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  • Hridi

Birth of a Night

It was a night of chase. It was a night. Exquisite danger: a tigress chasing us chasing a tigress. A night of many stars. Of terrible darkness, darkness smelling of the forest. A forest purged in darkness. A night of monsters, of angels, of mad meaningless fear, of holding on, of letting go. I will try my best to speak of it without crying, without feeling homesick.

When Rajesh and I booked tickets to the fabled land of fiery colours, we did not anticipate this night. But it will be only fair to mention that the night did not anticipate us either. For such nights do not live among the constellations of eternal Time; they are born, all of a sudden, on the whimsy of an animal of prey.

It was many years ago- counting on the wedges of my left hand, I think it was five, or maybe six. Years ago. Today it returned me back to me in the afternoon when you climaxed. For a moment, it was the same fear, at the gates of the forest, the edge of that endless black ahead. Earlier this week I explained to one of my students: “The colour black does not exist; it is merely an illusion we cradle. Nowhere in the limits of your known world will you ever come across complete absence of light.” I was lying. It was at that moment, at the mouth of the forest that all light, for a splinter of all time, had been swallowed by my body- I had felt it slither down my throat and settle in my belly. I’d clutched at the amulet around my neck, fumbling to find the words of a prayer, any prayer. I lied to them; I have seen black.

Oh dear, did I already mention this afternoon’s dream? Okay never mind, I will tell you the rest of the story only if you promise to disbelieve it. It is essential that you think this is fiction, a fragment of our imagination, yours and mine.

So here we start. Once upon a time (six years ago, or maybe five), I was standing at dawn at the edge of Dhuandhar falls thinking of my friend on her deathbed. Large fishing nets clung to the rocks as the spray of all that water rushing downwards caught the golden from the east. If one looked closely, one could just make out the silver fish jumping in the turbulence. What I remember clearest is the sound, the deafening noise of the water, and the dampness of the peach-pink hoodie against my skin, and an odd desire to join those fish. For some reason, I wanted, in my mind, to get caught in the nets. The nets were gestating, feeding secretly the foetus of a night.

Later that day, we are at the limestone formations. A perfect scene: crocodiles sunning on the yellowish-white marble, as our little boat winds through the narrow ravine, the oarsman chanting couplet after couplet, in time to the lapping waters. How suave, this journey through fathomless green water, between cliffs of white marble, beautiful death. A loud splash breaks the enchantment. A group of bare-bodied boys jumping off the higher rocks. “The crocodiles!” I scream. The oarsman replies, “Don’t worry, madam, they survive.” Again that strange desire, to join the boys this time. In the womb of Time, the foetus kicks. On the way back through the markets, I buy a string of flowers made of marble, to wear around my hair.

Oh goodness, I have mixed up my tenses. Bear with me, even as I speak, I am living this once upon a time. Assume the past tense, meanwhile, let me live in the memory. Once upon a time, I measured time to the rhythm of an oarsman’s couplets. The crocodiles had heard. They warned the tigress.

The next day, we drove to Kanha. The fields were bowed in ripe crop this time of the year. The golden of ripe corn, red of the soil, the green of the forest, the dark umber of the bodies working in the fields. An illusion: I am a cob of corn under the sun-caked blue sky, ready to be plucked. It is almost harvest time. We reach the hotel, a group of cottages in the buffer area of the forest. Not far is a tribal village. A rumour welcomes us: last night, a tiger attacked a cow in the village, the tiger is yet in the buffer zone. We are safe within the electric barbs of our living arrangements, but it is advised to not venture outdoors at night unsupervised.

Lying on the forest floor, the scent of torn grass in my nostrils, surrounded by miles of bluebells and silence, I told you of the lake, this afternoon. What we were doing was illegal: we were making love among the fragile bluebells of a forest without predators. We devoured each other, unconcerned about possible voyeurs, for instance, a tigress. But I tell you the more romantic story of the lake we saw that night at Kanha when we left the hotel risking the lurking danger. One of the guards had taken us there.

