The beautiful forest laden hills of the Western Ghats, running along the borders of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka, are a wondrous place for the avid naturalist or a seasoned trekker. Miles upon square miles of beautiful dense forest filled with all manner of flora and fauna, beautiful ruined temples hidden in the vales, charming villages with equally charming inhabitants, magnificent vistas of green valleys and azure sunsets – this is the Western Ghats. Night Jars flit across the dirt roads at twilight, panthers steal dogs from the villagers for their midnight meals, the spirits of dead ancestors roam freely in the imaginations of the locals and the blazing afternoon heat does little to quench the appetites that the locals have for the potent hooch they distill themselves despite strict government regulations that prohibit such activities.
James hadn’t made a trip to the forests in ages. He was down in Goa on some business and had a few free days, the time seemed perfect for ride through the forests of the hills. It was a few hours ride from Margao and the weather was good (the weather is often little else during a Goan summer). The Enfield had just been serviced recently and hadn’t been on a long dirt track ride for a long time. It seemed to implore him to do exactly that as he looked down on it from his hotel room window.
James often made trips on his own. He liked the solitude at times especially when people of the city got too much for him. In his teenage years he would hike in Borivali National park every weekend. Later his thirst for adventure led him to acquire that Supreme King of the Indian Highway, the Royal Enfield and his journeys would take him as far into the distance wildness. He loved nothing better than biking up to some remote village and exploring the surrounding forests. His delight knew no bounds when he discovered some ancient architectural relic in the middle of an overgrown clearing. He would question the villagers about the history of the forest, the significance of the temple and the reasons they had fallen in to disuse. He was not a naturalist by any means nor was he an architectural historian. He was content to be a collector of stories. The stories of the wild jungles of India, their inhabitants both human and animal, their ornamental houses of the holy, which he would regale with great delight to his armchair traveler friends in the city. ‘There must be some old relic I haven’t seen in these hills yet’ he thought. And so he decided that he would ride to an old guest house in the south western part of the hills along the Goa – Karnataka border. This time though he was taking along a friend of his, the jovial and laid back Alfred Euphimiano Oliviera Fonseca.
Earlier he had gone out into the market to make a few purchases, batteries for his torch and a radio, a few eats and a bottle of water for his ride to the guest house, matches, some oil, some kerosene and some rope. As he was about to complete his rounds of the shops, he had bumped in to Alfred Fonseca, Alfie to his friends, whose acquaintance he had made on a previous trip to Goa. ‘Jimmy!’ exclaimed Alfie, delightedly ‘what you are doing here Man. Fuck, you should have told me that you were coming down. Come to my place for lunch now man. Mum and Diana are making nisteachi kodi. Your favorite. Man, but we can pick up some crabs and tisreo. Come, come now.’ ‘Jesus Alfie. Let me say hello to you first.’ said James grinning from ear to ear. With that he gave Alfie a warm hug.
It was impossible to not like Alfie. His rotund frame, his dazzling smile, his humble character and his excessively friendly demeanor made you take to him straight away. Everybody he met was treated like his best friend. James had only met him two trips ago and already he had dined at Alfie’s place several times. He knew pretty much everything that there was to know about Alfie. He was the only son of a rich landowner in Margao. He had inherited his father’s house, properties and debtors. His father had also left him this piece of wisdom ‘Son what goes up must come down and what goes up faster must come down faster too.’ Armed with this piece of advice he realized that a slump in the prices of property in Margao was imminent. He sold most of the properties he owned (luck would have it, shortly before the slump that they have never recovered from) and converted a few choice locations that he had retained into modest hotels complete with little restaurants that served his mother’s recipes. Goa’s bustling tourist trade ensured that he was always well to do. But how ever well he did he was always down to earth.
