(Updated – with videos)
I have had a few memorable experiences with the Indian Gaur (Indian Bison) – the largest bovine species in South East Asia. In 2012, I saw a herd crossing a golf course for the first time. Awestruck by their imposing physique, I approached them with reckless abandon. Mercifully, an alpha male scared me stiff into marching back. From a distance, I saw them leap in the air over a barbed-wire fence. It was one of the most amazing things I had seen.
It had not occurred to me then that one wrong move and I could have been gored, squished, or trampled to death. Thankfully, large mammals like bison and elephants tend to be pacifists while moving in herds. They are very aware of the power they wield as a group; especially in the hills of Kodaikanal where large carnivores are pitifully scarce. The strays and rogues must be treated with extreme caution. They can attack unprovoked. People may deserve to bear the brunt of the brute force of nature. But avoiding such aggressive conflicts would be best for everybody’s business.
More recently, I came across a male bison destroying the crops at a tea plantation in Valparai. Not far away, I saw a caretaker and his son huddled together. It was as though they were discussing what needed to be done. I thought the father was going to do something with the knowledge he had acquired over the years. To my surprise, the boy armed himself with a piece of rock. He could not be older than 12 years.
As he approached the bison with panache, my heart was in my mouth. It was staring him down. But he kept inching towards it, holding the rock higher. When a few meters from each other, there was palpable tension in the air. But there was a sense of familiarity. Shortly afterward – the bison strutted past an electrical fence. Shaking its horns, it disappeared into the forest. The father seemed relieved.
In the winter of 2013, luck was not on my side. Well, maybe it was.
On a fine December morning, I was trekking through a pine forest in Kodaikanal with a friend. We were there to watch the sunrise at a nearby clifftop. Nearly 6,800 feet above sea level, the sun gloriously emerges over it. For over an hour every morning, hundreds of birds like bulbuls, swallows, and swifts soar against the orange-tinted skies. My friend wanted to shoot a video of this gorgeous sight. Happy about what we had seen, we started to walk back to the nearest town. It was an arduous uphill journey. We took it slow because we were novice trekkers then.
We barely took a dozen paces before we came across a kid crouching behind a hedgerow. Quickly, the kid pointed towards an adult bison standing about 500 meters ahead. Alone and agitated, it blocked the exit path. We wanted to return to the cliffside, but the kid was cocksure about moving on. He reassured us that he lived nearby, and this was a part of his daily routine. We made it clear that we intended to stay put, but he implored us to accompany him since there would be safety in numbers.
Then, the twerp suddenly picked up a stone and threw it at the beast, which started to back off. We were shocked. He told us that this was something the locals had to do. We looked, quizzically, at each other because throwing stones at wild animals sounded like a terrible idea. We did not know any better back then, and so we stood a few meters behind him – making weird faces. My friend had the camera switched-on throughout. But we did not even consider that he might be trying to show off.
The lad kept hurling stones, as the bison continued to backtrack.
Finally – it turned around. The bison shook its horns in a menacing way that had us frozen in fear. And then, it charged us, like a speeding truck. In the melee, I heard someone say:
“Keelai odungo (Run downhill)”.
I ran as fast as my hind legs could carry me. In doing so – I put myself in the line of the bison’s charge. Barely a toenail away, I was flung downhill at an uncontrollable pace. My friend, who had sought refuge behind a tree, assumed I had been gored. He did not realize the bison was right behind him. Thankfully, he escaped unhurt – as did the kid. Adjacent to them, I had skid – rather comically – through dry leaves, twigs, and pine corns. The momentum was stopped by a cluster of moss-covered rocks. The impact gave me a shattered left leg, a hairline wrist fracture, and a concussion. I could swear that the bison was going to charge again. Laying down sideways, we made eye-contact.
Instinctively, I picked myself up and jogged uphill. I didn’t look back because I had seen too many monster movies. As it turned out, the bison had wandered off. But the brisk jog did my broken leg no favors at all.
As we made our way to the nearest town, many locals came out to help me back to my room in the cottage. Thanks to the pain-induced delirium, the cottage owner’s dogs kept me engaged as I waited for a cab to take me to the hospital.
My leg had to be put in a temporary cast . I was told to get admitted in the city. So, we had to drive to the city, which was an 8-hour road trip. My poor friend had to take the wheel all night long while listening to me whine. I thought to myself:
“How in the bloody hell could things get worse?”.
No sooner upon returning home, I got my answer. I was advised to put my leg in a cast and walk using crutches for two months. Then, I was laid off by my employer and let go by someone I had cared for.
I was angry, broke, and depressed. However, the bottom of the barrel is not the worst place on earth for a fresh start. Au contraire, mes misérables, only when everything goes dark can even the tiniest scratch bring forth the screaming light.
In just over a month, I threw away the crutches, found a better job, and became fitter. I met generous people along the way, who did their part to get me back on my feet. I also developed a love for bird-watching, which led me to rediscover a passion for being alive.
By the time April arrived, I went for a trek in the same pine forest. I wanted to have a dramatic moment; to think about all that was and whatever will be. Like a thief visiting the crime scene after the statute of limitations has expired.
The difference is that in real life – the audience does not applaud. Nobody gives a crap about whether I make it out alive. Or how I fought against the odds to emerge stronger.
Why should they?
Everyone has their burdens to bear and narratives to script. But, when a part of it slips through their fingers, they sense a loss of control. This helpless feeling; this seething rage over relinquishing their life’s goals to happenstances. They cannot help but wonder why they bother to plan for the future when it can all disappear in seconds.
Even though I am nowhere close to figuring it out, I still keep scheming for perpetual happiness. Sometimes, though, I can picture a bison charging at these so-called plans. Obliterating them swiftly, the fantastic beast lowers its horns and grunts:
“Stay alert, puny human”.