December 21, 2006

To Annamalai in the Nilgiris - Part II

In the Nineties, I traveled to Tamilnadu to trek five days in the Nilgiris. The Annamalai Wildlife sanctuary sounded a mystical place to be in, and I was majorly into trekking India’s Wilds. It was a long journey this one, and traveling alone gave me time to reflect, but mostly to anticipate, and contemplate. I wrote a diary of my stay there, and of the time I spent trekking the Nilgiris, mostly short notes, nothing comprehensive. In these disconnected notes, I seek to relive my memories again. Needless to say, I don’t have many pictures from those days, a point-and-shoot camera loaded, and no extra rolls to spare, thirty-five frames to last seven days. I was in my teens then. How I wish now I had been meticulous in writing down everything I saw and heard. I didn’t, and I’m left with a scribbling here and there that I intend to publish as parts, and leave out some.

There were two more days to go before we packed our bags and turned our back on the Nilgiris, carrying her in our hearts to where we came from, home.

I was sitting on the low platform that ran square, extending outward from the two dormitory rooms that made up our base camp. It was approaching midnight. The skies were clear except for few stray clouds, and if you looked hard enough at the stars you could see the deep blue of the skies cushioning the starry promise of a joyous landscape, untouched by vaporous city lights and the determined pauses that separate uncertain city realities. There is always a strange silence in the dark. It is as if in attempting to see through the blackness I was searching for contours of shapes I could recognize, turning oblivious to the sounds that would otherwise disturb and jar in another setting, lending further depth to the silence in place now. I could have drawn it over me like a blanket and there would not be a bulge that could identify me. There is nowhere a human being can merge so easily and completely as when he is amidst nature at her freest.

The sounds of the jungle are different in that they are mysterious and evocative of an imagination rife with possibilities, turning the expectant mind into a mirror of its own hopes and desires, thrilling in its imagined fears and half expecting them to materialize. Turning my face in the general direction of the dense undergrowth, a short way off the edge of the platform I now sat on with my feet over the edge, drawn close by encircling arms, and chin on knees, I was almost willing a leopard or a tiger to emerge from the dark, featureless swathe I was trying hard to distinguish from the rest of the invisible landscape that swept over me without appearing to do so. I could neither see it nor touch it. I could only feel it in the invisible features of my knees and hands I felt with my chin, for reassurance that I was where I was, and that I was I. It was strange really to realize that were it not for my senses, there was no way for me to feel my own presence. I could go on living without being conscious of being alive.

To my left, round a small turn skirting the undergrowth lay the gentle rise of Topslip. Any moment, once the clouds inched past the moon, the now invisible swell would be bathed in the uniform silver of a silent night, pregnant with possibilities of the bush. Where I sat, tall trees threw their shadows together in invisible fingers, and my imagination skipped about merrily in the Corbettesque encounters I had readily transplanted into my widening circle of wild expectations. We had come across several instances of tiger pugmarks on our treks earlier in the day, even those of the leopard, but not the big cats themselves. It was the second last day of the five-day wildlife camp. Time had whirred quicker than my camera could capture it.

The Annamalai hills made for a permanent bearing on our treks. No amount of trekking seemed to bring them any closer, and it was in an open grassland, heavy with slush and where a herd of elephants had foraged not too long ago, leaving enough evidence behind, that the hills rising in the distance, glinting a deep brown in the mid-day sun, made me truly understand what it must mean to stand still and provide a permanent bearing to a passing fragrance of life, even if it smelled of elephant dung. Elsewhere, the grave marking the site where Hugo Wood, a British planter born in 1870, and largely credited with saving the Annamalai forests in his capacity as an officer in the Indian Forest Service in early 1900s, lay buried in solitude, and acquired the same permanence of the hills that ringed it, not far from where he lived, and died, becoming one with the land he cherished, protected, and nurtured.

