The busy and important National Highway No.69, which connects north to south, is a great symbol of political brain and its collective apathy. Despite the commercial value, its fate has not changed in decades as there are no voters alongside. A large tract is forests on either side of road and tribals are mostly found around it.
We rushed and quickly traveled the ten kilometers of lower ghats (mountain roads). The remaining higher ghats were thirty kilometers, with another five kilometers of narrow stretch of road on either side of ghats. But it used to take an hour and a half's drive to cross it on low traffic days.
As we drove, we were circumspect. Keeping an eye every few seconds on the meter reading, I tried to relax by talking to Sooraj about tomorrow's works. Tomorrow is such a construct of mind that beautifully seems like a reality, most of the times. We forget that in that moment, it’s just as good as an imagination.
The conversation soon turned to Tulsi, to make him a part of it. I asked him about his home and family. His own name was not Tulsi. Actually his wife's name was Tulsi. He was from interior forest villages and had moved to Nagbaba's village to live in his wife's hut, after marriage. He was initially called as Tulsi's man, but over time, Tulsi became his proxy name. Living a tribal life, name changes or such things were not a major matter for him.
The tribal marriages were also simple affairs. The girl and boy could decide the matter, and a simple ritual finalized it. If the couple were offering a feast, the ritual was well attended; otherwise marriage ritual was a few persons affair. I asked Tulsi how large his feast gathering was, and how much did it cost.
Tulsi smiled and said, “Bhaiya, our feast didn’t cost anything but it is a lot of work as we have to gather Mahua and other food and wood. And there is no estimate how much to gather since people just come in. It was too much hassle for me and my wife since both of us don’t have siblings to help.”
He also had a four year daughter. He had a small hut and a few animals and lived in the outermost hut in the village. His source of livelihood was mostly cutting wood and selling it in the district. Occasionally, he used to do odd jobs for Nagbaba like delivering snakes to a forest office in the city, or delivering message to his friends who lived faraway. He didn't know his exact age but we discussed and decided it was thirty years.
Once driven by poverty and hunger, he had gone out with his family, to find work under the government schemes. But they had returned back after exploitation by middlemen. Since then, they had lived here.
For last few months, he had been worried about his wife as she had been running temperature frequently and had deteriorated. The village 'jhola chap Bengali doctor' (they are not Bengalis or from Bengal -they just have become known by that adjective) used to give her some injections and medicines but nothing had improved. I suspected some kind of typhoid, and told him I will guide him to a decent doctor coming week itself.
It was getting dark. There was much lower traffic on road this time. Once every 2-3 kilometers, we were passing a truck. We had steadily climbed the roads and now we had crossed the highest point on ghats, which was almost the midpoint of the forty km stretch. The mountains and forests from this point could be seen for a long distance.
Tulsi opened up a bit and asked, “Babuji, if those folks come near us in open, what would have you done?” Before I could answer, Sooraj said jokingly, “In that situation, we need not worry what to do, they only would decide what to do with us.”
Sooraj's answer made me think - actually I didn't even have a plan for that situation. My only plan was to drive to safety. But I was not as resigned as him. My problem was that I didn't have the experience or the skills to think of something in such situations.
Still in my thoughts, I said, “Sooraj, we have a car jack and its rod behind your seat. Take it out. It’s good to hit with.” There my plan ended.
Tulsi continued, “If we are in a forest, I will only need a whistle, a wood and lots of rope to handle all of them, and even pass a night safely with animals. I always carry a whistle. Rest we can find there in abundance.”
As I asked, “What will you so with a whistle?” I noticed bright flash lights of a larger vehicle, just one blind turn behind us. The frequent turns had hidden it till now. It was roughly 200 to 400 meters behind us, and we were still five kilometers from the end of ghats section. I increased the speed, and thought - not much to go.
Others caught my tension. Yet Tulsi completed the answer, “Keep blowing the whistle after moving a bit. Forest folks will spot you accurately but these folks, even if they are near, they won’t be able to accurately figure out which direction the sound is coming from. There are small gathering of five to ten tribal huts inside every few kilometers in the jungle.”
My confidence grew about our circumstances and I wondered if I should have learnt more about fighting in jungle from him. Instead of running away, I would have rather invited these folks for a meeting inside the forest that was around the road. But we didn't get that much time to know more from Tulsi.
