The dawn always wakes to the hum of bubbles, I have never fathomed from where the sweet sound is spawned each day or what causes the melody, it’s always been there without a miscarriage; I’ve never woken to a pre-sunrise which is silent, believe me.
Only moments later, chirp of the crickets, murmur of streams, flutter of wings find birth into the earth; and later the incursion of blueness into the sky.
I toss on my bed wanting to capture the mellifluousness by myself, in those anxious moments my ears are the sharpest. I have this startling ability to eavesdrop into the equanimity of nature. Although the span is incredibly short, I rejoice in the transience.
A sharp tingle in my mobile terrifies me; no one is expected to call in the odd hour of virgin morning. It’s an SMS, ought to be from an unknown person; for my regular contacts, I have configured some other barbed jingle.
The draw in the desk where I keep the phone plays truant, doesn’t open easily. The scented smell of fresh-sawn Silver-Oak is complemented by a tinge of varnish, inducing a notch of optimism. I flip the message open with practiced adeptness of a Hawaiian guitarist, the canopy illuminated by the screen-light. I squint hard to read the contents; I am at the nascent phase of aging, my vision needs support of reading glasses. The number’s entirely unfamiliar. The text reads:
I live twice daily,
once when you call to tell you hate me,
the other, when I wait all day for the call;
the rest of the time I am dead,
thank you for making me live twice daily.
The message isn’t intended for me or for anyone who lives the kind of life I lead. Despite the tidiness of logic, the Haiku missive has the ingredient of youth, expectation and perkiness; it’s understandably a case of mistaken identity. Of that I am sure, though I have a bee-line of girlfriends myself, who could’ve played the prank.
Outside, the bon-fire meant for deterring wild-animals appears all but dead; a soft, indulgent breeze sweeps the weightless ashes into the deep woods with ease.
Such a fine piece of poignant writing, love expressed with proficiency shall go unnoticed, if I’m naïve and ignore it. I text back a quick, cryptic message. It should sound neither like a rebuff nor like an invitation, I take care to re-read before pressing the ‘send’ button,
I assume the sender to be of the other sex; boys are not renowned for being sophisticated in matters of writing, are usually less guarded and generally tawdry. My reply carries equal measure of flippancy:
Thank you for living twice daily
Living once is beyond me,
If you check the number thrice,
-your message’s a potpourri of spice-
You’ll know I am not your love,
Just a sloth-bear looking for sow.
I expect the girl to go red when she realizes the grossness of her error; obviously I don’t envisage a reply. She has the freedom to pursue living twice daily yearning for whoever the insensitive bloke is.
I pour some water in the kettle, I must change the water in the pitcher, the water tasted stale yesterday. I scrape out through the short entrance of my shelter, it’s an old tarpaulin canvas; the loose strands have tripped me many a times in the past. Nothing ominous happens except that some water spills out through the snout.
The arid earth, a great devourer, inhales the moisture quickly; and in twitching reciprocation releases a convivial whiff of the wetness which refurbishes my languid spirit. Setting-up new fire is an agonizing piece of work, bound to ruin my mood; a hot coffee would do me immense good. The day appears upbeat, the fire is still alive, the cinder adequate to rouse tongues of flame. I put the kettle to heat, prodding it with few dry leaves and rub the nape of my neck standing stiff. Sleeping on hard, bony surface is an occupational hazard; I go through some neck exercises to ward off the pain.
The sky is joyful, an affirmation of fructifying work ahead. It’s then I notice the dark shadows glooming, my prediction of a clear day might be short-lived; a pall of heavy clouds is skiing up the North-eastern slope with complete nonchalance, it’s a steep gradient to Kodanadu in the Nilgiris. Before the rains start, I hope to locate the sloth bear. I’d lost him in the foothills last evening.
