Rice Lovers

The deciduous trees of the Terai, ancient beneficiaries of thousands of years of nutrient rich soil brought down by the Ganga, were the heralds of the mountains, their simple musty fragrance flowing into the valleys with the cold winds. Like slender blades of brittle ice, the dawn air sliced against my skin, as the bus thundered and screeched around me across miles of pin drop silence, like only wood and rusted metal locked in bitter symphony can. I was still a good few hours away from my destination, the Bengal chapter of the Dooars, an ancient forest that spreads out from Punjab, all the way to the eastern extremities of Nepal like a viridian blanket separating the dusty brown of civilization to its south, from the ashen grey of the mountains in the North. And yet, already I was deep in soul therapy.

I gazed at the lucid transition to the terrain. There were no rock formations, no boulders creeping out of thickets or earthly undulations at the periphery of the horizon; just a variation in the quality and profusion of green. Ten thousand years in this, the flattest and most fertile land on the planet could narcotize any race. In Bengal, the rivers would always provide. And here, at the northern periphery of this soporific state, near the very edge of the Bhutan border, grew the Saccharum Spontaneum and Saccharum Bengalense – the rarest and tallest grass in the world and a preferred delicacy for the Asian single horned rhino. I would like to say this was the only motivation for my travel. But in truth, my journey had a more personal connotation.

My companion Santosh, a Tamil Brahmin, born and raised in a predominantly Bengali locality of Kolkata was an absurd byproduct of the orthodox stigmas of one and the intellectual capacities of the other. He had never been much of a traveler, but I wasn’t very surprised when he contrived the idea for this trip. His erstwhile girlfriend had gotten married a few days ago. Being close to nature when life is in a state of atrophy is the most rudimentary form of ‘getting back to the basics’ was the explanation I had given myself. He had slept, unaffected by the turbulence of the journey, his body contorting effortlessly to adjust to the shudders of our jumpy ride. He was certainly losing no sleep over her.

The two of us arrived at Lataguri at 10 in the morning, a tiny hamlet five kilometers from the entrance to Gorumara National Park, one of the few reserves tourists could access the Dooars from. As we looked around to figure our way out, about a hundred metres away, a tall, heavy set and conspicuously Caucasian man stepped into our field of vision, wearing nothing more than a vest, a pair of shorts, and a cap that covered his face like a very baggy ninja’s mask. On the camera that dangled from his shoulder, was the distinct yellow rectangle of the National Geographic logo. The second we spotted it, suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked on, all around us the forest had come alive – the clicking of a million cicadas, arrhythmic calls and chatter from mysterious fauna, the vision of foliage so incredibly dark, so unbelievably green. The national park might have been a mile or so away, but the gradual transition in terrain had blinded us to the obvious reality of our surroundings. We were already deep in the jungle. The white man was lost to us, disappearing into the foliage just as suddenly as he had appeared. As a travel writer I immediately felt a little less cool.

Guest houses in the vicinity, I had been told, were reliably ordinary no matter where you stayed. The trick was in not landing up in an atrocious one. A bonus would be in securing a room in one closer to the entrance of Gorumara. We managed to do neither.

Over the course of the day, while we rested in our room, the overriding topic of discussion became Santosh’s relationships.

Santosh’s first relationship had lasted exactly nine years. In his eighth year he had gotten engaged and in his ninth he was supposed to get married. Except six months before his wedding, his fiancé revealed an affair that she had been having for a couple of months and that she would like for the wedding to be called off. This had happened exactly a year ago. As shattered as Santosh had been, he conceded, with very little fight.  He hadn’t met her since, but had been told through common friends that the two of them had gotten married. His next relationship, was with a girl whom he met at his workplace. This time, he was the other guy, in a relationship with a girl who was soon to be married. After six months of clandestine dates, which usually involved Santosh dropping her to her house which was approximately 23 kilometers of rush hour traffic away from his own, the girl opted for her fiancé. They had gotten married a week ago. Santosh’s narrative might have been biased, but irrespective of how it really panned out, his pain was very much real.

