September 12, 2009, I am temporarily holed up in the forest rest house at Mandla. A great location, just by the side of the Narmada – the holy river that emerges a couple of hundred kilometres away, from a sal grove tucked within the hills of Amarkantak. I am holed up here because of the incessant rain. The rains this year have been erratic, instead of pouring in June and July the clouds have begun to yield after mid-August. And it has been raining for the last four days.
The pitter-patter of the rain on the tin roof of the rest house has ceased, and I am ready for a walk.
My evening walk – through the wooded FRH where hundreds of flying foxes hang upside down from the tall eucalyptus trees around the gate, onto the main road of Mandla towards the river bank – has begun. Ladies in colorful sarees are making for the banks to offer evening prayers, strollers like me are heading towards the eight hundred meter long old bridge, which only pedestrians and two-wheelers can use as the new and taller bridge takes care of the heavy traffic.
The gurgling, roaring river that flows from under the old dwarf bridge has obliterated all other noises, and I suddenly feel as if there is no one else around – it is only me and the river. A little ahead on the bridge, at those points where the bridge is a slightly wider, some rustic anglers are on the job – legs dangling from the bridge, reed- made rods in one hand with plastic lines thrown into the river, they wait patiently for small fishes to take their bait. Some of them are sans rod, only with a reel of line and a bag of worms they too seem engrossed in their meditative task.
And then I meet a lone wire- tailed swallow coolly perched on an iron peg jutting out from one of the pillars of the new bridge. He is only a few feet away from me, staring at me and making some tee-tee-wee-tee music but seems only remotely interested in me; perhaps he knows that between him and me there are 10 feet of the fast-flowing river. I am cursing myself for not carrying my camera. Beyond the new bridge, a swarm of swallows is in constant action, tirelessly flitting and dashing in the air. I concentrate in the void between the river and the sky and know immediately why the swallows are dancing so frantically – there are hundreds of dragonflies fluttering and hovering over the river beyond the new bridge.
A little ahead, almost near the opposite bank, some urchins are getting adventurous – they are in the water trying to brave the flow of the river. They perhaps feel safe with a bunch of onlookers watching them and as several rocks that jut out of the river provide an escape route to the bank in case of an emergency. Now as I reach the other bank a cacophony of cackle attracts my attention; I look up and see hundreds of starlings both the common and the pied variety and a good number of crows adorning the branches of a very tall eucalyptus tree talking to each other without punctuations. Perhaps this is the time for them to meet, discuss the day’s event and retire for the day. Sounds good, I turn back and head for my room and my bed, thinking – I am going to return tomorrow morning – a walk on the bridge is so compellingly attractive.
Sleep soon bids me farewell without waiting for the alarm to go off at 5.30 a.m. Six glasses of water down my intestine and a cup of very hot tea, and after a dash to the toilet I am out of my den and walking into the mist that envelops the courtyard. Where is the river that flows only a few yards away? Am I in Shimla? Why is the scene so different today? Then I realize, the river is under a thick cloud of mist. Mist in September? But yes, it is there.
I am on the road now; the main road appears like a black python that is still sleepy and sluggish, only a few female forms are walking towards the river with flowers, garlands, and puja ki aarti. I am following them; as they walk towards the river bank, I amble down the time-tested old man – the veteran, worn out bridge. Some lone morning walkers, some with friends and some with family and a guy with his dog are already on the foggy bridge. I can see only a few feet of the river, but its roar fills my ears. Through the mist I also see silhouettes of fisherfolk rowing their boats and preparing to cast their nets, the anglers are taking their position, too. I am searching for the peg on the new bridge where I had met the swallow yesterday.
I am thinking – it may be a bit farther on – and then the swallow obliges me, it is on another peg just a few feet away from where I am standing, but unlike yesterday he is not in a mood to rest, he goes off, comes back and then goes off again to join his flock foraging beyond the new bridge. I wonder why the swallows have chosen to build their nest under the old bridge that often gets submerged whenever a downpour swells the river, why don’t they nest under the newer, taller bridge that offers several safe places underneath. I have no answer; maybe I would ask a birder.
I move on and through the haze. Suddenly, I catch a glimpse of a bird repeatedly wagging its tail and then sweet melody flows into my ears from two sides – one from the bird sitting on one of the pillars of the new bridge and another from its mate perching on a rock that juts out from the misty river.
I know them; they are our white-browed wagtails. I have reached the other side, and now it is time to return, bathe and get ready to move off to Pench tiger reserve – for a walk on the jungle road?
I hope so.
Photos and sketches: Suhas Kumar
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