Adventure on the dead river
Summer holidays had just started when our cousins decided to pay us a visit. Our wooden bungalow in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary rang with joyous laughter. Footsteps clattered up and down the staircase while whiffs of delicious food wafted in from the kitchen below. There was festivity in the jungle air.
Monsoons seemed to be around the corner with little puffs of dark cloud collecting on the horizon, only to be dispersed sometime later. The time had not arrived yet, opined the rain gods.
“Which means, we still have time to take you guys out for a picnic in the jungle,” concluded Deta (my dad), leading to a raucous reception and much dancing around in merriment.
And so, one glorious summer morning, we found ourselves seated in a jeep, keen smiles plastered onto our faces.
“We are going to Daimary,” Deta announced. Daimary was one of the several areas within Manas which had a ‘beat office’. A thin blue river with sparkling white stones ran besides the settlement.
An adventure was about to unfold. We could feel it!
A journey into the core of the jungle was something we always looked forward to. Being brought up in a wildlife sanctuary did not mean that we could enter the jungle at our whim. We mostly accompanied guests when our parents took them on customary rides around the jungle. So, yeah, we were not more privileged than other people.
I loved the narrow jungle tracks, the sudden dips and crests that created a sinking feeling in my tummy, whistling out long ‘oohs’. Sometimes we would cross crystal clear streams and I would watch with fascination the shoals of fish moving away as our jeep cleaved through the rippling sheets of water. The jungle landscape would change continuously, dark woods giving way to vast grasslands intermittently. Sometimes, there would be brief glimpses of the Manas river at vantage points. And sometimes, there would be dry river beds lying low between thick jungle stretches, with the hills at a close range.
It was one such dry river bed that we were crossing on the said day when the jeep spluttered and died down unexpectedly. We all got down from the vehicle and were instructed to keep quiet. Deta, the forest guard accompanying us and the driver put together their heads to fix the issue. There was no urgency as Daimary was just a few kilometers away.
Suddenly, a thundering crackle made us look up. There were dark ominous clouds gathering overhead. A light wind was beginning to pick up.
“Don’t worry,” Deta said, spotting Ma’s anxious face. “It is sure to die down.”
But he was proved wrong.
The light wind soon turned into a full-on gale and dry leaves whirled around us angrily. A few drops of rain splattered on our faces. The men working on the impaired vehicle now looked grim.
“Sir, let me get some help from Daimary,” volunteered Biren, the forest guard.
There seemed to be no other recourse and Deta nodded at his request. Biren took off immediately, running over the stony river bed at a quick pace.
Deta then called out to us to get inside the vehicle.
Just as we clambered into the jeep, the heavens broke loose and spilled over. But instead of raindrops, there were hailstones. They fell thick and fast, pounding the tarpaulin roof of the jeep. In a matter of minutes, a carpet of glistening hailstones lay over the stones making up the river bed.
As we sat huddled up in the jeep with the wind shrieking around us, Biren was sprinting through the dense woods towards Daimary. He held his hands over his head as hailstones pelted him mercilessly. Suddenly he stopped dead on his tracks. For, in front of him stood a huge herd of elephants, moving steadily. Biren was struck by the jeopardy of the situation. What if the elephants moved towards the clearing, towards the place where the vehicle was stuck? It was a very short distance.
Biren was built of stuff that made men loyal and courageous. They don’t make men like him anymore. He thought about the perils looming large over his officer’s family and taking a deep breath, surged ahead with vigour. He somehow managed to circumvent the herd of elephants, risking his life, and ran towards Daimary with all his life.
Meanwhile, the hailstones had subsided and were replaced by a huge downpour. It rained so hard that it was difficult to see anything outside. But we could make out one thing. The river had come alive. It was being fed by the rains, tumbling down the hills at a ferocious pace. The river which was bone dry a little while ago was now slowly reclaiming its title.
As the rain and wind assailed at us, threatening to pull away the vehicle in its grip, the water level in the river started rising. To our horror, we saw water licking at the foot-board of the jeep. The wheels were half submerged. How long till the river turned into a raging monster and overturned the vehicle? The thought pierced our minds and silence reigned inside the jeep. And unspoken terror had taken us its stranglehold.
We didn't know how long we sat there, numbed with fear. There was no sign of the rain letting go when suddenly something thumped against the vehicle.
“Sir! We are here!” Biren’s voice came through the rain. He had returned with a few others from Daimary. The ordeal was over.
Soon, we left the site in another vehicle, the men working on retrieving the one trapped in the river. It was difficult to look back and concede that the benign looking, dry river bed could transform itself into a flowing river in such a short span of time.
Who would have imagined that the dead river would turn out to be such an adventure for us?
(Note: I was reminded of this when Siddhartha Gogoi mentioned a similar and more exciting incident that he had faced in Manas. To be honest, I have to confess that I fell asleep while sitting inside the vehicle and have no recollections of how we were ‘rescued’. I had to speak with my mother for that. When I spoke to Deta about this, he said he didn’t remember. “These were common occurrings in the jungle, what’s the big deal?”)