Our conversations had continued into the afternoon when we decided to go for a walk along the pathway that lined the small clearing between the guest house and the forest. It was at this point of time when suddenly from within the trees came the sound of an unusual abundance of animals. Abundance, both in number as well as specie. The sudden noise in an unfamiliar surrounding scared us enough to make us significantly increase the pace at which we moved towards the fenced confines of the guest house. Just then, an old man clad in a dirty brown vest, a dhoti and with a sickle in his hand, ran past us leaving us a bit startled. Without breaking stride, he turned around, mumbled to us the words ‘Raja bhaat khaoate jabe na’, and sped away.

We did not mention this incident to the caretakers of the guest house – “Excuse me, but could you tell me what that funny old bloke meant when he said ‘The King will not go to feed rice’?” was a question neither of us had the wit to accommodate in our conversations with them which were usually centered around malfunctioning electronic appliances. Attributing the comment to poor hearing we went to bed early that night. We had an early morning safari in Gorumara and had no intention of getting delayed on account of a random old man’s bizarre announcement.

July is the last of the monsoon months during which the Dooars are accessible to the common public. Once the mating season sets in the rains render the rivers as volatile as the animals that frequent them. In July though, the forest is glorious. Rains pour down on the Dooars like a fresh coat of paint. There are layers to the browns, texture to the greens, and rich new hues of blue, yellow violet, tangerine and countless other colors that shimmer in the oily glaze of moisture that layer the impenetrable walls of the undergrowth. Coupled with the dawn mist, the Dooars transform into a surreal land where the mind conjures up myths with ease, and experiences awe like a sweet, sweet drug. But the catacombs of Sal and Seesum that we streaked through astride a bottle green, open top Willys, divulged little of its secrets that day, barring the odd herd of wild bison. At the basin of the Torsha river that spliced up the reserve like an exposed vein, we waited patiently for a sighting. After a few hours though, we decided to turn back.

The jungle tracks that we drove on were like a maze of clearings overlapping and crisscrossing over each other, segregating the thick jungles into more easily manageable segments for the wardens. Across one such intersection we heard that same sudden thrash of sound that we had heard the previous day. Our guide immediately halted the vehicle as we peered into a corridor of overhanging trees to our right. A blurry avalanche of brown suddenly poured into our view and quickly progressed into the forests. They were wild dogs, an entire pack of them, knifing their way in belligerent speed through the jungle. From the discussion of our tour guides, we surmised, that they were fleeing, like many other animals at this time of the year, from the migratory routes of the largest and the second most destructive mammal around these parts – The Elephant.

It was when we got back from this safari that another weird incident happened. After the Gorumara safari, Santosh had been on a call with someone for about half an hour. And when he had returned he had decided that it was time to shift base.

“Gorumara is just not cutting it. We need to head deeper…to Jaldapara” he said.

Jaldapara was in fact the next stop in my itinerary, but Santosh’s insistence had caught me off guard. He wasn’t merely being persuasive.  His outburst had all the characteristics of a full blown tantrum. One that was reminiscent of a friend from my childhood, a stubborn and tempestuous kid, with the moniker of Mahishasur – a demon God that very nearly destroyed all the Hindu gods singlehandedly – a Santosh I had not met in a long, long while.

In Kolkata, a middle class kid’s ambitions, rarely venture beyond becoming a doctor or an engineer. If your aptitude doesn’t take you down these paths, you opt for a commerce degree, try to get a professional certificate, become a chartered accountant or something of its ilk, and ‘settle down’ – marriage, kids, social security and pension plans. Santosh had gone through all these phases and had finally ended up becoming an accountant, a non certified one, working in a multinational firm set up by Marwaris, taskmasters that still operated with a sense of entitlement and work ethics that were characteristic of private Indian firms from two generations ago. He had also not managed to ‘settle down.’ With his personal and professional life co conspiring against him, Santosh had been rendered a cynical shell of his former self. Insistence was no longer in his repertoire. Tantrums would have probably required restructuring at a cellular level. And yet there I was, silently braving this transformed man. I didn’t know what had happened during the phone call, but I had little argument to make. If Jaldapara was what the asur wanted, then Jaldapara is where we head.

