Mountains of the Moon — 7
Well over a decade ago, I entered a writing challenge with my brothers to scribble 10,000 words in a month. For this, I started translating Bibhuti Bhushan Bondopadhyaya’s Chander Pahar (Mountains of the Moon) — the action adventure story of a young man from the rural heart of early 20th century Bengal who leaves his East African railway job in search of a diamond mine, and encounters man-eating lions, black mamba, volcanic eruption, Kalahari, cannibals, a mysterious apelike creature that doesn’t fear fire.
I posted the first six chapters between October 2011 and March 2013 — Shankar escapes the rural life to work in the lion territory, and the black mamba station, where he saves the life of an old man with an exciting tale, and they set off for the mountains of the moon. Time to restart the series.
Of rascals and creatures
In around fifteen days time, Shankar and Alvarez were embarked on a steamer on the Lake Tanganyika from the port of Ujiji. After crossing the lake, they bought a few essentials from a small town called Albertville. The Belgian government runs railway from this town to Kabalo. From there, Sankini is three days’ journey by steamer on the river Congo, and from there, leaving the river in a southward direction, was the entrance to the uncharted territories of forests and deserts.
Kabalo was a very clean place, ran by a bunch of mixed-race Portuguese and Belgians.
As he set foot outside the station, a Portuguese approached him — Hello, where are you going? You seem new, but must know me. My name is Albuquerque.
Shankar noticed that Alvarez was still inside the station.
The guy was as ugly as he looked rough. But he was extremely fit, nearly seven feet tall, and was so well-built that one could count each muscle in his body.
Shankar said — Glad to meet you.
The guy said — You seem to be a darkie, perhaps from the East Indies. Let’s go and play poker.
Annoyed, Shankar said — I am not interested in playing poker with you. He had realised immediately that the guy was trying to rob him using poker as a ruse. Poker is a cardgame used for gambling — Shankar had heard of it, but never even seen it. He knew that in Nairobi, rascal gamblers used poker as an excuse to ruin new folks. It was a kind of robbery.
The Portuguese rascal was incensed by Shankar’s reply. It was as if he could set fire with his eyes. He came close, gritted his teeth, and said in a sarcastic tone — What? What did you say, nigger? You seem to be very cheeky for an East Indian. For your own good I am telling you, Albuquerque has killed dozens of darkies like you with his revolver, as if they were clay pigeons. Hear my rule. Any newbie in Kabalo either plays poker with me, or fights a revolver duel with me.
Shankar figured that a revolver fight with this rascal meant certain death. The rascal was a crack-shot thug, whereas what was he? He was a harmless railway clerk until yesterday. But playing poker instead of fighting would mean losing everything.
It might have taken him half a minute or so to reply, and the guy took out the revolver from his leather holster, pointed to Shankar’s belly, and said — Fight or poker?
Blood shot to Shankar’s head. He wouldn’t sebmit to brute force like a coward, even if it meant death.
As he was about to say fight, someone thundered from behind in a booming voice — Hey! Careful, or you’re head is blown! Surprised, both of them turned around. Alvarez stood firmly with his Winchester repeater squarely aimed at the Portuguese rascal. Taking advantage, Shankar moved behind the pistol. Alvarez said — Duel with a boy? Shame! Drop the pistol on a count of three – one – two – three –
The pistol dropped to the ground from loosened hand of Albuquerque.
Alvarez said — Showing off your bravery to the lonely boy, eh?
By then Shankar had picked up the pistol from the ground. Albuquerque was a bit surprised, he didn’t imagine that Alvarez was with Shankar. Smiling, he said — Okay mate, never mind, I lose. Give me my pistol back, kid. Give, fear not. Come, shake hands. You’re mate too. Albuquerque doesn’t hold grudge. Come. My cabin is near, have a glass of beer.
Alvarez knows the blood of his people. He accepted the invitation and took Shankar to Albuquerque’s cabin. Hearing that Shankar doesn’t drink beer, he made coffee. Good deal of hearty laughter and chats ensued, as if nothing had happened.
Shankar really found the guy interesting. There aren’t that many people in this world who can spend time so freely, forgetting the insult and enmity of moments earlier, with the very people who had insulted them,
The next day the hopped on a steamer southbound on the river Congo. Looking at the scenery on both banks of the river, Shankar’s heart filled with joy.
He had never seen such extraordinary scenes of forest. The parts of Africa he had seen so far didn’t have such forest — that was just steppes, mainly grassland, with a few trees in between. But further the steamer went through the river Congo, on both banks were dense forest, many types of thick vines, wild flowers, the wild nature here was filled with its own beauty.
The romantic in Shankar — after all, he hailed from the soil of Bengal, and wasn’t just a ruthless gold-seeking prospector like Diego Alvarez — started day dreaming in the red afternoon sun, looking at the beautiful forest.
Late at night, when everyone had fallen asleep, when the mysterious wild nature had awaken under the the foreign sky filled with unknown stars — so many wild animals could be heard from the forest, Shankar’s eyes were wide open, as he sat awake, ignoring the night chill of central Africa, soaking in the wonder.
