Burning bright

Burning bright

Simply put it was one of both cold fear and unbiased admiration.

I was barely eight years old and my school holidays had just begun when at the behest of Ma, father had agreed to include me in his forest inspection tour. The destination was a secluded Gond settlement on top of a hill amidst verdant forested area, in Chhattisgarh, teeming with wildlife which included the big cats.

This is the real story of that hair-raising journey in my father’s 1924 model open-hooded Austin car.

Our party consisted of driver Ramgir, cook Bishal, father and me. An advance party with camping gears had left much earlier so as to reach Lachna, our destination in the afternoon. By the time we reached the foot of the hill it was dark and the surrounding jungle was coming alive with the myriad calls of its denizens. It was a cacophony but to me the animal, bird, insect and other calls were discernible as we lived in that kind of an environment in the forties of the century gone by.

Ramgir made a quick check by opening the bonnet and topping the radiator. After giving a careful look he closed the bonnet but not before inspecting the tyres. I was curious to know the purpose of bricks lying between our legs to which Ramgir had responded with a knowing smile saying that I will know soon enough.

The journey started with the high-pitched grinding of the open car gears. We had hardly climbed about 100 yards when  the engine noise started changing its pitch into a stalling one giving the impression that it will go dead any moment. And simultaneously the Austin began slowly sliding backwards refusing to respond to the foot and hand brakes.

Swiftly, Bishal jumped out, with two bricks in hand and placed them behind the two rear wheels. This drill was repeated a couple of times to reach the half way mark when I noticed  Ramgir blabbering incoherently to father about a huge sher (tiger) lying across the whole width of the road. To prop up Ramgir’s fast dwindling spirits, father started going through the motions of readying the high velocity rifle he was carrying tucked in his left armpit.

Now, to describe the sight of which I am the sole privy to this day. Simply put it was one of both cold fear and unbiased admiration. Fear because of its brute might and admiration because of its majestic head and coat of black stripes over a yellow shining fur clearly announcing the majesty of its savage beauty and raw ferocity. In the meantime, Bishal whose job it was to place the bricks was seen visibly shivering unable to perform his task.

Father then asked Ramgir to sit on the horn which made piercing noise reverberating throughout the valley and forest below. The ruckus that it raised had some effect with the creature lying prostrate in front of us, whose piercing red eyes had made us all freeze in our respective places.That the Austin had gone on a  steady downward sliding mode was of least concern to the passengers. Such was the mesmerising power of the magnificent creature ‘burning bright.’

Relief did however come a little later when our not so friendly king of the jungle condescended. After showing a blood freezing look at the glowing head lights, it lazily got up, arched its hind quarters, smartly raised its curved tail and finally made a dash into the dark ravine, below but not before registering its departing royal annoyance by making a deafening, ear-splitting roar. The creatures of the surrounding jungle which were quiet so far responded alarmingly with a chilling din echoing through the surrounding hills and the valley.

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