Dawn is a wet muslin cloth splayed across the face. December mist with the scent of lichen and a tinge of teal, hanging like a drizzle stranded above ground. Through it, I see the world as though without glasses. Shapeless, without edges. The path is a red gash through a parting sea of feathery fern. Floating on this sea of fern is a deeply cracked shack on stilts – an elephant scratching post.
Looming above this astigmatic world is an ashy-red, rifle-straight giant towering 100 feet above. Its base is buttressed and spreading, the canopy narrow and the bole clean. The Hollong is sacred to indigenous people and was once plentiful along the Brahmaputra’s alluvial course. Now, like other giants of our time, dwindling.
The forest is a soothing balm in our increasingly fractured world. Outside, we cannot bear to look at ways of life that do not agree with our own understanding of it, let alone accept them. Inside, a forest is filled with the awareness that many things can be true, all at once. Living proof that any number of lives and ideas are meaningful simultaneously.
It is like being inside a cathedral or a towering temple shikhara, the lofty stillness held up by wooden pillars and a mass of undergrowth looking upwards in reverential prayer. The variety is bewildering. Each begin as tiny seeds in the mud, but grow identities in tune with their genes and what nature throws at them. All of them are in constant conversation through the soil and connected by their quest for sunlight. Here and there, rogue Lantana clumps with its flocks of different bulbuls. And like any self-respecting forest, there are figs – giant fruit bearers and stranglers, wide-spreading and morose.
This was once a planted forest, as the British tried to undo some of the damage they did. Now, Hollongapar is an isolated sky island isolated by time, hemmed in by waves of a constantly eroding human sea. Jostling with tea plantations and a mosaic of paddy and villages; sliced open north to south by a railway line.
A soft cooing interrupts the rolling mist. Peering down at us from a shifting curtain of leaves is a gentle fur-framed face, pink in the haze and defined by eyes so well lined it may have been done by a beautician. Drenched and bedraggled, a miserable-looking Northern Pig Tailed Macaque made his way quietly through the branches. Then, a party of handsome Capped Langurs go crashing past. Their reddish cream fur catches every little bit of dew-laden light, long tails trailing in elegant flight. A sudden rush of colour and rustling leaf; and then silence.
Visibility is poor and the trees are tall. So we let our noses guide us, walking till it hits us – a medicinal whiff of eucalyptus and mint tea steeped in a homeopathic tincture of well-chewed leaves. Gibbon urine.
It is a family of four Hoolock Gibbons. A graceful, golden-furred female relaxing at the crossroads of a tree highway, slim and small, unlike her bulky great ape cousins. With her is a dark teenager testing the leaves of a creeper. Several feet above is a hunky male, jet black with wise white brows, hanging casually by a muscular arm and watching us. A tiny, cuddly carbon copy of him gambols nearby. Pairs mate for life and offspring leave their parents upon finding a mate. A family, much like our own.
The teenager is curious and drops down to just a few feet above to check us out. He feels comfortable enough to defecate and then settle down for a nap. The others carry on their morning routine and ignore us for nearly an hour. It is a privilege. When they eventually move southward, we follow but cannot keep up. Gibbons are true skywalkers, flying through the canopy by swinging themselves forward on powerful arms (brachiation).
Our pursuit leads us to the railway line, its metal road eastwards to Liddoo glowing with tiger moths. It is an impassable gap for Gibbons. They rarely descend to the ground and are dependent on contiguous forest canopies. The northern families do not mix with the southern ones. And so, there is an island within an island here. The Gibbons have nowhere to go.
Lianas thicker than my arm pulled down from thirty feet above. Striplings are broken and walked over as a new road is opened up. Bits of sour Outenga chomped and spat out. A small tree, cracked in the middle and keeled over. Elephants have passed, not long before.
I slow down and then come to a complete halt in the next clearing. The silence is deeper here, threatening to swallow me whole. At first, there is nothing, and then a sliver of light falls in a liquid eye in the patchwork of shadows. How can something so large be so still, so quiet? A low rumble ripples through the forest floor, up my jelly legs. Time to turn around and leave.
May all woods
be as easy to read
like an elephant’s trail
everywhere they go
every square foot
broken branch and trampled ditch
mud in the river and
are a silent song
and the herd’s quiet
here we bathed
here we ate
here we remembered
Don’t you see?
We were here
long before you.
Sunil Rajagopal‘s amateur pursuit of writing and birding helps make sense of his full-time life.
All images have been provided by the author.