Sunday, 1 January 2012
The old man and the screwdriver
“What will I do if he decides to go down, I don’t know. But I will do something. There are plenty of things I can do”
“I know many tricks”
“This will kill him”
- The old man and the sea by Earnest Hemingway
“‘909’ is going”, Said uncle. “You might want to see her one last time.”
“Oh please uncle, does she really have to go?” I pleaded.
‘909’ was our old Willys WW2 amphibian model jeep I bagged my first game travelling in it and also saw my first tiger while travelling in it through the jungle. It had been the family vehicle for many a big game shoots and fishing trips and picnics for us kids and hence it had a special significance not just in my life but for all of us in general. The registration number was xxx 909 and thus the moniker ‘909’. Back then the jeep restoration and collection hadn’t made resurgence so it was being rid of in favour of a new Japanese SUV.
If 909 had a voice, it would make an excellent narrator as it had witnessed many hunts or shikars, fishing trips, wildfowling, lamping trips and family holidays. Every scratch, bump and dent was a souvenir of an adventure undertaken and a saga untold.
“Checks out fine” said the buyer handing over the cash. “It was a pleasure doing business with you”.
“Hold on”, said uncle, opening the toolbox. “This stays with us”, he said pointing to the old foot-long Irwin screwdriver.
“Sure” said the buyer. “It’s just a rusty old screwdriver. What use would you have for it?”
“Let’s just say it has a special significance for someone close”, said uncle.
“Well whatever”, said the buyer and drove off in ‘909’.
“What’s the significance of this screwdriver uncle?” I asked.
“This was THE screwdriver used by ‘Mugger mama’- crocodile uncle against the man-eater of Ajabgarh.” Uncle explained.
‘Croc uncle’ was actually my father’s uncle who amused us kids with stories of crocodile hunts and hence the nickname.
“What man-eater?” I asked. “I never knew ‘croc uncle’ was into hunting tigers, let alone man eaters.”
“There is a man-eater ‘hukam’-sire”, said the villager to granddad. “He has killed 3 people and dozens of goats, sheep and cattle. Please help us as we are scared to step outside our houses”
Till half a century back, forest office post meant a man with a bamboo staff and a bicycle. Dart guns were unheard of and telephones and wireless equipment were only seen in the cities. Calling on civilians for help was not unusual. So thus began the ‘bandobast’ or preparation for the hunt.
Gun- Holland and Holland double rifle in .375 magnum, open sights with front ivory bead sight-check.
Secondary guns for obtaining food for the pot: a shotgun and a rimfire .22.
Ammo: Flanged Nitro express Kynoch. Soft nose. 270 grain-check.
Vehicle- ‘909’ check.
Driver- doubled as a helper-check
Cover shot- what a Professional hunter does today. Stands with you ready to fire in case the animal charges and you miss. Though grandfather didn’t use a cover shot at all times, he did sometimes ask his friend ‘Thakur’ (Earl) of G**** esp. in case of very dangerous game like a man-eater.-check
Food and beverages- check
Pots and pans for cooking-check
Bait- 2 goats. This tiger had lifted more goats than sheep or cows.-check
In addition, there were a million things to do and prepare. Some extra manpower could be obtained on reaching the village. This preparation was preceded by an even bigger amount of preparation of getting stuff ready- Gun had to be cleaned and zeroed. Friends and cover shots to be phoned and invited, their personal items to be loaded. Other stuff listed above to be packed and loaded. Thus a big game hunt was preceded by a lot of activity with many servants running to and fro doing their designated chores.
‘Croc uncle’ who was my grandma’s eldest brother happened to be visiting on that day and he enquired what the hustle and bustle was all about. When told it was for a tiger hunt, a man-eater at that, he was really interested. Grandfather agreed to take him but explained that he couldn’t be the part of the actual shikar-‘the hunt’ but could stay at the ‘shikarcamp’ -base camp.
The shikarcamp was at the foot of a hill next to a river. This place was not only convenient, with its supply of water, but also as far as the jeep would go. One then had to go over the hill into the valley to enter the tiger’s territory. Croc uncle was getting old and was happy not to walk miles over the hill across the jungle.
The next day the porters took one of the goats and tied it near a gamepath frequented by the tiger and the shikar party sat up in a suitable place nearby waiting for the man-eater.
Tigers have a poor sense of smell but excellent eyesight and good hearing. Due to the dense foliage it might not be able to see the bait from a distance so the shikaris (hunters) hope that they can be attracted by the sound-in this case the goat’s bleat.
