Manu Remakant takes us to the solitude of Pattiyar Bungalow and the intoxicating beauty of the Palakkadan wild.
We stack the jeep with Palakkad matta rice, plenty of vegetables, oil, spices, cooking powders, plantains, chicken, and freshwater fish; enough to feed a whole battalion; for just the six of us.
“No water,” declares Kunjumon, a teacher and our local guide who will lead us to one of the most virgin tourist destinations in the state. “No company water would come anywhere near what you find at the bungalow.”
The jeep climbs patiently though the hairpin curves. The 20-km drive punctuates with scenic panoramas on either side. Aneesh, our driver, doesn’t want to stay longer near the Siruvani dam. “This is nothing before what is waiting for you at the top,” he says.
The road changes its character immediately. The eerie music of a dark and deep jungle which envelops us drains our chatter into silence. The cicadas. A river babbles somewhere nearby. A green woody aroma pervades the damp cold breeze blowing against us.
Suddenly we see a pocket road on our right – a dark path, as enigmatic as the platform 9 ¾ of Harry Potter where the young wizards and witches board the Hogwarts Express.
The jeep overshoots the nondescript road a bit and has to pull back, for the turn. “Any one wants to call their relatives, call them from here. No mobile signal beyond the point,” announces Kunjumon. Each of us calls his children, parents, friends, spouse, to say we are on leave from the world for two days.
Only we at this end of the call are impressed.
As the jeep lurches forward, the last bar of the mobile signal flickers, then disappears. We too follow it but soon wake up into a magical world – The Pattiyar Bungalow.
A mote runs around the tiled building to discourage elephants. “But leopards do come at nights,” says Kunjumon as the jeep gently passes the small iron bridge over the ditch. The old building near the Siruvani dam was built by a British officer when he was serving the area, before Independence.
The long verandah is lined with bamboo chairs where you can be ‘lost’ for hours, as the cold wind mops up the shiny beads of tiredness after the long journey.
Opposite…the rolling blue mountains, a milky waterfall, the blue waters of the Siruvani dam etch indelible drawings on your eye and imagination. The poet inside flutters the wings after a long time.
Reji, the caretaker-cum-cook, with a warm smile, dishes out glasses of piping hot black coffee as a blanket against the loud and chilly breeze. The bungalow is skirted by water on three sides. Beyond which, the forest. “Elephants frequent the banks of the dam during summer,” says Kunjumon. You would spend hours holding a glass of your favourite drink, reclining on one of that bamboo chairs, switching between the blue water and the green foliage around you.
I will hold mine until Reji comes and declares the meals open.
After an unforgettable lunch of rice, thoran, fish curry, fish fry and spicy hot red chicken curry specially designed to ward off the chill, we decide to explore the jungle. The deep and dark jungle roads. We walk.
Kunjumon could put a date to each elephant dung we pass by. “Don’t you recognise the smell? He passed this track only yesterday,” he says. We pause and smell with the noses we have, and now see Kunjumon in a new light. We stop again as Kunjumon leans over another set of strange droppings. “See, this is littered with nails and undigested bones. Fresh droppings. Leopard!” He looks around.
A shiver runs through us.
We walk fast, but soon forget as the mesmerising wild takes over us. A brick-coloured frog leaps out from the foliage. Unaccustomed to human presence, it announces its territory boldly on our path.
We lean on a bridge to talk away the tiredness. The fresh breeze hurries in to help.
We see a river cackling on its way to the dam. More elephant dung by its side. “What happens if we get caught before an elephant?” I cannot contain my curiosity. “Don’t move. Read its movements. If it comes head on, scamper for your life,” Kunjumon replies.
“Let us go back to the bungalow,” somebody says. On our way back, we see a green green snake, crushed to death by some vehicle.
Darkness shrouds the path as we return. A few orange rays filter through the canopy to intensify my dreadful imaginings. “King Cobra, Python, Viper, Cobra, Tiger, Leopard, Elephant…” I remember what I read about the inhabitants of forests in Palakkad. The thick foliage seems to close in on us with its hidden horrors. The stones we unsettle as our weary feet fall on them can be shielding a coiled sack of neurotoxin, ready for the pump.
Kunjumon tells us about the last sighting of a panther in the area. “In the forest, before you spot the first animal, a hundred might have already watched you,” Rajesh, a member of the nature club, adds oil to the already raging fear inside.
I curse him for the one-liner.
Another turn, we see the pleasant light from the bungalow. A lone solar lamp burns at the dining room all through the night. It is the only light in the darkness that spans 50 sq. km. around this bungalow – a small scar in the wild.
An island of human presence in a vast deep dark Muthumalai jungle teemed with animals of all kinds.
No electricity. No networks. No internet. Pattiyar is a place that exists in a crevasse between fact and fiction – a nowhere, an understatement, a gut instinct nipped in the bud for lacking logic.
At night, sitting on the verandah, you can ruminate over the roads you haven’t taken, the girls who strode coldly over the wounds in your heart and the sweet mistakes of your childhood you want to make again, again, again.
As the cold wind gently closes my eyelids, somebody shakes me up: “Manu, get ready. We are going for a night safari. We may be able to spot the animals at night,” says the voice from the darkness. I protest weakly, but nobody hears anything.
The jeep pitches forward, slows down, with the headlights searching every inch of the wood. We stare with bulbous eyes to catch the flicker of a movement. Or the shimmer of wild eyes staring at us from the top of a tree.
“Stop…”Kunjumon says. The vehicle stops. (to be continued…)