It was an abyss. A portion of the darkest hour of the night served in a bowl of earth. I believed the guard when he said it contained water. Rajesh was sceptical, he tested with a pebble. The splash was unmistakable: however improbable, this truly was a little lake in the wilderness behind the hotel, not a tunnel into a different dimension. Above were the heavens, the galaxy displayed in its fireballs of red, blue, yellow, white, consumed into the deep ultramarine, the unforgiving Prussian blue, the faint turquoise of a cosmos alive. The horizon was stained in orange: vigil of the attacked. A sleepless village awaiting a predator. I want to laugh, very loud. I think it will scare the animal.

You are fascinated by my story. “I want to travel to your country if only to experience the tropical forests. It sounds like such a paradise!” you say. Lying upon a carpet of bluebells, against the warmth of another breathing body, exhausted in spent pleasure on the floor of a forest out of a fairy fable, you say this. I smile. Paradise is always elsewhere.

The early-morning safari had been rewarding. The landscape bathed in the mellow light, obscure in the mist, awakening- a goddess from the myths. I have grown up in a village of peacocks, yet these courtiers of perfection amaze me every time, the harsh cry of brilliance echoing through the trees, circling in the heavy morning air. But the king of the forest, the rajah, did not emerge. “Hard luck” was Rajesh’s verdict. “There’s still the night safari”, his consolation. The night safari. A safari in the dark, in the buffer area, not the core. But this is good, the guides declare, for there are chances of glimpsing the tiger that attacked the village, yet untraced.

The cold November night claws as my face as we climb into the open gypsy cars for that odyssey with fate. At the gatepost of the jungle, they check our papers. There are two others beside us in the vehicle, one of them an amateur wildlife photographer. It is here I am conscious of the tingling sensation, a mixture of devilish excitement and unnamed fear. Beyond the short halo of the headlights is darkness, impenetrable dark, welcoming us.

The memories of that night are scattered across my consciousness. At no point have I managed to give them a coherent shape. A strange paralysis gripped my limbs like the night when you first kissed me. Your heaving torso over my numb frame, your mouth first in mine, as if blowing air into me, then on my right shoulder, biting hard, desperate to awaken my dazed body, terrified of my living death. How I lay there, defeated in thirst, broken from need. The trance lasted all night. In the cold blue light before dawn, I realised I was weeping in your arms, limp in fatigued sleep.

Here we are in our little bubble of headlights in a sea of night. The light shines against the bark of ancient trees soaring who knows where to. We are speeding over the mud paths, the uncertain trails, winding deeper and deeper inwards. I am in the backseat, slightly raised, my teeth quietly chattering. The woodland is swallowing us every minute, I can feel the saliva of the monsters on the nape of my neck. A flurry close by makes me look; a large eye, iridescent, rushes past. The next moment I have identified it: a peacock on a branch, it was the light reflecting off a feather. In this cyclic metamorphosis from paradise to inferno of the wilds lies the history of a civilization. In the mind’s sky, the sun traces its trajectory, the angel of daylight becomes the devil at dusk. Every primordial vein of the body points out a sacrilege, an ancient law broken- by straying into the heart of the forest after dark, we are defying the survival rule of a species of helpless prey, we who are not one of them anymore, we, game to vanity.

Suddenly, we stop. The guide is pointing at the ground ahead, whispering excitedly. Fresh pug marks. But not of a tiger. A tigress. I wonder how he knows. The tracks lead ahead, right to a fork, then into the left, narrower path. The engine revs up, we follow the tracks into the undergrowth. I gain a few scratches, unnoticed at the time. Any moment we might glimpse her. Any moment now. Gaining a small clearing; the tracks on the soft earth are clear. To the left again. We chase. Another left. Yet another. The trees brush past like ghosts from a forgotten nightmare. Rising over the harsh noise of the engine and wind, the shrill cry of a night bird pierces the air. The jungle is ripe with hidden life. We move around, flies hovering in the nucleus of a solitary lantern. Every leaf, every branch is strangely awake to our movements; little bulbs of glowing eyes peeping from everywhere- red, green, yellow- a carnival of mockery, of trespassed anger.

