Though I had been wanting to do this trip for years, when it finally happened it was on a wild impulse. I woke early one Sunday morning as dawn was breaking and I knew that the Sun would soon be peeping over the undulating line of the hills on the eastern horizon. But looking through my bedroom window at the hulking mass of the multi-storied hostel building that was under construction some distance away, I realised that the luxury of waking to the magic of sunrise over the hills was now a thing of the past. As I bathed, I could still see the landscape on the east through the ventilator, the familiar outline of the hills now more or less fully obscured by the ugly bulk of the building. I felt that I had to go beyond the concrete monstrosity and see the hills in the early morning light again.
As I walked to the edge of the plateau beyond the building, the entire stretch of hills now became visible. These hills were the first thing I noticed about the place when I arrived years ago. The long line of these hills of theWestern Ghatsstretched almost all along the eastern horizon and was visible on every clear day, with its distinctive peaks and knobs. By far the most distinctive crest was a hump-shaped peak that rose considerably higher than any other on the skyline. Somebody had told me that this was Kudremukha ? the famous peak shaped like a horse’s head, but later I learned that this was actually called Bali Kunja, Kudremukha being too distant to be viewed from here. Over the years, I noticed that the Sun rose right over Bali Kunja on equinox days, as seen from home. And as time went by, I was increasingly drawn by this mysterious peak with its proud head held well above the rest. The desire to visit the place formed and lodged itself somewhere within me as I went through the mundane rituals of routine work.
The hills were always there, across the valley ? far enough not to loom over the township, but always around, lending the comfort of a familiar presence. Most mornings I would see them clearly as I walked from the residential quarters to the college along the plateau that ran parallel to the hills. But though I had seen these hills for almost every clear day for so many years now, I never tired of seeing them. They changed appearance with the time of the day and year. Sometimes the several ranges that comprised the hills congealed to become one solid, dark mass, forming a wavy line that separated land and sky, with the protuberance that was Bali Kunja like a question mark lying on its side. At other times, when light and cloud conditions were favourable, the thin haze of clouds would delineate the outlines of the hills in the front from those behind, so that one saw them like playing cards held fanned out. But the best time to see them was after a morning shower when the light playing through the newly washed atmosphere would illuminate the soft, green meadows on the flanks of Bali Kunja.
I had also become familiar with the varying moods of the hills over the different hours and seasons. Their stark, austere appearance at dawn, the way they summoned up clouds at noon to hide the face of Bali Kunja, their presence felt despite the blanketing clouds in the monsoons, their freshness in the unexpected break in the clouds after a shower? It was one such monsoon morning when I walked beyond the building to see the hills in the morning light again. Even before the orange orb of the Sun could rise over the hills, it began to cloud over and soon there were one or two drops of rain in the air. Bali Kunja was the first to disappear behind a swathe of cloud. Soon leaden clouds stretched from horizon to horizon and there was more rain coming down. As I looked at the point on the horizon where the peak had disappeared, I was suddenly seized by the wild impulse to penetrate the veil of clouds and see Bali Kunja again. I took a few steps down the slope from the plateau and then hesitated. This was madness; I had some money with me but was otherwise unprepared for such a trip. I had no raincoat, no proper footwear to undertake such a trek and there was a lot of pending work to be done over the weekend. I looked back at the horizon thickly obscured now by clouds. A stiff breeze started up, cool and bracing, blowing raindrops into my face. It seemed to blow away any inhibitions I had and I turned my back to the institution where I had been teaching for the last nine years and headed towards the hills.
Of course it was not as dramatic as I have made it out to be! In the first place, one could not just walk to the hills. One could, but it was more convenient to take a bus to the nearest village. And certainly I had every intention of coming back. I was not even really sure that I would actually reach Bali Kunja, there was this idea in the back of my head that I would get as close as possible and then head back by sundown at the latest. I had a class at eight in the morning on Monday and needed to prepare for it. Heading down the slope, I took a circuitous course to the nearest bus route and waited for a bus.
Finding the right bus was not as much of a problem as I had anticipated. People did not seem to find it unusual when I told them I wanted to reach Bali Kunja. Get a bus to Ajekar, they said, then go on to Andaar. There is an easy route to Bali Kunja from there. There are naxalites in that area, so be careful, they warned. Thus I found myself in the small village called Andaar by noon, having been treated to some close-up views of Bali Kunja from the bus ? the thickly forested flanks giving way to bald, green meadows towards the top. I spotted a group of men sitting on a platform under a tree near the autorickshaw stand in the main square. They were very helpful with instructions and advised me to get some lunch before starting out. They too cautioned about the naxalites who had made these hills their hideout, but said that these radical revolutionaries generally didn’t harm ordinary people.
