Thursday, March 05, 2009

The bouquet of Benishaan

Benishaan mangoes will always have a flavour in my life that is steeped in the dry heat of the forests of Warangal. When I sit before a bowl-full of this rich aromatic fruit, its hugely opulent bouquet takes me back to that May in 1980 when a group of us had gone to Eturnagaram Reserve Forest. It was hot, very hot. We would pile into a small Willis 4-wheel drive, chauffeured by a short, rustic man, full of wry wit—but with enough patience and bonhomie to survive the crazy ordeal of driving our zany bunch around in the tinder-dry jungles.

It was beedi-leaf season and most of the animals were disturbed by the inflow of hundreds of humans, brought in on daily wages to collect the leaf that is smoked all over India. In search of wilderness, we had come to this forest, like long-weary desert travelers in quest of an oasis. The romance of being ‘on safari’ gave us an unbelievable stamina to tramp through ankle-deep leaf-litter, dry enough to make our feet sound like a chugging train; through mazes of thorny bushes whose sharpened defenses seemed to have atrophied in the heat and parchedness of this land into small, bitter curves of resistance; through the middle of tiny damp floored creeks—whose soddenness could not seemingly evaporate through the almost grotesquely green branches overhead. These so thick and intermeshed that chinks of sunlight fought their way gingerly to reach the numberless shadows and make it a permanently dim dawn below.
The stench of rotting vegetation underfoot stirred by our cautiously palpating, splashy feet, make us pucker our noses awhile. But how long can a man walk through unknown country—brushing aside generations of webs woven to trap thin, vaporous chemicals ensconced within precariously gossamer bodies of arthropods; ducking, so a branch does not scratch an eye; peering up into the world of tense, silent leaves, pressing upon us their humid weight sucked up through numberless trillions of cells in an endless cycle as old as life itself—to glimpse a movement, an odd-shaped leaf, a shadow darker than those around it, so dark in fact that the brilliant aquamarine were subdued into invisibility; the thing upper-most in our minds—to experience novelty! To see, to comprehend, to inhale pristineness! The agony and the ecstasy of this suspense is too much for a wrinkled nose to stand on. It has to fall into normality, alert for other, unknown whiffs that might pump adrenaline, rather than let the methanish vapor of disintegrating fiber distract it!
One day we walked, waded, paddled, and dawdled through the shallow Dayyam Vagu’s cool waters. Hopping gingerly from sandbank to sandbank, like city-dwellers jumping road puddles—we soon realized the futility of it all and simply took off our footwear. Pleasure is walking through calf-deep water, in 40 degrees centigrade, stopping now and then to immerse cupped-hands into the liquid and splash it over one’s head—otherwise so hot as to cook the brain within! At times the walk became palpably purposeless. We kept at it unconsciously, sub-consciously aware of a hidden pursuit. Then some one saw the magical glide of the giant malabar squirrels. Stunned momentarily into silence we stood rooted, while the water flowed below, gently reminding us of natural history. No swinger of ropes within a big top can stir joy so spontaneously in my heart — as did those squirrels that afternoon. Mundane chores of daily life disintegrate into motes of nothingness in front of a facile gliding squirrel! How unaware, how unconscious of our awe, how miraculously distant from our petty troubles! No poet can describe its simplicity. Its perfect, arcing, well oiled falls—from tree to tree!
These forays of ours into the ‘unknown’, would last all day. We would cover 20-25kms at times! Humidity, like invisible rain, made life miserable. The nights were one big sweltering discomfort. Mosquitoes, and so repellent; which used to make the skin clammy. And the total dearth of breeze, as though we were stuck in the Doldrums. Discomfort like this drove me out of bed. I could never make myself go beyond the wash of yellow light, into the darkness. It was something more than the sudden chill I had felt when one night, walking down the path from ‘our’ hut to the one in which BC and M were staying—my feet in Hawaii chappals—I stopped in mid-stride and switched on the torch. There, between my feet, as though caught in the act of some skullduggery, was a 3 inch long black scorpion, waving its tail overhead like a flag. All pretensions of field natural history vanished and within the beat of that second I craved to be an ordinary armchair naturalist! The torch, thenceforth, was kept open. Moon or no moon. I never mustered enough guts to venture into the realm of darkness, so sharply defined by the harshness of the bare electric bulbs. Prominent among my inhibitions must certainly have been some incomprehensible fear. The heart would flutter inside me when I scampered to the dining room, to wake up one of the boys for bed tea. But why did I get up into those early hours, just about to light? Was it because I was an early morning baby and the newness of the world which surrounded me, so drastically different from the soupy comfort of my mother’s womb, still knocks within my breast a beat that hearkens me to rise early in strange places?
There were times during the day when everything became dead quiet, but not at dawn. A dawn chorus lifts the curtain of darkness with its enthusiasm. Bubbles of sound burst forth through the thinning blackness like ribbons of light heralding dawn. How many people who throng to music concerts have risen at break of day to listen to the greatest orchestra on earth? It is said that music springs from the earth, yet so few pay heed to this earth-poetry. It’s spontainity however, needs neither audience nor applause. An end in itself, it is audible to those who comprehend. Have you ever hear the koel utter a false note? Have you ever felt the flow of a magpie-robin’s song falter? Has not the stentoreous sarus clashed like the cymbals of the very earth? Has not the screech of a parakeet embedded itself into your heart? Into this event I used to wake up and listen enraptured as wisps of darkness melted away all around me.
And believe me, it is no different in the city. Wake up one early morning, before the rays of a rising sun have brought the primal blush in the sky, and listen to bird song. There will be fewer musicians, no doubt, but the notes will be neither less true, nor less heart stopping. The koel will let forth in summer and often the dumpy little staidly dressed, pied bushchat, an unobtrusive bit of black feathers, pour lilting notes in short golden arias. But you have to listen. And once you get the tunes into your head, you will recognize the voices anywhere in your life, in whatever situation you be, and will smile to yourself at their familiarity. That will be your intimate and secret treasure.
The call of one family of birds always struck me. The cuckoos. Whether the bi-syllabic call of the familiar koel—urbanized, swank, prankster—or the ventriloquial utterances of the others. The Indian cuckoo, the hawk-cuckoo, the plaintive cuckoo and the pied-crested cuckoo. Their penetrating, persistent calls, like the seconds-hand of earth’s clock, would echo, reverberate, rebound and filter through the woods all day. Like long distance calls, perfected over ages. Wherever we tramped, these birds seemed to follow with their song-lines, themselves elusive. Only hard-headed persistence in following one call, showed up a pathetically drab, indistinct patch of grey and white and black—this and the thrumming air around it, and the silence of the woods magnificently amplifying its try-syllabic call. An Indian cuckoo!
The character of a place, its ambience, is relative to the moods and temporal perceptions of the observer. In Eturnagaram, the bouquet of Benishaan, rising from a bowl in front of me, at lunch and at dinner was overpowering. The heat of the day was a presence unseen and continued in its stillness into night when the temperature dropped marginally but the all-pervading quiescence remained. It was in fact amplified by the repetitive sounds of the jungle reverberating within its leafy confines. There was also a distinct sense of sukoon.
When these thoughts have been set, and all those numberless others, that come like flashes in the mind’s eye and are ruminated upon—can one evaluate the usefulness of a fruit?

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