I have this nasty habit of opening my mouth too much and too often, usually for wise-cracking, stale humour or simply PJing at others cost. I did get into tight corners now and then but never too seriously. This happened one summer when I just got past my teens. I was just commissioned in the Air Force as a Pilot and posted to Assam. During vacations my room mate Jim Altold invited me to visit his home town Jabalpur – sounded exotic. Jim and I were received by Mr. Henry Altold at the station. Unlike his son, Henry Altold looked every inch a retired Colonel from the Royal Army – which he was. He had sparkling eyes set on rough-cut face on a six foot body. His handle-bar mustaches lent great style. He drove us home in his army disposal Jonga
On arrival, Mrs. Alva Altold treated us to home-made cookies and good-hot tea. Here is where I put my foot in the mouth. While talking of this and that the subject changed to a stuffed Cheetah. The animal had been mounted on a dried up tree trunk, his long tail hanging down carelessly. Mrs. Altold mentioned that it was her husband’s weakness. This weakness I thought was to buy such trophies. I claimed that I too was a keen hunter and hunted deer in the foot hills of UP. Col. Altold was suddenly all years. “A hunter”, he boomed, “A mighty fine fella”, he said with shining eyes as he drew his chair closer to mine.
After tea he led me by the shoulders to ante- room of his palatial house. I blinked as I saw several trophies line the huge walls. Many animals were stuffed and very suitably placed at vantage points. Skins of animals were spread on the floors or pinned to walls. I speak of a time some 335 years ago when shooting was done using real guns and not by just instant cameras. The Colonel, like all other good Colonels was the only one who did the talking, on my part and occasional nod of the head was all that was permitted. The next room was his personal arsenal. He had a beautiful collection of muzzle loading guns, rifles, shotguns, swords, kripaans, spears and even bows and arrows. His stories attached earlier to the trophies changed to ones attached to the weapons. These were all historical, himself he used a Springfield rifle and Greener double barrel gun. These were chained to the racks. Hunting had just been banned by the Government and he promised me a shoot on the quiet. It was really poaching to be done in areas bordering the army artillery ranges. I was extremely excited no doubt as would be my first ever; I tried to hold the secret to my self. Col. Altold was explaining the working of his weapons and I nodded even more vigorously. My last contact with guns was at NDA where we did annual range practice with .202 rifles, most of which never fired. I had butterflies in my stomach but was too proud to admit the fact and default.
Two days later and on the day of the shoot, the Col. was laid down with fever and decided to drop out of the hunt. He had arranged for one Shikari – Sher Singh, a helper – Rattan Singh. They had already mounted the Jonga with a powerful beam light, spare batteries and standard kit used in earlier expeditions by the trio. Suddenly Jim and I were at the head of this mission. The organization seemed to be perfect and I liked it, much like a hole in my head. It was Mrs. Alva Altold who told me I was the best of the lot and I should take good care of the rest. I let that ride.
After a hearty meal we all set out by 3 pm for the land of promise. Jim was at the wheel. I had no positive idea of a jungle and I imagined tall trees, dense shrub and Tarzan swing vines.. Some 3 hours later we stopped in the jungle which, by contrast was scanty thorn trees and dried up and even more thorny shrubs. It was open country. The Shikari handed me a shot gun, some yellow cartridges marked 4 and two red cartridges marked 2. He said 4 were for smaller game and 2 for big game. With that they drove off. Suddenly I was alone and miserable.
I surveyed the area around me under the setting sun. “Not bad”, I thought. At least I was in the open and nothing could surprise me, my faith in the handful cartridges soared. I found myself standing on an embankment and on all sides the ground fell. On one side on to a broad expanse of water. Sher sigh’s words came back to me – yellow, No.4 for small game and No.4, red for bigger. Big game and a tiger or lion seemed to be synonymous, and a big chill went down my spine. The thought of the Lord of the jungle welcoming me was not encouraging. I immediately spread eagled my self below a beri bush, more as a camouflage than as a Shikari stance. I was getting scared of even the other term – small game. I had been in my horizontal posture for some fifteen minutes when a clutch of jungle fowl appeared in front of me, moving from my left to right and less than 10 meters ahead. This sent my adrenal shooting and managed to up my courage to at least boot-strap level. I put the gun to my right shoulder, slid the safety catch back, aimed and fired both barrels – NCC style. Thus I remained for some more minutes and then opened my eyes. To my surprise the flock lay dead and some birds were in the process of dying. I was the one with beginners luck on his side. I ran and collected my trophy of six birds and ran back again for my own safety under the bush.
