Two things surprised me this April as we drove through the Bhagwan Mahavir wildlife sanctuary in Mollem, Goa. Firstly, I didn’t expect to find a cashew feni bhatti (feni distillery) in the middle of the jungle, and that too this late in the season. Elsewhere in the state, most local distilleries that spring up with the advent of the ‘Feni season’ that coincides with Gudi Padva, the Hindu New Year, are done with processing feni by mid-April, some complete it even earlier. On a passage through Ponda earlier this month, Nagesh, a local cashew farmer near Priol, a short distance off Keri, told me that cashew growers in Quepem and surrounding areas begin feni production earlier than those in Ponda. “It has to do with the type of soil,” he told me. “Once rains start, the cashews grow heavier, and though they appear juicier because of increased water content, the quality of feni is below par. We try and finish up before the monsoons move in.”
Back on the road it wasn’t until we slowed down on catching sight of a family of Langurs frolicking in the middle of our path that I realized the mud was unusually red. The langurs had changed colour to that of the mud. For just a moment I was perplexed on seeing these red creatures until one of them loped off the path with others following suit in that graceful manner of langurs. It was about then that I tasted mud. We pulled the windows shut but a thin layer of red had settled all over us. I tried wiping my camera clean but without much success, then drank from the water bottle to remove the taste of mud from the mouth. Phillip gripped the wheel hard as the jeep bounced uncomfortably on the mud-road that ran on to the Dudhsagar waterfall where rocky stretches in the road laid bare the pounding the thin ribbon of red winding through eighteen kilometers of deciduous forest gets from local jeeps ferrying tourists to the waterfall that cascades 600 metres down a cliff as it rises steeply, almost abruptly it would seem, over the South-Central railway line connecting Vasco to Londa, stopping by Collem in the Western Ghats mountain ranges.
The waterfall passes under the railway bridge and drops rapidly over the grey rock face. Seen from below trains passing on the narrow bridge high up in the sky and camouflaged by the cliff behind appear to float suspended in the air. Jeep-loads of tourists flock to the waterfall each year, the highest in India. Each trip to and fro net the tourist-jeeps a good sum, upwards from rupees 1,800 per trip, making the scramble for potential tourists fiercely competitive. The Goa Forest Department shuts down the route by ‘three in the afternoon’ to limit the damage to the eco-system but churned incessantly the mud-road turns red and the constant commotion of vehicular traffic on the route to the waterfall keeps the birdlife and animals away.
“The maximum tourist-jeep trips recorded for a single day is 90, and this does not include private vehicles visiting the waterfall,” the Range Forest Officer, Mollem Range, told us when we met him before setting off into the jungle. I got the impression that he was not particularly well disposed to the disturbance this causes to the habitat in the sanctuary. Elsewhere in sanctuary spread over 240 sq. kms. of deciduous forest in the Western Ghats mountain ranges, jungle paths are usually pale in colour. Beaten by the sun, dried grass binds the soil firm, only occasionally tested by vehicles passing on their way through the deciduous forest that in the summer is populated by barren trees as they shed their leaves and acquire new ones.
In my years trekking intermittently in the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary, I consciously stayed away from the route to Dudhsagar after trekking the 18 kms to Dudhsagar once, returning the same way in a summer vacation many years ago. I would’ve imagined that 36 kms of walking I did that November day would’ve ‘fetched’ me bird sightings that would fill pages in my diary. It was not to be. Instead, a short sojourn in the sanctuary in mid-October two years ago, with Phillip, and Colin, an elderly Frenchman visiting India, and lasting only a few hours over seven-odd kilometers in the direction of Vasant Bhandara and beyond landed us more bird sightings than I could ever imagine seeing along the ‘disturbed’ route to Dudhsagar. That October day, the three of us sighted in fairly quick succession a variety of birds, most notably in and around a Ficus tree at the edge of a grass plot that the then Range Forest Officer developed as a feeding spot for the Indian Gaur (bisons). We saw the Malabar Grey Hornbill, Crimson Throated Barbet, Pygmy Woodpecker, Heart Spotted Woodpecker, Small Green Barbet, Great Black Woodpecker, Bronze Drongo, White Headed Myna, Raven, Pied Flycatcher Shrike, Fairy Blue Bird, Ruby Throated Bulbul, Green Bulbul, Red Whiskered Bulbul, Quaker Babbler, Racquet Tailed Drongo, Verditer Flycatcher, Orphean Warbler, Malabar Whistling Thrush, White Throated Ground Thrush, Velvet Fronted Nuthatch, Grey Wagtail, and Small Sunbird.
