few samples flashed the midday sun and formed silver patterns on the faces of the two walkers. Dense jungle and the foliage formed a dark canopy over the broken road which slowly climbed. 

The Martini rifle hung loosely on my father’s right shoulder and he had unstrapped it to keep it somewhere when the half sleeved right hand of Mr. Johnson stopped my father on his track. His left-hand index finger was pointing at my mother. For moments, my father could not figure out anything amiss and looked back at Mr. Johnson. 

They stood still and then my father saw it.

Mr. Johnson, staring at my father, could not speak seeing my father's presence of mind. He never knew what a sharpshooter he was over and above his skills as a geologist at Raniketh, India by Gautam Lahiri
Mr. Johnson, staring at my father, could not speak seeing my father’s presence of mind. He never knew what a sharpshooter he was over and above his skills as a geologist

My mother by this time had seen them and smiled back and started to dislodge my sister and rise from the swing. She was still swaying gently and below her moving feet, there was a gap of about six inches. To his utter horror, my father saw that five feet fully grown cobra, dark brown to black, its skin sparkled in the sun lay on the grass. Its hood slightly raised was staring at the approaching and receding feet of my mother. No one knows how long this situation had existed. With left hand raised, my father asked my mother to stay absolutely still. He flung the canvas bag on the nearest couch and held the cold barrel of the rifle as the right hand slid from the butt to the trigger. He aimed the muzzle at her feet.

My mother completely flummoxed, with her smile slowly gone, eyebrows arching backward muttered Did you not get anything else to take aim. Are n’t your prank perhaps overshooting its boundaries..

The trigger was pressed, a deafening sound echoed around the guest house and the valley. A flutter of birds could be seen leaving a branch of a distant tree. A bluish smoke left the barrel. My father had served the National Cadet Corps (NCC), in his early twenties and picked up the liking for guns and rifles, and had become a sharpshooter in the process.My mother, ashen-faced, completely taken aback by the incident, was too, staring at my father as the rifle barrel was lowered.

My sister had started to cry, as the sound of the gunfire, roared around. Mr. Johnson and my father covered the twelve feet and bent to see what had transpired. The cobra’s sheared head lay about four feet away from its body. My mother clinching my sister to her bosom, rose and looked around and saw the dead snake.The revolving bullet of the rifle had dismembered the cobra’s head in one clean sweep.

Next morning, my parents at the breakfast table. Mr. Johnson had taken this picture to capture the memory of this incredible couple at Raniketh, Uttarakhand, India by Gautam Lahiri
Next morning, my parents at the breakfast table. Mr. Johnson had taken this picture to capture the memory of this incredible couple

I have no clue how my mother had thanked my father for his presence of mind, his split-second decision. Incidents like these, make me glow with pride when I think of my father. When I was born, he had moved to a city life, leaving his adventurous and daring experiences behind. 

I had seen him wearing the mantle of a bureaucrat who was busy with strategic meetings and visited foreign countries as an exploration geologist and a consultant, and he too used to score a perfect 10 in there.

I looked at his picture when I feel both, burnt out and elated. A smiling father, a mentor, cool as a cucumber looks back at me, with a slight smirk quivers, Take it easy, son, just hang in there.

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