There is the Plough — the Plough could be visible from his little village too, as could be the waning crescent of late night. Leaving that known sky behind he had come so far, and yet so much further he would have to go, who knew where it might end?
In a couple of days the boat had reached Sankini. From there they had set on foot once again — there wasn’t much of a forest around here, but rolling hills and uninhabited steppes beyond the horizon, with most hills being rough and barren, with a few with a few containing Euphorbia bushes. But to Shankar, this region of Africa contained yet another kind of beauty. The emptiness allowed mind to feel free, and the land turned into a fantasy fairy land in the evenings and afternoons through the moonlight and sunset colours.
Alvarez said — Everything looks the same in these veldt regions, so there’s high risk of getting lost .
Something happened the very day this was said. After the sun set in that empty veldt, they set up tent and lit fire behind a hillock — Shankar set out to find some water. He had Alvarez’s gun with him. Light dusk had covered the grassland. Shankar could have sworn that he hadn’t walked more than half an hour. Suddenly, looking around, Shankar felt uneasy, as if some danger was imminent, and it might be better to return to the tent. Except the hills and hillocks all looked alike, and there was nothing to note.
After walking for five or six minutes, Shankar figured he was lost. That’s when he remembered Alvarez’s warning. But even then, because of inexperience, he didn’t realise the gravity of the danger. He kept on walking — sometimes straight, sometimes to the right. Why couldn’t he see the fire? Where was the hillock?
After walking for couple of hours, Shankar got frightened. By then he had realised that he was completely lost and in great danger. He had to spend the night alone in this barren, lion territory — without food, and in the chilly winter without fire and blanket. He didn’t even have a match stick with him.
This is the precis of what happened, Alvarez had rescued a delusional and dehydrated Shankar the following dusk, that is 24 hours after he got lost, from under a euphorbia plant seven miles from their tent.
Alvarez said — The path you were on Shankar, if I couldn’t find you today, you’d have gone deeper and deeper into desert, any would have died of thirst by tomorrow afternoon. Many like you had died that way in the veldts of Rhodesia. You’re a novice, so don’t go out of tent like that again. You don’t know how to trek in desert. You’ll die for sure.
Shankar said — Alvarez, it’s now second time you saved my life, I’ll not forget this.
Alvarez said — Young man, you forget that you saved my life earlier. Had you not been there, my bones would have whitened by now in the grasslands of Uganda.
After two months of trekking the wide veldt between Rhodesia and Angola, the mountain range appeared like cloud on far horizon. Upon checking map, Alvarez said — That’s our destination, the Richtersveld range, still good forty miles from here. In these open African lands, things are visible from a long distance.
This region was full of baobab trees. Shankar liked this tree — looks a bit like oak from afar, but from nearby the baobab was wide and yet without shade, with a spotted body, as if a short, ugly, hunchbacked monster from the Arabian nights. On the vast range, there were large baobab trees everywhere.
One cold evening, sitting by the fire in front of the tent, Alvarez said — You see this Rhodesian veldt region, here there are diamond mines everywhere, it’s the land of diamond mines. Surely you’ve heard of the Kimberley mine. There are many other smaller mines, and so many people have found, still find, little and big diamonds here.
As he was finishing that sentence, he said — Who’s there?
Sitting in front of him, Shankar was listening. He said — Who’s where?
But Alvarez’s sharp eyes were as on target as the bullets of his gun, and Shankar noticed after a while that a few shapes were appearing in the dark, quite a bit away from the tent. Alvarez said — Shankar, get the gun, quick, loaded…
Upon returning with the gun, Shankar saw that Alvarez was smoking nonchalantly, while the unknown shapes were still coming through darkness. After a while they stood outside the fire. Shankar saw that the strangers were tall and black — their hands were empty, they wore a loincloth, had lion mane around neck, feather on head — well built, they looked like bronze statues in the tent’s light.
Alvarez asked in the Zulu language — What do you want?
A conversation followed, after which everyone sat on the ground. Alvarez said — Shankar, give them some food…
Then he said quietly — Big danger. Be very careful, Shankar.
Tinned food was opened. Shankar served everyone. Alvarez sat with them, even though he had dinner with Shankar in the evening. Shankar figured either Alvarez had something in mind, or the local custom was to dine with guests.
Alvarez chatted with them in Zulu while eating, and after a long while they left following dinner. Before leaving everyone received a cigarette.
After they left, Alvarez said — They are Matabele. Extremely fierce, fought many times with the British government. Not afraid of devil. They suspect we are in their land seeking diamond mine. The place where we are, it’s one of their chief’s territory. No civilised government’s law applies here. They will capture us and burn. Let’s pack up the tent and move on.
Shankar said — Why did you ask for gun then?
