The Migrating Spirit

Her aangan is a reverie of astral flowers 
Spiral, elliptic, of mystical shapes and hues, cryptic 

The haze of winter morning acts as multi-level drapes to nature’s opera, unfurling a new act fronted by trees every short distance I traverse. Wood smoke wraps around villages like blankets around our shoulders. A tiger calls, and a tigress returns his call, their duet resonating in the cold morning air for miles and miles. 

A universe at her doorstep, constellations on her sleeve 
She tiptoes under star-clothed trees 

 The rustle of van tulsi reminds me of a Kathak dancer, her ghungroo chiming with every step I take. Tiny, dark, heart-shaped seeds once contained inside the cup of the mature flower are sprinkled on the pugdundee like confetti. Odd, cold December rains swell them up like little puffy snow balls scattered on bare sandstone substrate.

The fluttering sky blue beings rabble ‘round her 
Whispering the secrets of the universe

I pick a few sepals, pour a few seeds on my palm, and toss them in my mouth. Slowly they swell as I swirl them. It makes you less thirsty. I offer a few to the inquisitive forest guard, but he spits them as soon as they touch his tongue. Van tulsi or pignut (Hyptis suaveolens) is an invasive herb from the Americas, spread rapidly across the central Indian landscape with recurrent fire outbreaks.

Birds of a spectrum, pin-tails, fork-tails, comet-tails 
By the waters they sing of what the night tells. 

 It is a bright, clear, crisp winter morning. The swollen seeds in my mouth are down my throat. The morning sun is shining from a break in the canopy. The haze is thinning, the birds chirruping, and as the undergrowth thickens, the guard’s phone screams a song from the 90s known for its terrible pitch. I am soon to find out why songs on lonely forest pugdundees make great companions. Hidden among the haystack of cattle footprints in the soft sand I find tiny pugmarks of a Jungle Cat. She walked the way I come from, and a little farther ahead her bigger cousin’s, walking ahead of us by a few hours.

In her aangan they all converge one by one 
Fallen stars and comets, feral strays and those on run 

The tiger that made us disrupt the silence is long gone. It functioned – as one may describe his ‘intentional’ actions – around this area, the area I have always wanted to explore after seeing this tiger face to face in his enclosure – the biggest tiger I have ever seen – the name-less dubbed a man-eater. Responsible for killing fourteen people and injuring several in a short span, this tiger was captured on the kill of a buffalo. He was the only one to take this form, one must note, but the stigma stuck with him was more than enough to taint the life of a truly wild tiger: no man knew of his fascinating, long life – no photographers tailed him, no probing elephants stalked him, no walkie-talkies barked when he walked man’s roads. He was as wild as a tiger can be.

She wraps her yellow dupatta around her waist 
Those displaced clasped in her arms lay at rest 

We’ve forgotten the real wilds. We’ve forgotten that forests – the wilds – exist outside of areas we call ‘protected’. We are calling them by a new name, a lesser name: a corridor. The forests I walk are as wild as forests once were; peopled with humans and tigers, biodiversity we have forgotten to notice as soon as we leave the ‘park’ and go back into our shells. Nestled between Johila to the west and Son to the east, this is one such last remaining truly wild space where tigers know humans as a part of their habitat and they circumvent the human society by avoiding us altogether, save a stray incidence where they both meet outside of their comfort.

I’m frozen in place, caught in her golden-eyed gaze 
Watching the ground beneath me turn to void space 

Grass Yellows erupt from a shaded understory I brush through, flitting in a sudden, unannounced chorus that amuses me. I find it poetic. They find it chaotic. They’re right, though. A coal-carrying train passes through every five minutes. The roads are expanding into four-lane highways. This nestled-between-rivers-forest is pierced and scarred. The tigers probably know this, but they don’t heed it. Call it pride, arrogance, or helplessness, I think they do not perceive threat or danger the way we do: roads, railways, overhead lines, they do not know these, but they know how to avoid them, to call one another, to care for their young in the face of rapid changes around them. For those who believe tigers need exclusive non-human forests, this resilience of the wildlife is what makes them a part of the landscape.