After lunch, I made my way through some agricultural fields to a forested slope by a track that my friends of the tree-platform had assured me would lead to the peak. But the track soon lost itself among a cluster of maybe seven or eight houses haphazardly arranged on the slope. I saw a lady in the yard of a house and called out to her, whereupon she promptly disappeared inside the house. No amount of entreaties would bring her out again and I resignedly started moving beyond the houses. In the doorway of the last house in the clearing, I saw an old lady sitting and peering short-sightedly at me. Upon asking her about the route to Bali Kunja, she laughed and jabbered something in a version of Kannada that I couldn’t quite decipher. She repeated whatever she said and then, looking pityingly at me staring like an idiot, pointed generally upslope. As I bid her goodbye, she laughed again, showing a few betel-stained teeth, her eyes crinkling kindly behind thick glasses.
After the clearing with the houses, was a plantation of mango and jackfruit trees, presumably planted by the settlers and beyond these I crossed a small bridge of roughly hewn planks over a stream where the forest started again. By now the rain had become a steady drizzle and soon I was drenched. The monsoon clouds and the tall trees made sure that there was very little light inside the forest. But the track was quite wide and there was no question of losing my way. There was the constant sound of water in the background, the pitter-patter of rain drumming on the leafy canopy, the steady sound of water dripping from the trees onto the leaf litter on the ground, the gurglings of an unseen stream. The track was thick with soggy leaf litter and I knew that numerous leeches would have fastened their suckers on my legs by now. After a while I stopped and folded up my jeans and sure enough there were about twenty of the bloodsuckers feasting on my life-blood.
While I was engaged in removing the leeches, a small voice piped up ?You have tobacco? They can be easily removed with tobacco.? Startled, I wheeled around and faced a little boy, maybe eight or nine years old, standing on the track looking at me. He was short and dark, with an inquisitive face. He was not smiling, but his face was friendly. He was wearing a pair of shorts and a shirt that was fastened by a solitary button near the top. Like me, he was also drenched. After the initial shock of suddenly hearing his voice in the loneliness of the forest, I smiled and replied ?No. I don’t have cigarettes. I don’t smoke.? ?Then you should carry at least salt.? said my little advisor, handing me a little twig with a bulb of cloth at one end. The bulb contained rock salt and I removed the remaining leeches easily with the aid of this device. I handed it back and asked him, ?Do you live around here?? He ignored my question and asked ?Where are you going??
I shrugged my shoulders. ?Just like that.?
?Are you a naxalite??
I smiled. ?What is a naxalite??
?I don’t know. They live in the forests. Sometimes they come home and ask for food and money. Appa always gives them food. We don’t have much money, so we can’t give them money.?
As I digested this bit of information, he again queried, ?Why are you going to Bali Kunja??
?I don’t know. I like going there.?
?Have you gone there before??
?No. I can see Bali Kunja from my home and I wanted to come here.?
At this he got excited and asked, ?Are you running away from home? I once did, but they spotted me in Ajekar and sent me back.?
I had to disappoint him. ?No, I am not running away from home. I want to climb to the top of the hill. For fun.?
That seemed to satisfy him, somehow. ?I can come with you for some distance.? He offered.
?I don’t think you should come. See, you’re already drenched. You should go home.?
He ignored my remark and fell into step with me. I thought that I would humour him for some time and then turn him back. He said that his name was Nagesh and that he lived ?there? ? pointing backwards along the track. His father was a farmer and sometimes Nagesh accompanied him up Bali Kunja where the father hunted small game with a gun. He went to school nearby, but did not like going to school.
He suddenly stopped in the middle of the track and said ?Wild boar.? I looked to where he pointed on the forest floor and saw that the leaf litter had been turned over in little heaps in a wide area, presumably by the snuffling snouts of the rooting boars. ?They come sometimes to our fields.? Said Nagesh, ?My father then waits up at night and shoots them. They can cause much damage.?
He turned to me again. ?What do you do, back home??
?I am a teacher.?
?Like my maths teacher?? He added, ?He knows a lot.?
?No. I teach in a college. I teach bigger boys and girls.?
?What do you teach, these big children??
?Architecture.? I said in English, not knowing the Kannada word for it.
?What is that??
?I teach them to build houses.?
?My father built our house.? He said proudly, ?With the help of Manjunath Mestry. He is a carpenter from Ajekar. Are you a carpenter??
?No. I teach them to build big houses. And other buildings, big buildings, like in the city.?
?Like inBangalore?? His eyes were shining now. ?I once went toBangalore. What big buildings they are there! You build buildings like those?? He seemed to have developed a new respect for me.
?No.? I said hastily, ?At least, not anymore. I used to, a long time ago. Now I teach these big children how to build such buildings.?