Spread across more than 200 square kilometers Jaldapara National Park is flanked on all sides by never ending slopes of tea plantations. At its heart lie extensive patches of grassland that look straight out of a Jim Corbett novel and riverine trees nourished by the Torsha making it the archetypal Terai forest. And against the clear dawn sky, the icy tips of the Himalayas glowing like scorched ember in the distance, the Dooars revealed themselves for what they truly were –the gateways to the mountain country of Bhutan.

The West Bengal Tourism board’s guest house in Jaldapara is where we found accommodation this time around. A quick Google look up told us it was the best place to stay in the vicinity. Jungle safaris had the guest house as their starting point, and the food and lodging setup were as good as it could get. It was at the booking office Santosh befriended and eventually employed a local guide by the name of Robi, an affable young Bengali, who would become our pathfinder and vanguard for the rest of our journey. It was off season and from the looks of it, the guest house was pretty much empty. The only other occupants I was told, were a Mr. and Mrs. Roy, a young IAS officer and his wife, whom we spotted entering the premises, just as we were leaving for our room. They looked fairly young and somewhat uncertain in demeanor, as if still getting used to each other’s presence much like most newly married couples. Meanwhile Santosh had been making his standard cursory appraisal of the lady with the sophistication of an imbecile. I really felt like planting a kick up his backside sometimes.

Robi, our new best friend, lost little time in arranging our first sojourn into the heart of Jaldapara. I had made known to him, my ambition of spotting the single horned rhino, and the futility my efforts had borne thus far. Robi, on his part promised with utmost solemnity that by his watch, my ambition would not go unfulfilled. Salt of the earth the chap was. As our jeep rumbled through the disjointed paths of Jaldapara, Robi began to narrate ancient myths about the pagan Gods and Goddesses that were worshipped by different tribes that resided in the Terai belt of Bengal. Darkness gradually crept into the sapphire of the evening sky. Robi’s ramble transformed from the obscurity of myth to the ambiguity of history.  Over the next hour the never ending yarns, slowly anaesthetized our brain to numbness, until all that Santosh and I could muster were intermittent, absent minded grunts and exclamations, without the slightest clue as to what the hell our guide was talking about. And our expedition, although significantly longer, had turned out to be just as futile as its predecessor. Dejected we were on our way back, when Robi, during his incessant narrative uttered those familiar words that had caused us much curiosity and unrest not more than a day earlier, albeit in a slightly altered avatar – Raja Bhat Khawa – The King has eaten!

But before we could interrupt Robi, another jeep swerved in from a hairpin curve almost crashing into our fender. As it screeched to a halt, the noise amplified by the silence of our surroundings, I recognized the occupants of the other vehicle – Mr. and Mrs. Roy from a few hours ago. While the drivers exchanged some friendly banter, and Mr. Roy fumed and flared at no one in particular, Mrs. Roy’s eyes were riveted in a fearsome glare on the person sitting right behind me – Mr. Santosh Radhakrishnan. I turned around only to realize that the stare was being reciprocated in equal measure by my friend as well. Soon the other jeep reversed and drove away behind a cloud of dust and jungle mist.  But the intensity of those few seconds of ocular diatribe was sufficient to bring me up to speed on what was really going on here. His long drawn phone call, his sudden insistence on shifting base to Jaldapara, it all began to make sense. While I had come here in pursuit of the single horned rhino, my friend had followed his erstwhile girlfriend into the depths of the Dooars. To what end I did not know. As I watched him sweat, smile and apologize in response to my questions, I realized neither did he. The open top jeep noisily chewing down the dusty jungle paths through the grasslands at near dangerous speeds had begun to feel stuffy and insufficiently ventilated.  “Tell us about this king and his business with the rice, Robi” I said, trying to find solace for my outrage in a story I hoped would live up to the absurd nature of its moniker. For Robi, that was more than adequate invitation.

