A drive up the hill

The district of Coorg, in Karnataka is one of my favorite places on earth. Madikeri, the headquarters of this charming coffee growing district is the answer to Mussorie and numerous other hill stations that adorn the crown of our country. The ones up north are much younger though. Lying nestled in the Himalayas, they retain their own charm. However, winding roads, misty valleys and cheerful locals are much the same across all hilly regions of our country. The nature has a calming effect on the most violent of tempers. So it is hard to believe that Coorg is home to one of the fiercest warrior clans of India. The Kodavas. History reminds us that no ruler could ever conquer this land as the Kodavas were brave fighters and hence their culture till date remains intact.

About two years ago, during the month of May we decided to seek shelter in the cool environs of this town, to escape the heat of our city. The evenings were chilly and we generally spent them over good food, some drinks and mostly merriment and laughter. But one of us had to leave for home, urgently. And there was no other transport available, except for one lone Hyundai accent which we would have to drive down to the bus stand, about 4 kilometres away. The distance wasn't much of a concern but the road was. The road wound through the hill with many hair pin bends added for effect. In addition to that, there were no streetlights. But we took up the challenge and three of us set out into the cold night.

The melodious songs of Kishore Kumar kept the spirits high as we navigated slowly out of the kucha road of the village and onto the mettaled one. Steadily, we increased our speed. Behind the wheel, my friend focussed on the road and I kept my eyes trained on the rear view mirror. Reminding her to honk before every turn. Fortunately the roads were deserted and barring a few trucks, the ride to the bus stand was quite uneventful. The bus to Bangalore was waiting at the stop. Our friend boarded it and waved us goodbye as it went rumbling down the slope towards the electronic city.

We set off in the sleek South Korean Sedan, ascending the slope slowly. We were enjoying the solitude of the night, as we moved past the coffee plantations. Sounds of the wilderness kept us company and we didn't feel the need to play the stereo. We rounded a tricky bend which marked the end of the challenging part of the route, and heaved a sigh of relief. She stepped on the accelerator and we picked up speed. But we hadn't moved even a couple of hundred meters when the engine stuttered and died. This patch of the road seemed to be the darkest. There was no cottage in sight and we couldn't even see headlights of any vehicle. She tried in vain to start the car.

It seemed as though someone had stolen the engine of our Accent. On one side was a deep plunging valley, a bottomless pit and on the other a dark patch of forest. There was an eerie silence in the air. I wondered about the Pin-drop silence that Mrs. Fonseca, our tenth grade teacher spoke about. All creatures of the night had stopped chattering and were probably looking at us. If I had shone a flashlight, I am sure I would have seen numerous pairs of eyes glinting in the dark. She was starting to panic now. She frantically dialed for help but the call wouldn't connect. We rolled down the windows and the chilly air swooped in on us. Goosebumps erupted all over. And then we heard the rustle of dried leaves. It seemed something was moving out of the forest. Dr twigs were crunching as it moved and it seemed to hurry as it came to the road. I was certain that whatever it was, it was in a desperate hurry to get out of the forest.

I held onto her hand. Not sure if I was seeking support or lending some to her. Either way, it felt good. But before I could further romanticize the setting, a figure leaped out of the darkness and stumbled across the road. It looked like a human being. A man. We saw him steady himself and shield his eyes from the glare of our headlights. A tall man, with a scraggly beard stood in front of us. His clothes were tattered but he certainly seemed like a Muslim warrior. He walked with an unsteady gait, leaving a trail of blood as he walked. His thigh was bleeding. And then we saw his eyes. Set in two hollows of his strong jaws, they spoke of terror. They spoke of death.

As he inched closer to the car, we rolled our windows up. He limped towards the windows and started banging on them. Gesticulating furiously! His language seemed like Kannada but it could have been any South Indian dialect. He spoke rapidly. Our hearts were beating rapidly as we held onto each others hands. Amazed at the strange scene unfolding in front of our eyes. As we tried to gather our wits, it seemed to us that he was warning us of an impending danger. Making signs of running away and just when we were about to make sense of the entire episode, the rustling began again and this time a regal looking man jumped out of the woods. His frame silhouetted in the bright lights of our car. He moved menacingly towards us.

I somehow understood why things appeared to be moving in slow motion during such a situation. Our mind is in alert mode which enables it to register even the minutest of detail. He carried a small weapon in his hand, it looked like the one that we had seen on the gates of all traditional Kodava houses. The blade glinted in the headlight as he broke into a sprint. The Muslim warrior dashed for the valley but the Kodava was too fast for him. He dived behind him and we heard an agonizing scream that pierced the cold May evening. We were shaking now. Beads of sweat had appeared on my brow. She was too startled to say anything.

We were jolted out of the shock by a lorry that honked loudly behind us. We never heard it approach us, it was yet another apparition I was certain. But then the driver honked again. She fiddled with the ignition and the car and came to life. We drove on in silence towards our cottage. We never mentioned the incident to anyone assuming that nobody would believe us in the first place. But next morning when the care-taker came to know that we had driven down the hill road, he seemed uneasy. And asked us nervously if we came across anything unusual, we just shook our heads, feigning ignorance.

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