I am a wildlife scientist currently on commission to investigate the habitat of this mysterious, unsociable sub-species. Tacking to a bear is an arduous task, exceedingly dangerous. The animal is partly nocturnal, mostly morose and instinctively shy. It’s over a month since I am in the shrubby terrain all alone. I don’t mind the loneliness; I am as much an introvert as the subject of my study.
Not making much of headway in understanding the life and times of Melursus Ursinus, the scientific name for the genus, losing George Bush is the last thing I wished. George Bush is the pet name for the macho mammal under my immediate surveillance in case you are wondering; the two Bushes share no other similarity.
I cut open the last tin of Tuna soaked in olive and prepare myself a hefty break-fast, picking delectable varieties of wild spinach found in the overwhelming abundance of wilderness. I lap it up with coffee, and loaf of dry bread and native cheese, fishing them out from the haversack. This meal should carry me through the day and if I am lucky, I might snare a rabbit and roast it for dinner. Today my friend Saki is expected to join me, the forest guard would escort him here. It also means I will get fresh rations, rice, dal and onions. My friend is not an animal scientist; Saki is a nerd in cloud computing who loves to get a bit of jungle life which is what he is coming here for. He is good company back in the Metropolis, not while stalking sloth bears. He has the incorrigible habit of sneezing which scares wits out of the wild-life.
I hear the music again, the SMS from the anonymous, most likely from the same girl. What does she say?
At the base of my sub-conscious Saki’s visit arouses expectations, he always brings with him insurmountable variety of liqueur that he meticulously gathers during his jaunts overseas, he doesn’t drink himself but saves them all for me.
I look at my wrist watch, the strap’s been gathering muck at the links, the dial reminds me it’s 10th June, time for the south-west monsoon to be lashing at everything under the heavens. Last fortnight, the Kurumbas were praying for early spell; the summer’s longer this year than usual, the water-holes are already lapped up in Mudumalai forest reserve. I, on the contrary, want rains postponed by a week, I still have to discover the grotto in which Bush resides, which should enable me to complete the project conclusively. If I don’t make it this time, I have to wait till next summer, which my sponsors won’t fancy. Bear-watch during the monsoon is futile; unviable, the bear hardly comes out.
After a brief respite with my parents back home, I’m scheduled to travel to South Africa. SA offers interesting array of fauna, besides alluring landscape; I would be joining a consortium of experts at Johanesburg to undertake a study on bear fossils, SA strangely doesn’t enjoy bear population, they must have existed long ago. I leave my shelter collecting the day ration; the familiar resonance of a new SMS distracts my attention. As I am already on my way, pay no attention to it, but remember to switch the phone to vibration mode, Bush, like all good bears, disproves gadget-buzz.
I am lucky twice today, he’s not far from where I’d lost him, is busy slurping a colony of termites. He seems in a hurry, the ant-hills will wash away once the rain soaks the terrain. Only by mid-noon, my thoughts return to the SMS, no other message except a bulk-sms advertising home-loan, I quickly open the inbox. Her reply,
You are very nice
My man in disguise!
‘M making chicken
Come to my pen (dear)
You may be the winner.
I labour to muffle the mute chuckle taking birth inside my larynx; the girl’s humour is surely mixed with constellation of balls. Bush unexpectedly forestalls my espionage, running towards the dense thorny undergrowth. I struggle hard to keep pace, by evening, he clears last of the shrubberies at the base of Blue Mountains and begins the climb with belly full. The crevice behind the mound which has been blocking my view, is a rocky entrance, what looks like his cave. If this’s where George Bush resides, things work out comfortable; I’d pitch our tent at the precipice above the cavern, laze around the craggy watch-tower all day long and observe him preparing for the hibernation.
By the time I return, its dusk; the darkness sets. At the camp, the forest guard waits anxiously along with the nerd. Saki walks up to me and hugs without making any noise. The night-fire is already on, the second bed ready for my comrade. I enjoy the fresh food savouring it with a peg of single malt secured from the Scottish highlands. We discuss the next day’s plan and my intention to re-locate. With a bit of persuasion, the guard agrees come over the next day along with a crew and transport our things to the new post. He leaves for his quarters in Masinagudi, though the hour is unsafe.