In the 17th century, the Monarch of Bhutan and the Bengali King of Cooch Behar were locked in a battle that had played out over three decades of bloodshed. The forests were ground zero for the guerilla warfare that claimed the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians alike. The King of Bengal to share the pain of his soldiers swore an oath of never eating rice until he had dethroned the Monarch of Bhutan. For a Bengali man a meal without rice is the equivalent of food poisoning. King or no king. Little surprise then, that after several months of rice deprivation a truce was called. The Monarch of Bhutan was asked to join the King in a feast so grand and so rich in epicurean delights that all woes were forgotten. The place where this treaty was formalized has ever since been known by the name of Raja Bhat Khawa. The king has eaten rice.The instructions of the old man now came back to us – Raja Bhat Khawa te jabe na – the separation of khawa and te transformed the meaning of the sentence from The King Wont Feed Rice to Don’t go to where the king feeds rice. Or to be more precise, ‘Don’t go to Raja Bhaat Khawa.’ His words made more sense now. His warning though, remained incomprehensible.

At different places across the National Parks in the Dooars, black stumps of what look like granite blocks can be spotted in small clearings and near water bodies. A similar stump had been erected just beyond the wire meshes that encircled the perimeter of our guest house.  Halogen lamps lit up the massive lawn, within the mesh, with one of them shining straight at the stump. Upon enquiry we discovered that these stumps were solid blocks of black salt. Apparently elephants and rhinos had a predilection for salt, and they threw caution to the wind when they spotted one of these, and languished, sometimes for hours, just joyfully licking away, with their eyes shut, in pure bliss. This information I had gleaned from one of the bellboys after a small incident that took place just before dinner.

After our safari we had freshened up and were heading towards the common room where dinner was to be served when suddenly a commotion from the lawn diverted our attention. As we rose from our tables, an attendant came shouting excitedly, asking us to come quickly if we wished to spot a wild elephant, behaving like a posha beral, a domesticated cat. Youtube sensations had been created for less. Abandoning our dinner plates we ran into the lawn, in the direction of the earlier mentioned stump. But the noise and the crowd had made the elephant turn around and head back into the foliage. All that we got to see upon arrival were the satisfied faces of the ground staff and Mr. and Mrs. Roy, and a stirring in the distance caused by branches of trees being displaced by the elephant’s frame. It was at this point that our little party of two was split – While I was being educated about the salt stumps, my friend was engrossed in conversation with the Roys. As it turned out, Mr. Roy had been informed about Santosh’s identity by his wife, and after a round of introductions, the man had invited us to have dinner with them. But the self important seriousness of Mr. Roy’s body language had somewhat intimated me of his true intent.

This was no dinner invitation.  Santosh was walking unarmed, into a Mexican standoff.

My sense of outrage at being duped by my friend had already begun to bleed and metamorphose into something more romantic, more adventurous. I was the sidekick of the guy who had journeyed into the wild to rescue his fair maiden from the clutches of the Evil Government Employee.

Except this wasn’t a movie.

The lady in question was married, and more importantly of her own volition. But most importantly Santosh the accountant, who worked full days on holidays, had never tasted any intoxicant of any form in his life, and still lived with his Ma and Pa, was never going to be the person to instigate a conjugal coup de etat. So what DID he want… what was it he had thought he would accomplish by coming here? I did not know the answer to these questions, and he had made it glaringly obvious that neither did he. But that night, I came to realize the answer, and it had as much to do with me, as it did with him. There was a reason it had to be me who accompanied him for this trip. And I think we both realized why, at the dinner table that night.

Friendships in our lifetimes, I believe, are not forged on appearances, intellect, or even common interests. The ones that endure, depend on who we become in the company of the people we surround ourselves with. They make us feel invincible, galvanize us into someone more than who we are. My friendship with Santosh that had lasted through fifteen years of the best and the worst times of our lives was of this kind. Mr. Roy had made a grave error of judgment when he thought he’d show Santosh what’s what at the dinner table that night. Because as much as he might have considered me as just a part of the scenery, my friend was not going to be alone at the dinner table that night. Mr. Roy might have gotten the girl. But I’d be damned if I’d let him walk away with my friend’s pride.

Straightaway, the mood was set for a confrontation – “So guys, what do you do for a living?”, his words soaked with the smell of mustard and sarcasm.

