Tuesday, October 20, 2020
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The Burning Hills

Subri’s story: 

My name is Subramaniam, in short, Subri. I work in the Theni wing of Cosmopolitan Trekking Club, founded by Von Reid, a world-famous Trekking enthusiast. Belgian by birth, Von Reid had settled down in Chennai in the 90s and converted his hobby into a full-time profession by founding the trekking club.

 It is said Von Reid discovered the dangerous mountain path from Bodinayakanur to Kolukumalai just by following animal poop trails. Not only was the path steep, treacherous and prone to landslides, but also the villagers had believed that those hills were haunted. Whoever ventured earlier did not return to tell their story of their trip. There were also rumours of half eaten dead bodies that could not be retrieved from the valleys below. 

But Von Reid was not one to give in to rumours. He knew the hills. The hills loved him back. Von Reid had gone there alone with his dog Cooper in tow, despite resistance and warnings from the locals against climbing the Haunted Hills. And Von Reid returned with Cooper, unscathed and eventually put Kolukumalai on the International trekking map. Since then, Von Reid led several expeditions to this pristine Western Ghats through the lush forests of the Theni.

Impressed with my knowledge of the local terrain, a few years ago, Von Reid had asked me to join his Club and assist him during Trekking programs. I also doubled up as a caretaker in his Theni farmhouse. Reid was very fond of Cooper, which by now had a family with 2 little pups. He calls me every day from Chennai, mainly to enquire about the dogs. 

This year, the Theni Trekking program clashed with the same dates of an International Trekking conference where Von Reid was a speaker. So, he had to fly to Antwerp and deputed me to lead the Trekking program as the pathfinder. It has been a routine that Cooper accompanies the Theni Range Trekking expeditions of CTC and Reid instructed me to take the dog along in the trip this time as well. Sometimes I get the opinion that Reid trusted Cooper more than he trusted me.

Cooper’s story:

I missed the white man already. I expected him to join us any minute. But as the trekkers started the climb, I was certain that the he would not be coming. 

 The first trip alone with the white man to the peak is yet fresh in my mind. I had never ventured to that part of the hills ever, where even villagers dread to go. I had followed him when he went there. He would first make me run up the thin clearing and wait. I would run a distance and return. Then he would continue in that path as I trotted with him. This became a pattern in the climb. I sensed that I was following the path of the wild goats that had pooped nonstop as they walked. When the clearing ended, I had to sniff the ground for poop smell and a new path emerged. The white man was happy following me till the peak. Once we reached there, he was elated. The white man was jumping with joy. I jumped along with him. I had no idea why, but he seemed happy and I was happy too for his happiness. 

Now, Without the white man I felt uneasy. The white man’s companion was always rude. How I wished to return to the huge house where the white man had given my family, my lady and our brood, a small home to stay when the sun scorched or when the monsoons lashed the hills and plenty of food. My lady gave birth to many babies. Some didn’t live beyond few sunrises. Recently we lost my favourite one. While playing, he came in contact with the wires and fell flat, darkened and lifeless. The smell was strong and bad. All of us helplessly circled his body and howled. 

I missed my baby. He was the chirpiest and the first to move around the farm with me. His lazy pampered brothers were staying put under their mother’s belly. No matter how long it happened, at times it makes me harder to breathe as memories of my little one returned to haunt me. From then on, I had always been afraid of the wires. During cold nights, the humans in the white man’s house sat around the hot burning logs. They were so happy. Why did my baby become lifeless with just a spark I wondered often?

Saradha’s Trek:

This was my second trip with CTC. The Theni section of Western Ghats ranging from Meghamalai to the shadow hills of Kodaikanal had bursts of rain forests intertwined with plantations, making it one of the most pristine nature sightings one can get in this part of the country. 

We were a group of Twenty, this year, mostly from Chennai and Coimbatore. The Belgian man who had led us last year was a thorough professional, sharp and disciplined. His menacing dog called Cooper accompanied us to the trek along with his assistant.  But as the trek progressed, I was surprised that this huge dog could trek without breaking a sweat and seemed to challenge us in the climb. 

As we paused under the huge canopy of wild trees for lunch, I offered food to Cooper. He looked exhausted and that Subri did not think it was necessary to bring his dog food, Pedigree.  Without the Belgian, I trusted Cooper more than Subri.  

I had spied upon Subri smoking as I ventured into the thicket to pee. I did not like the wicked grin on his face. Last time, when I trekked, the Belgian had insisted that we train well in advance and keep our lungs free and clean for the climb and here was this idiot who was smoking. 

The foliage was not as thick like last time. Subri cited bad monsoons as the reason why the hills looked relatively dry and the grass shorter. Ironically, a spell of rain greeted as we reached the summit with no place to take cover. We had planned the descent to Kurangani before dark. But since there were a few first timers, it took longer to scale the haunted hills. 

As darkness engulfed Theni Hills, the pathfinder Subri aborted the descent after a few meters down where we found a rare patch of flatbed soil from a previous landslide. The slope was lined with a series of High-Tension Electric towers.