In the night, we chat in hushed voices, Saki and I, he is all eagerness about living in the close neighbourhood of White House. I pray Saki doesn’t make great fuss later, all bears stink inconsiderately. I am excited too; I’ve grown attached to George Bush and want to show him off to Saki. In the excitement I forget to reply to the new phone-pal. I am about to doze off, in the jungle you can’t really sleep, another message-alert makes me sit upright:
The bird I bought for you couldn’t fly,
but swims in the curry well!
the aroma is swell!
no hurry, no hurry!
come when you will,
the chill in my fridge is ample.
The chat’s exhilarating, I could already fathom she’s not of my age. I am still a bachelor, hence muster up the courage. I key in instantly:
One plus one is two,
Am I the number for you?
I am ready to mingle
If you are sprightly and single
The swimming hen is fine
I am ready to dine!
Do not retort,
I am a bear, snort, snort!
I don’t mean to be coming on, she doesn’t respond, the signal goes dead for a while. The familiar drone of drizzle lulls me to slumber, I turn into piece of dead wood; a hyena could’ve eaten my guts for supper, I wouldn’t have known. After sometime, a horde of Sambar deer graze past, arousing me from the sleep. I scramble for her reply, there is none. I wash the distaste of disappointment with water, a waft of wind carrying odour of bison-shit passes. I recline on my bed miserably.
In the morning, I give directions to Saki to wait for the guard, later to move with him to the precipice I’ve chosen, he complains about having to trek the second consecutive day. I rush and catch up with Bush; in the meantime, I inform my sponsors that the project is shelved as monsoon’s started. If they know, I have tracked the subject’s pad, they would insist on putting a night vision camera inside the cave, which I think Bush would mind. A bear’s sense of smell, like that of dogs, is strong; a Polar bear can detect the dead carcass of a whale 30 feet below under the ice. It can also detect minor variation in temperature; any electronic device is bound to emit some radiation.
By the noon, I get restless, even impatient; her long silence makes me edgy. I admonish myself for having over-stepped, I even think of ringing her up and offering apologies. The next day, Saki sleeps through the day while I squat under the laburnum tree consolidating the notes. Bush goes foraging into the cluster of Bamboo forest turning from yellow to pale-green. I plan to wait a few days more before venturing into Bush’s cottage, but only during his absence. Camping at heights gives us the added advantage; the bear won’t be able to detect us.
By evening, I get the reply, the wait has been long:
All men are numbers,
All numbers are men;
I know I’ve made a gaffe
While saving the number,
Chewing doughnut in a Café!
I am glad she realized the mistake; from now on the friendship will be real, no impersonation. “All men or numbers, all numbers are men”, the puzzle irks, but the last sentence sounds personal, giving new-found confidence.
In the night, it thunders, lightening draws gorgeous silhouette of the Western Ghats; powerful drops of the torrential make frothy sound upon gouging the gravel. Not sure, if I’d selected a safe position, I wince; the movement of elephants would begin; we have no fire to ward off the herds. A piece of sandstone rolls down as I retract the dry as bone firewood inside the tent. It hits a rock in the chasm below.
Saki loves watching the downpour, adores chocolates and the dry fruits, the oil-free diet in camp-site which make up for dinner. We have enough rations of that; eat with help of a feeble lamp. He nurses his orange punch while I do good with the Bourbon. We wash our plates in the newly formed puddle. I speculate what Bush would be doing at this hour, not be watching TV serials certainly. Saki notices the lines around my eyes, tells me to get some sleep; and he would do the sentry. Being not familiar with the forest, he wouldn’t know when danger’s around the corner. The only fortification from the wild animals is the small pistol. Fire a shot in the air, the beasts would flee, but Bush might also shift and I can’t afford to lose him. Gun-shots ought to be the last resort.