On a potholed road where we were feeling every jerk in the small car, the vehicle behind was catching up fast. We were still four kilometers to the finish of ghats section and this vehicle was barely ten meters behind us. Due to lights and deep darkness of forest around, we could not make out which car was that.
I told Sooraj, “Let me see if these guys are not the same and they just want to overtake. I will slightly slow down. You keep a watch behind and tell if they come too close to hit instead of trying to quickly overtake. If they overtake and turn out to be the same Scorpio, we will quickly take a U-turn and rush back.”
As I steadied the speed and brought it down, the Vehicle kept closing in to the point where they were just behind. Sooraj freaked, “Five feet, coming fast”.
I immediately pushed the accelerator. In the same moment, our car was hit from behind. Thankfully, our speed had increased in that last split second, so the impact was nothing more than a deep dent and a jerk. We were not thrown off the road.
They were now chasing with more ferocity. While we had he small car advantage on turns and were able to increase the lead at turns but potholed roads gave them greater advantage. There was no way we were not going to be hit again before another kilometer crossed. Even if ghats were crossed, I was sure we had no advantage over their madness on the straighter road. Further I was sure if they saw an oncoming traffic, they would surely hit. On plain sections, it was not beyond them to hit us when they chose.
Our only hope, if any, was the police car, sent by Mr.Lal, on our way from the opposite direction. It should have reached us by now. Had it even started from there?
I was angry as I drove, “When a police officer says don't trust the police, what does he mean? Tomorrow, they will say don't trust the government of the country.” I now said things without reason but we were distressed. There was no reason that could be expected of us.
They had closed in for a second hit and were teasing us with flashlights, before making the final assault.
Tulsi said, “Bhaiya, we have to turn left inside the forest, whenever we find an opening between trees. There will be paths where a cart or this car can go for some distance.”
I didn't see any other option. If destiny has chosen this day for us, we were not going down without a fight. I remembered my family and my responsibilities and sadness came over.
I remember what I had prayed for in that moment, “God, take care of everyone if I don't return.” I didn't ask for more help from Him.
At the moment, I got a call on cell phone. The network was back as the end of ghats was approaching. It was Mr.Lal, he asked “The car has crossed Obedullaganj. Where are you?”
I told him where we were and that we were going to be hit any moment again and we were going to take left inside forest at the next opportunity. He said, “Okay, I will ask them to search on the left side from the point you are currently at. It will take our car fifteen minutes to reach there.”
That gave us a real chance. More than distance, I had to count fifteen minutes. Forest path seemed a certain escape. Now we had to just find one opening quickly.
Such openings are frequent; every kilometer one can spot three to four such paths going inside the forest. I put on the alarm lights in the car and slowed a little, causing some uncertainty in the vehicle behind that their prey is giving up the escape and is going to stop soon.
Tulsi was adept at spotting forest paths from a distance, even in a dark night. He quickly alerted me to the next one, when we were about twenty meters away from it.
The turn came and I took a swift left turn. Then I increased the speed by a little to reach 50 kmph. There were dense growth on both sides, and the path was rocky. Barely after 50 meters, it met a steep downward incline; the path became narrow and full of small stones and rocks. It seemed to be a path for monsoon stream to flow. It was narrow so we knew that the Scorpio won’t enter beyond this point.
And from here our advantage started. But our car was also struggling on stones and rocks. It was bumpy but the rocks were smoother than I thought. The car skidded whenever I applied breaks. We must have gone another fifty meters, when I lost control and memory.
When I came back to senses a few seconds later, the car was turned upside down, and I was trapped in driver's seat. Everything was dark but the car lights were on. I tried to move, but couldn't feel my right hand. Releasing the belt and dragging myself with the left, I came out of the window. I called for Sooraj and he answered. He had crawled out and was sitting somewhere. He was feeling giddy. I told him to check for head and spine injuries. I told him that I looked fine.
But I had no clue where my right hand was. It was not paining or bleeding. On searching with the left one, I realized it was behind my back and in the sleeve of the full shirt that I was wearing. I softly brought it forward, and unbuttoned the shirt and placed it there.
In the meanwhile, Tulsi wanted help to come out. Sooraj was up by now and released Tulsi's seat belt. Then we both dragged him out of the window. He had extreme pain in the left leg. A piece of metal had pierced it below the knee, and he could not stand.