We stop again. Something is wrong. The pug marks crisscross here over car tracks. Now there are two sets of pugmarks of the same feline- one passes to the right, the other into the left. This is strange; only two vehicles have entered the forest in this shift, the second one trailing ours. The drivers discuss in undertones, then we separate, each to follow one pair of tracks. The idea is to corner the animal. Thus, begins the second part of the chase. The same scenes, same darkness, same cold, same noises, same fear, unbeknownst the monotony begins to lull me into a drowsiness.

A sudden jerk wakes me up. It is quiet. Unnaturally quiet. And dark. The headlights are out. We are in an open space lit in the starlight of the deep blue night sky, contoured by the silhouettes of trees. Before us, a large fallen trunk bars the way, behind it, the other car. There is a new moon tonight, the feeble luminescence glitters upon the sands of this deserted riverbed stretching into the distance. A large white thread shines on the ground near me- snake skin, cast off. The silence of forest truly envelopes us at this moment, a silence cast out of a myriad of sounds of creatures concealed in shadows. In the stillness, a profound beauty is palpable. We, ancient citizens of this habitat, have returned to examine the preserved moult of a hundred thousand years, a life cast behind, forgotten unawares.

A bark tears the silence. Another. Yet another. The photographer whispers, “Barking deer call. A predator is nearby.” A round of whispers pass. The tigress is nearby, within a few hundred meters, in one of the forests on the two banks.

Finally, the full import of the situation reaches us. We are trapped. The tigress had played a wicked game. As we chased its tracks, it followed us, taking us in circles. All the while we looked ahead, she was behind one of the two vehicles, veiled perhaps only by a bush. Perhaps from my seat at the back, I could almost touch her. Almost. Now, she has brought us, little puppets of autonomy, here. A riddle of pure danger, complete. The umbilical cord breaks, a child is unleashed, stillborn.

Another memory: I am seven years old. The bhotbhoti we hired for sightseeing is stuck in the marsh of a narrow backwater. The serang points out something in the mud- next to the exposed roots of a row of sundari trees is a mark, a fresh imprint. Pugmark of the notorious master, the pride and terror of the Sunderban forests, the man-eating Bengal tiger. They joked this morning that the tiger picks the fattest of the crew. There is a baby in my mother’s belly, I have recently found out. I am terrified. If the tiger takes Ma, I will jump in the river, I quickly decide. The leaves rustle. The leaves part. A band of crab-catchers emerge. Baba buys a large portion of their catch, we have crab-stew for dinner.

Why did I want to jump in the river? When, more importantly, did I learn to outlive my mother? Was it that day you asked me why I told you what I have uttered to no one else, and I replied, “Because you are a stranger.”? Or perhaps only this afternoon, my body wedged between you and the earth.

I think of the day we met. In the leaving light of that cloud-stained evening, I saw you in the secret garden of that abandoned fourteenth-century monastery. Your eyebrows were orange with a hint of gold, like your hair, and the stubble on your chin. You smiled a smile that mapped a continent across your face. A night of poetry was born. For such nights do not live among the constellations of eternal Time; they are born, all of a sudden, on the whimsy of an animal of prey. The roses in the wilderness of the garden were white. My mother wanted to name me after a white rose, but my name is a forest. The amulet strung on a black string around my neck is a crystal the same colour as your hair, as the tiger. Perhaps that is why when I buried my face in your hair this afternoon, I remembered all this.

How we got out of the forest that night, I cannot recall. But I remember we did not see the tigress. I remember she saw us.

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