Around 2 in the night, I wake to see what’s up, Saki is fast asleep. The rain is still gashing, but thunder has stopped. I take the torchlight, wear my rain-coat and the boots and venture out. The ground is slippery, I hold on to the bushes bending down often to keep the centre of gravity low, I tread carefully. The morning would be different after the rainstorm, a brand new world. A quiver in my cell chills my spine, it’s her again.
I wipe my eyebrows, water trickles over the nose ridge. It takes time to read her message without allowing the instrument to get wet:
Let us not speak
Or know each other’s name,
nor our place or age,
We’ll have none to blame, if so,
This is a lovely game!
There’s no way I can text to her in this deluge. Calling her would be simple, but she has put an embargo on calling only a few moments ago. Let me play by her rules, I reply with a blank message to let her know, I am waiting. She strikes back,
You are charming my beau!
I am mystified, she calling our stumbling affiliation Godly. I manage to type, cowering inside the raincoat.
“Go to sleep, girl, the Black-coat man will catch you.” Make it sound casual.
She replies instantly,
Let’s not know our gender
Not while the friendship is still tender.
I love the charming attention
Which I forgot to mention!
I rush to the tent, wipe myself and change, before getting into the bed. I cover my face with the blanket and script a response:
Attention’s least expensive commodity,
I have plenty, plenty.
Your humour is bright
Your nickname’s bunny, right?
She keys in fast, her comebacks are pretty quick,
If am the bunny
You are the bear,
It’s so funny
Bear looking for a dear!
Ok, tell my something
to make my mood light,
Am pensive about my plight!
I prove my mettle this time around, I send her a hilarious lyric :
I intend to surprise
A shaggy little bunny
At the next bend
Shaped after a hair-pin
Body and fur
And eyes like balls of gold
Flummoxed by the beam.
Shsssh! Angry is my dame,
I’m late for home!
(I could stop the car
Alight, pick my tooth
Catch the fellow by ears
And carry home for dinner)
But at the next bend
Whatever shaped after
The balls are there
Body, fur and eyes
A black blooming bear,
Jumbled and incensed.
She doesn’t take it kindly,
For she pounds the bonnet;
Crushes the windshield
Catches my collar
And gives a squeaky bear-hug –
May be, her hubby’s late!
This goes on for some time, I think of things to tell her and wait for her couplets in turn. We share our emotions, bits of knowledge, our views on worldly things, but in the end we return to the bonding glue: her humour. Which is unsurpassable. I describe the little acts of the bear, spoofing myself as the bear; she starts addressing me as one and signs herself as Bunny. The freshness in the relationship motivates in my work.
Saki’s girlfriend’s a Lithunian, he converses with her mostly through text; the timings of our trading SMS-es makes me suspect if he’s impersonating Bunny. I check often, the coincidence is surprising. Saki departs after eleven days, he sure enjoys his escapades to the wilderness. Away from the cloistered universe of computers. He promises to visit me in SA; while bidding farewell, talks of things we would do in the Table mountains.
I do not mention him to Bunny or her to Saki, though we stayed in close proximity to each other. He wondered why I blush whenever a message’s received. Or so I imagined.
The return to solitude is gratifying. A few days after Saki left, I trip over an uncovered root of a Kadamba tree overlooking the cliff, the fall could have been fatal. I manage to escape only by clinging to its slithery end. Sadly my mobile slips out of my hand and plunges into the abyss, it breaks during the tumble, the predacious bottom is covered with impenetrable foliage. It is irretrievably lost, even if I risk my life searching for it.
