The silence was eerie. A regular droning of cicadas had a near hypnotic effect. The landscape was flooded with the quicksilver light of the full moon. All shadows were accentuated in such a way that can only be seen in moonlight swathed environs. A silvery streak gleamed a short distance away, denoting the mountain stream that flowed out there.
This was where the animals came down to drink. The land, devoid of vegetation in this stretch, gently sloped downhill towards the stream, across which it swooped up again to form the rows of rolling hills, rising step by step, as if in tires. It was that sort of a night when all senses got heightened to a preternatural level. An occasional rustling in the under growths heralded the passage of some unseen animal, most probably a predator, accounting for the spooky silence that prevailed. Big cats were rarities in this area. But, of course, this was leopard country. Abhijit reached for his glass of vodka and tonic kept on the table to his left and, at the same time, wrapped the shawl closer round his broad shoulders. The nights were chilly.
Virendra came up with a lantern emanating more soot than light. Electricity had made some inroads in some parts of this wilderness but the forest and this bungalow was by-passed till now, due to some obvious reasons. A slow, ponderous beat of drums from afar broke through the reverie of silence. The tribal workers of some far away tea garden were enjoying themselves after an arduous day of hard work. Abhijit waved Virendra’s ineffectual lantern away. He preferred the darkness, the moonlight, his vodka and his solitude. Light encroached upon his privacy.
With the help of the meager light Virendra scanned the table for the supply of provisions and then limped away, the floor-boards creaking under his feet. Virendra Singh Thapa was the caretaker of this forest bungalow. He was an interesting old-timer on superannuation, and was possibly as old as Methuselah himself.
On his way back Virendra stopped suddenly, peered about in a short sighted manner, and came back to Abhijit.
“Sir,” he mumbled in Nepali, a language Abhijit was perfectly at home with, having served as the District Forest Officer for quite some time in these parts. “Sir, please be on your alert. The big cats are out.”
“I know, Virendra daju, and I am alert. Now, please take the lantern away. The light is hurting my eyes. And get me some more fried chicken, will you? That’s a good man.”
Abhijit’s eyes roved towards the loaded gun hanging from a nail in the wall. He was a good shooter with a better night sight than many. But he preferred to shoot with his handycam rather than with a gun. The gun was there mainly to boost his own confidence and to scare off intruders if the need arose.
The offending light was removed forthwith and Abhijit took a thoughtful sip of vodka. Now he had heaps of time on his hands. All his life he had roamed about in forests in different parts of West Bengal till his retirement at the end of a long and lusterless tenure in this part of the Dooars region. He had no family to speak of. Never had any. He had been a self-sufficient confirmed bachelor all through his life. There was no earthly reason of his remaining a bachelor, only that there had never been an occasion to shed his ‘bachelor’ degree. At the back of his mind, he knew, though, that is was a fitting tribute to someone he had been in love with, a thousand years ago. He smiled to himself and shifted in his seat. Then, suddenly, he froze. The gleaming streak of the stream was no longer visible from where he sat, being obscured by a mass of moving black shadows. A faint gurgling and splashing could be heard. Elephants, thought he. They have come down for a drink.
A barely audible creaking announced the arrival of Virendra with a plate heaped up with fried chickens. Midway across the veranda he stopped in his tracks and peered about.
“Elephants, sir,” he whispered, barely audible. “Coming down for a drink. This group always drinks at night.”
“Yes, I’ve seen them,” said Abhijit in a barely audible murmur, for he knew that a whisper carries a much greater distance than a toned down murmur. He just hoped, nay, prayed that Samir does not come barging in at this point of time. He glanced at the luminous dial of his wrist watch. It was barely seven, yet in the forest it seemed to be the dead of night.
Samir was a childhood friend of Abhijit. Both were approximately of the same age and had been to the same school together. They were both ardent sportsmen and played soccer and cricket together in the same local club. Abhijit was a good cricket player and had gone on to play for his school, college and then on to university levels. Samir’s prowess was more to be seen in the football field and he was the club captain at one time. They had been so very inseparable that their friends called them ‘twins’. Some of them had further qualified this nomenclature adding the prefix ‘Siamese’ to the ‘twins’.
