October 15, 2009

Why we didn't feel the rain

Had a wondrous stay in Assam's Kaziranga and Manas National Parks last March. The October issue of FlyLite, Jet Lite airlines' inflight magazine, has an essay I wrote on Manas. They called it "Last Call of the Florican", I called it "Why We Didn't Feel The Rain".

Either way, here it is. Comments, as always, welcome.


Sahir had read about the bird in a gorgeous India travel book his uncle gave him. "We must try to see the Bengal florican", he urged us, finger wagging determinedly, "it's an endangered species!" And for good measure, he repeated this nearly every day leading up to when we arrived in Manas, the splendid national park in Assam.

Once we found him in deep conversation with an engineering student in Guwahati, on our way to Manas. The young man had recently returned from the park, and was in raptures about its beauty and serenity.

"Yes," said Sahir, "but did you see the Bengal florican?"

The student's bewildered expression was a sight to behold. Here was a question that no amount of engineering studies had prepared him for, and it came from a nine-year-old kid. "I don't even know what that is," he said.

Neither do we, really. But when we get to Manas, we have the endangered bird on our minds, and when we set out to roam through the park, the name is like a mantra. "Bengal florican!" we say sagely, then sally forth.

Manas was closed for a long time, because of the violent Bodo nationalist movement in the area. The story everyone tells you is that Bodo militants took over the park for years. In Kaziranga, the park further east in Assam, you see rhinos like they were cattle. In Manas, the insurgents nearly wiped them and plenty of other wildlife out, shooting them for food and to generate funds.

The park is now open again. But the upshot of the years of fighting is that it's not for animal sightings that you should visit. Go instead for its lush forests, the crisp clean air, the magic of simply being there. And then, the animals are like jewels on top.

So on our first evening, we drive to Bhutan.

Yes, Bhutan. The dirt road from the southern park entrance slices north through the park, 20-odd km till Mathanguri, right on the border. As we go, Dhanjit, our accomplished guide, points out occasional bison and elephants from our open Gypsy. Pleasant enough. Then, as the evening starts turning golden, he suddenly orders the driver to stop. "Shh", he says, and we fall silent. Dhanjit doesn't say a word, only smiles knowingly at us. He wants us to figure out for ourselves why we have stopped.

Doesn't take long. Some rustling in the trees draws our eyes upwards. Then we see them, high in the trees: sitting in clumps, grooming each other, rising casually to make astonishing leaps from one flimsy branch to another. It's a flock of capped langurs, their long tails hanging like so many BEST bus bell-pulls.

I mean, we're looking up at this filigree of branches silhouetted against the darkening sky, and somehow its delicate character is only enhanced by the tails with bodies attached that prance about so elegantly. Like watching a ballet from the nose-bleed seats: sure, you can't see the fine detail of the dancers' moves, but you can see the whole spectacular set and how the dancers become part of it, rather than just actors on it. Somehow these animals, with their graceful moves, seem like they are elements of the trees themselves.

Now we know why Dhanjit has stopped. Days ago, if you had told me to spend 20 minutes watching monkeys jump about, I'd have looked at you oddly and edged quickly away. But now I know: this is a beguiling, sensuous experience.

But Bhutan beckons, so we lurch on. But only minutes later, with everything now bathed in the light of the setting sun, Dhanjit calls a halt again. This time, we are instantly quiet as mice, scanning the trees. The branches here are lower and larger than where the langurs frolicked. Suddenly, we hear an almost clumsy flapping. It's a giant hornbill, with large curved beak and wingtips that seem to move independently of the rest of the wing. Like fingers on outstretched arms, flexing as the bird sails overhead, making its way home.

Dhanjit has that knowing smile again. There's more up there, it says, than a lone homeward-bound hornbill. And then we see them. Many hornbills. One in this branch over here. Another flapping slowly past. A third on that other tree. We are turning this way and that as we rack up the hornbill sightings, more in these few minutes than I've seen in the last several years. Are we unwitting intruders at the Forty-Third Annual Hornbill Sammelan, here in Manas?

No Bengal florican. But somehow it hardly matters.

We have to walk the last few hundred metres to the border, overlooking a bend in the quietly-flowing Manas river. At one spot, there's a soft but intense buzzing. Puzzled, we look around, then down. From a few small holes in the ground near my foot, thick streams of insects emerge, taking flight towards the river. They swirl past, a gentle mist of these little fellows. No clue what they are, but they fill the air as they buzz by. We have definitely intruded on the Fifty-Sixth Annual Some Kind of Flying Insect Sammelan.

Quickly said now: sure, it's fun to step across that Bhutan border and then back. But give me hornbills and langurs and an insect swarm against the deep orange sky, every time.

Even if we still haven't stumbled on that other bird, what's its name?

Early one morning, we are roaming on elephant-back, plodding and swaying sleepily through tall grass and bushes into the heart of the park. It's cool and the sky is turning steadily darker, bolts of lightning and thunderclaps threatening an enormous downpour. Should we be out in the open at a time like this? We should turn back, but nobody wants to. This is truly an excursion where we simply soak in the charm of the park. No hornbills, no langurs, no bison, just the elephants and us, the vegetation and the hills, as far as we can see. Plod and sway, and the elephants put their trunks to good use as we go, grabbing and chomping on choice leafy morsels.

Then Sahir shouts: "The florican!"

And on our three separate elephants, with Dhanjit and Sahir pointing the way, we are rumbling through the bushes at startling speed, converging on a clump of tall grass, peering and hoping the rain stays away five minutes longer and praying the bird won't vanish in fright and trying to stay silent as we go, though our elephants' progress is not exactly silent.

And there it is, suddenly -- jet-black neck upright in the grass, tan body, eyes watching closely as we approach, about the size of a pea-hen. A handsome, almost stylish bird. We stop and it watches us some more, neck still and alert. This bird-elephant-excited-tourist standoff continues for a minute or two.

Then, with an almost supercilious swish of its head, the florican takes to the air, wings flashing white as it disappears.

Slowly, we breathe again. We hadn't noticed, but raindrops, big ones, are falling on our heads.

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