A fiery start that fizzled out like an errant fuse on a cheap firecracker.

We provided Mr. Roy with who we were on a plate with no shame – chengras – loafers, roadside romeos, rowdies, those shameful synonyms associated with the inbetweeners – and no matter how hard he tried we never allowed the discussion to get confrontational. Its ebb and flow was set by us, adulterating Mr. Roy’s potent attacks with a generous dose of wit and humor. And how Mrs. Roy laughed, oh how she laughed, at our silly tales of misadventures and tomfoolery. And we were inclusive in our banter. Soon, even she had a role to play in the exchanges, taking over the reins even, if only for a while. Mr. Roy wouldn’t  cave prodding incessantly, with jabs of thinly veiled ridicule.  But the torrent of self deprecation we unleashed on ourselves made his insults seem like splashing water in the rains. We were an unstoppable force of trash talk and cheap humor, directing all of it at ourselves. What could they do but get overwhelmed. And when we exited the table that night Santosh knew just as well as I did, exactly what we had left his ex with – A bit of headiness and a lifetime of regret. The King was done with his rice!

Before I narrate the incidents of the subsequent day, I need to make a confession. I did not get to see a single rhinoceros on my trip to the Dooars. I have been told that it is extremely rare for someone who had made a visit to these woods to suffer my misfortune. The Roys who spotted three, will vouch for that. The incidents I have thus far narrated took place nearly two years ago, and although we did visit quite a few other beautiful places – the Buxa Fort and the Leopard Rehabilitation Camp spring immediately to mind, places I would highly recommend you visit if you were to ever come down to this part of the country – I could never make much of a travel story about my (mis?)adventure in the Dooars. However, two days ago, I did get to meet Mrs. Roy at a social gathering in Kolkata. The moment she spotted me in the crowd of more than a hundred people, she marched straight towards me. After dinner that night at Jaldapara, there was one last interaction that took place between us before she had seen me here. Based on that interaction, I would have considered myself lucky if she would have slapped me. But I was sure I was in for much worse. Our queer little interaction and what triggered it, is the peg around which I narrate the rest of this tale.

Little of what I have told thus far ought to make you doubt the sincerity of my words. My account of everything hence, I promise, is just as true.

The town of Raja Bhat Khawa is located right outside another national park about 20 kilometers from Jaldapara – The Buxa Tiger Reserve. Even though jungle safaris are not permitted these days in Buxa it still remains one of the most prolific tiger reserves in the country after the Sunderbans. During our visit though, safaris with a group of four people, which would usually comprise of the mahout, a tour guide and two other people, astride an elephant were permitted to drive through the thick underbrush of the Buxa terrain, for a few extra bucks. It wasn’t safe, but unwarranted machismo and the atypical urban apathy of pseudo adventurers could never be denied, not in these parts at the very least.  And since Santosh and I were especially buoyant that day after the incidents of the previous night, we stubbornly ventured forth, the dynamic duo into the tiger infested jungles of Buxa, to the specific spot where the Raja Bhat Khawa incident had taken place, hundreds of years ago.  Jhumur the most beautiful elephant I had ever laid my eyes on (and I had seen quite a few in my tharavadu in Kerala) was to be our vehicle into the forest that day.

The exhilaration of riding Jhumur was one of those experiences that I felt my soul was familiar with from a long time ago, but my body was not, which made it scary and exhilarating at the same time. Her coarse skin and her bristling hair underneath my calves chaffed at my skin a bit, but it was pain that I did not mind. Every hum and every grunt she made, reminded me of her overwhelming strength, and yet it felt as if she was very much aware of how gentle she needed to be to protect the fragile beings that swayed above her. We were at the mercy of her magnificent maneuvers. Once in a while she would find a patch of green that caught her fancy, and she would scamper to it for a quick snack, tearing it with her trunk and then munch on it as she continued her foray into the darkest corners of the forest. We spotted a leopard sitting on a tree, hissing at us from afar, threats, which astride Jhumur, seemed like the innocuous yelps of a terrified child; a cobra  terrorized a pigeon’s nest, but all the chaos around it was numbed for the few moments it took for Jhumur to stroll by. From our vantage point, every portion of the jungle was traversable, every impediment, be it thick shrubbery, stout trees or pools of stagnant water, everything caved to the whims of our ride. For the first time it felt like we were well and truly inside the belly of the jungle.

