Ria and Krish commenced their second visit to the Dooars, this time by road. It was a drive of about 625 km from the state capital city, Kolkata (ne’ Calcutta). As they drove, Ria recalled incidents of their last trip to the Dooars in October 2017, which was a combination of a train and road journey. This time by road, Krish and Ria did not miss out on the changing facade of nature- the deciduous trees lining the highway gave way to the tall pine trees. Completely mesmerized they moved uphill.
By about 4PM they reached their destination. Bahadur the caretaker of the forest house was once again happy to receive his guests. It was always a pleasure to have visitors repeating themselves to the same bungalow; it was a non-financial tip that his hospitality did make a difference. Also it was easy to handle them as the inmates were accustomed to the rules and regulations of the forest and the guest house as they had to operate within certain limitations.
It had been a long day- Krish and Ria had started off at 5 o’ clock in the morning. They were led to the same room in which they had stayed during their last visit. This cottage had two rooms on the ground floor or reception floor as they called it. The floor also had a pantry, a common living- cum-dining area. This time again, Krish and Ria found that no other occupant would be coming over the weekend, so they would have the entire bungalow to themselves!
Well, perhaps not. The floor above or the top floor too had a room, a separate living and dining space, kitchen and a washroom. The view from this veranda was enchanting. This floor was not available for occupancy last year. Krish was quite curious and looking forward to shift or literally upgrade their booking, since the floor was entirely available during their scheduled stay. Krish did his research work of browsing through the guest house register; he also re-confirmed the vacancy through his little chit- chats with Bahadur.
At supper Krish proposed to Bahadur to change their accommodation and was willing to pay for the difference in tariff, but, the caretaker did not pay much heed to their request and simply denied room availability due to forest restrictions on top floor accommodation arrangements. Baffled by Bahadur’s behavior, Ria and Krish exchanged glances and considered it wise not to make things bitter at the very beginning of their stay.
Night fee, the fire- flies came buzzing by, the wolves could be heard at a distance, the bats and owls were out to play, nocturnal life was in action. The flickering filament of the bulb in the top floor veranda was unnerving. Surprisingly, this same disturbance was there even in their last visit. Krish recalled Bahadur mentioning that due to unavailability of an electrician the electrical wiring which had a leakage could not be fixed; the bulb was replaced whenever it got damaged. Quite an absurd explanation, but then Krish had not dived deeper into the matter. What struck Krish was that how this issue could not have been resolved for more than a year now. Krish did not want another round of interrogation with Bahadur, so he carried forward his inquisitiveness to the next day.
Ria was always an early riser. Especially on such vacations, she would have her liquor tea and then waltz away for a walk within the boundaries of the forest house. It was not safe to wander into the jungle without a local guard. Ria captured a few delicate moments of nature in its morning activities in her DSLR- the woodpecker at its work, the squirrel playing; the nursery was carpeted with saplings; beyond it she found the forest office. The notice board on display mentioned Saturday working hours till 12noon.
Ria walked into the office and found two staff members settling down to work. She asked for the inquiry desk and one of them asked her to be seated and wait for a while. Ria instead walked around the office room and browsed through the forest magazines, guides with maps, remarks in the visitors’ diary, she picked up a pamphlet with the details of the various outdoor activities available for the inmates and then a chirpy voice came along asking her, “Good Morning Madam, how may I help you?” Ria asked him if he could help with room booking inquiry. On his assurance she proceeded to ask if there were any restrictions laid down by the forest authorities for top floor accommodation in any of the guest houses. The young lad informed her that sitting around in the veranda in the evenings was restricted bearing in mind the safety of the inmates; there could be wild animals hiding in the dark and perhaps sensing danger they would perhaps attack the residents enjoying their evenings out in the open. The snake lurking around in the outdoor areas of the houses was not uncommon during the monsoons or after a very heavy shower. Ria thanked the gentleman for his time; Ria deduced that Bahadur’s denial hovered around a different reason.