He still lived in the house his father built with his wife, his mother, two children and a maid. His good fortune had made him so laid back, he was almost horizontal. He never went after anything for he believed that he needed no more than he already had. He still had his scooter which his wife, mother and kids were afraid to sit on and he never brought a car so to avoid the responsibility of ferrying his family around town. As his family endured the rigors of public transport, he scooted down to his hotels where he spent his time talking to his guests and ensuring that they were well looked after. He had staff looking after every aspect of the hotel from cleaning to cash handling and thus only had to make sure that nothing was amiss. In the morning he went into the restaurants and spoke to his guests. Then he stood behind the reception desk and made small talk with staff and guests. He inspected the books and checked the previous nights takings, he sampled the food cooked in the kitchens, he went around and inspected what rooms he could, he sanctioned the actions that his managers had deemed necessary (repairs, maintainence etc.), he banked the cash he had taken and then enjoyed a long lunch with his friends at some of his old haunts. After siesta he did what he needed to do at his hotels and returned home before the sun had even contemplated setting.
In the evening, he had a long and leisurely meal while his kids regaled him with their days exploits and then sat leisurely on his verandah and gazed out into the street. It was on such a Sunday afternoon trip to the market that he met with James. On Sunday he didn’t work and spent the whole day with his family. James knew that he didn’t have much of a choice and anyway a delicious lunch at Alfie’s place which often led to siesta, tea and dinner was a good enough reason to postpone the trip by a day.
At dinner that night, James told Alfred about the trip he was planning. “What man!! You are forever the Jungle fellow.” exclaimed Alfie, whose articulation was not his greatest asset. James detected a certain ring of admiration in the statement. All of a sudden he was possessed by a desire to take Alfie with him on his trip. Now the Western Ghats were not a dangerous place. They had their challenges but the main dangers that a traveler though the forests of the ghats faced was his or her own inexperience and carelessness. True you could break a limb or even worse ride over a cliff, but only if you were really careless or if Luck was truly against you. But all in all the ghats were a truly wondrous place full of hidden wonders, of sights, sounds and smells that soothe the soul. To take a typical city boy away from his comforts in the city and let him experience the wonders of the wild, to allow the jungle to inspire him (potbelly and all) with awe, that was something Jimmy (as Alfie fondly called him) liked to do now and then.
“Why don’t you come with me?” he asked Alfie. “Where?” Asked Alfie. “On my trip. There is room for you on the bike. And I’ll arrange a forest guest house. Have you ever gone on a forest trek.” “A long time ago” said Alfie. It had been a very long time ago and it had not been the most pleasant experience. He had cut him self on rocks, tripped over tree branches, mistaken creepers for venomous snakes, was nearly eaten alive by tree ants, had to take a freezing bath in a running stream and was continuously ribbed by his mates for being a “pussy”. “ Well, you will love it then” continued James, not detecting the hesitation in Alfie’s answer. “ Should bring back some old memories” he added. Alfie looked to his mother and wife for help. He hoped that they would say that they couldn’t manage without him, that they needed him around the house, that the businesses needed tending to. “ Yes Yes, you should go” said his wife “It’ll be good for you. A nice change for you. Kanwalkar and Fernandes should keep things running smoothly till you get back.”
“Not that you do much anyway. See James, see his belly” added his mother “Make him hike a lot so it comes down to zero.” “So it’s settled then. I’ll pick you up at 8am. That should give us plenty of time to get there,” said James. No one seemed to notice that Alfie hadn’t answered yet. After dinner they sat chatting while the women washed up and James told Alfie his plans. It was going to be an easy trip. No heavy trekking or climbing, just an easy ride up to a forest guest house up in the ghats with some light trekking thrown in to make things interesting. “It’ll be good” said James “a couple of days surrounded by mother nature. Just what you need.” Alfie felt considerably at ease. He felt a lot better about this. As they talked about the trip Alfie grew keener on going. After a while James bid every one good night and rode off to his hotel.
The next morning James was up at the crack of dawn. He was ready in no time and believed in traveling light. He had a leisurely breakfast and left close to the time to meet Alfie. Alfie, on the other hand had packed for an assault on the North Pole. James cast his eye in amazement over the array of bags. Alfie’s mum had stayed up after dinner last night and had prepared a mountain of food. The women then rose early and packed everything but the kitchen sink for Alfie to take. “We can’t fit all that on the bike” said James, bluntly but sweetly, so as not to offend Alfie’s mum. After diplomatically dealing with all the protests, explaining why it would not be a good idea to carry potato chops and Vindaloo on a biking trip, a quick repack of the very basic necessities and a compromise (in the form of the potato chops) later they were off.