This all happened within a minute or two. We had hit a ditch that lights could not spot. The car's front tires and body went inside the ditch and then it tumbled over and dragged a bit. Tulsi got injured as his side of the car was dented in badly, while my right hand must have been partially flung outside the window in that moment. Miraculously we all seemed fine to live for another day.
But that day was still far. We could hear a couple of men coming towards us. I quickly switched off the car's lights. Now it was totally dark - darkness that only can be seen in a forest. But Tulsi was adept at seeing even now.
We dragged Tulsi to a side of the path, and I sat down there. There was a small rock to make him sit there. Sooraj groped for the jack and its rod, and brought it. I asked all of us to remain huddled together - whatever happened. Tulsi asked Sooraj to take his whistle, walk for 20 steps randomly in 2-3 directions, blow the whistle with all his lung power and come back. He was trying to split the goons. But Sooraj himself got lost and delayed in coming back.
Suddenly, one man shouted loudly, “Car is here. They must be around.” Another one replied, “Where are you?” They were properly split without a sense of direction.
The man near the car had small cell phone light to guide. He spotted the blood stains of Tulsi near the front door, and shouted, “One of the two has got injured badly. They didn't know that there were three of us. And one was a tribal and Nagbaba's man.”
The man followed the blood trail and came within four to five steps away from us. Any moment his cell phone lights were going to reveal us. I was ready standing to a side with the jack while Tulsi had the rod.
The man saw Tulsi only, quickly stepped back and put the cell light out. Then I heard a gunshot from close and Tulsi's cry. Tulsi had been shot. I threw the jack with my left hand towards the man, with all force at my disposal. It did hit him somewhere but not hard enough to knock out. He fired another wayward shot.
Meanwhile, Sooraj had found his way back. And now, after groping in the dark for a few minutes, he was able to see a bit in dark. The Gun shots, cell phone light and the sound of jack hitting made him realize where man was and where we were. He jumped on the man from behind, making both fall forward.
Tulsi immediately flung forward, held the man's neck in his arm, and in a swift motion of his arm, the neck was broken, and the man's body gave away. He was dead.
Tulsi's condition had become grave. The bullet had hit him in the stomach and he was bleeding profusely now. We gathered energy to drag him for ten feet to another spot. Sooraj gave the gun to Tulsi.
Within moments, another man found the trail and reached the spot where his accomplice lay dead. He turned back immediately and there were no more signs of anyone coming.
We waited as Tulsi started shivering. It must have been ten minutes since the gunshot and I hoped for the police party to reach by now. But instead, a few men from a nearby forest tribal village had heard the whistle and gun shots and quickly found us. They wouldn't have cared to interfere in our matter but on seeing Tulsi, and us nursing him, they gathered courage to talk to us. I lied to them that I was a police myself; else they were running away leaving us there. I could not place a higher premium on truth than saving Tulsi's and our lives. But sometimes, I still think I was not lying. We were doing what police should have done two hours back- protect us honestly.
We left a tribal to wait there and inform the police about us, if they came. I told him he would be rewarded and not harassed by police. Others started to carry Tulsi. They knew a shorter and easier path back to road, and intended to take us to the nearest government hospital, roughly two hours walk, if no vehicle helped us.
Later I was told that a police car had come to the crash spot, roughly fifteen minutes after we had left. On seeing a dead body, they quickly fled the scene of crime since they were out of jurisdiction area, and were not supposed to be there. Mr.Lal could not get his friends to break the rules, as they were in service!
We felt safe in the company of four tribals. We walked for half an hour and reached the road, some four kilometers farther from where we had entered the forest. We stopped on one side of the road to stop passing cars or trucks. A few cars passed but no one stopped. Meanwhile I had managed to call home and informed them that I was reaching a hospital. My wallet was gone.
Severe pain was returning to my right arm. Tulsi was lying nearby. I sat near him and felt his hand. It was cold. I felt he was dying. I held his hand and inside my heart, I asked him to hang on. But he had gone to the point of no return. I promised him that I will look after his family.
Tulsi had passed away. In a few hours of togetherness, he had left us with a lifelong debt. Such debts would test and tear me apart in coming time. I had tears in my eyes.
Soon one truck stopped. I was accommodated in the front seat while others were behind. Within moments of sitting in the car, pain overtook me and I lost consciousness. It was all dark till next morning.Some snake had finally bitten me.