I immediately wind up the mission, most things I wanted to gather about Melursus Ursinus is already captured. The findings would be definitive, the thesis authoritative. The habitat of an Indian sloth bear’s been an enigma so far, and it’s a remarkable feat to compile it single-handedly. But I am distressed that I no longer will be able to communicate with Bunny. Losing her inflames, I think hard for avenues to retrieve; should have memorised or noted in the memo-pad, certain things are taken for granted by us.
Back in Ootacamund, I roam aimlessly, her absence drives me into a mad patch. I buy myself a new Ipad, get all other contacts by searching through the net. How will I get hers, I do not even know her real name, Bunny is vanished for good. I can’t even remember what was the last message I’d sent.
The air is golden as I regard the mountains from atop the Jail hill; the meadows overlooking Thanganad is resplendent, the clouds have cleared for a while. I tread down inconsolably. The light refreshment restaurant in the railway station dishes out nice potato Vadas, and the tea is good.
Group of girls are cluttered around the tea counter, the lot is boisterous, they are from Stella Maris, as the banner with the insignia of the college proclaims. They look like students of Botany, all of them carry specimens of the flowers collected during the tour. I have preference for people who study bio-science.
At the table, I fiddle with the Ipad after composing a nice line for Bunny, which I won’t be able to transmit. I name my device once again as Sloth bear. I collect my brew and sit brooding over the cup playing “Do Re Me’’ with the stirrer. After finishing, the troupe crosses me on the way to the platform.
Not a great believer of providence, but when the flash from the blue tooth alerts, “Connecting to Bunny”, I am unable to believe. I peer at them, most of them are chatting on the phone. And those who aren’t, are busy are texting messages. The curse of modern science is that it has made people unsocial while connecting all the time. My eyes scans dreamily and eagerly in the hope of identifying Bunny, my heart hops.
One of the lassies stops abruptly, as if strung by the mandible of a scorpion; my face turns red as I rise from my seat. The girl turns wheeling on her heals and looks around, the restaurant is deserted except for me, the patrons have already left. She walks in my direction and searches my face for a clue. She’s younger to me by a fortnight, if days are years. Age doesn’t matter in matters of love, we had agreed on that presupposition during the course of our interactions; to me kerbs on difference in age when it comes to love are latitude of social perception.
Again the bluetooth notifies each other’s presence, asking for consent to connect. Interestingly “Blue tooth’’ has been named after Harold Bluetooth, the Danish King who united several neighbouring tribes through a channel of communication. We are different species, the Sloth Bear and the Bunny.
Since we vowed never to speak, I intimate who I am by imitating a bear; hours of observation come handy.
Bow-legged, undemonstrative hunch, sauntering as if impaired by the long nails, eyes looking through the broad, apathetic snout, scratching tetchily and uttering snorts.
She recognizes the pantomime, gives away ripples of laughter which touches the ceiling. The waiters gape at the two of us with trepidation. She laughs uncontrollably; then suddenly runs into my arms as if she cares about nothing, looks into my eyes as if exploring my soul. I adore her beautiful face, she kisses my check. I feel her trembling, don’t hold or even touch her. We remain so for some time until the porter rings the bell, whereupon she hurriedly disengages, runs to join the others who are by now swarming into the Nilgiri Express. It’s difficult to single her out in the pack, all of them dressed in brown and yellow costumes, like a pack of giraffe. I don’t make efforts to move, merely try to isolate her with my eyes, unwilling to let go.
When the train chugs out, the white steam from the engine defies and disappears. I swagger through the exit on the other side, heading towards the market like the biblical Moses, wide eyed, carrying the tablet in one hand, showing thumbs up with the other.
Now I am in possession of her number!
I wade through dirty men in tattered black coats hawking horse rides. Strangely they don’t make me any offer; in my jubilation I might’ve accepted all and without negotiation, and even tipped them as well.
The ash coloured pony with gleaning saddle, neighs showing the fine set of teeth; they aren’t blue. After carefully noting down the number in my memo-pad, I transmit a small couplet:
Whoever says Indian Sloth bears can’t write a Billet Doux?