The darkness seemed to thicken unusually fast on that evening. The moist deciduous forest in the southern Western Ghats, where I was standing at that moment, would shed a batch of leaves now and then as the winds from unknown directions forced their way through the trees. After the surroundings got painted with shades of black, my natural guidance — depending largely on vision — had to be switched to smell and sound. Describing things that can not be seen, but can only be heard or smelled, is an arduous task. And there is no specific form or colour that is helpful in describing the night in a jungle. As the sun disappeared, the forest slowly turned into an opera house of insects, with thousands of cicadas and crickets chirping in their natural frequencies. Our shelter for the night was a small camp shed constructed for the patrolling forest staff. Though it had only basic amenities — a roof, a platform to keep kitchen utensils, a couple of candles and LED lights — a trench dug around the premises stood as our guard against any visitor from the woods. My safety feeling, however, got a jolt when one of the accompanying forest staff showed me a bend on the metal grill of our shelter. It was impossible to imagine a human, however strong they could be, being able to apply such brute force. There was only one animal in the whole jungle that could, and would, bend that metal grill: an elephant. But, how did the animal enter the premises? Our anxiety took us to one corner of the trench where clear footprints of an elephant were visible. The experienced forest staff understood from a glance that the trench was not dug properly at that side, and the jumbo found this flaw to crossover.
Describing things that can't be seen, but can only be heard or smelled, is an arduous task
It was impossible to imagine a human being able to apply such a brute force
Our only source of water was a stream around 200 metres outside the trench
Anachooru is a Malayalam word quite familiar among people working or living on the fringes of forests in Kerala, and can be loosely translated as 'intense smell of elephant'. When the wind brings anachooru, skilful tribal trackers of the forest department would tell how far and in which direction did the smell come. Armed with this knowledge, the trackers would change their course; either to meet the pachyderms or to avoid them. Experiences narrated by forest officials and villagers in the Western Ghats are replete with elephant tales. They will often recall how the jumbos suddenly appeared in front of them from nowhere. How these intelligent animals tricked human calculations? Or how some unfortunate souls while fleeing in panic from an elephant pack had ended up in front of the same pack? It was pitch dark by 7 pm and our only source of water was a stream around 200 metres outside the trench. Even though summer was fast approaching, this stream still had running water. Since we had to cook dinner, fetching water was unavoidable. Guided by head-mounted LED lamps and mobile phone torches three of us worked our way towards the stream. There was no way to know what hid in the darkness on either side of the narrow light beam from our torches. Was there any animal standing there in the dark and watching us? Suddenly, a gentle breeze wafted us from the left side, bringing enough news to make us alert. A kind of shiver passed through my body as my olfactory sensors identified that peculiar scent; anachooru. The forest officer walking before me said that the smell was coming from not very far and that we should fill our buckets as fast as possible and rush back. The next few moments were of frantic activity as we filled our buckets and started our return trip. Despite the heavy buckets slowing down our steps, the escalated alert level made us push our way through. Now, the scent was much more intense, signalling that the jumbo/jumbos were approaching us, probably to quench their thirst from the stream. As we walked towards the trench, I could feel that every hair on my body and every drop of sweat on my skin were preparing for an encounter with those 'moving giant black rocks'. Maybe because the adventurist in me was unfortunate (or fortunate), we didn't have to encounter the approaching jumbos, and we did safely reach the shelter. However, it was not the time to rest. Since our trench was already compromised, there was only one way to keep animals away from the shelter: Making a fire.
I scanned the darkness outside as if expecting some unknown entity standing there and watching
the fire with awe
Hours were still left for the dawn to return with colours and another set of lively sounds
The significance of fire may not be easily understood these days unless one is deep inside a jungle. The ability to make fire, the most significant skill that humans mastered in their 'path to progress', was our only insurance that night. While offering dry logs to the fire, I scanned the wild darkness outside the trench as if expecting to see some unknown entity standing there and watching the fire with awe. As we sat around the fire to have our dinner late at night, each of the forest officials started narrating vivid and awe-inspiring tales about the jungle and its inhabitants. They seemed to have an abundant stock of stories. As I preferred to stay awake for a few more hours, my companions, who were preparing to sleep, cautioned me to keep the fire alive. The logs were turning themselves into ashes, sending orange-red sparks up in the air. Hours were still left for the dawn to return with colours and another set of lively sounds. The jungle I would be listening to till then would hide in slumber for yet another dusk.
Photographed in Chalakudy forest division, Thrissur Central Circle, Kerala
Published in 2020