The verandah of the women’s hostel of Benares Hindu University was buzzing with girls who had gathered in the evening for an informal chat. Pratibha, Shwayta, Nandita, Sunita and Annapurna were joined by others who were reading the newspaper and discussing about the day’s events. I walked past by them thinking that no one will notice me.
Soon all eyes rested on me and requested to join their discussions which revolved round the cook of the hostel, to the peon of the campus. Chatting sessions included various stories of experiences across various cities. So over a cup of tea prepared by Pratibha didi, we sat on the steps of the portico to unfold a story about the woods.
This is about an experience which I had about two decades ago in the forests of the Vindhyans (District Sonebhadra). As usual I was on a field trip from Hyderabad to Varanasi and from there to the woods of Hathinala, Dudhi, Renukoot and Khatabaran. My stop over was at women’s hostel, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, to help me to plan my visit along with my colleagues there. Being a guest at the hostel was bliss. Special attention was paid by my research mates to all my needs including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They wished to know what I did and what my work was. I used to tell them about remote sensing and how we analyzed satellite data at our Institute. Soon they came to know about my purpose of visit. Ripples of astonishment floated amongst them when they came to know about my visit to the forests. I could see several faces with such doubtful questions in mind, waiting for a suitable time to ask me.
Gently I gave way to their queries “Did your parents allow you? Are you not afraid of encountering a Tiger or a Leopard? Why do you need to go to the forests?" Calmly I answered, my father says that since your subject is Botany you will get plants in forests only to study and understand. One has to be brave to venture out for something adventurous. Though a bit satisfied yet not fully convinced to the words they heard. For me the forests were a storehouse of research and adventure. That night before I was to leave for the fields, friends who were companions a little while ago came to my room to wish me luck for my trip. With a heavy heart they bid adieu hoping to see me again, but one question was there in everyone’s mind what if a Leopard or Tiger pounced on her. With all my instruments and maps etc., I headed towards the field with my team.
Our first stop was Hathinala. The guest house here was built during the regime of the British and to this day there is no electricity connection. The forests here are rich in biodiversity. The major tress which I saw was Sal, Teak, Palash, Amla and Acacia. The terrain was undulating with thick undergrowth. Huge Elephants used to come and drink water from the stream which was present amidst the forest, hence the name Hathinala.
As I sat there amongst the bushes taking a break from my field measurements, I saw a few small lizards propping up. Initially, I wondered about them, I started gazing them intently. They were of several colours, pink, green, grey, brown mixed and were feeding on the tiniest insects in the bushes. I was oblivion of their zoological names. Soon I started playing with them by throwing tiny stones here and there to attract their attention.
On the other side was a colony of ants busy filling their granaries. Their movements were undisturbed. Fearing that they will crush under my boots, I moved quietly away from their place. The air was warm as the sun’s rays had now penetrated deep inside, wet grasses and bushes smiled and felt the warmth.
Big animals had disappeared as I had read during childhood that they stay away from the sun light. Chirping of birds, squirrels running here and there, chameleon running on the branches were a sight to watch apart from other numerous animals whose presence was felt. It was a blessing to see them in their natural surroundings. Before the twilight, we used to finish our work and came out of the jungle as now it was time for some large reptiles like snakes to wander about.
Our destination was the Dudhi Guest House, some 10km from there. The roads leading through the forests were undulating and I always enjoyed that ride as our jeep went up and down leaving behind the trees which stood still. As it grew darker, the darkness on either side increased; with no street lights it was very difficult for the pedestrians to walk long distances. The headlights of some passing vehicles would support them in showing the path further. How difficult it is? I used to wonder, but then it is the way of life there in the nearby villages. This guest house was the centre so all our experimental spots were within a reachable radius.
Our next stop was at Khatabaran forests near Muirpur. There something more interesting happened which is still fresh in my mind. Our location for field sampling was a bit interior where we had to cross a shallow pond to reach the other side. My happiness knew no bounds at the thought of what thrill we would have there.
There was a large Banyan tree, which was our spot for experiments. We started out work and the whole afternoon went off peacefully. Just as it was time for twilight to set in, a large army of monkeys came and took shelter on the tree. A sight of so many monkeys sent shivers through my spine. I had handled one or two monkeys at Sankat Mochan temple at Varanasi, but this was a large number. My colleagues were cool as they had seen them earlier too; I asked them when will they disappear? It is their home; how do we know?
Several questions came to my mind in a flash. What if they take my specs? What if they take my instruments etc. etc.. Quickly I collected my instruments and put away my glasses in a bag. I went and sat under the banyan tree and started reciting Hanuman Chalisa (Prayer for the praise of Lord Hanuman). May be this would give me strength and they will not harm me. After I finished I peeped through the corner of my eyes, large tails hanging down as prop roots. The whole tree was filled with their family, small, big, old and young. It seems they were enjoying the silence of the jungle. The cries of younger ones and watching them run quickly into the arms of their mothers. At that time, a thought crossed my mind, what if they all come down and surround me under the tree, fearing this, I used to sit like a statue making less movements. The only thing I could do was to pray that they should leave me unharmed. My mother used to tell me that no animal would harm you unless you provoke them or tease them. She had a lot of such experiences in the backyard of her house in Berhampur, Odhisha, with many animals and that made her brave.