I see time churning seasons in that sullen still haze 
Tendrils of life spin around me a maze. 

Whose wailing souls are trapped in the cold ponds, I wonder, as specters of condensed vapour rise steadily from the surface and remain still till a breeze ferries them to heaven. The dark shrouds of compartmentalized forests, an obscured wall against the faintest tint to the waking sky, looms ahead. What seems impenetrable from far is a porous forest where tigers and leopards walk the nights, cattle and people trot to and fro in the day, and sloth bears early morns and evenings. Muddled banks of shrinking winter ponds carry their histories: a weary langur, a timid barking deer, a miffed tiger, a marching herd of cattle, they all converge here at the elixirs of forests.

In her aangan I tread, I tread as her heart ebbs 
Hark the turning tides, the teary-eyed, the flooding gates 

Tracing the slightest displacement of sand of peculiar shapes, some reclaimed by dust, some trampled, some obscured by rain, others too hard to notice, I find two sets of footprints, one large and one about half its size. I follow this pair of pugmarks for at least half a kilometer on a kuchha road connecting two villages, only one motorbike passing us on this hour-long walk. The set belongs to a mother leopard and her cub, and by the look of it we gauge it to be from their last night’s saunters. Trying not to walk over them, I stick to the gravelly sideway, thinking of what they were thinking walking through here. No vehicular tracks, or that of cattle, disturbed their journey, but they took a cut into the woods where no paths go.

That sound of her kangana ‘round her arms holding fallen stars 
Those soft palms pressed gently against the tree’s scars 

Two cattle calves vanished around this road last week, they are yet to be found. The leopardess might have something to do with it, I’m told. A ‘territorial’ division simply means a managed forest, protected for its timber more than its natural or intrinsic value. But change is a-foot. The chowkidars I walk with are in-tune with their lands: water sources during hot summers, safe havens for mothers, the feeding grounds of bears and the ecology of smooth, unobstructed, porous mosaic of human settlements among the wilds, they know it all like the back of their hands. Just knowing that they exist well outside of their isolated, pocketed presence, with someone to watch over, fills me with awe and hope.

Not one left behind, not one left undone 
I watch her return to her house her hair tied in a bun 

A rainy day, a shroud of unannounced song-less rain cloaks the winter sun. Somewhere on the hill two tigers meet. He who crossed the river to find her, and she who lay claim to this land of commons. The sacred hill that writes by itself now the abode of a pair of tigers. A few days ago they brought down a buffalo and stripped it clean of flesh. I visited the altar where they both dined. Except for a big pile of scat there was nothing of the tigers. The scavengers then scattered the carcass bone by bone. The buffalo owner received his compensation, and the pair now sing together every night and every morning, quarrel in their hill, and are seen passing by the village heedless to people who witness their romantic story between the two rivers.

There is no dearth of the likes of me, no there isn’t 
A speck of dust in the sunshine that consumes her aangan. 

‘How do people live here, knowing there are tigers and bears and leopards in every nook and corner?’ my friend asks, more in amazement than horror. His amazement fascinates me for I can see from his eyes what I see: people going to work in farms, collect drywood in the forest, and speak of tigers and other wildlife sauntering their gullies even as they damage crops, chase livestock, and pose a threat to life, like they are a part of a community. It is not easy living with bears and tigers and leopards. In fact, we shouldn’t use the words easy or difficult here for they are all relative. The forests I walk today with my heart clutched between my fists – I may be exaggerating a wee bit – and the villager walking in his chappal, are two ends of a spectrum only if you view it from far, as an outsider. This ecosystem has fallen apart is most places, and is rarer than the areas we celebrate as protected. I may not understand the whole philosophy yet, but this much I know: wherever it exists, it does because of tolerance. Without tolerance there is no coexistence.

The poem is titled Mahuarin. This piece is heavily inspired by Ghosteen, the forests I walk, and those who left a mark.

We enter the new year with trepidation. I hope the new year is full of the best things we deserve - freedom most of all. Wish you a very happy new year.