A . . . sat behind, rocking side to side in rhythm with the jeep as we motored ahead. She had seen nothing like it before. I sat in the front with Philip. On the way back from Dudhsagar I exchanged places with her. Philip fixed his eyes on the road ahead, catching rocky bumps as they mysteriously emerged in the road. From the rocking and rolling we sat through, I’m sure we hardly missed any bump the jungle path threw at us. We passed a jackfruit tree with fruits hanging from the trunk. The temperature had dropped a notch. Creepers hung tantalizingly from trees, spanning the silence between them, and swaying ever so slightly with the breeze that meandered past.
We stopped by a herd of buffaloes grazing in the forest. They were tended to by an elderly woman who edged out of the way and into the trees on seeing us emerge from a bend in the jungle path. Two alert dogs kept her company. They stood on the go watching me get off the jeep with my camera. I kept a wary eye on them as I inched closer to the herd grazing to my right. A few Cattle Egrets floated amidst lazy legs and silent tails, picking off insects in the bush disturbed by the buffaloes. The two dogs watched me closely, steadily moving nearer. One look and I knew these were a nasty pair, untempered by human presence and ready to spring at the slightest provocation, or order whichever came first. I suspect the woman had brought them along as protection from leopards that roam the jungle and whose droppings Philip and I have seen aplenty on our treks together over the years. It is illegal to graze cattle in the wildlife sanctuary, and she will have known it. I got the pictures I needed and hurried back to the safety of the jeep. It kicked to life and we motored away. It was about then that I caught a flash of blue through the trees, and we slowed down to a stop where a narrow path led past six blue drums with tops sawed off, holding freshly extracted pale white cashew juice left to ferment. Small bubbles rose silently to the surface.
On a raised platform, divided into two roughly equal sections and enclosed by a raised strip the width of a brick placed lengthwise that ran along their sides, cashew fruits, freshly plucked from a plantation behind the dwelling, were heaped in mounds of lemon yellow, pale orange, flat green, and deep red. I doubt if there is any fruit available in a similar range of colours and shades as the cashew. Three men were engaged in separating the small, kidney-shaped cashew nuts from the fruits, before tossing the fruits into the section further up from them. In a corner lay two pairs of gum-boots, the kind I wore to school in the monsoons. After the cashew nuts are separated from the fruits, two men will wear these black rubber boots, and climbing onto the raised platform they’ll stomp the cashew fruits while the juice runs off into a pitcher through a opening in the side of the enclosed section. The pitcher is then emptied into a blue drum where the juice is left to ferment for a day or two before it is transferred to a large earthen pot housed in a dwelling behind the platform.
Manuel, a wiry man in a tight fitting t-shirt with coloured strips running across his chest led us inside to show us the distillery. On a slow fire sat a large earthen pot. A metal pipe, possibly brass or some alloy, connected the earthen pot to an open water tank where it spiraled to the bottom through still water, cooling the vapour passing through it before turning it into clear liquid now emerging in a steady trickle and collected in a plastic container placed on the floor. If the liquid measured 17 and above on a Alcometer (a device similar in construct to a thermometer), then Manuel, hired to oversee the entire process would certify it as feni, else he would cycle the distilled extract back into the pot, and add more fermented juice and distill it again to improve its 'strength'. “Sometimes we cycle it 3-4 times before it attains the ‘strength’ that feni is known for. If the distilled extract's ‘strength’ reads above 14, but below 17, it is called urraq, a drink widely favoured by many in Goa."
Manuel is from Margao, a coastal city 16 kms off Ponda. He returns home once in a while. Speaking to us in the narrow confines of the mud-walled room, he said he expects busy times ahead until the last lot of cashews change form into feni. While we stared in fascination at the pot and the water tank in silence, a shaft of light lit up Manuel against a clothesline. A coat hung carelessly from it, retaining its carriage even as it lurched and fell over undignified among commoners heaped every which way. I wondered if the coat belonged to Manuel. The way he carried himself, erect, alert, and light-footed, suggested an honest man who knew his job well, and who took his clothing seriously even as he kept to himself. A man you could depend on to deliver results. It didn’t look like he spoke much. I imagined him wearing the coat to the church on Sundays. There was scarcely a soul around in the time we were there. As we prepared to leave, Philip asked Manuel is he had feni he could spare. “Yes, yes,” he said, “I’ll keep a bottle ready. You can collect it on your way back from Dudhsagar. The urraq is good too. I’ll keep some of it ready as well.” Then he smiled. With some people, their smiles dissolve their wrinkles; with Manuel it had the opposite effect, heightening his wrinkles. We stepped out of the rustic dwelling and prepared to leave.
The Feni Consultant accompanied us out, smiling. A quick wave of the hand and he disappeared from view as we lurched forward on our way to Dudhsagar where trains sail in the sky in the backdrop of rushing water that turns to milk as it crashes down the mountain.