Into the Wild

I remember my debut into the wild. The time when I was under ten, when father bought his first coffee estate in the Western Ghats. Coffee plants in neatly planned rows and blocks, 'midst surrounding virgin forests of thorny lantana, giant trees and huge dry bamboo bushes. Areas that you didn't venture into without help preceding you, cutting a way through with long cutlass type chopper knives.

Father had bought the estate in winter. So for kid brother and me, our trip was only in the summer vacation that followed. I remember we travelled by bus from Mangalore to Saklespur - the nearest town head from where we had to walk or take a taxi. Saklespur then boasted of three taxis - all of them vintage match-box types with spokes in their tyre rims. The period in time was before the States' reorganisation, when at the inter-state border at Shiradi-ghat between South-Kanara District in the then State of Madras, and Majarabad in Malnad of the then princely State of Mysore, we had to change buses.

It was pitch dark when we alighted from the taxi at the estate. The 'Writer', Goveas-mam, - a diminutive old man sporting stained white walrus moustaches under a balding top and clad only in kakhi knickers, greeted us in the dull glow of kerosene lamps. Despite a sky full of stars, the blackness of the night seemed further accentuated by the twinkling of a million plus 'jugnu's - those fascinating fire-flies that we called kazuley in Konkani. And the seemingly still silence was not silent after all, with the shrill high-frequency screech of a thousand crickets whose din rose to a crescendo and then fell without one really noticing its presence at all.

And before we knew, we were shivering. Straight from the hot and humid climes of coastal Mangalore, the chill in the open wilds of the hills was more than our little hides could take. And we were hungry as hell. But a bath before dinner was a must. So Goves'am with his lantern it was again, who marched us off in the dark with soaps and towels, in single file down the hill to the stream. To a narrow flat strip just above the gurgling waters where the coffee-seedling nursery was nurtured, where a make-shift bathroom enclosure had been erected with tin sheets and sack cloth for cover. The old man fetched water from the stream in his copper kolso to heat in tins over a raging log fire. I had never tasted such scalding water in my life. But it was welcome, and the bath refreshing.

Back to the bungalow on the hill top, this time clad in large army type sweaters thrown over our heads and hanging loose at the sleeves and shoulders. That tickled our funny bones no end and made us kids laugh uncontrollably, each looking at the spectacle the other presented. To a piping hot meal cooked by Lobo-mam, who took turns at being the cook and handyman. It seemed no meal had ever tasted better, with venison brought in by the estate shikari, and bakrio - those ground-rice cakes roasted on earthenware thavas. A perfect recipe for a sound sleep later, cuddled under kambli estate blankets on mattresses placed atop planks. With stories thrown in for good measure from Lob'am, about possibilities of roaming tigers stepping in to say hello. All after a contented, sheer virgin-adventure-packed day.

I have occasion to visit Saklespur year after year even now. Modern times have taken over though. Development and technological advancement is writ large, stamped all over the place. The luxuries and facilities available on the estates, are rarely seen today even in posh cities. Enough reason for me to look back with nostalgia and reminisce on those days, that used to be.

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