A Sackful of Surprise
“Ready, everyone?” Deta (my father) called out as we scrambled into the Jeep, stepping over each other in our excitement. It was summer vacation and we had left behind the harsh school days behind to bask in the cool shade of leafy canopies in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary. The best part of summer holidays would be the arrival of my relatives to Manas. I don’t remember a single season when one or another of my cousins had not spent his/her/their vacation with us. While Manas was home for us, it was an adventurous trip to the jungle for them. We looked forward to their visits as it meant only one thing – the more, the merrier!
It was during one such vacation that my eldest aunt (Jethai to us) visited us with her family. She was famous for her effusive, ringing laughter that always managed to create a chain reaction among us. But she had another side to her, one that we had never known till she stepped into Manas and took a long look at the dark woods beyond our bungalow.
“It’s so creepy,” she shivered. “I hope I never get to see a single animal during my stay here.”
Our jaws dropped. Until that moment, all we had heard from people were things like “Please God, let us have a glimpse of a tiger. If not a tiger, then maybe an elephant. At least, a buffalo!”
Never had anyone uttered such a wish as the one our Jethai just did.
But Deta would have none of it. He resolved to show Jethai the best that Manas had to offer, although the poor lady was unaware of the emotion that she had created in Deta. So, that was how a picnic was planned along the river side one morning. And for that, we had to cross the deep forests. Jethai said her prayers as she got into the Jeep. “He Bhagwan, no animals, please.” We heard her mumble.
Deta was driving the vehicle himself and so there was room for only two more people in the front. Ma and my uncle (Jethu) occupied those seats and Jethai bravely climbed up the steep step to the back of Jeep. She cast a disapproving look as us as we chattered excitedly about seeing a tiger and shuffled to a corner. Deta had just revved up the vehicle when two forest guards approached us carrying a heavy-looking sack. He directed them to put the sack in the back and we were off. One of the forest guards decided to accompany us. We understood the sack as containing some provision for the forest rangers stationed inside the jungle.
The Jeep had an open top and we stood up on the seats immediately to have a vantage view of the jungles. Only Jethai was left sitting on her seat with the sack at her feet. We could see her pale worried face as the vehicle hurtled down amid the rough forest roads. Somehow, her fervent prayers seemed to have been heard as we did not see any animal for miles. Now, it was Deta’s turn to have a sullen look as he kept on grumbling “Not a single animal, where have all the buggers gone?” In the meantime, Jethai was gaining her good humour back and made a few jokes, too, much to Deta’s petulance.
Suddenly, the Jeep came to a sudden halt. We looked around hopefully in case Deta had witnessed some creature. But there were none to be seen.
“Talukdar,” Deta called out to the forest guard. “This seems to be a good place.”
The guard got out of the vehicle and tugged at the sack.
“Baidew,” he told Jethai gently. “Could you please remove your feet? I need to take down the sack.”
Jethai obliged obediently, a tad curious. What would anyone do with a sack in the middle of the jungle?
Deta came over and gave Talukdar a helping hand as it was too heavy for one person alone. We strained to see what they were up to. They carried the sack a little away from the Jeep and carefully untied the string binding its mouth. Deta then pulled back the sack and gave a gentle shove to it. As we watched, the sack seemed to make some movement and then, there slid out a huge python, its skin glistening in the sun. It untangled itself lazily and made way towards the undergrowth near the road. Pin-drop silence pervaded. A croaking sound from behind broke the spell and we turned around to see a shell-shocked Jethai floundering about to speak something.
“I-I-I had been sitting with a p-p-python all along,” Finally the indignant words were out. Her face had again turned a deep pallor. We heard a quiet chuckle, this time from the front seat. Deta had won the battle, and we drove off to the river for the picnic.
(This really happened.)
PS: This got published in www.indiasendangered.com!