"A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down."
It was close to 15 years ago when I first read these lines in the opening chapter of Rudyard Kipling's classic "The Jungle Book". And I am yet to come across a better single paragraph introduction for any character in any novel, human or animal. Bagheera appears out of nowhere to announce his intention to protect the man-cub Mowgli from Shere Khan while the wolf pack under Akela debate whether to keep Mowgli or throw him to the hungry tiger. For most people who have watched the Walt Disney animated version of the story with its song and dance frivolity and for many of us who grew up with Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar's "Jungle jungle baat chali hai..." introductory number to the Sunday morning cartoon series which achieved cult status in India, the Jungle Book with its menagerie of talking animals is a children's story.
What is not immediately apparent is the relevance of the story across all age groups and across all cultures, and the basic timeless issues that it addresses. The Law of the Jungle which finds mention every now and then in the book is a code that emphasizes on justice and fairness (Kill for food. Only man kills for pleasure.); Bagheera's willingness to save the helpless innocent man-cub despite his own bad experience of having suffered torture in human captivity from which he escaped is a lesson in forgiveness and control over misdirected anger; man versus nature and the obvious need to co-exist in peace; the wolf pack's disintegration due to weakness and hunger after they break away from Akela's leadership, wanting to hunt on their own, ignoring the discipline specified in the Law of the Jungle egged on by Shere Khan, is an indication of the path that anarchy or freedom without responsibility leads to; the closing chapter of the book when Mowgli becomes an outcast both from the animal world which fears him because he is more like a man now and the human world which thinks him to be some kind of a sorcerer is a telling statement on how most of society tend to treat people who are somehow different - all of this becomes clearer when I think back on why this particular story retains its charm for me. Of course as a kid, I was just absorbed in the wonderful characters and imaginativeness of the storyline. The Jungle Book is very much the reason why I am such a Discovery/NGC wildlife documentary freak and so much of a nature lover. I never really got a chance to think back on the story though; in such detail; until this.
On the 29th of June this year, we (My parents and me) were just over halfway through our drive across the breadth of India from Bharuch to Calcutta. We had crossed Nagpur, the halfway mark with its teeming lunch time traffic about a couple of hours ago. We took a late afternoon tea break at a highway hotel near Bhandara and kept an eye the gathering monsoon clouds and debating whether to push on ahead to stay put at our present location for the night. Our dilemma was resolved by the hotel manager who said that this was more a restaurant than a hotel. No one actually lived on the premises of this hotel after evening and for a night stay we needed to move their sister concern in the heart of Bhandara town. So it was decided that we would drive all the way to Rajnandgaon in Chattisgarh before we took a night halt as we were already behind our original schedule.
Rajnandgaon was still about 150 kilometres away and it was going to be dark in about an hour's time so I took over the wheel and stepped on the gas. The road was a two lane one so night driving sharing it with the catastrophically overloaded trucks was to be minimized. Outside the weather grew pleasant, the cool breeze awakened by rain in some adjacent area bringing relief and the fading sun across a mostly empty landscape made for a beautiful drive. The landscape was quite featureless with flat unending plowed fields on both sides, but the stark aesthetics of emptiness in a country cramped for space becomes appealing. I was hard-pressed for time though and couldn't really focus on anything except the distance covered on the odometer and the traffic on the road ahead dictating my car speedometer's rise and fall.
Then after buzzing along the road for about half an hour, we came to a very long bridge over a vast muddy river. The usual practice on Indian highway and railway bridges is to put a board stating the river's name on either end of the bridge but I couldn't find any at the beginning of this bridge. I looked out of the windows to see a semi-dry river bed bordered on both sides by the faint beginnings of a jungle. I was trying to figure out by myself what river could it be when the question was answered by a small board to my right. The board said "Wainganga". Well, the name might not ring a bell for most people but like I said "The Jungle Book" is among my all time favourite stories (both the novel and the cartoon series) so in my head, it was a whole battalion of ship horns that started tooting. The Wainganga was the setting for so many of the story's important events. I started chirping like a repetitive parrot to my parents "Look it's the river of Mowgli! Look it's the river of Mowgli! Look it's the river of Mowgli!" who looked at me with a mixture of amusement and alarm, I daresay like Baloo might have looked at Mowgli! Our route had taken us near the southern tip of the Kanha National Park which is based around the forests fed by the river Wainganga. The bridge was also two lane so I had to cross it and screeched to a halt right after it ended.
Camera in hand, I literally ran out towards the middle of the bridge, soaking in the breeze, drunk on the vision in front of me as the soft light of the fading sun partially hidden behind the looming rain clouds lent a surreal quality to what in any case was already a significant enough event to me. Here I was, on a mostly empty bridge on which the rare truck thundered by, over the river where all of the characters of the kind of story I love to read had lived and learned (at least in the author Kipling's imagination), the kind of story I'd love to write someday which can provide entertainment as well as food for thought to ages 8-80. I closed my eyes and opened them again just to see if the scene was indeed for real.
It was... and I have rarely felt happier in my life. Fifteen minutes later and it would have been too dark to revel in the heavenly sight before me; any other day in any other year, the clouds might not have so perfectly placed to make an ideal memory of my first sight of the Wainganga. The wonderful story of how a man-cub was raised by the wolves, living to hunt in the jungle and of all the other memorable animal characters could have never seemed so perfectly plausible and true except in that exact setting I found myself in. I walked back to the car in a cheerful daze, as a couple of minutes was all I could afford to spend there. Though I did not see an "inky black" shape slink down to the water to have a drink (indeed an impossibility today because there are hardly any spaces left for the real 'wild'), there are moments in life when you do feel that every preceding random act and every preceding random choice was to bring you to this exact juncture in time and space, the biggest incentive for me in feeding my mad urge to travel around the country, around the world. This was fate, this was destiny, those few minutes of bliss in the land of Bagheera.