It was a test. A self-induced test. When I told my friend and my colleague to drop me at Turiya* so that I could walk all the way up to Kohka**, I wasn’t aware that this was it.
It started out as a pretty normal, ordinary evening walk. I knew the road, which was anyway straight without any turns and forks; the evening was soft, cool and quiet. Turiya was gearing up for the night with few fires lit in the front yards of the village houses. And I knew Kohka was just a few minutes’ walk from here.
As the village and the Bagheera retreat resort was left behind, the air became cooler. Subconsciously I pushed my hands in the pockets of the half sweater I was wearing. It was not of much help, as I was soon to discover. Two bikes passed and the road was once again quiet. Too quiet for a walk in the increasing darkness, in the buffer zone of a tiger reserve.
I was still in a jolly good mood. The day had been productive and I had been thinking about the plans of the next day. Through the corner of the eye, I noticed a small black figure moving towards me on the road a few meters ahead. A woman returning from the fields. She had no protection from the cold and her feet as good as bare. I always wonder at the physical endurance of the people in these areas and this woman strengthened my respect towards it again.
Once she walked past me, I was as alone as a ghost on the road. In many parts of India, people tell you tales of ghosts, apparitions and what not being seen frequently around rivers and bridges. I stepped on the first bridge over a small brook and shuddered as my eyes made out a whitish shape just beside the bridge, gliding horizontally almost above the level of the bridge. Thankfully not hesitating, I peered and looked carefully to realize it was the trunk of a fallen tree.
Up to this point my walk had been fairly benign. Now the wheels of the imagination started turning and heard-unheard stories grew wings as they circled around my head. Automatically my pace increased, eyes and ears became focused on every smallest movement and faintest sound that I could make out in the dark, silent evening.
The road that had seemed so friendly and short during our bike and car travels during the daytime suddenly became one of the longest that I had ever walked. It was dark enough to just guess the road running away into the oblivion beyond reach. There were exactly 3 small houses/ structures beside the road, save which the roadside was empty as well. Not helping the situation, there were 2 more streams and 2 bridges over them, which I crossed in anxiously baited breath. Crickets, critters and other insects provided excellent background score to the entire atmosphere, as the air grew colder and even a small yet cold breeze started caressing my cheeks. I could almost hear a witch laughing in the distance. I was hating my steps that made so much noise. I wished I could glide a few inches above the road.
It was thoughts that made me restless – was this a mistake? Should have I accepted the lift and come all the way on my workmate’s bike? What if a tiger crosses my path? What if even a leopard decides to show up for a surprise rendezvous? Are the village tales of supernatural entities true? Should I call somebody and call for a vehicle? This was very easy to do and nothing less than a comfortable Toyota Innova would have come to pick me up within 15 minutes.
But again it were thoughts that put me sane and together. This was no more than a 4 km walk, of which I had covered more than half. Though tigers had been sighted in these areas quite recently, there were houses as well as machaans, though unlit, in the farms on both the sides of the road and help could be sought if needed. Above everything, it was my imagination that was working me up beyond limits. So I settled into a normal walk again soon.
As if to prove me right, 4 bikes passed by me in close succession. However cold and darkness, if nothing else, was a bit of a trouble now. I realized almost ridiculously that I had started sweating in the last few minutes and the cool air seemed to be biting. Allowing myself a small laugh, I walked on. I had decided to keep my cellphone’s torch off as long as possible to enjoy the walk in a sufficient moonlight. But I remembered Jim Corbett. In his amazing tales of hunting the man-eating leopards and tigers, he always talks about the time between evening and night – the time before the moon rises is the darkest. Sighing, I flicked on my cellphone torch.
Within 2 minutes of switching it on, I climbed up an incline in the road to find the twinkling lights of the first house that marked the beginning of Kohka village. Smiling, I switched off the torch. The village was warming itself up beside the wood-fires lit in front of almost every other house. It was family-time; neighbors were catching up with the events of the day and cattle stood resting, moving only to ward off a fly and continue chewing on the grass. The bells around their necks sounded sweetest after the silence of the road. Thought their large, dark eyes looked at me cautiously. They knew a stranger when they saw one.
“Don’t relax yet”, I told myself, as I remembered another 200-paces-span of the road which linked the village with my temporary residence in Kohka. This was no more than a dirt road, wide enough to allow only a four wheeler to pass while the leaning grass-blades and tree-branches rubbed its sides. I remembered somebody telling me that a leopard had been visiting this path and I walked faster.
Without further incidence I reached my rooms. As soon as I entered I let out a loud laugh and eagerly started sharing with friends that I had an exciting walk on the jungle road for 3 and a half km. only I knew how long was this 40-minute journey – even within me – that sounded all fun and exciting after it was over.
Though uneventful at large, it was a period when I felt so completely alive. All my senses and my limbs had been so active throughout; and I was glad to have been able to gather myself up at the right moment. It was a small victory, yet it was a victory nonetheless. A victory over fear. In times when fear is rampant, is sold free and embraced willingly, this victory does matter to me.
* Turiya – a village in Pench tiger reserve, India
**Kohka – another village in Pench tiger reserve, India