They rode for a couple of hours, first through the busy streets of Margao till they hit the highway and then into farm country. Ahead in the distance were the hills. As the highway approached the hills the vegetation grew thicker. They rode up the road into the hills and made their way onto the dirt track which led into the forest. The forest grew thick around them. Sunbeams filtered in through the canopy and danced off the metallic surface of the bike. They spotted the Grey Hornbill and other exotic birds. The sounds of the forest filled their ears. They came up on a big open track which eventually led to a village.
James stopped the bike and asked for the forest guard who eventually appeared. He was a lanky fellow, burnt by the sun and weathered by the wind. He had spent so much of his life in the proximity of trees that he gave the impression of inevitably turning into a shrub as time went on. He greeted them with an odd mixture of nonchalance and suspicion that only a forest guard can manage. James asked him about the guest house. The guest house was apparently reserved for the exclusive use of forest officials, conservationists and ecologists, travel writers and documentary makers and you needed a special pass to get access. James slipped him a couple of ‘Special passes’ and the directions and the keys came out straight away.
James had no problem finding the guest house. The house was situated in a clearing on the eastern slope of a hillock. Around the house the forest grew thick and the canopy stretched out and caressed the roof of the cottage. The front of the cottage had a verandah with a broken wooden railing that ran across the front of it. The walls were made of brick and had been painted red, but over time the forest had painted it own hues on it. The front door opened into a wide room and there was a washbasin, some cots, a kerosene stove, some kerosene lamps and a few chairs. The room smelt musty from being closed up. They opened the windows to let the place air out. James showed Alfie the outhouse which was a few yards up from the house. “That’s where you go for potty” he said.
James filled the kerosene lamps and they settled out on the front verandah with some rum and water in the tin cups that James had carried in his backpack and watch the sun set. They made small talk and Alfie kept remarking on how good the whole trip had been and what a good idea it had been for him to come along. He seemed relieved that the trip so far had been mild and uneventful. It was more comfortable than he expected. After dinner under the light of a kerosene lamp, they settled in for the night. Midway through the night, Alfie woke with a noise near the door. He thought it was James and looked around. James was out of his sleeping bag and was looking up at the door. “What is it?” he whispered to James. James’ tense pose worried him. James gestured him to be quiet and reached for a flashlight. He crept up to the door silently. He seemed excited now. He called Alfie towards him. Alfie crept up behind him. He was truly nervous now. “What is it” he whispered to James. James mouthed the word ‘Panther’ and then proceeded to turn the handle. Alfie felt a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach along with a sudden desire to cry out loud. James opened the door and was out on the porch in a flash, with his torchlight on. The beam of the torchlight caught a smooth dark shape slinking of the porch. Alfred suppressed a desire to pull the door shut and darted out behind James. James ran of the porch in the direction of the shape. It had disappeared into the jungle. All that remained was the moonlit silence of the jungle , filling the darkness. Alfie was right behind James. His potbellied frame was heavy with perspiration and he was breathing hard. “What Man? Let’s go inside before that thing comes back” he said nervously. “Did you see it?” asked James “It was a panther, man.” “Yeah. I know. Let’s go inside.” The jungle was silent again save for Alfie’s heavy breathing and the creaking of the crickets. As they walked on to the porch, there came a sudden distant ringing of bells, as clear as the night. They kept chiming for a while and then fell silent. “What’s that” asked Alfred. He looked scared. “Don’t know” said James “must be the villagers.” Alfred relaxed. “Yes. Must be the villagers” he said. James sensing Alfred’s nervousness joked about how they must be trying to scare the panther away from their dogs. He went on to inform Alfie that panthers are not dangerous to humans as they always attack creatures smaller than themselves. He poured a round of strong rums and gave one to Alfred. Alfred consumed his in a hurry and bundled himself back in his sheets. He fell asleep soon as he was quiet tired.
The next morning James awoke to the sound of a busy Alfie, making coffee and heating baked beans. They had breakfast and talked about the night before. Alfie couldn’t help bring up the bells. James assured him that it must be the villagers as they were trying to frighten the panther away. Alfred seemed relaxed. The broad daylight seemed to reassure him. He joked about some villager running around in his dhoti and banging on a pot from his wife’s kitchen. The morning wore along slowly. The leaves of the trees drank up the sun. The birds celebrated summer. Time trod along at a leisurely pace as did their conversation. James suggested a short trek before lunch. Alfie welcomed the suggestion. “Have to reduce this to Zero” he said patting his potbelly. “Highly unlikely” thought James to himself.