It was near the half hour mark when we reached our destination, completely unprepared for the disappointment that awaited us. The most dilapidated old structures breathed the memory of what they used to be, if not in a steady flow, atleast in fits and bursts. This place didn’t have the slightest wheeze of history to it. Fallen balustrades, ramparts of some magnificent fort and decadent pillars were what we were expecting. But the heavy rainfall, humid air, and two hundred years of decay had torn the place down with irreverence. All that remained now was a broken wall, with a rectangular opening carved into it. Had Robi pointed a few meters away and called a random patch of dirt our destination, it would have made little difference. Raja Bhat Khawa almost did not exist. We disembarked at the spot, and like any civilized man is wont to do in moments of dejection, decided to obliterate our lungs with a cigarette to feel better. It was at this point of time that Robi told us of another tale about Raja Bhat Khawa, one that not many know of, and much like its more popular counterpart, was born out of hearsay.

Just before the feast was set to begin, the Monarch of Bhutan was served another lesser known prize – A man bound in chains. Rumor had it, the man had slept with the Monarch’s wife and escaped from the country. The Bengali King had chanced upon this man who had foolishly bragged about his exploits over liquor to a bunch of his soldiers, hoping that it would win him some favor with the rival king. What it did earn him though, was an extended stay in a prison cell, until he was brought forth during the treaty by the king as a token of good faith. But what truly moved the cuckolded king was when the Bengali King offered his own sword to him and asked his men to vacate the premises, so that he could administer whatever punishment he contrived.

We didn’t like this addendum to the tale at all. Raja Bhat Khawa’s quirky little tale of reconciliation, had just been relegated to the conventional morbidity of territorial disputes.

As we climbed back onto Jhumur’s back, there was a change around us which we could sense; it felt as if the air had gone deathly still. Like an invisible leaden blanket, a dread we could not comprehend enveloped us, making us sweat. Even Jhumur began to grunt with unease. The fear was of a primal kind, like nothing I had experienced before. We didn’t even know what it was and yet we all felt it. Its presence unmistakable, its source unfathomable. We did not wish to find out any more. But Jhumur was of a different mind, choosing not to stir no matter how much she was prodded by the mahout. We could hear the rustle of leaves behind us, as the earth began to tremble. Something massive was driving towards us. And then just as quickly everything went quiet. All the leaves, the birds, insects, the jungle’s grand philharmonic ceased their performance as if even they were waiting… watching.

There was silence.

Suddenly, crashing in from behind us came an elephant, driving in our direction. It grazed Jhumur’s sides as it stomped past us. We froze in fear, breathing only when it had passed us by. But it wasn’t alone, as we soon realized that the entire forest around us had come alive with the sound of elephants marching by. Five or maybe more, crashed through the clearing, smashing sideways and every which way against Jhumur, who stood rooted to the spot, immobile and resolute. Elephants now were all around us, marching in a lively sea of dull grey and brown, trumpeting and thrashing and grunting while making the very earth we stood on, tremble all the way to its foundations. We were petrified. Nobody moved. No word of advice was forthcoming from anyone. And the greatest fear which we all shared but couldn’t even murmur was of how long our benefactor, Jhumur, the rock on which we sat, could resist this flash flood, this force of pure destruction, as it built up more and more velocity and power. Trees now snapped in two, as they collapsed in front of us, leaves fell like a violent shower of emerald rain, boughs snapped and dropped around us, some upon us, and we couldn’t offer even the slightest of murmurs in protest. We didn’t know if the pachyderms were aware of our presence. We didn’t want to find out. The collisions were now becoming more and more forceful. Each blow which Jhumur suffered, threatened to knock us off our perch. My camera fell now, as it slipped out of my pocket, only to disappear in that unstoppable sea of grey. Soon Jhumur’s strength too began to fade, her grip on the floor, waning due to injured muscles and aching sinews. We now swayed, our bucket seats, tilted precariously. We were one, at the most two vicious blows, away from falling and being crushed to pulp. I don’t know about the others, but dangling from the edge of my seat I had already braced for impact. The final blow would come anytime now.