After that nothing happened. The jungle grew colder, darker and even scarier. It was about half an hour after that and I was thinking if friends had forgotten me, could they ever relocate me in the dark. I hoped they did not have a break-down. The silence of the jungle is eerie, with chirping of retiring birds and noises of a thousand insects coming into activity after a days sleep. I wondered what I should do, shouting was definitely out. There was a tree some 15 meters away near the water edge, but I could not climb it. Suddenly, I heard a noise of twigs breaking under the tree and saw the out-line of a wild boar. It must have been that as it bore a strong resemblance to the domestic Pig. Now Pig rhymed well with Big – was this the big game. I slid the red cartridges into the barrels and waited. My heart was thumping so loudly that I was scared it would frighten the boar. But the animal was unmindful of me and slowly moving towards me, now he was only some 10 meters from me. Again I put the gun to my right shoulder, slid the safety catch and aimed the gun. I again pulled both triggers. The left went click but the right one boomed even more loudly. I hoped three things would happen. Firstly, the boar would be scared away, secondly convey my “May Day” message to my team and lastly I wanted to hear the reassuring boom of the gunshot. I was relieved to see the animal sink to its knees and kick around for some time. Then every thing was eerie silence. I saw the snaking lights of the Jonga and then herd its sputter heading my way. My body cramps did not let me get up and I struggled to stand. I had heard stories that a tiger would also turn away from a wild boar, this time I prayed that it was true and there would be no Royal presence.
The rest of the party had not met any luck and wondered why I was firing shot after shot. I was relieved to see the Jonga stop. I ran and produced my clutch of the six obliging birds and that brought a grin on all the faces. I shouted to Jim about the boar and excitement light up their faces once again. They all ran to the animal, I followed them. Every one helped to load up the boar. My ego was soaring high.
Time was close to 10 pm and the fowl would provide the meat. Rattan Singh lit up the fire while Sher Singh and Jim prepared the birds. I engaged my self in pouring out mug-fulls of Rum. We were actually enjoying ourselves when it appeared to me that the rate at which we were drinking far out-stripped the cooking. The first bottle had already given place to the second. They all seemed to beat the others to the mug. “Sunk”, I thought.
By the time we finished with the dinner, I was the only sober leader in the team. The luminous hands of the watch showed time at 11 pm. Jim took the wheel again and the old Jonga lurched forward.
Sher Singh stood up in the open vehicle and began to shine the light all around, hoping to spot a deer or some thing else. Jim was a good driver without drinks, but now this was not the case. The Jonga’s right wheel hit a boulder. Soon Sher Singh was sprawled all over us and continued to lie thus. Jim declared that he was drunk. Sher Singh announced ditto with out moving. Rattan Singh had continued to sleep through all this. The lamp had rolled off somewhere and now we could not locate it. We all dittoed that. I had a small torch, but that did not help much. We woke up Rattan Singh in the chaos.
Rattan said he will fetch water from to lake, which was now visible in the half moon. He walked away unsteadily for a few meters and then came back racing. He mentioned something about elephants. None knew anything about wild elephants in Jabalpur. We all joined him in his race to out-run elephants. At last, we stopped. No elephants! Perhaps we had out run them. Cautiously, we began our return journey. Jim found a tree and climbed it. Sher Singh followed suite. From up there he made a joke about only one sheer remaining in a jungle. I was happy that Rattan Singh was in my company in the Jonga. Back there, Rattan Singh began to recount his days in the jungles in the company of the Gora sahibs, but soon he was fast asleep. Me? I was too scared to shut my eyes and began to aimlessly throw the torch light around me. Then suddenly I spotted a pair of red eyes reflecting the torch light. In my panic I nudged Rattan. “Kya hai” he muttered and I pointed the red glow. He spluttered something of a Panther. I froze. I peered out again, my panic growing within me. I looked again at Rattan, but he was already gone. My mind began to whirr like a computer
The whirring told me that a Panther killed his victim by slapping him rather than biting him. Well it surely was my neck into it. I opened the side door and silently slipped under the Jonga. Idea was to deny the brute use of his paws to break my neck. I thought I had swung the battle of survival in my favour and that I was far enough from all sides of the Jonga’s Body and well under it. Now I did not even have the torch. Shivers of fear and cold alternated in my body and cramps racked all my muscles. Above me I heard crunching of the boars bones and tearing of its tender flesh. I thanked the dead animal for its presence and saving my life.. My gratitude to the pig was oozing out of every pore in my body. The red – amber eyes remained busy with the boar all night. My friends did not even squeak once, perhaps the tree was a more pleasant place to be in.
Day-break was settling its light all around and presently the huge ball of the sun became visible in the horizon. Then I saw it. A wild cat jumped from the Jonga. It stood some distance from me, licking its whiskers. Then our eyes met and it scampered away. Then, one by one three more cats jumped, licked their whiskers and scampered away. I crawled out painfully and took a big sigh of relief. The Pig was nearly gone and yes- Rattan Singh?
He too was in the tree.