Their path had separated only when they entered college. After that, they graduated and Abhijit had joined the Forest Service, while Samir started his own dealership of electronic goods. Samir had married fairly early in life. The couple had suffered from infertility for about five years or so, after which their only son was born. This boy was now in Germany working for a degree in Engineering. Recently, Samir had lost his wife and was now a widower. Abhijit, however, had never married.
It was Abhijit who had made the programme. He had gone to visit some relatives in Kolkata and there he had met his friend after a long lay-off. The reunion was a happy one, though Samir was still depressed at the loss of his wife. Abhijit had suggested that he would make arrangements for the two of them to spend a quiet weekend at this forest bungalow. Samir had readily agreed to this proposal.
Samir was on his way back from town, where he had gone to procure provisions. After a long time he was feeling really relaxed. The forest had its own charm and attracted him in such a way he had never thought possible. All his life he had been a die-hard Kolkattan, or rather Calcatian, as life-long residents of this great metropolis preferred to call themselves. He had seldom travelled far, and the little he had travelled were all on business trips, within India and abroad.
After coming to this place at the insistence of Abhijit, he had felt his tension gradually ebbing away. The hollow feeling following the death of his wife was no longer there, although the ache remained. He was grateful to Abhijit for working this vacation out and longed to do something worthwhile in return. Therefore, when the question of getting goodies from the local market came up, Samir had grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
It had been broad daylight when Samir had set forth on his quest in the Forest Department jeep with only the driver Madan Singh to keep him company. The two were a study in contrast. While Madan Singh was a burly man, quite tall in stature, with a pair of bushy moustache, Samir was thin built, clean shaven and totally suave and urbane in all respects. Yet they struck an immediate rapport and Madan Singh pointed out to him all exotic flora and fauna they came across on their way.
In town Samir spent very little time in shopping and soon they were on their way back with bags of grocery, chicken and other essential items like a few bottles of life saving beverage. On their way Samir opened a bottle and sampled some of the liquors he had procured, finding it to be absolutely to his satisfaction. The spirit soon lifted Samir’s mood and he began humming the tune of a Hindi film song that had been in vogue in their student days. All was going well till they turned into the road that led straight through the forest. Madan Singh applied the brakes hard and turned off the ignition.
“Madan, what’s wrong?” asked Samir in consternation. Madan put his index finger on his lips making the international sign of total silence. Then he leaned over to whisper in Samir’s ears.
“How do you know?” Samir asked incredulously.
Madan silently pointed to a heap of droppings plumb in the centre of the road. Even Samir’s city-bred eyes could make out that the droppings were fairly recent. He looked at Madan Singh with a questioning look. Wordlessly Madan Singh signed at him to stay put and reached into the back-seat to fetch the big gun he had brought with him. He put up his hand to assure Samir that all was well and this was just a precaution. They then settled down to wait.
Abhijit was really worried now. Samir should have been back at least by sunset. He got up from his armchair and began pacing the veranda. This was a long time habit of his. But he had to desist soon as the floor boards creaked. Suddenly Virendra clutched at the hem of Abhijit’s kurta.
“Sir,” whispered he. “They leave now.”
Sure enough, the great black shadow was moving away. Abhijit heaved a sigh of relief.
Within a short time the muffled roar of a jeep’s engine was heard as the vehicle turned and crunched up the moonlit gravel pathway of the bungalow with headlights switched off. Virendra hurried downstairs to retrieve all the provisions that he knew to be loaded in the jeep. Samir stumbled in the dark as he clambered up the wooden stairs to the veranda.
“What took you so long?” said Abhijit. “I’d been worrying my head off!”
“Mahakal! We stopped to pay homage to the overlord of the jungle.”
