Mountains of the Moon – 2
Previously: Shankar escapes the hum drum village life.
In the lion territory
Four months had gone by. It was the end of March.
The railroad runs from Mombassa to Kisumu, which is on the eastern banks of Lake Victoria. This line, or a branch of it, was under construction. The exact place was about 350 miles west of Mombassa, in the province of Nyanza in what is today Kenya. Shankar was the clerk and storekeeper in the construction camp there. He had a small tent of his own. There were many other tents. Indeed, everyone who worked there lived on tents as there was no village or township around. The tents were set in concentric circles in an open field — and the field was open, miles of open grassland, interspersed with trees. Actually, there was a large baobab tree near the tents. Africa’s famous baobab tree, something Shankar had seen many times in books, and now there was one just around the corner.
In this alien land, Shankar thought his dreams of adventure had been realised. At the end of every work day, he would set off to explore — he would just walk — all four directions. In each direction he faced tall grasses, in some places, as tall as him, elsewhere even taller.
The engineer in charge of the site one day told Shankar: Listen Ray, don’t go on a walk like that. Never go anywhere without a gun here. Firstly, you could very easily get lost in this grassland. People die of thirst if they are lost in the savannah. Secondly, East Africa is lion territory. May be they have run away because of our noise here, hell, the hammer blows are annoying enough for me sometimes. But can never trust them. Be very careful. This is a very dangerous land.
One fine afternoon, while everyone was working, there was a sudden yell from the grasses a few tens of yards away. Everyone ran towards the place. Shankar also ran. Everyone searched the place thoroughly. No one was found.
Who yelled then?
The engineer made a role call of the coolies. Turned out that one was missing. Apparently he went to the grasses for nature’s call, and no one saw him return. Further inspection found the coolie’s bloodied corpse behind a large rock a mile or so away.
He was brought back to the camp. But no one saw the lion. It ran away with all the noise and commotion. The coolie died before dusk.
Grasses around the camp for up to a mile or so was cut down the next day. For a few days the fear of lions dominated the camp. Around a month later, it became old news, forgotten by everyone. Work continued as before.
It was a very hot day. But the evening became rather cool with breeze. There was a bonfire in front of the coolie tents. Around that, camp members were relaxing. Shankar was there as well, listening to the coolies’ gossips, while reading the Kenya Morning News. It was a five-day-old newspaper. But it was the only news of the outside world available.
A South Indian clerk called Tirumal Appa had become a good friend of Shankar’s. They were of similar age. Tirumal spoke English rather well. He was keen to explore new things. He left home for Africa to explore new lands. That evening Tirumal came to sit next to Shankar. He talked about his family, his younger sister, whom he was really fond of. She was the one he missed most. Now this sister was going to be married off towards the end of September. Do you reckon the engineer sahib will grant some leaves? He asked Shankar.
The evening turned into the night. The fire dimmed. Many had gone off to sleep. The waning moon rose on the far sky — there were eerie shadows of tall trees in the grassy landscape.
Shankar was enjoying this exotic beauty. In fact, he was lost in his thoughts while staring at the savannah. Beyond that baobab tree, southwards to Cape Town, spread the whole continent, containing mountain ranges, lost cities of Zanj and Zimbabwe, the huge and hazardous Kalahari Desert, lands of diamond and lands of gold…
A prospecting tourist stumbled on a rock and fell. Turned out that the rock he stumbled on contained gold. Upon further exploration the place turned out to have a massive gold mine. How many such stories had he read?
And now he was in Africa, that mysterious continent, of gold and diamond, of unknown tribes, unknown scenery – who had any idea what was hidden in its unexplored rainforests?
Shankar had fallen asleep, but he woke up very suddenly. By now the moon was in the middle sky, and everything was clearly visible in the pale moonlight. The fire had died. Coolies were asleep. Everything was quiet.
Shankar turned to his side — this is where Tirumal was sitting. Where was he? May be he had gone to sleep in his own tent.
Shankar also decided to go off to his tent, which is when the lion roared a few yards away. It was as if the whole camp trembled. The engineer came out of his tent with a gun. This was the first time Shankar had heard a lion roar — in that moonlight night in the savannah this caused a new sensation in him! Was it fear? No, it was a complex feeling, but it was not fear.
An old Masai coolie said: the lion has killed a man, that’s the roar after a kill.
Meanwhile someone announced that Tirumal’s bed was empty. He didn’t return to his tent.
Everyone was shaken up by this. Shankar himself saw that the tent was empty. The coolies lit up torches. Everyone started calling Tirumal. All the tents were checked thoroughly. Tirumal was no where to be found.
The place where he was sitting was also thoroughly checked. It was clear that something heavy was dragged from there. It was clear to everyone what had transpired. Near the baobab tree, a piece of Tirumal’s shirt was found. The engineer with his gun took the lead. Shankar was behind him. The coolies followed. Despite it being well after midnight, the grassland around the camp was searched thoroughly, Tirumal’s body wasn’t found. The lion’s roar was heard again — but from afar. It was as if some unholy goddess was wailing.
The old Massai said: The lion is taking the body away. But it will make us suffer. It will kill many more men. Beware! A man eating lion is a very shrewd cat!
It was past 3am when everyone returned to the camp. The whole field was alight with moonlight by then. One couldn’t see many birds during the day in this part of Africa, but at night one could hear sweet sounds of a nocturnal bird. That bird sang from a tree. Shankar wasn’t sleepy. Everyone went to bed, everyone was tired. But the bonfire was lit again. Shankar did go back to his tent though — it would have been stupid to stay outside. But he just couldn’t sleep.
