Summer in Seoni is like a sponge that sucks all the juice from your body; sweat flows out from every pore leaving you limp and lifeless unless you are in the habit of drinking several litres of fluid every day. The trick is to drink water frequently and never come out without covering your head and face. I had braved five scorching summers in this district from 1985 to 1990 while I served as the director of Pench National Park.
When I joined Pench in June 1985, my predecessor Mr. Parihar – an officer from the old school admired for his skills as a wildlife manger and a popular bridge player among the local mandarins – had done some groundwork. He had got the territorial forest land and staff transferred to the national park and set up several patrolling outposts at strategic locations for it was going to be part of our core protection strategy to redeem the habitats degraded from the relentless biotic pressures. The people and their cattle from the thirty villages close to the park boundary were heavily dependent on the forests for grazing, illegal collection of firewood and other forest produce and there were gangs of timber and bamboo thieves that were very active in those days.
When I assumed charge, my foremost concern was to restore the degraded habitats and instil some respect for this national park in the minds of the locals as well as city dwellers. While it was not so easy to convince the city dwelling picnic minded visitors that included a class of reckless government officials who loved to enter the park at any godforsaken hour with powerful searchlights to watch wild animals, I was able to dissuade this practice by using a mixed strategy of persuasion and threat. But it was an arduous uphill task with the locals who saw the national park as a huge threat to their livelihood; with them, I gradually developed a love – hate relationship.
Summer, besides its life-sucking heat also brings in its wake forest fires – for it leaves grasses parched and fire prone. In those initial years, the problem of fire got compounded further as after the national park came into being, the collection of forest produce – that the local people have been gathering for generations – and cattle grazing were banned making villagers hostile. And one of the hateful acts, which they enjoyed the most and I hated the most, was starting a fire in a tinder dry forest in the summer season.
The park and its staff became their enemy number one. Many of them where so disgruntled that they were too happy to cause trouble in the park and keep my staff and me on our toes – one of their diabolic pastimes was to toss a live bidi (country cigarette) on the grasses along forest roads, give a hearty laugh and move on leaving a raging conflagration behind that took from several hours to several days of hard labour to contain. These fires were disastrous for wild animals, forests and us. There were certain days on which we had to deal with not one but several scattered fires.
This story involves my dexterous driver Bhaiyya Lal in the backdrop of a firefighting operation that took place thirty-five years ago. It was a sweltering summer night; the fan above my head was spitting gusts of hot air, and I was turning and tossing in my bed desperately trying to sleep. Suddenly the call bell gave a rattling shriek, and I was up on my feet in a jiffy. At the door the orderly of my friend Rakesh Gupta was staring at me – his anxious face displayed the urgency of the news he had brought.
The range officer, Karmajhiri had called Rakesh’s residence – as in those days the park office as well as my home were bereft of the modern means of communication – and he had requested Mr. Gupta to inform me that a forest fire was raging in the park near Alikatta forest village. Whenever such news arrived, my duty was to respond quickly. I sent for my driver Bhaiyya Lal who came cycling down within twenty minutes but lady luck was not on our side for when we got into the jeep, and Bhaiyya Lal turned on the ignition the engine coughed once and then went dead, the battery was without juice. Ultimately, with the help of my orderly the diesel jeep was pushed uphill to the main road and rolled down the slope – this worked as it always does with all trusted decrepit diesel vehicles – and we were off to the park via Badalpar dirt road as it was to save us half an hour.
We reached Alikatta in an hour and a half. My staff and villagers from Alikatta were fighting the blaze using traditional means that consists of beating the flames with leafy twigs. Grabbing a leafy twig – which is hard to find in summer in a usually leafless deciduous forest – I joined the fire warriors. It took almost forty minutes to contain the fire, and by that time I was about to collapse from severe dehydration. I ran down the high bank to find a pool of water in the river bed for the Pench river is not perennial, and during summer water remains confined in small pools – doh or kasa as the local people call them – I found one soon and gulped the turbid yellowish water scooping it with my cupped palm; it was as if I were drinking the elixir of life for those few scoops of water brought me around and I was up on my feet and scampered towards my team.
Reaching them, I ordered my team to inspect the perimeter of the burnt area to track down burning stumps and shimmering embers and douse them with water or soil, for a little negligence could start a new fire. After accomplishing this task, I instructed one of the fire watchers to climb up a tree and scan the horizon to find out if any other fire was blazing in the park. Soon we learned that a small fire razed along the river near the abandoned village of Sapat.
The fire we detected was not very far from us. My team – six fire watchers, the range officer, range assistant, the local guard and I crammed into the beleaguered jeep and proceeded towards the likely location of the fire. To reach the spot we had to leave the forest road to Sapat and turn into a disused haulage road – that was in operation when transportation of felled timber from the submergence area of Totaladoh dam was on till a year ago. After about 200 metres Bhaiyya Lal suddenly stopped the vehicle as the road was in disrepair, and the jeep couldn’t move further. I asked him to wait in the jeep and the rest of us began walking towards the fire that was still about a mile away.
As we entered the dense, dark jungle – I switched on my torch – my watch showed it was 1 A.M. I had this nagging premonition that all was not well. We had walked only a furlong when the frantic shrieks of Bhaiyya Lal reached us – “Sahib, sahib, sahib!” Shouting back at the top of my voice, I turned around and ran full speed tipping over a fallen branch which tore my trousers and gave my shin a bad bruise – following me were nine others, also shouting in a chorus. We reached, where the jeep was, to find Bhaiyya Lal shaking and shivering as though he was in the grip of malaria.
The account of his nightmare that he gave us goes like this – “Sir, you saved my life. As soon as you all left a tiger came and stood just by my side. I hopelessly tried to start the vehicle but couldn’t, my attempt to blow the horn and put on the lights were futile as the battery was bust. Then I began shouting for help and after hearing the uproar that you all were making on your way back, the tiger moved away, sir.”
I got worried about the safety of my team members. I hoped that the fire which was spreading along the river bank would, in all likelihood, die naturally after reaching the moist river bank. Thinking this, I ordered my team to leave me at Alikatta inspection hut and proceed to Chhindi matta camp, stay there overnight and come back to me early next morning. Chhindi matta is a tall hillock from where a sizable part of the park can be seen therefore, I had asked my team to rest there for the night. From there, any fire could be detected easily, and they could have come back to me in time to embark on another firefighting mission. This plan was executed.
The night went off peacefully, and at five o’clock in the morning I heard them coming. When they alighted from the jeep I could see that all of them were excited, when I asked them what was the cause of their bewilderment they narrated an interesting tale – while coming back, at the spot from where we had taken the turn to the haulage road, they came face to face with a tigress with cubs by her side. I was happy to hear this as sighting of cubs was good news for this nascent National Park. but I told Bhaiyya Lal how lucky he was to have escaped unhurt the previous night – for a mother tigress is unpredictable and if Bhaiyya Lal had attempted to get down from the jeep and run he would not have been, in person, reporting to me this magnificent sighting that morning.
That escape from the tigress got deeply etched in the psyche of Bhaiyya Lal and later culminated in another fascinating tale that I will recount next week.
Photo credits: forest fire by Subhranjan Sen; fireline by Suhas Kumar; tigress with litter and tigress with cubs in forest by R. Sreenivasa Murthy
Read more from Suhas here: