Have you ever been lost in a forest, half believing that you’re not lost, and yet wondering if you’ll find your way out? While you’re out being lost, another part of your mind is on a course of its own, making notes of sights, sounds and situations – as if these have to be reported or narrated at a later time. Why would it do so when perhaps you won’t even survive to tell the story?
In September 1996, on a Durga Puja holiday with a friend and fellow queer activist from Kolkata, I found myself lost in a forest adjoining the Ballabhpur Wildlife Sanctuary near Santiniketan. I’d been to the forest once before in January 1995, tagging along with a team from Prakriti Samsad, to report on the Asian Waterbird Census for the Business Standard. After observations around a deer park in the sanctuary, we’d entered the forest through a gate close to the Forest Ranger Office and trekked to a freshwater lake that was a birding hotspot. A wonderous day of birdwatching and photography done with, we’d returned by early evening because the gate we’d entered from was supposed to close at 4 pm.
On the second occasion, it was already early evening when my friend and I decided to visit the forest. We were just in time to find the same gate open. We sneaked in, sure that we’d be back in no time. But lo and behold. Right before us was a breathtaking drama being enacted by the setting sun, red laterite dunes and green foliage. We were both photography enthusiasts. So, before long, a Zenit analogue camera in hand, conscious that we had to make the most of the 36 shots that the film loaded in the camera would allow, we’d forgotten all about the 4 pm deadline.
The setting darkness reminded us that the forest wasn’t our home. We did know that if we went back, we’d find the gate closed and we didn’t want to be caught and penalized. What we didn’t quite know was another way out of the forest!
On my first visit, I’d been with a large team of birdwatchers who knew their way about, and I’d been all caught up with my birdwatching debut and framing the article I had to write in my mind. Almost two years later, all I had was a vague recollection that the forest on the other end, beyond the lake we’d surveyed, led to a roadway. So, the aim now would be to reach it unscathed. My friend was a tad more confident than me, but soon I also summoned up enough adrenaline to set out on a never-before adventure. With shoulder bags that were suddenly extra heavy, possibly only a small torch in hand and some drinking water, we set out into the creeping darkness. The roosting birds were falling silent. The moon was on a holiday; only the twinkling stars in a blue-black sky were on duty.
We walked across undulating land, through shrubs and bushes, slipping a few times on the dry, gravelly soil. I pricked my hand against a thorny shrub, though I didn’t feel the pain of the splinter embedded in one of my fingers till much later. We preferred to be in open land, avoiding the groves of tall trees. We knew there was no chance of a tiger devouring us, but jackals and snakes could be tricky. Besides, the darkness around us was a presence – it knew how to conjure up demons within our minds. We were brutally reminded of our miniscule place as humans in the larger scheme of things in the universe.
On the positive side, this was possibly the occasion when I realized I had a photographic memory. We decided to first locate the lake in question. My half-memories and half-imaginations led us to it in good time. We were exhausted but a little relieved. Just about then, we heard music, the sound of drums, from somewhere deep within the forest. That only added to our relief. If we followed the sound, we might as well end up at its source, possibly a tribal village. We even found a meandering and bushy pathway next to the lake.
As we gingerly made our way forward on the pathway, making sure we didn’t step on snakes or slip into the water, never had we ever wanted to see more human beings than at that moment. Right then, a man and a woman walked right past us. We jumped out of our skins because they seemed to have appeared from nowhere! Some corner of my mind was sure that we’d seen ghosts. But my friend gathered his wits and asked them about the way out just before they disappeared into the darkness. This time there was a huge flood of relief. We were on the right track, and within a quarter of an hour, we were on the highway we were looking for, chatting, laughing and walking back to our lodge.
* * *
The whole tryst with the forest had lasted just about three to four hours, and as the crow flies, we would’ve walked only a few kilometers in the forest. But not knowing what was in store made it seem like eternity. Writing can be like that too. It can be terrifying and beautiful. One can be lost in a world where great ideas and words float by but don’t form into sentences or pathways. The mind though will have its dual agenda, one part of it documenting life even as the other frets about writing its way out.
* * *
As I walked away from the forest, I knew I’d be back. I did go back again, about a year later, with the same friend. Another person also accompanied us. This was a morning trip, and we entered from the highway. We were better equipped in terms of food, drinking water, and footwear. The camera was the same as before, but we had an extra film in hand.
The creeping darkness from the first time was now replaced by the creeping urbanization of Santiniketan and its surroundings. Thankfully, the forest hadn’t lost a bit of its enchantment. I wonder what it would be like now. If I do go again, it would have to be around 4 pm.
About the photographs: All the photographs are scanned versions of the original prints stored in the author’s albums. The photographs were taken by the author and his friend while the daylight lasted in the forest.