As they readied themselves, a villager came along. He had met them the day before when they had rode into the village and had displayed a level of inquisitiveness over and above the average. James was not surprised to see him. The villager greeted them and sat a couple of feet from the porch. James struck up a conversation with him. He asked him if he had seen the panther. The villager said that he had not. The panther had not come to the village as the dogs had been silent all night. He said that panthers were common in the area and they were always stealing dogs. Alfred said he must have heard the commotion in the village, with the bells ringing and all. To their surprise the villager answered that no one in the village rang a bell last night. When they asked who rang it the villager answered that it was a local deity that did it. “Devi ne ghanti bajaya.” “Devi ne???” “Han, Devi ne.” He then informed them that there was temple up the hill a few km from the village and that the deity rang the bells at night to signal that there would be a good monsoon.
Though he was always late for Sunday mass, Alfie was a god-fearing Christian. The last bit of information that the villager gave them seemed to stir his bowels. The feeling got even worse when James, delighted with the tale, asked for directions to the temple. The villager left and Alfie confirmed his fears that James was planning on finding the temple. Alfie protested saying that it didn’t seem to be a good idea. But James was determined to go up to the temple. He told Alfie to wait at the guest house if he wanted or at the village but Alfie had no mood to wait on his own till James returned. He also didn’t feel too good about letting James go off on his own. So he agreed to go along.
They rode up to the village and from there took the track up the hill. It was a hot day and the sun bore down mercilessly. The Enfield threw up dust and pebbles as it negotiated the bumpy road. Even under the canopy of the trees the heat was oppressive. The ride was beautiful and took Alfie’s mind off the temple. They kept riding up the curving track when suddenly after a sharp turn they came up on the temple. It was a desolate looking thing, as old as the forests that surrounded it. It lay a few meters of the track and seemed cut into the hill. It was made of stone that had grayed with age. Shrubs and trees had encroached on it from all sides. Disuse and the weather had led it to decay. Dried moss and lichens covered the walls. They climbed the steps to the temple and stood on the verandah outside the entrance to the prayer room. A tarnished brass bell hung from a corner of the main doorway. They looked around for a priest or a caretaker but there was not a soul in sight.
James entered the temple and Alfie followed hesitatingly. Inside it was dim as the sun did not penetrate the interiors. The prayer room was empty save for a decrepit statue of the deity and a musty smell that filled the room. The eyes of the statue stared straight ahead ignoring them as they walked around the temple. Neither of them said a word. James went up to the bell and rang it softly. “Must have been the wind” he said. Alfie walked out. It wasn’t very windy at the moment and had not been the night before either. But he didn’t say anything. Instead he walked back out into the sunlight and down the steps to the bike where he waited for James. James poked about for a bit longer and then followed him out.
As they rode back to the village, Alfie couldn’t help but mention that the temple had a creepy feel to it. James replied that it must have been a villager who had rung the bell the night before. “Must be some gimmick they have come up with. Trying to make the village famous” he joked. “Yeah” said Alfie laughing. They stopped back at the village and picked up a few things and rode back to the guest house. It was still afternoon and they lounged about for a bit and then trekked about till evening around the guest house. They came back before evening, washed and began to drink. As they drank they forgot all about the temple and began to joke and laugh about previous meetings in Goa. James told him stories of previous camping trips and they laughed well after the sun went down. After dinner they drank some more. James asked Alfie if he thought the panther would come back. Alfie replied that he didn’t think so but if it did he would make a curry out of it. They laughed and kept drinking well into the late hours. James was determined to stay up for the panther and kept pouring drinks and making conversation.
