It was around 5:00 PM. I was tonguing the evening air on a parrot-green grass hill at Mooppanpara in Kerala. Despite the cloudy weather, I wanted to stick around. It had been a long and tiring day. And the scenery was mesmeric. The sun resembled a dusty grapefruit trying to un-blush. It sunk, beneath the jagged shoulders of mountains. I felt calm, as though a blade of grass had found itself in-between my teeth.
But the weather wasn’t having any of it. Howling winds turned into hesitant whispers. The blueness of the sky gave way to a frowning shade of gray, as rain-fed clouds loomed. Unbeknownst to me, the stench of the struggle for survival was around the corner.
While in Kodaikanal two years ago, a friend had shown me something up in the skies I only saw once before; that too, as a child. Around midnight, Arun – a photographer and astronomy junkie – and I were taking a stroll to gaze at the stars. At one point, he hurriedly pointed towards a section of the sky above a canopy of trees.
On December 5, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had passed away. The city of Chennai came to a screeching halt for 24 hours. The stillness was eerie. It didn’t help that we were already dealing with demonetization, the government’s mischievously impotent strategy to fight corruption. It was a stressful day. But it was nothing compared to how the city would look a week later.
On December 12, we were bruised by the state’s worst cyclone ever. The wind was howling at speeds of 150 kilometers per hour. Roofs and panels were getting blown away. Glass windows shattered, trees uprooted, and power lines disrupted. Ten people died. Many livelihoods were lost. It was our second consecutive winter of managing a calamity. Last year, we were put through a flood crisis. It has not been a good winter for us so far.
I won’t ever forget it. But it isn’t because nothing eventful ever happens in the city. Or because I live in a third world country in which the progress is adjudged on the seamless accessibility of Starbucks and 4G. It is because I finally spotted wild cats during the first weekend of this month.
I travel alone to the hills because it’s how I want to experience the world for now. It’s not as though I am one with the sand and the sky or anything fancy like that. I just feel interconnected to the sum of their moving parts. It also lends itself more to discoveries, life-changing or merely chimerical. The more people I am surrounded with – the less likely I am to feel the pulse of the environment. And it’s not just because how loud and obnoxious they can be.
Exploring a town, a village or the woodlands is an exercise in self-centeredness. I couldn’t be more self-absorbed. If one travels with like-minded folks, it can be a delightful experience. A sharing of primordial sensibilities and digestible proportions of love and laughter.
However, with the wrong individuals, travelling can be stressful. A nuisance like no other.
I used to obsess over spotting wild cats in their natural habits. Leopards, tigers or jungle cats, it didn’t matter. I would feel like a fortunate son of the earth as long as it had whiskers. While I gave up the search in favour of bird-watching, the felidae family members continued to haunt me.
Even now, when I explore the hills of south India, I keeps my ears open for an untamed roar. A guttural cough maybe. Any sign that a darling of the feline variety is on the prowl.
I haven’t seen a single one though. Just pug-marks and poop. But I can’t complain. I have had the privilege of seeing many other gorgeous beasts. Considering that I am not a conservationist or a census assistant, I should just shut up and consider myself a lucky bastard.
Does the journey really matter more than the destination? It sounds like a consolation prize to me. Why must I emotionally invest in a process when I can figure out what my goals are, and do what I can to achieve them? Last week’s visit to the Meghamalai mountain range left me with some answers. A lot more questions too.
The drive from the foothills of Chinnamanur to this esoteric paradise is a rocky but calming one. Only bird calls and cicada songs interrupt the quietude. Yet there’s excitement in the air. Always the promise of rare fauna lurking by the roadside. But for three winters, Meghamalai had me on a streak of bad luck. As bio-diverse as the range is, it had seemed barren to me.
Last weekend, things changed. I spotted a large Sloth Bear on a balding cliff side. He saw me too. And nobody got hurt.
The forest was still and its citizens – cuddling in the mist. The trees looked like silhouettes of ballerinas. And out came the sun with a mild splash to wash the darkness away. It held hostage our dreams in small proportions and our love for infinite space.
One summer night, they held hostage a darkly sky and the square root of Pi; their only ransom – a family blue jays basking in sunlight, like caramelized lemon pies.
I haven’t had a conversation with Tio Stib outside of the comment sections in this blog. But I feel like I know him well enough to write about him. Tio, a writer and traveler, lost his eyesight late in his life but he soon found himself through a reignited passion for living.
is a song
in the hills,
leather is just skin
and fur is in vogue
only during the kill.
Valparai is a sleepy-eyed and fauna-rich town on the Anaimalai Hills range of the Western Ghats. It is one of the few hill stations in Tamil Nadu that is not a total ecological disaster. In the two days that I spent over there in January, I had lady luck dipping a hot-cross bun in a cup of lemon tea and giggling with me.
It seems as though it is only our species that is fixated on celebrating its ability to adapt. We treat it as though it is a triumph of the human spirit. We sometimes feel entitled to it. Most tellingly, we pretend like it is within the realm of our control. As though our instincts are not governed by laws set in motion millions of years ago.
We swam away from the ocean, learned how to walk upright, invented the wheel and even decided to use currency to climb atop the food chain. If we had not changed, periodically and holistically, we would not have survived.