?You don’t build anymore? Then how do you teach them? My father says that he learnt to build houses by helping Sunanda Akka’s husband build their house.? I could see that he was really puzzled.
We had reached a small clearing by now. Above, the gray of the sky showed through the break in the foliage. A stream flowed thinly over an expanse of weathered black granite in the clearing. We would have to ford this stream to continue. I stopped to remove the inevitable leeches with Nagesh’s magic wand of salt.
?You see, these children don’t actually build anything.? I explained. ?They make drawings of the buildings. That is what I teach them.?
?I also make drawings of buildings.? He said happily. ?I made a lot of pictures of buildings after I came back fromBangalore. They are in the box in which Appa keeps his medicines.?
We crossed the stream. I slipped on the smooth surface of the rock and fell heavily, banging my knee. ?You should take off your slippers while crossing.? He admonished me. Once we were across the stream, I noticed that my knee was bleeding. He looked around and yanked off a few leaves from some shrub and crushed them by rubbing them between his palms. He then applied it to my wound and then smiled with satisfaction. A radiant smile, I noticed that one of his front teeth was missing.
We walked on in silence for a while.
Suddenly, ?Do you beat the children? These big children? When they are naughty??
?No. Though sometimes I’m badly tempted to??
?Then you are like my Kannada teacher. She is nice. She never beats us. The maths teacher beats us. We are all scared of him. But he is also nice.?
And then ?I would like to study in your college. When I am a bit bigger.? I smiled in reply.
?Why do you want to go to Bali Kunja?? He suddenly asked again. ?Why don’t you keep making buildings in Bangalore??
?It’s much better here.? I tried to explain.
?It’s much better inBangalore.? He said, ?My cousin Mahesh lives there. His father has a job in a company there and they are very happy. They have a lot of money too. I’ve heard my parents say that.?
?I was not happy there. That is why I came here, to this college.?
?Are you happy here??
Somehow, I could not lie to him. ?Not really.?
I shrugged my shoulders again. He seemed to be asking a few fundamental questions of me.
?Are the children very naughty? Do they make you cry? We once put a cracker under the science teacher’s chair! She cried a lot that day.?
?No. It isn’t like that.?
?Then why aren’t you happy?? He was persistent.
?It’s not so much fun anymore.? I said, knowing fully well that this kind of stuff cannot be digested by nine year-olds. ?I get bored doing the same stuff every day.?
He nodded gravely. ?I know.? He said, ?I used to feel like that at home, especially after my brother was sent off to my aunt’s place inBombay. That’s why I tried to run away.? He then fixed me with a stern glance, ?You are really not running away from home, are you??
I gave up. ?Yes, I am.? I said, trying to keep a straight face. He paused, and then seriously, ?You better be careful. If someone sees you, they’ll send you back.?
?I’ll take care.? I promised, ?Now you’d better hurry along back home. It’s beginning to get dark.?
?I will,? he said reluctantly, ?But where will you stay tonight? You don’t have any food also.?
?Don’t worry. I will manage. Now hurry along, it’s late.?
He handed me his leech-stick. ?You be careful. Don’t move around in the night. I wish Appa was with you. He knows how to manage in the dark. He comes hunting here often. But not in the rains.?
?Goodbye, Nagesh.? On an impulse, I took off my wristwatch and offered it to him. He shook his head, kids in these parts are brought up not to accept gifts from strangers. I insisted, taking his hand and placing the watch in it.
He turned abruptly and scampered off homewards into the gloom. I stood there for a while, suddenly feeling very lonely. Then I turned and resumed trudging up the sloping track.
I had planned to return to Andaar by sundown and head back home. But something possessed me by now. The gloomy sky and constant rain had robbed me of all sense of time and now, without the watch I would have no clue whatsoever of time. Not that it really mattered now. I just wanted to keep on walking in this world so far removed from my usual. I was feeling hungry and cold and my knee hurt. My back felt stiff and it was beginning to get too dark to see ahead. But I was feeling elated. Nagesh was right ? I was indeed running away, but from what?
Suddenly, the track emerged from the forest into a large, sloping meadow. The rain had stopped, but the wind blew hard and the sky was still a mass of sullen gray. A diffuse golden glow among the leaden clouds near the zenith ? the moon must be up. There was a patch of low, flat rock amidst the grass. I limped up to it, lay down and stretched out. It felt good despite the damp and the hardness.
I must have fallen asleep for quite some time because when I woke, the whole scene was transformed. The clouds had cleared almost magically and the moon had set. The stars shone forth bright, cold and the bright band of the Milky Way stretched brilliant across the sky. The wind had died down but all around me the grass was humming.