“You are drunk,” complained Abhijit.
“Huh! No more than you are pal,” quipped Samir. “But I wouldn’t call it a drink. Ugh! In Styrofoam cups too!” Abhijit smiled. The forest was gradually bringing the old Samir out.
Samir plumped down into the vacant armchair on the other side of the low coffee-table. He picked up Abhijit’s empty glass and sniffed.
“What are you having? Ah! Vodka with tonic! Downright civilized, aren’t you?” He called for Virendra and instructed him to bring water, slices of lemon, green chilies and salt.
“Now I’ll show you how vodka should be drunk. But, hey! Can’t we have some music? Something soothing, from the sixties or seventies?”
“Are you mad?” Abhijit exclaimed. “You are in the jungle, pal, in the midst of wild animals! Or have you forgotten? Just sit still and enjoy the music of the moonlit forest.”
The clock in the hall downstairs gently chimed ten. The distant drum-beats had ceased for quite some time now. The two cronies were by now deep into the reminiscence of their youthful days.
“It was hilarious, wasn’t it?” Samir said. “I can still see it in my mind. There you were, stranded near the tramline close to the Shyambazar Tram Depot, with your slippers stuck to the molten asphalt and the tram clanging on for dear life right behind you! Oh God!” Samir started laughing his head off and Abhijit joined him.
“And the time when you vaulted over the railing in the Maidan to escape the mounted police’s baton to land in the wide drain…” Abhijit was rolling in laughter now.
“Ah! Football! I really miss the game,” Samir said.
“Yes. It was your first love. I still remember the two goals you scored in a span of three minutes against Mitali Sangha to give us the trophy.”
“Yes, felt great! But you are wrong. It was not my first love, but my second.”
“How come?” asked Abhijit.
“My first love was your sister, Ronjabati,” declared Samir with a twinkle in his elderly eyes.
“Oh! I know that! The way you put up flashy gallery show in the football field with an eye towards our veranda spoke volumes of your emotions.”
“Where is she now, Ronja?”
“They are settled in Shillong.”
They sat in comfortable silence for a while, immersed in thought, sipping their own respective concoction for inebriation. It was quiet all around. Only the cicadas did not appear to have any sense of bedtime.
“How’s Arun doing?” Abhijit broke the silence. Arun was Samir’s son.
“Oh, he’s doing great. He’s in Dusseldorf now. Going steady with a German girl, Stefi.”
“Is it ok for you, a German daughter-in-law?”
“Of course it is. He’ll probably settle there anyway. But I have no problem,” said Samir while pouring a fresh drink. “He came over when his mother died. Had to go back in three days time. Very busy, these young people these days. Couldn’t stay for the Shradh ceremony.” Samir’s voice was somewhat tremulous. Or was it Abhijit’s overwrought imagination?
“Now, enough of it!” Samir sat up straight. His words had started slurring a bit. In comparison Abhijit was sober. But he could hold his drink better than many. So it did not mean that he had drunk any less.
“You, my friend, had never married. Why?”
Another shadow appeared apparently floated up to the stream. Grunts and splashes followed. Bisons. It was unusual to find them moving around so late. But, perhaps this group also had made it a habit of drinking at night. Streaks of fire danced on the far away hills. Bushes were being burnt to remove weeds and to make the soil more fertile than it was. Wordlessly Abhijit stood up and moved over to the balustrade. The fires danced gold in the moonlight of liquid silver. The bisons moved away.
“Hey, man, why don’t you say something? You were the most eligible bachelor amongst us all. From what we saw many girls swooned over you. Even then you never married. Why?”
A pair of fireflies sparkled in the bushes beyond the bungalow gates. A silent shadow slunk away. Leopard? Abhijit became instantly alert.
“Can you hear me, you oaf? Why didn’t you marry?” Samir was insistent and drunk. Abhijit turned to face him.
“Because I loved your wife.”
A night bird screeched and fluttered away shattering the fragile silence of the moonlit night to smithereens.