And just then, almost as quickly as the migrating herd had surfaced, it disappeared. We did not move for the next few minutes, too scared to presume our safety. But the worst had passed. A few errant elephants went stomping by through the clearings around us. But that was it. We chanced a look at our surroundings at this point, and noticed that the entire stretch looked like it had been torn down and demolished by a maverick wrecking crew; trees, bushes and rocks had been ravaged without mercy, and spherical pathways had been ripped into the fabric of the jungle. We alighted from Jhumur, when we were absolutely certain that there were no more elephants passing through.

It was at this point of time that into the clearing popped the white man with the National Geographic camera we had seen on the first day of our trip. He spotted us with a hint of surprise on his face, but didn’t choose to dwell on it much, and rushed off in the direction in which the elephants had fled.

In that one instance, I felt so shallow, so inadequate. So utterly and completely naked. My pretentious notions about how I belonged here had been laid threadbare. This was what the jungles were. Lawless and unpredictable, and none of us belonged there. Our recklessness had caused pain and suffering to probably the only one amongst us who did – Jhumur. Hyperboles about how brave and beautiful she was would be trite and superficial. Who knows what she was thinking when she stood there. Against that sea of her own brethren who smashed against her relentlessly. Maybe even she had frozen in fear, not knowing what to do. After a lifetime spent in the midst of humans she was probably just as estranged from us as she was from them. Or maybe this great simple minded creature considered our lives worth being saved, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t bring myself to consider any other possibility to be closer to the truth than this. However unsubstantiated it might be. I wanted to feel guilty. Because even that stemmed from my self-centered need to feel better.

Once we had reached the mahout’s home, all I could muster was a petty gesture of giving away all the money I could spare to him. I didn’t have the courage to thank Jhumur for what she had done for us. Instead I patted her, and rubbed her sides, her belly and her feet, all the while as we waited for the doctor to turn up. The doctor arrived an hour later, and diagnosed nothing more than a few bruises, of varying degrees of severity. None that would cause any permanent damage though.

We took our leave after promising to keep in touch. A promise that we didn’t keep.

I didn’t know whether the old man who had warned us had been a soothsayer or just someone with an acute understanding of elephant migration patterns. But the price of not heeding his words had been paid by Jhumur. The shame we felt then, I realize as I pen these words, is the shame I still feel and probably always will.

A few months had gone by since our trip to Jaldapara. I had been traveling extensively during this period. Work had kept me busy for the longest time. Meanwhile, Santosh, had resorted to more conventional methods to finding a partner. Pundits, matchmakers and matrimonial websites were being worked tirelessly by his parents. Two women had already been rejected. I had met him once in a while and had seen the slightest hint of despondency seep into him. That dinner was a forgotten incident, a picture postcard on a wall that nobody really saw. I realized Mrs. Roy, or rather his memory of her wasn’t as much of a problem. It was the rejection he had suffered without having much of a say in the matter that had tainted him. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman, but rejection is a bitter pill to swallow. Even more so when you have to do it twice. It was at this point in time an old message I had received on my Facebook messenger triggered a unique sequence of events.

I had been told by a friend about approaching an editor of a new magazine for work on a freelance basis. The editor of that magazine was on his friend list on Facebook. I did not want to randomly send the man a friend request, as I had been asked to do by him. So I thought I should intimate him first of my credentials, and duly messaged him. Several days later when my friend checked with me for an update on what had happened I told him that the editor hadn’t replied and therefore I had not added him on Facebook. Which is when he told me, fully aware of my social networking denseness to check my ‘Other Messages’ which do not carry the usual red notification prompt. That afternoon, I promptly checked my ‘Other Messages’ inbox. In the random collation of spam messages and a few scary threats (I had given bad reviews to a Tamil movie once which featured a highly revered superstar), were three short messages from Mrs. Roy.

Three short and very flirtatious messages.