Alvarez said with a grin — Look, I figured I would shoot them while eating if it seemed that dinner wouldn’t do, or if while talking I got the wind that they were up to no good. Look, had the revolver behind me while eating. Could have finished these bunch. My name is Alvarez, once didn’t fear the devil, still don’t. Shot from my pistol would blow their skull before the fish in their hands reached their mouth.
After trekking for another five or six days, they reached the tropical rainforest on the foothill of a large mountain. The place was as quiet as it was vast. Looking at it, Shankar figured that if he ever got lost here, there was no way he would get out of there alive. Alvarez also warned him — Be very careful Shankar, unless one is used to trekking in forests, one will easily get lost here. Many die that way in forests. The way you got lost in the desert, same thing could happen here. Because everything here looks the same, and there is no marker to separate one place from the next. Unless you are a good bushman, every step will be dangerous. Also remember, don’t go anywhere without a gun. Central African forest isn’t a recreational park.
Shankar didn’t need to be told this, because he knew from the first glance that these regions aren’t recreational park. He asked — How far is that yellow diamond mine of yours? As far as the maps show, this is the Richtersveld range.
Alvarez said with a smile — As I said, you have no idea. This is the outer layer of the main Richtersveld. There are many such layers. The whole region is so big that if we travelled 70 miles to the east and 100-150 miles to the west, even then the forest and hills wouldn’t end. The minimum width is 40 miles. Altogether, the Richtersveld range and forest is 8-9,000 square miles. In this vast uncharted land, exactly where we came seven/eight years ago, finding that exact spot, is it child’s play, young man?
Shankar said — Meanwhile food is finished, and we need to hunt, otherwise we will have live on air.
Alvarez said — Worry not. Look at the troops of baboon. If nothing else, we could have fried baboon and coffee for breakfast from tomorrow. No more today, set up the tent, and let’s rest.
They set camp and lit fire under a large tree. Shankar cooked, and it was still light when they had sat by the fire after eating.
Puffing on a pipe of strong tobacco, Alvarez said — You know Shankar, there are so many beasts unknown to science in these uncharted forests of Africa? Very few civilised man has come here. There an animal called okapi that was first sighted only in 1900. There’s a kind of wild boar that’s three times the size of normal wild pig. Moses Cowley, the globe trotter and a big game hunter, first found this wild boar in the Lualaba forests of the Belgian Congo in 1888. He even hunted one after a lot of difficulty, and presented it to New York’s Natural History Museum. Have you heard of the famous Rhodesian monster?
Shankar said — No, what’s that?
Listen then. There is a large body of water in the northern border of Rhodesia. Many of the native Zulus of that land have seen a strange beast in that water. They say that it has the head of a crocodile, horns like a rhino, a scaled neck that’s long like a python, body of hippo, and tail like a crocodile. This huge beast is also very fierce by nature. It has never been sighted in dry land out of water. But then again, it’s hard to believe the tall tales of uncultured natives.
However, a prospector named James Martin travelled around this part of Rhodesia in 1880 seeking gold. Mr Martin was AdC to Gen Matthews, and was himself a good geographer and zoologist. He wrote in his diary about seeing this beast from afar. He also said, the beast was large and shaped like prehistoric dinosaurs. However, he wasn’t too certain, as he saw the beast in the early morning fog in the swamps near the Lake Kivu. As soon as the beast made a horse-like noise, his Zulu servants ran away, shouting — Run, sahib, Dingonek! Dingonek is the Zulu name of the beast. It’s sighted once every two or three years, but it’s so ferocious that it’s an ill omen for the people of that land. Mr Martin said that he fired a few shots from his .303 towards the beast. But it was too far away, and the beast probably went under water hearing the rifle.
Shankar said — How do you know all this? Was Mr Martin’s diary printed?
No, long time ago the Bullawayo Chronicles printed Mr Martin’s tale. I had just arrived in this country. Since I was also prospecting around Rhodesian regions, I found the beast intriguing. I even kept the paper. Who knows where I lost it. They named the beast — the Rhodesian monster.
Shankar said — Have you never seen any strange animal?
Something peculiar happened with the question.
By then the evening darkness had descended. In that dusk it appeared to Shankar — and he might have been mistaken — but it seemed to Shankar that he saw Alvarez, the fierce and fearless Alvarez, the crackshot Alvarez, was startled by his question — and — and this was the most surprising thing — he seemed to shiver the next moment.
Immediately, and perhaps unknowingly to himself, Alvarez looked around the uninhabited forest, and then looked to the mysterious mountain range, saying nothing. It was as if the mountains and forests have reminded him about a horrendous event of his past, a memory none too pleasant.
Alvarez was afraid.
Shocking! Alvarez was afraid! Shankar couldn’t even imagine it. And yet that fear set into Shankar’s mind too. It was as if a deep puzzle was hidden in this strange, mysterious woods, behind the walls of this vast range — come forward any brave, fearless soul — but the price of solving that riddle is death. The Richtersveldt range is not like India’s godly peaks of the Himalayas — its soul is cruel, barbaric, cannibalistic, like the Masai, Zulu and Matebele of this land. It won’t spare anyone.