Ria rushed back to the guest house, where she found Krish ready and waiting for her at the breakfast table. “Where have you been?” There was no point in carrying the mobile phone, as there was no network in the forest area. Ria handed over the camera to Krish- “watch it,” and hurried in to get ready for their safari ride. A jeep arrived for pick up- Krish, Ria and a few other inmates were escorted to the entrance of the deep jungle. They were queued for ticket and security check, on the other side of the gate six elephants stood in line waiting patiently for the rider to mount.
It was a spectacular moment- deer, bison, and rhinos; with one hand held high a guard waived out seeking attention and asked all to maintain silence, with his other hand he directed everyone to observe in a particular direction. The mahouts made sure that the elephants remained together. As the predator was approaching only the thumping hearts could be heard. The cheetah was out for a walk- not hunting for its prey. However, the presence of so many human beings could agitate the carnivore to attack. One of the elephants rumbled and then in unison all the elephants trumpeted aloud to scare the cheetah away. The cheetah walked away in the opposite direction fearing a big herd of elephants. Every visitor to the forest yearns for a glimpse of the cheetah, tiger or lion, not until they are in sight; a realization dawned- in the open jungle the repatriation of the wild animals to their dens brings more relief than the excitement to see them! The trumpet sound of the elephants filled the air with an aura of happiness and victory. The elephants now retreated towards the gateway and the riders had to descend from their chariots. The exhilaration of the visitors resounded as they walked towards their respective rest houses.
Bahadur was lingering around at the guest house; the lunch was kept ready, the housekeeping job was done. Seeing their enthusiasm, Bahadur proposed more such outings which they could go for after lunch. Krish and Ria agreed to the butler’s tailored arrangement which comprised of a visit to the river Torsa with rafting and sight-seeing to two waterfalls- one renowned for the reptiles, the other for its sparkling waters.
The day was hectic. The evening was spent sorting the vacation photographs. Ria loved the scenic beauty of the morning captured from the top floor veranda and that retrograded Ria to the previous evening’s discussion. She enlightened Bahadur about her learning at the forest office- he was offended and did not like the turn of the conversation back to the same issue. Krish noticed this change and asked for the truth to avoid repeated confrontation.
Bahadur figured out that Krish and Ria would not spare him without getting to know the facts. In a low voice and nervous voice as though revealing a secret, Bahadur spoke- till a few years back, the rest houses here were known to be dens of poachers. Several staff members were involved in this illegal activity. The animals stopped coming anywhere near the bungalows for fear of being shot. Tourism suffered as no animals were ever in sight during the safari rides; many animals died as they were terror-stricken. However, now with the government’s intervention by way of introducing laws and severe punishment for the trespassers, this misdeed has been addressed.
The flickering light appeared like a spark of fire from afar, so the animals would not come anywhere near to the bungalows after sunset. Bahadur in his own way adopted this technique of keeping the animals at bay whenever he had guests in his bungalow- since it was not always possible to reckon whether the guests had any ill- intention or an unlawful plan of action. Also no guest would allow a disturbing bulb to glow outside his door- so no visitor was given to stay over on the top floor.
Ria apologized for quizzing Bahadur and praised him for his remarkable and humble way of protecting wildlife. Krish gave Bahadur a hug and got engaged with his laptop, perceiving this was only the half truth.
Ria and Krish had their departure scheduled for the next morning, that is, after breakfast. Till then Ria took another short trip all by herself. Krish took a walk to the flickering light veranda for another quick look of the forest landscape. He could not curtail his curiosity to look into the rooms through its glass panes- the rooms were laid with soft carpets, the walls were decorated with handcrafted lamps and wall hangings. The king-sized bed was adorned with grand poles on all four corners with muslin curtain drapes over them, the antique pieces of furniture were polished and well- maintained. The rooms were perhaps meant for catering to the elite or prime customers.
Time struck and the couple had to bid adieu to the Dooars. Krish and Ria once again thanked Bahadur for his hospitality, but this time the butler seemed to be in a hurry to bid them farewell.
Ria carried home memories and Krish a series of unanswered questions. Had Bahadur been so concerned about wildlife preservation, why was his technique not shared with the other guest houses? What was the function of that flickering filament? Was Bahadur accommodating poachers in the top floor?