It had become late and Alfie was about to turn in when suddenly, the bells rang again. They both fell silent as the ominous chiming filled the hot night air. James Picked up his keys and headed for the door. Alfie followed him, fired up by the drinks. James was on his bike in a flash and kick started the engine. “Where are we going?” asked Alfie. “Come on. Hop on” yelled James. The roar of the engine filled the night sky but did little to reduce the din of the bells. “I’m going to find out who the fuck is ringing those bells” yelled James to Alfie. Alfie bolstered by the certainty in James voice that he suspected it to be a villager, added a “yes, lets.” They rode down to the village in no time and were greeted by the barking of the dogs that had a woken to the sound of the engine. They sped through the village and up the track into the forest. James had a good sense of direction and the moonlight made it easy for him to see where he was going. He easily found the way up to the temple. Just as they arrived near the bend to the temple the bells stopped ringing.
James sped up the bend and into the temple. The head light illuminated the temple briefly before James cut of the engine. The temple stood there, all silent stone in the warm summer night air. The moonlight made it look a sickly grey against the darkness of the forest. All was silent, there was no breeze. Nothing moved around the temple, nothing moved in it. A slow feeling of terror built it self up in Alfie. He crept cautiously behind James and together they made their way up the stairs to the temple. James flashed his torchlight and rushed in to catch the miscreant if he was still around. Alfie gasped and followed him in. The temple was empty, save for the decrepit statue of the deity and the musty smell of decay that filled the room. “Must have been the wind” said Alfie but he didn’t sound too convinced of his own words. They stood halfway between the door and the statue. The deity’s eyes were fixed directly on them. It stared out of its decrepit face straight at them, the gaze made more alive with the torchlight. In the darkness with the torchlight focused on the face of the statue, it seemed to hang there in the darkness, nothing else but a staring face, staring right at you standing there in the middle of nowhere, questioning you, how did you dare to enter , how did you dare disrespect and doubt me, how, how, how. It was then that they realized that the air in the temple was cold; not cool but a clammy, sickly cold and that they were both perspiring heavily.
James turned and ran out of the temple. Alfie panting heavily followed on his heels. As James kick started the bike the headlight illuminated the temple. As James backed the bike to turn it he couldn’t help but feel that the temple quivered. Quivered like it was giggling at them. The temple, the forest and the deity all were having a hearty giggle at these two fools who couldn’t leave well enough alone. He didn’t say anything. They rode back in silence, the heavy roar of the engine filling their ears. James rode at top speed, throwing caution to the wind. He had visited a few strange places at night but never had he been so affected. All he wanted to do was to ride back to the guest house as soon as possible. As they sped past the village, Alfred yelled into James’s ear “She was laughing at us.” “What?” asked James. “She’s laughing at us” yelled Alfie. James rode on silently. When they reached the guest house Alfie left of the bike and hobbled up the stairs. The kerosene lamp that James had left on filled the room with light and Alfie was glad for the light. He threw himself on his cot and stared up at the ceiling, taking deep breaths. James entered in and made for a cot. He lay down and looked at Alfie. Alfie looked back at him and said nothing. James smiled and said “Man. That was freaky.” “Yeah” said Alfie and turned his gaze back to the ceiling. “Drink?” asked James but Alfie declined. He turned his back to James and tried to fall asleep. James poured himself a drink. Suddenly Alfie said, “You know. My leg started cramping in there. When you ran out I couldn’t move. Don’t know how I did it. I thought that you were going to leave me there.” He fell silent and fell asleep after a while. James fell asleep shortly after.
The next morning James was woken by the sound of Alfie cheerily making coffee and frying eggs. “What a night eh?” he said. “Man, we drank too much” he added by way of explanation. They recounted the night’s events over breakfast. Everything seemed so silly in the daytime. They laughed, feeling embarrassed. After breakfast they packed and left. “Want to ride up to see the devi,” asked jams. “Fuck it. Let’s go home,” said Alfie laughing.
When they reached Alfie’s place later in the day, they recounted their adventures to Alfie’s family and enjoyed their reactions. Later before he left Alfie’s place James told him how he had also felt the devi had laughed at them. Alfie promised that he would stay away from temples, devis and panthers for a while. James bid him good bye and left for his hotel. The next day he packed and headed back to Mumbai. As time went by both forgot the incident up in the hills. James got stuck into his advertising business and his trips out into the wild grew less frequent. Alfie settled into his blissfully mundane existence. James made it a point to visit Alfie on his trips to Goa and they would nostalgically recount the events of that trip. But Alfie remembered it even without James’ visits. When the nights grew cold or when his leg cramped, he couldn’t help remember that night in a temple on a hill.