Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wild Wellington

Wellington is a hilltown between Coonoor and Ooty in Nilgiris (Tamil nadu)
No one day in the hills is the same as another. Each day brings new surprises and Wellington is full of them. One day the sun shines splendidly and benedictory upon us; the birds play with gay abandon in the garden. Then suddenly, the next day, you wake up to an unusual quiet, not disquiet, more of suspended animation with the mist hanging in the air in the distant valley and creeping stealthily into the garden. There is silence everywhere, even the birds wait and watch in great anticipation, as it were, the nature’s game of hide-n-seek. It is a moment of meditation.

Then there are days of downpour when the skies open up and there is unwelcome wetness all around. The garden that seemed to glow in health just the other day wears a washed out look. Some flowers droop under the weight of raindrops and some are literally nipped in the bud. The lawns become slushy, the roots rot, and fungus takes over the foliage. The ground too seems to open up with all that water-logging. Trees keel over and toads and frogs come out in the open, unfortunately, to get squashed under vehicles. The subterranean termites take wings and swarm out clouding the skyline; they flit and flap for few hours before they fall dead littering the surroundings with their lace wings.

The next morning there are unexpected visitors – an extended family of raucous jungle crows (unexpected, because, though this place is bristling with birdlife, jungle crows are birds of the countryside and do not visit the backyard regularly). They come to partake of the feast of the termite larvae that are being flushed out by the rains.

And when it promises to be just another day with the maid in the kitchen, son at school and husband in the College, all at once, all hell breaks loose. The domestic who has gone to pick up spinach leaves from the vegetable patch confronts a snake curled up behind the kitchen door leading to the backyard. A slim slimy chap regally uncoils to its full length of two metres and disappears into the weedy outgrowth on the fence wall. Since then of course, one has been spotting this blackish-olive green-pale yellow creature (perhaps, a rat snake, but it is difficult to identify a snake!) with some regularity adding to the adventure of our stay. The gardener, an institution of sorts in the DSSC, vouches for its harmlessness and we are glad to have a “wild” resident among us.

Other NatGeo-like episodes keep unfolding from time to time. Monkeys come in a gang stealthily dodging pet dogs and humans to create mischief and havoc. The gory sight of a tom cat spiriting away a baby squirrel from under our noses and gobbling it up in a single morsel leaves us with a sinking feeling for the rest of the day. But such is life!

Even with all this out-of-the-ordinary action (for the city-slickers) almost on a daily basis, I was little prepared for what confronted me one September Saturday. As I threw open the balcony doors to greet the morning and breathe the cool mountain air, I saw the usually neatly-trimmed lawns trampled upon mercilessly. A closer look revealed whopper of hoof prints in the wet mud all over the garden. It looked like an animal had gone on a rampage running helter-skelter either trying to get out of the garden or involved in a skirmish with some other. Playing Sherlock Holmes we deduced that such large and deep pugs could only belong to a bison. There is a breach in the garden hedge which the bison must have vaulted across. Though bulky, weighing up to a ton, bison are surprisingly nimble-footed and can jump five feet high in the air. The veteran gardener seconded that these were signs of bison. Admittedly, many golfers have seen herds on the Golf Course at some point of time, but few can boast of them in the backyard! 

And then I heard about the panther attack on a herd of bison on the Golf Greens. After a tussle, the signs of which showed clearly on the Birdie Hole of the Golf course - the pugmarks and the hoof prints - the panther had made away with a calf, the remains of which were spotted by the Golfers, just two bungalows down our lane, the next morning! Panther sightings have been noted by villagers and local people around from time to time. But so far, due to the thick forest cover, thanks to the Cantonment efforts, harmony prevails between the wild animals and man here. It is one thing to read about such things in newspapers and media; completely another to experience it, to have a close encounter first hand.

The next day, after a late-night outing as we were heading home, we saw two bison behind our bungalow in the glare of car headlights. That night I decided to stay on a vigil. The duplex balcony provided the perfect machaan for a night watch. I saw few black blobs on the golf course near the college building; a peek through the binoculars (the college is lit up at night so that it is not pitch dark) established their silhouettes and I could make out a herd of eight, one patriarch, few juveniles, and even a calf. Normally, the herd wouldn't dare to stay  so close to human habitation but this once it must have found the refuge among humans a safer bet in order to deter the predator. The young ones were grazing while the patriarch sat contentedly watching over its flock. The night was still except for the opera of chirping crickets and croaking tree frogs.   

I checked on the herd again after an hour or so and it was still there. When I woke up again towards dawn the brood had thinned out and by morning there was no sign of the herd except for the spoors over the patch.
That is when I realized that we had not come from one city to another, from Mumbai to Wellington, but from one world to another. In Mumbai, we were amidst civilization, in a sea of humanity. We knew that there was a jungle out there somewhere, in a distant reality, where wild animals roamed free. But here, we are in the middle of a jungle, we are the intruders, the outsiders – desperately trying to be secure in our trappings of home and hearth. These appurtenances of comfort lull us into false security during the day, but come night time, and the blinds fall away leaving us to confront the stark darkness of a different reality.

Wonder what surprises and adventures await us tomorrow!