What was he thinking? This was Tirumal’s destiny, this is why he came to Africa. What was in his future? Why had Africa called him?
Africa was beautiful, but Africa was dangerous! Yes, sometimes you could mistake the grasslands for the fields of Bengal, but this was a macabre land. There were deathtraps everywhere … no one could tell what was ahead.
Africa had accepted her first sacrifice — young Indian lad Tirumal. She wants more sacrifice.
The situation worsened considerably after the night that Tirumal was taken by a lion. Man eating lion is a very dangerous animal. It is very cunning and shrewd cat. As a result, it became difficult to venture out of the camp even during broad daylight, never mind after dusk. Several bonfires would be lit well before the sun set, with coolies seldom walking away from the fire. The engineer would walk around the camp with his camp, firing blank shots once every hour. Despite all this, a coolie was taken exactly two nights after Tirumal was taken. The following afternoon, a Somali coolie was sent to break rocks within a couple of hundred yards of the camp — he didn’t return that evening.
On that same evening, after about 10pm, Shankar was returning from the engineer’s tent. It was very quiet around the camp, everyone had retired for the night. The fires were still burning. And a few jackals could be heard from afar. Whenever he heard jackals, Shankar would think of his village, he would shut his eyes and try to visualise the guava tree in their courtyard. He tried the same thing that night.
It was fantastic. Where was he? Is he in his bedroom? If he opened his eyes, would he see the guava tree through the window? Would he? Would he try?
Shankar slowly opened his eyes.
He saw the dark grassland. He saw the baobab tree in the corner, standing tall like some genie from the Arabian nights. Suddenly he saw something moving to his right. He was stunned in fear and shock the very next second.
A huge lioness, trying to dig a hole behind a tent, sniffing something every few seconds.
The beast was at most 20 feet from him.
Shankar realised that he was in grave danger. The beast is digging a hole. It planned to pull a sleeping man out of the tent. She hadn’t seen him yet. There was no one around, no one stayed out at this time of the night because of the lion. He himself was completely unarmed. He didn’t even have a big stick with him.
Shankar kept his eyes on the lioness, while walking silently backwards to the engineer’s tent. One step, two step… he had absolutely no idea that he had so much control over his nerves. He didn’t yell out in fear, nor did he try to run.
He saw the engineer still up working. The engineer was surprised to see Shankar, but before he could say anything, Shankar said: Sahib, lion.
The engineer jumped up: Where?
The engineer had 0.375 calibre Manlicher rifle. He also gave Shankar a rifle. Two of them slowly came out of the tent. They saw the hole. But where is the lion? Shankar pointed towards the hole: It was over there sahib, see that hole there?
The engineer said: Must have run away. Wake everyone up.
Within a few minutes the whole camp was fully awake. Everyone came out with sticks, hammers, spades, shovels and torches. But where was the lioness? She had vanished. The bonfires were relit. That night almost no one could sleep, though no one ventured to stay out. Shankar had fallen asleep near dawn when he was awaken by loud noise. Simba! Simba! The Masai coolies were yelling. Shankar went out to enquire what happened. A horse was taken he found out. This had happened just when everyone finally found some sleep!
The following twilight a young coolie was taken from within a hundred yard of the camp. Around four days later, another was taken from near the baobab tree.
The coolies refused to work. Typically they would have to work in single columns hundreds of yards away from the camp. But with the lion, or lioness, they refused to leave the camp even during the day. Not that it was much safer during the day. Everyone was afraid. Everyone thought it was their turn. There was no certainty as to who would be next. It wasn’t possible to continue construction in that situation. The only exceptions were the Masai coolies. They feared not even the devil himself. They continued working, lion or not, even going about a mile away from the camp when needed. The engineer would go and see them half a dozen times a day.
They tried to hunt the lion, to no avail. May be there were more than one lion. But they couldn’t kill a single one despite many attempts. The engineer opined that it was unlikely there would be many man eating lions.
One day the engineer gave Shankar his Manlicher and said: Can you go and see if the Masai coolies are safe over there?
Shankar went on the mile long ride. On the way back, nearly half a mile out of the camp, there was little water hole. It was around 3pm when Shankar saw the hole. There was no one around, and the sun was very hot.
All of a sudden the horse stopped. It just wouldn’t budge. As if it was fear-stricken. The bush in front of him seemed to have moved. Did it move? It appeared to be very still the following second. May be he had hallucinated. He got off the horse. The horse still refused to budge.
Shankar suddenly realised perhaps there was a lion in the bush. He knew that this happened, that a lion would silently follow its prey for a while, before jumping it at the right opportunity. Was this such a moment? He took his rifle out. The horse turned around. Something moved again in the bush. There was a loud roar. A very large grey body jumped on the horse. Shankar was merely four feet away. He fired, twice, may be three times. Did it hit? He wasn’t sure. The grey monster was gone. The horse was badly injured. It was losing blood. Shankar ended the beast’s pain with a shot.
He walked back to the camp. The engineer was very excited: Bravo Ray! The lion must be hurt bad. If the shot hit it would be in a bad shape. The shot did hit, right? Shankar couldn’t confirm whether the shot had hit or not. He fired, that’s all he could say. They searched around for a couple of days, but there was no sign of a dead or injured lion.
The rain came in early June. With rain came mosquito, and the threat of malaria. What the lion couldn’t do, mosquitoes did. The camp was withdrawn, construction was postponed.
Shankar was transferred. He was posted as a stationmaster in a station 30 miles south of Kisumu.