Croc uncle was all alone in the shikar camp, a few hours walk away from the rest of the shikar
To make matters worse, grandfather’s goat refused to bleat. Just like humans, the animals including goats also show a typical response to fear. They either bleat their throats off or just freeze in fear. My grandfather’s goat fell into the latter category but unfortunately for croc uncle, his goat fell into the former. Sound carries far in the jungle and croc uncle could work out that his was the only goat that was making noise.
The shooting party on the other hand knew that with their goat not bleating lessened its likelihood of success. But by the virtue of their location, on a game path, it still had more chances of encountering the tiger than it did if they caused commotion by walking back to the shikarcamp to exchange goats. One shikari (professional tracker) tried the age old trick of piercing the goat’s ear with the thorn of the native ‘babool’ (acacia tree); hoping would make it bleat. Result- zilch, nada, nil, zero. The goat kept mum.
Back at shikarcamp, croc uncle was getting more terrified at the prospect of the tiger coming to him. This fear was further doubled when a tiger was heard roaring in the forest around. Now, if one is not used to it, it is very difficult to pinpoint accurately the distance or the direction of a sound in the dark jungle. To top it up, fear plays tricks on one’s mind and the fear of a man-eater in the forest at night takes some beating.
The goat, with superior hearing and the animal-sixth sense picked up the tigers roar and started bleating louder. Fear does strange things to people and in its adrenaline fuelled frenzy, it uprooted the peg it was tied to and sought the protection of the only human in sight, croc uncle and snuggled next to his mattress. It then started playing the ‘question and answer game’ with the tiger, louder and louder, guiding him closer and closer.
Croc uncle couldn’t take it anymore. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out who a man-eater would prefer, given a choice. He had to get rid of the goat quickly. Tying him wasn’t the answer as it would still invite the tiger. So he picked up the goat, carried it in his arms and threw it into the stream. Heaving a sigh of relief, he lay down on his mattress and drifted off to sleep.
“I was so scared, I was even dreaming about the damn goats and tigers; a nightmare”, thought croc uncle, cursing the goat before closing his eyes again.
Suddenly, something wet touched him and it took the old eyes some time to make out the dark four legged shape. Wet skin. Short fur.
“What the...............” uncle was about to scream.
“Bleat” said the goat as if reading his mind and answering him. Out of desperation, it had somehow managed to swim out and seek the comfort of his company.
Maybe it was the timid bleat or maybe it was the scared expression on the innocent wet face. As he stared at the wet shivering goat (was it the cold or fear or both, he wondered), his loathing for the goat disappeared and was replaced by protective love. He didn’t have the heart to get rid of it anymore.
Something had to be done to protect both of them from this man-eater but what? When the adversary is a 450 pound beast with 3 inch canines, 2 inch claws with a 12 inch spread, speed of 60 km/hour, enough strength to carry a bison in its jaws, one runs out of options pretty fast. Croc uncle searched the campsite-nothing useful. I mean one can’t use a 5 inch kitchen knife to fight a tiger. However looking in the toolbox, he found the Irwin screwdriver.
“This will have to do, dear goat.” He said to his new-found friend, who he now felt duty bound to protect.
He lay down on the mattress holding on tightly to the wooden handle of the screwdriver, its wooden base resting on his chest and the metal end pointing skywards. The goat snuggled next to him bleating- betraying their location.
“Let him come”, thought croc uncle. “Let him pounce on me with all his might. He might get me but he won’t be spared either.” A tiger leaping at full speed generates enough momentum to skewer itself. He closed his eyes waiting for the tiger to come and get him. “Come on...come on you rogue. Come and get me.” He willed the tiger to pounce. The goat continued to invite the tiger and croc uncle could hear it get closer and closer.
The shikar party waited all night on the game path with the fear-mute goat but no tiger came that night. They could hear it roar further and further away. At last dawn broke; they walked back to the camp mentally preparing themselves for another night’s wake.
On reaching the camp they saw the goat sleeping contently next to croc uncle holding a screwdriver on his chest, eyes shut tight and murmuring “come on, come and get me you *%@$*”.
How long he lay in that position was anyone’s guess but croc uncle says he was sure it took a lifetime for dawn to break. He left for town the same day and stayed away from Big game hunts for the rest of his life. He never agreed that it was luck or his muttering that drove the tiger away that night but maintained that the tiger had been scared away by his ingenuity.
As for the goat, many family friends still remember the mouth watering goat curry at the party celebrating granddad’s tiger hunt.