March 09, 2006

Sitting on the Fence

I had slept for just two hours when I was roused from my sleep at eight on a Sunday morning four years ago.

“Anil, wake up. Wake up,” a voice sounded urgently from the hall in the Range Forest Officer’s (RFO) residence in the wildlife sanctuary at Mollem, Goa.

The RFO, Prakash Salelkar, Amol Naik, Nilima Komarpant, and I had stayed over after working on wildlife posters, captions, and displays through the night. We were getting them ready for display at the Wildlife week celebrations the next week. If it wasn’t for a chance remark late in the night by the RFO, I wouldn’t have been caught napping when this Bronzeback made an appearance in the early morning sun on the fencing opposite the RFO’s residence.

It was late in the night, around half past two in the morning, when the RFO, Prakash Salelkar, let slip that I had missed out on a chance to photograph a full grown cobra that he and Amol had caught outside his residence three days ago. Beyond the verandah where Amol and I sat on the floor, the jungle was silent except for occasional noises. The wildlife sanctuary stretched a fair distance from the main entrance where we had gathered at his residence, sitting on the floor under a yellow bulb with pictures, paper, glue, scissors, and pens among other things spread out all around us. It was hard to imagine in that small pool of yellow light that the sanctuary stretched out over 240 sq. kilometers in the Western Ghats mountain ranges.

“What did you do with the cobra?” I asked Prakash Salelkar.

“Amol and I found a jute bag lying around, and put him in it after tying up the bag. Then we left the bag in the bedroom leaning it against the window for eventual release back in the jungle the next morning,” he replied. Amol looked up at him and smiled.

The bedroom lay adjacent to the hall we had gathered in.

“Where did you release it the next morning?” I asked him.

The RFO looked at Amol, then back at me, and said, “We couldn’t release him.”


“When we woke up the next morning and opened the bag to check up on the cobra, we found the bag empty. It had escaped through a small hole in the bag. It was an old jute bag that we hurriedly located when the cobra made an unexpected appearance outside the house,” he said calmly.

“Did you look around the house for it?” I asked him, a tad cold now.

“We did, but we didn’t find it in the house,” he said.


Then we got back to working on the themes but somehow I was ill at ease. After all it was only three days ago that the chap escaped in the room behind me. It was nearing three when I yawned again.

“Why don’t you sleep now?” he said to me.

“It’s ok. I’ll work some more. There is lots to finish,” I said. A group of us volunteered our services at the wildlife sanctuary whenever we could find time from work. The RFO was among the most vibrant and lively persons I had come across in my time trekking and camping in wildlife sanctuaries across India. It had been refreshing to meet a warm and enthusiastic individual in Prakash Salelkar, and working alongside him was an experience I cherished.

It was getting difficult to concentrate now. The commotion that followed after Amol, sitting across from me, pulled me towards him, shouting, “Anil, get away. Get away. There’s a scorpion just behind you,” banished my drowsiness for some time while Amol and the RFO chased the big, black scorpion, a few inches from my butt, into a small crack in the wall leading up to the entrance to the hall. They coaxed it out and put it in an empty, transparent plastic water bottle after punching a few holes in the plastic.

“We can hand it over tomorrow morning to one of the three girls who is researching scorpions for a college project,” Salelkar said. The three girls were put up in a cottage across the fence that separated the Forest Staff quarters from the tourist cottages. Nilima, a researcher working at Carmel’s college in Nuvem, near Margao, the other main Goan city after its capital, Panjim, was guiding them in their project. The other two girls were working on lizards and spiders. They were in their teens.

The scorpion was furious, maybe even fearful, at being confined to a bottle, and kept clawing at it. In pauses between conversations the rattling noise filled the room in an uneasy reminder of all that I’d heard about scorpions, even surfacing memories of being bitten by one in my childhood. My uncle had applied the glue he used to patch up punctured tyres. Miraculously it worked though the swelling took a while to subside. The scorpion dug into me when I reached inside a sack of jowar to hide glass marbles from my cousin.

I yawned again though I tried to stifle it. It was nearing half past three in the morning now.

“Why don’t you go and sleep in the bed room,” the RFO asked of me again.

“No. It’s ok here,” I said, leaning against the powdery green of the wall behind me.

He looked hard at me, searching for a reason. Then he burst out laughing. “I know. I know why you don’t want to sleep,” he said. His laughter boomed out in the warm room. Amol and Nilima looked at the both of us. I let out a sheepish smile.

“It’s the missing cobra, isn’t it?” he asked me. I merely smiled. Amol and Nilima caught on and we all laughed.

“Of course,” I said. There was no use sitting on the fence anymore and pretending. “You don’t know where it disappeared and you’re asking me to sleep in the same room,” I said, holding back from grinning. But eventually, by six in the morning, my sleep got the better of me and I crashed on the bed though I can’t remember walking to it.

So, when I was roused from my sleep at eight the next morning to see the Bronzeback sunning itself in the morning warmth of the sun, I was in no position to focus my camera well. But I suppose I managed somehow. The picture is not too bad, is it?


Anonymous said...

Not at all! Though I would have hoped for a closer [zoomed] version and at a different angle. I did understand the photograph better after reading the overture. It is hoped that you sleep fearlessly these days.

Anil P said...

Kizzy: Thanks. Yeah, sure. I do sleep well now. :) An up-close picture would surely help except that there were too many of us trying to get a closer look and take pics, and no time to take them before 'he' decided enough was enough and 'lemme go and bask elsewhere'. :)