Thursday, April 7, 2011

The ring of fire - Part II

Damru Kalandar had been following the sloth bear and her cub all day. For someone like Damru, who had spent all his life with bears, it was not too hard to locate the pair and track it. However, even for him, it was difficult to follow the bears in such a way that the forest wind would not carry his scent to them. This was more of an art form, and even masters like Damru had a hard time doing it right all the time. Perhaps, the aroma of the Mahua flowers was strong enough to overwhelm the senses for the bears, and he was lucky to be in the forest at this time of the year. He had been following the pair for close to twelve hours now, and he was waiting for the bear to get tired. And then, Damru got excited, when close to dusk, the bears stopped near a clump of Mahua trees and the mother started chewing on the flowers lying on the ground. As the night fell, he kept an eye on the pair. The mother was slowly getting drowsy and sleepy and the bear cub was snuggling close to her. Around midnight, both seemed to be fast asleep.

Damru picked a handful of pebbles and threw the first one on the big bear from a distance. Nothing happened. He threw another one. He heard a faint whimper. This one must have landed on the cub. The mother didn't even move. It was time! As he inched closer to the pair, he opened a bottle of chloroform he had acquired from the chor bazar and dabbed it on a piece of cloth. Then very swiftly, he put the cloth on the  cub's nose. There was a surprised whimper, but the mother did not move. Damru picked the cub up, stuffed it inside a sack and moved away from the mother. It happened so quickly, and so efficiently, that even Damru was surprised at his good fortune. And then, he made a hasty exit towards the edge of the forest.

He had to catch the six-o-clock bus that made a brief stop at the village.


Reverend Mike was up before the crack of dawn, which is something he rarely did. But this was a different day. The mission had an old Willy's jeep that had never let him down in the mountains. And today, it would carry some precious cargo for him.

Many people in the mission did not know that not only did the reverend have a weakness for the spirits, he could brew up some pretty mean stuff by himself. And every year, he would do that in a clandestine operation in the store room behind the church, using sacks full of Mahua flowers he collected from the forest on a special day, on which, he would take a break from his regular routine. This was that special day.

It was afternoon by the time the reverend reached the spot in the forest where he liked to park his jeep. Then, taking a few empty bags with him, he started a trek for the top of the hill. That part of the forest had the most flavorful flowers, and not many people bothered to trek all the way up for them. Plus, the view from up there was simply terrific. Once he was done collecting his "supplies", he would sit down on a rock and enjoy the sunset before heading home.


She woke up with a start. Something was amiss. Then she noticed. Her cub was gone!

She couldn't pick up its scent.  The aroma of the flowers was in the air. And, there was a strange but sweet smell that she couldn't associate with anything in the forest. She was furious. Something had taken her cub. And, she would not give up so easily. She raised her head and took a deep breath. She was trying to identify anything that smelled different from the things in the forest. Anything, that would lead her to her cub.

Commander Raju was on his long trek towards the top of the hill. This one, and then another one, was all that was left between him and his comrades. He was almost near the top of the hill, when he heard the sound of human feet on the dry leaves in the forest. He decided to hide behind a clump of bushes and investigate. Then, he saw the strangest sight he had ever seen in his life. A white man in a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, with a long flowing beard, was lugging a few sacks towards the top of the mountain. And then, the man stopped under a  Mahua tree and started filling an empty sack with the flowers under it. This was a very strange man indeed, unless he was a lunatic who had escaped from an asylum. But, the man didn't look like a lunatic, and he seemed very purposeful in what he was doing. May be, he was one of those American missionaries in the tribal villages. May be.

Suddenly, and idea crossed Raju's mind. What if he could overpower this man and hold him hostage? His comrades could negotiate a big swap for a foreigner. Just imagine the amount of media coverage they would get! This would greatly help the revolution. So, he decided to follow the white man, maintaining a comfortable distance between them.


The reverend had been a missionary for a few years now, but he never forgot that he was a spy waiting for his next assignment. And, he had never let his instincts fade. So, very quickly, he was aware of the presence of a man in fatigues trailing him. He had no idea what this man was after, but he was pretty sure that the intentions were not good. So, he decided to cancel his idea of enjoying the sunset from the hill top and  gathered his bags of Mahua flowers. Then, he hurried back to his jeep, keeping an eye out for the man in fatigues.

The sun was going down behind the mountains. The sky was unusually red. And the reverend was sad to miss his sunset. As the sky got darker, he could see the fires being lit on the remote hills. Some were probably being lit on this hill as well and he would see those as he headed close to his jeep. It was almost an hour away from where he was.

As it grew darker, Raju decided to sneak closer to his target. He had some rope in his bag. And, he was pretty sure that with his combat training, he could take this man down easily. When they reached closer to a clearing in the forest, Raju decided to make a move. With a few strides, he was close enough to the reverend to attack. And, the reverend was fully prepared to defend himself.

Right when Raju would have struck, he heard a fierce growl behind him. Both men turned and saw a three hundred pound sloth bear charging at them. Both turned and ran for their lives. About a hundred yards ahead of them, they could see a wall of fire. It must have been lit in the last hour and it was burning fiercely. Both of them ran towards it because they both knew that bears were afraid of fire.

As he got close to the fire, the reverend turned quickly to see where the bear was. It was still charging. And the man in fatigues behind him, stumbled on a rock and fell.  Almost instinctively, the reverend grabbed his hand and dragged him behind the wall of fire. The bear had stopped charging. It was sitting outside the ring of fire, wondering what to do. Raju realized that the white man just saved his life. He got up and extended his hand in thanks. Instead, he felt a strong punch on his face and fell down for a second time in a few minutes. From the way the punch connected, Raju could tell that this man knew how to fight. "Who are you and why were you following me?" demanded the reverend. Raju tried to smile.

This was going to be a long night. With both of them trapped.  Inside a ring of fire.

(To be concluded)

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