The batteries were dying on our torch lights. I went about unpacking the last ration of food when I found Cooper nuzzling at my legs. We decided to celebrate the last night of the trip with some music and dance. One of the trekkers took out his guitar and an impromptu Antakhsari started.

Subri’s debauchery:

We were late when we reached the peak. The descent to Kurangani must be deferred to the morning. 

Post dinner, I watched the Trekkers celebrate outside their camps. The clouds had cleared, and a full moon lit up the valleys of Theni. They were singing and laughing.  Sarada, the lady from Coimbatore, seemed to be the leader of the entertainment. She was a hot one. I had almost got caught the last time I followed her when she went to answer nature’s call. If not for the urge to smoke as my loins stirred, I could have had a better glimpse of her fleshy thighs as she squatted. And more….

This was the last night. One last chance, if I was careful.

This time she took along another lady with her. The expanse of short tea shrubs under bright moonlight provided not much privacy. I followed them stealthily. I ducked under the shrubs as they looked around before squatting. 

And then the bloody dog barked, and the ladies stood up abruptly. Getting caught again would mean saying goodbye to my job. I stayed still, but the dog sniffed my presence and turned in my direction.  I tried to move under the shrubs. To my rotten luck, I stepped on loose soil that was rendered soggy by the recent rains and slid down the slope.

The first piece of resistance to this free fall was a steel-wired fence around a plantation. I latched on to it breaking my fall. The dog was close behind as I could hear it bark. I The last thing I saw before the explosion that breached the stillness of the night was a board saying “Danger, Electric Fence, 5000 Volts.”

Saradha’s Quandary

The biggest challenge for a woman in trekking expeditions is answering to nature’s call. Some camps have makeshift toilets but most of the time we need to find safe and concealed spaces among bushes. 

After my unpleasant confrontation with Subri the last time, I never went alone. I took another lady along to find a place to relieve myself before sleep. I called Cooper along as well. 

It was a full moon day and we had to walk a distance till we found a vantage point. No sooner we squatted, a commotion disturbed our private moment. Cooper was barking aggressively and seemed to have a go at someone.  And then the explosion that transformed the already well-lit Theni Hills into a magnificent display of sound and lights. The high voltage tower was burning. In no time the entire forest was up in flames. As the echoes from the explosion stopped, all we could see was orange skies behind us and burning hills. The wind was coming downslope and the flames seemed to engulf us. Then we saw Cooper. He stopped in front of us and barked. He seemed to beckon us to follow him.

Cooper’s Rescue Act

I was weary and was about to rest when I heard a familiar call to my name. I towed along the slope with them. I sensed someone following us. I sniffed. It was the man who fed us in the big house, though rudely. But I could not see him. And then I heard a twig break and felt him go past me down the slope. I ran after him. When the white man is not there, he was my master. But why was he running away?

Then I saw the wires, the same ones that had made my baby lifeless. He was heading into it. I stopped in my tracks and instantly I heard a sound so loud that I was numbed to stillness. It seemed eerie that watching my baby’s cruel fate had taught me that these wires spelt danger. 

I ran back to the place where it all started. I saw them frozen as burning trees fell and rolled down towards them. They held me close with their eyes pleading. The heat was overwhelming. I knew that they will follow as I run. I ran along the wires and not at them hoping that the wires would end somewhere. They were following me. I trusted my instincts and changed directions towards colder air hitting my nostrils.

Saradha’s Reprise

The tragedy left me shaken to disbelief. I am alive only thanks to sheer fortitude and an intelligent dog that’s knew its way in danger. Yet, five of our fellow trekkers succumbed to high degree burn injuries.

The investigations reported that a short circuit in the electric fence of an illegal plantation led to the explosion of a transformer in the forest. Subsequent to the blaze, carcasses of many birds and animals were found scattered across the forest. Von Reid’s farmhouse bore the brunt of the fire. I brought Cooper to my home in Coimbatore.

Cooper’s Reprise

I miss my old home though they take care of me well here. This air is noisy and suffocating always. I wonder why my lady and my pups did not come out of the house when it burned. Was it painful for them when the fire touched them? My eyes have been always wet after that fire.

Burning.

***

Photo By: Tiago Aguiar

***

This is an entry for #InnsWoods, #Artales18, A Room8 writing event. Checkout the event guidelines here:  http://writers.artoonsinn.com/artales18
The event is sponsored by Manoj Paprikar, Author of Death at Midnight by ArtoonsInn room9 publications. Manoj Paprikar is a doctor by profession and a writer at heart. Through his latest venture with room9publications, he earnestly brings forth the plight of the medical profession that affects both the healthcare providers and patients at large.
Get your copy of Death at Midnight here:
www.artoonsinn.com/shop or
https://www.amazon.in/dp/8194132649

Room8 appreciates your rating of the story out of 10 in the comments.

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Ranjit Narayanan
Ranjit is an Engineer by profession, does a sales job that takes him to different corners of earth and those journeys make him pen down few words to lean away the boredom of constantly watching the lazy clouds outside the window of airplanes.
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