Madhya Pradesh 1979
“Saab ji1,” said Mangal Das saluting as soon as he alighted from the jeep, “We have a location.”
“What do we do Saabji? There are six of them.”
Three pairs of eyes fixed on him. They were deep in the forest, on the southern reaches of Satpura Ranges. They had no resources to go up against the poachers and daylight was waning.
“Dhanua, try to raise the CF’s2 office on the radio again. Inform them of the poachers’ location. Ask for reinforcements.”
We have been pursuing them for the past few months. This is the closest we have come to a confirmed location. If they slip away today, we may not be able to locate them again soon. They have already caused too much damage.
“Saabji,” said Dhanua, “The radio is not working, must be static due to the thunderstorm.”
Cursing, he turned to the third man in the group and said, “Hari, take the jeep. Drive to CF Ashwin’s office. It’s a five-hour journey. You will be all alone. Drive carefully. Tell them to meet us at the location. We will break camp in the early hours and wait for reinforcements near the poachers’ camp.”
“Ji Saabji!” saluted Hari and walked away.
“Mangal, Dhanua, let’s turn in early. We have a long day tomorrow,” he ordered.
Later in the night, under the cover of darkness, he left quietly. The storm was gaining momentum. He started walking in the south-west direction. The description of the location was specific; the bend in Pench river near the thumbs-up hillock. He hoped to reach the spot before it started raining.
He knew from experience that the traps would be setup closer to the river. If he kept up the pace, he could reach that area just as the poachers were setting up traps.
After a couple of hours of trekking, he reached the hillock. From his vantage point he spotted a couple of poachers at work.
Devi Aranyani3, please help me. The reinforcements will not reach here in time. I must do this alone. Give me the strength to avenge the brutal deaths of the majestic beasts.
The thunder and lightning masked his approach. He hid behind a teak tree and peered. Just then a massive bolt of lightning hit the tree. Thrown into the air, he landed with a bone jarring thud some twenty feet away. The tree smouldered.
Groggily, covered in dirt, he came to and remembered. His gaze flew to the spot where he had seen the poachers digging the pit. Dazed, sitting on their haunches, they gazed in his general direction.
He realised this was his end. But to his amazement, they walked away. They had not seen him. How was that possible? Once they were out of sight, he got up. He looked down at himself. He jerked back a step and his eyebrows went up. His mouth turned up in a devilish grin.
He was invisible!
So be it Devi Ma4.
Bruised but with nothing broken he hurried after the poachers. As he neared them, they turned. Confused, they stood, peering owlishly in his direction. A blistering right hook to the jaw had the first poacher down on the ground, out cold. Before the other could react, he met the same fate. Unconscious, both were dumped unceremoniously into the pit.
Further down, closer to the river he saw another poacher setting up electric wire traps for tigers to step into and be electrocuted. He would then be de-skinned, his claws, whiskers and teeth removed.
Enraged at the horrendous fate that awaited the animals; he walked up behind the poacher and pushed him onto the traps. He was electrocuted instantly. Yelping then writhing in pain, his body jerked and fell to the ground.
Finally, he reached the campsite. Dawn was about to break. A poacher was brewing tea around the campfire. As he neared, he saw the rope. He tapped the poacher on the shoulder, threw a similar right hook as the poacher turned. Then deftly tied him up.
One of the poachers called out from inside the tent, to know if the tea was ready. He knew he had very little time before the poacher came out to check the lack of response.
He looked around frantically and picked up a stout branch from the firewood piled nearby. He swung it at the poacher who had just exited the tent but missed.
The poacher screamed, “Bhooooot!5” at the sight of a branch swinging in mid-air and ran away.
Alerted by the scream, the last poacher came out of the tent. He had a gun. As soon as he saw his companion tied-up, he raised his gun. Waving it to and fro, he screamed loudly, “Kaun hai6?”
The heavens broke, dousing the fire. The rising smoke silhouetted him. The look of utter horror on the poacher’s face made him realise what had happened. The poacher fired, reflexively. He dove for cover.
Instinctively the poacher’s gun followed the dive. He anxiously waved the gun in the general direction and never saw the branch that hit the back of his head. One hit and he went down.
Breathing deeply, he bent and picked up the gun. Standing up he felt a patch of warmth on his stomach. He touched the spot gingerly and grimaced. Applying pressure to the wound he staggered to the nearest tree and propped himself against it.
In the bleak dawn he felt his life and invisibility slowly ebbing away.
Few hours later, the reinforcements arrived. They saw one poacher tied-up and the other looked dead. When CF Ashwin saw him, he rushed to his side and held his hand.
“Sirrrr,” he said shivering.
“Save your breath. You did an exceptional job,” said CF Ashwin.
CF Ashwin closed his lifeless eyes.
Toady a small stone marks the place where he fell.
Courage Beyond Compare
- Saabji – A way of addressing the superior officer
- CF – Conservator of Forest
- Aranyani – Goddess of the forests and the animals that dwell within them
- Devi Ma – Addressing the Goddess as the mother
- Kaun hai – Who’s there?
- Bhoot – Ghost
- DFO – Divisional Forest Officer, a rank of an officer in the Indian Forest Services
- This story is inspired by the tales my father used to tell us about poachers and naxals when we were young. The story is set in an area of Pench National Park.