Hi everyone! This weekend I’d like to share a few excerpts from stories in our latest anthology, Insignia: Asian Birds & Beasts.
‘Reborn’ is Nidhi Singh’s third story with The Insignia Series, and is set in the jungles of India. It might change how you feel about snakes…..
‘Reborn’ by Nidhi Singh
A couple of pale flabby tents, damp with the rain, had been pitched in a clearing. A tall bearded man, attired in the dress of a Shikari, a hunter, stood still near the entrance to the campsite. He smoked nonchalantly, with one foot propped on a black boulder. A double-barreled gun of exceptional length, probably an old flintlock, leaned against his other leg.
He pressed some tobacco leaves in Kasyapa’s hand: a customary welcome of the Gond tribals. The Shikari, called Manjhi, was about fifty years of age, tall and sinewy, with a singularly mild face, and a long, scrawny neck, deeply seamed with many scars. His meager form was arrayed in a sort of hunting shirt of greenish brown, belted at the waist with sambar leather. Around his head was a small, tightly twisted turban of the same hue as the rest of his garments. At his belt he carried a long machete, a horn of powder, and a small wallet containing bullets, flint, and steel.
He and his ancestors before him enjoyed a fearsome reputation, of having shot dead man-eaters here, wrestled bison barehanded there, and cut down many an attacking leopards and beasts of prey with their formidable daggers.
“Welcome, to the land of Sher Khan,” he said, pumping Kasyapa’s hand in his giant, calloused grip. “I’ll be your guide.” He smiled, showing a strong row of broad white teeth.
The Shikari led Kasyapa to where some easy chairs and a camp table, covered with tea and toast and fruit, had been laid out. Kasyapa sank into one of the chairs, stretched out his legs, and closed his eyes with a sigh of intense satisfaction. Meanwhile, a flustered campsite host with a clipboard and fluttering papers shepherded the bellowing children into their tents.
“What are you keen on?” the Shikari asked after tea had been served in earthen bowls.
“The usual suspects,” Kasyapa replied. “How are the sightings?”
“Fair. Usually near the watering holes—plenty of cheetal and sambar here for the king of the jungle.”
“How do we go in?”
“By jeeps, obviously. Elephant rides are also available, but not for the kids without supervision. We’ll leave in batches—mornings and afternoons. You and I could ride an elephant, though. An elephant can strike out into the heart of the jungle. He makes his own road.”
“Okay, what else? We’re here for a week thereabouts.”
“There is a tribal arts center. The kids will like the wood and clay playthings. You could take home some trinkets for the missus? The camp guys have organized a boat ride down the Pench river too. You will see alligators—hundreds of them lounging on the white sands on its banks, and beautiful islands. And the camp guys usually throw in a campfire on the last day.”
Kasyapa nodded and looked away into the thickening mists as they began to settle on the treetops. “Don’t you ever go out on foot?” he suddenly asked. “What about these National Geography guys?”
The Shikari slapped his thighs. “I knew you were not the normal babu who looks for comfort or textbook adventures. You look fit enough to me. But the jungle—are you quite up to it?”
“What about the kids?”
“Don’t worry, there is a guide on each vehicle. The staff knows how to handle the rowdiest of them.”
“Just for the record, we’ll accompany them on the safaris and boat rides, and when they’re in the camp, we could strike out.”
“Sure. There is a cost, though. And there are dangers; slippery tracks could land you in bottomless ravines, there are bears, panthers, snakebites, and if you’re lucky, Sher Khan.”
“I am okay with that. Are you?”
The Shikari sniggered. “I fear no tiger now. They fall before me like the mango at which the boy throws his stick.”
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