I recalled a friend request she had sent to me a couple of weeks after the Jaldapara trip which I had duly rejected. And if I was not entirely mistaken, these pings were in conjunction to that request. I let it lie for some time, mulling over what I should do about it, or even if I should do anything about it at all. As time went by my confusion transformed to anger which then multiplied several fold. How could she even think that she could interest me in any way after what she had done to my friend? And she had barely been married for a few days when she had sent those messages. I felt violated and dirty. Was that how I was perceived, as someone so morally weak who could entertain such a sleazy advance? I really wanted to slalom her with a stinker packed with all the vitriol I felt for her. But slowly another idea began to take place in my head.

Maybe the sword needed to be handed to someone more deserving. Someone whose rage was more potent, whose vendetta went deeper than mine. Santosh could contrive words which were more apt, and deliver it vicariously from a position of power.  Power which he had never seen or enjoyed. Slowly the idea crystallized within my head, baked by the heat of enthusiasm that only wickedness can produce.

It had to be him.

At the pain of him misunderstanding my intent, for I had not overlooked that possibility either, I called him over. Upon arrival though, Santosh required little explanation. In fact he jumped at the idea before I could even articulate it in full. After a brief conversation, I left the room to him. I told him, my Facebook profile was his property for the next hour, and I promised him that I would never read the message he would send to her. He didn’t care much for this assurance as he turned to my laptop with gusto.

I remember a relieved person emerge from my house that evening.  I never read their interaction but something had changed, a nuanced tweak it had been, but it was there. Fortunately, it was for the better.

Santosh has now been a married man for over a year now, and has little time for any jungle excursions. Once in a while the Jaldapara trip is recounted and served with a hint of spice for the amusement of friends or family. And until that gathering where I met Mrs. Roy two years later, all memory of her had been relegated to some forgotten corner of my brain.

But that night as she walked up to me in that get together, flashes of all that had taken place came crashing back in vivid and crackling detail, as I simultaneously tried to interpret every hint of her expression and brace for whatever retribution I would have to endure.

She smiled and greeted me. Already I was in shock.

After a brief exchange of pleasantries she said, “I wanted to say this in person to you and eventually I forgot but I am sorry for what I said to you on Facebook. Santosh is very lucky to have a friend like you.”  I smiled completely confounded by what she had said, bid her farewell, and the second she left, I accessed my Facebook account on my phone and scrolled to the message from two years ago.

I tried to push the chat window to whatever was written below her messages, which were highlighted in grey, but the page wouldn’t yield. A couple of attempts later I realized there was nothing there. He had not replied to her at all!

In the days that followed I was often tempted to feign complete ignorance of his reply, or the lack of it, and ask him what had his reply been. But I decided not to. Maybe there was more to it than compassion. Maybe he couldn’t find the right words to attack her with, or maybe, he was worried about how she might respond to what he said. Knowing Santosh, all of these notions could have played their part in staying his hand. But I also knew him as a man of compassion, and forgiveness, of a gentleness that stemmed from deep thought and not just blind emotionality. And this was the man that I believed who had chosen to tread the higher path.

That night after the dinner at Jaldapara, while I smoked a joint in bed, he had told me that he adored Mrs. Roy a lot. But he would drop her home, twenty three kilometers of rush hour traffic away from where he stayed, not because he was her fool, but because it saved him the few hours of loneliness he suffered every evening in the aftermath of his broken engagement. Her company had kept him sane. And he considered this adequate remuneration, for his errand.

“Sometimes” he said, with the wistfulness of a man, equal parts satisfied and equal parts hotboxed “all you need is a patient ear to tide over your problems. That, and a bowl of freshly cooked rice.”

I couldn’t agree more.



2 thoughts on “Rice Lovers

  1. bravo….welcome back….i missed you terribly
    LOVE this quote – it is a masterpiece – you should patent it, frame it, makes posters of it:
    Friendships in our lifetimes, I believe, are not forged on appearances, intellect, or even common interests. The ones that endure, depend on who we become in the company of the people we surround ourselves with. They make us feel invincible, galvanize us into someone more than who we are.
    Keep at this please…more stories!!!


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