His home lay empty on a rise up the short incline from his resting place, fronted by a gentle drop covered by a dense tangle of trees. It was surprisingly well painted for a house that lay abandoned in the jungle. I walked from room to room, gently turning doors that creaked as they swung free on infrequently used hinges, as if protesting our intrusion into their world. I had no face to go with the form of Hugo Wood as I imagined him doing the same. We were told that the house was used recently in a local film; that explained its relative freshness in the December of that year. It is a unique experience to come across an empty dwelling in a jungle, even if not as elaborate as Hugo Wood’s. But stepping through the outer threshold of this neat, almost majestic dwelling (the wild lends majesty to all that it embraces), with doors swinging freely on creaking hinges, made the experience mysterious in as much as it provoked thought.

I felt that if I put my ears to the walls and listened long and hard enough they might whisper of days long gone by, maybe I might even hear voices that lived and died here. Looking up, I wondered what shadows must have played on the walls and the ceilings in the nights the tigers roared their presence in the vicinity, maybe stepping in the veranda for a sniff and a stroll. What sort of a life might its inhabitants have lived in in so isolated a place? Did it make of them quiet folks, given to prolonged silences that echoed the melodies of their hearts? And what melodies might these have been? I wondered what might Hugo Wood have been like? He was a teak planter alright, and a forest officer dedicated to preserving the Nilgiris, but living in the wondrous setting of the Annamalai hills, what changes must nature at her bountiful best wrought in his soul, and who were the people whose lives he touched? Did those who served him love him as a master? Did he read books and gaze at the faraway hills in the distance? Did he love the land he had made his home, far away from the shores his ancestors had left to seek their fortunes in India? Or was he a lone ranger coming ashore to a land none of his ancestors had ever set foot on? If so what must have drawn him to this patch of Southern India? Was he fleeing his demons, finding succor in the heart of the Nilgiris? I could only look around and wonder, and imagine. In its silence the jungle hides many noises, and in its noises it hides its silences.

We were told that sightings of a mother bear with cubs had been made in the house a few days ago. To the back of the house lay low squares with missing ceilings, in an unbroken stillness of the moment when the last of Hugo Wood’s servants had ceased to live there. Silence has its abode in myriad settings; not necessarily in the permanence of a visible landmark or in the remembered memory of a moment lost to time.


Anonymous said...

Annamalai Part II is weighed down by your reflective tone. I see a brooding and contemplative traveller, travelling deep within his own thoughts, scaling fresh heights of perceptions while making inroads in his journey. In that sense all of us are travellers metaphorically!

Before I moved to Chennai with my family, we lived in Baroda. My husband, my little son and I travelled extensively in Gujarat and Rajasthan, the pulse of the land throbbed in our blood. Moving to Chennai with more responsibilities towards family, we have not been able to travel so much. Reading your blog makes me an armchair traveller. Our Gujarat days are still fresh in my memory and I might one day recall the journeys the way you do your trip to Topslip. If I do get to write about Gujarat, I shall dedicate it to you.

Anil P said...

To Uma: True, it is reflective. Especially after going through his house, then to his grave a short way off. Travel is a metaphor for our lives.

That would indeed be a honour, thank you :)

sage said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and I look forward to reading your jouneys, theses sound neat and I'm reminded that I've lent out an Indian Guidebook and map to a friend who is traveling there in January. I need to get it back so I can visualize better your travels.

You mention bears... A while ago I wrote a couple post about my encourters with bears in the wild.

Anil P said...

To Sage: Thank you. You're welcome.

Ash said...

Merry Christmas to you Anil!

bluemountainmama said...

you are a braver soul than i, anil. jungle treks sound a little scary to me with all the carnivorous wild animals. i'll have to read up on hugo wood- he sounds like an interesting man.

Anil P said...

To Bluemountainmama: Thanks. He sure seems interesting, and widely appreciated in the Annamalais for his work.

To Susan: Thank you. Maybe I'll give it a shot.

Anonymous said...

I have been there recently the Mount Stuart House as it is being called now was renovated and done up well I had the privelage to stay in the house for one night amidst the howling of the animals all around and no electricity in the house, luckily it was not a new moon night, I too visited the grave of hugo wood and it was written 'si monumentum requiris, circumspice' . But it is sad to note that the Forest officials are making money by letting people stay in these homes. Nice write up anil.-santosh