Wednesday, 20 June 2012
“There is no such thing as ghosts. Superstition, supernatural, occult is simply fiction. They may just be names for things that science has not been able to explain.”
Grandfather’s words are still as fresh in my mind as they were decades ago when I was a young boy who used to stay up late into the night every weekend as he enthralled me with his tales of hunting.
Back then there was a lot of illiteracy in India and belief in the supernatural, ghosts, etc. was very common. Grandfather, being a doctor was a man of science and did his best to instill in me logical thinking based on facts.
“Take for example cases of ‘goddess possession’ in housewives”, he would explain. “Often these women are neglected by husbands and abused by the in-laws. Once her bodies become a medium for the goddess, she gets a lot of care attention and respect by her family.”
“That is all fine”, said uncle. “But then how do you explain the case of the indestructible porcupine.” During his hunts, uncle had been deep into remote forests and had seen old tribals, ruined lost cities and enough mysteries to make a television series on discovery channel.
“What porcupine grandfather?” I asked perking up at the thought of another exciting story.
It was a cold winter night. ‘The gang’ was on its way to its weekend hunting retreat. It was a new area, not hunted often. They stopped in a remote village enquiring about the route.
“Do not go there sir”, said a wizened old man. “You can’t hunt there; that area is protected”.
“What nonsense”, said grandfather. “That is not a protected area. It’s outside the national park”.
“No hukam (sire). It’s protected by the spirits. No one can hunt there. The animals are protected as there is a ‘devsthan’ there (place of god-referring to a shrine).”
“Thanks for the warning old man and now the directions, if you please”, said grandfather, bemused.
The old man gave them directions reluctantly but warned them not to invite the wrath of the jungle spirits by going there.
This probably ignited the spirit for adventure in ‘the gang’. They probably took it as a challenge. The poor driver, however believed in the legend and meekly tried to protest but it was discounted with an air of dismissal. Since when were drivers allowed to voice their opinions?
The forest was primeval deciduous forest which had no roads not even dirt roads. There were only old game paths which one had to navigate; off-roading at its best. Encountering game paths without previous car tracks is usually a good sign; it signifies an area not frequented by hunters meaning less hunting pressure and hence better hunting.
‘909’ was going slowly along the narrow windy game track. The forest was alive with the sounds of the jungle promising a great hunt ahead. Suddenly the driver brought the jeep to a halt.
“What’s the matter?” enquired everyone.
“There’s a porcupine crossing the path ahead”.
Those of you who are familiar with the scuttling gait of a porcupine, will know that it should take but a moment for it to cross a dirt path in jungle.
Or should it?
No sooner than it reached the edge of the dirt track, it turned around and started walking back across the track, not looking at the headlights of the jeep.
It did it again and again walking across the track, like a guard outside a protected building; what was it protecting?
“It’s a sentry”, murmured the driver, “protecting the forest that lies beyond. We can not cross.”
As if it understanding the driver, the porcupine seemed to have changed its gait to a march.
“Toot the horn”, said someone. The driver was in no condition to protest.
But a blaring horn, which even causes a tiger to flee, had no effect on the ‘sentry’.
“Sentry my foot”; said a ‘gang member’. “I think its time we rewarded our tracker.”- Tribal forest dwellers are often employed as trackers and consider porcupine meat a delicacy.
Saying this, he raised his shotgun to his shoulder and BANG.
The ‘sentry’ went on with his ‘duty’.
“Ha-ha. You missed. Twenty yards, slow moving target and he still misses. The rest of the gang were laughing at their friend’s terrible shooting.
“I’ll show you how its done”, said another member but with the same result.
“Maybe the porcupine’s quills are dispersing the shot”, someone rationalised.
“We’ll see about that”, said grandfather taking his rifle out of the case. This mighty weapon had accounted for a few big cats, bears and crocs.
The porcupine not only kept at its ‘duty’ but also seemed to be unfazed by the sound of gunfire.
It became a matter of personal pride and every hunter wanted to be the one to halt the porcupine in its tracks.
Around 35-40 shots were fired that night by six different people who had more than a century’s worth of shooting experience between them. The various weapons used were adequate for everything from a sparrow to an elephant.
But none of them could even touch the porcupine.
There were seven witnesses to this incident including the driver but none of them could say why no one thought of running over the porcupine with the jeep.
Was it a respect for this unusual adversary or the message that maybe they weren’t meant to go hunting that day, no one can tell but they decided to call it a day and return home.
I mean, if one can’t hit a porcupine at 20 yards with 40 odd shots, what chance would one have at game.
The gang went on to have more adventures; the weapons and the ammunition, checked on return, were working fine.
“I don’t know what happened that day”, concluded grandfather. “But I refuse to believe in supernatural”.
Having read works of many hunters about hunting in India, including those written by foreigners, it is not uncommon to come across the stories of protected forests and animals. The most famous of these was the case of ‘temple tiger’ by the world famous hunter and author Jim Corbett. Despite his best attempts, he was unable to bag the ‘protected’ tiger.
But that was a tiger. The gang, to their ever-lasting embarrassment, was bested by a mere porcupine.