Gerard straightened the magpie-coloured frames of his spectacles and said, &ldquoIt&rsquos all very well to come to the Jungle Resort by day when the birds are singing but at night, it&rsquos scary.&rdquo I stared at him, wondering what he meant. &ldquoIn autumn, the leaves fall on the roof and it sounds ghostly,&rdquo the Frenchman explained. That very night, I didn&rsquot hear any leaves, but thumps and bumps kept me awake. Then, the noises stopped just as abruptly as they had begun.
Located in the forest, the Bastar Jungle Resort in Jagdalpur is comfortable, tranquil and quirky. But it didn&rsquot stop me from wondering whether someone there knew &lsquoHe-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named&rsquo. Jai of Kanker Palace Heritage had assured me it was perfectly safe when he sent me here, with Vicky as my guide and driver. There had been no major disruptions, but yes, the car had been stopped at checkpoints along the road by camouflaged personnel, most of who were intrigued by the contents of my battered Giordano case. But then, elections were round the corner.
As a testimony to suitability, I remembered that Vikram Seth had once turned up at 6.30 in the morning wanting to stay at the resort. He spent a week ticking off the kitchen staff for making too much noise and scribbling away peacefully in the restaurant.
Mulling over it all, I went for a walk down the trails of Kurandi village where the cheerful resort staff came from. Women boiled the morning lentils in front of their huts, while motorbikes putt-putted past. Further out in the fields were mahua groves, a popular picnic site when the fruit ripens. It was quaintly peaceful, punctuated by the odd satellite dish.
But then, Bastar and Jagdalpur are places of strange serendipity, whether it&rsquos grand larceny or trances or even malaria treatment.
Here, you see a totally different kind of Dussehra compared to the rest of the country. The local goddess Danteshwari, who is said to have protected the king from his enemies, is honoured by the tribes, who congregate at the main temple in Jagdalpur along with their anga deos (local deities). A chariot with the presiding deity is pulled by devotees, turning the Jagadalpur maidan into a shaking, quaking celebration, with the Rapid Action Forces standing by to pull the chariot back in case it rolls off course. However, I missed much of the excitement because one of the wheels came unhinged and a forklift was summoned to put it back in place, delaying the ceremony. By then I&rsquod already been standing for three hours, and so, reluctantly, I abandoned that vast field with its tinsel-draped divinity.
Fairs and melas pop up on weekends in handy fields. This time it was a cattle fair and the run-up to it consisted of stall after stall run mainly by butterfly-bright Gond women. The most popular were the rows of mahua sellers with their handis, who cheerfully offered me sips of their wares. Having heard about the hallucinogenic qualities of mahua, enough to stun bears and elephants, I was wary. Instead, I tried a shot of sulfi (local home-brewed beer)&mdashacrid, bowel-opening stuff, apparently savoured by a select group of tourists. But then, I heard there were also mahua-tasting tourists on the lookout for something different because, like wine, the mahua has different grades. (Jai took select groups to for both these experiences, the sulfi one for logical reasons, just after breakfast.)
Which brought me to the red ant chutney, the other talked-about item in Bastar. The chutney was harder to find, but Vicky tracked down small leaf bowls of it. A woman put a pinch on my palm. It was white powder with ants, some of which I was sure were alive. I tasted and, fortunately, it wasn&rsquot icky. It was sort of tangy, the ants tasting bland. &ldquoGood for bukhar (fever),&rdquo the woman told me. In earlier times, tribals suffering from malaria would stand shirtless under a mango branch and shake down the red ants, whose bites drove the fever out. The chutney is a more advanced and less painless cure, though it requires lots of grinding with rice powder and some kind of mysterious marinade.
A sudden explosion startled me. Clouds of white smoke billowed. &ldquoCock fight,&rdquo said Vicky. Around a ring of barbed wire, men waved fistfuls of money and others carried roosters under their arms. A red plastic chair was handed gallantly over the barbed wire for me to sit on. The winner kept the losing cock and the prize money.
In all this excitement, I forgot to look at the patient cattle standing nearby&mdashpresumably, there were serious buyers present who needed to buy cows and bullocks, or perhaps they were gambling on roosters and hoping to make enough money to take one home. One day soon, animal rights activists will pick up on the cock fights and try to ban them&mdashor at least ban the steel spurs that the birds wear&mdashthough whether the sport is worse than hacking off a chicken&rsquos head at a roadside dhaba is up for debate.
Gambling, trees that grow alcohol, guns, and noises in the night, it sounds like some kind of Badlands. Jagdalpur, Bastar and the regions beyond are not the usual vacation go-tos, thanks the region&rsquos history of insurgency but the people are generous with their smiles and free with the things that they grow. You can pick up an elephant foot yam called jimikand, which sounds like a Jamaican rocker, or a yard long cucumber. Or, if you are lucky, you can get someone to take you to a ghotul where young Gonds learn about sex and social mores before formally coming of age. These days ghotuls are swiftly falling prey to Hindu puritanism and one has to catch them fast.
&ldquoYou missed the deer,&rdquo Gerard announced when we returned. &ldquoI saw two of them but they were gone before I could reach for my phone. And there&rsquos water in the Kotumsar Caves, so you can&rsquot go in.&rdquo
So no caves then, though I had seen the rush of the Tirathgarh Falls running clear after the chocolate torrents of monsoon. Night was falling and there was a distinct nip in the air. Winter was round the corner and the tiled roofs would soon be covered with autumn leaves.
The dust had turned my black sandals grey and I was ready to slide them off my feet and vanish into a shower. Hot water would be good, so would some rum. However, one thing was still nagging me.
&ldquoVicky, did you hear that noise late last night What was it&rdquo
&ldquoYes, yes,&rdquo he replied enthusiastically, &ldquoChooha (mouse) tha, memsaab.&rdquo
More like elephants, I thought, though it was all part of the jungle ambience. I wondered if I should call Vikram Seth for confirmation.
WHERE TO STAY
WHAT TO EAT
WHAT TO SEE & DO