Saket, me and Krishna, we are childhood friends. We have always been together in school or outside. The thing that bonded and still binds us to one another is our enthusiasm for adventure. Whenever we could get away from the hustle bustle of daily life we went on treks. This is happening from our childhood. At that time, it is only for a short duration and to the nearby hills. That used to cause tension to our parents. While we were in high school we were stung by the history bug. And we went to explore the Purana Khila on the outskirts of the small town where we lived. We got lost in its maze of chambers. Though for time, that incident had shaken us, it got renewed with age.
Last year, while we are in the last year of our graduation we again went there. This time with lot of friends and some historians, who came on an expedition. We helped them with the history of that khila and also showed them the way to get around it. They told they made some startling discoveries and praised us for our enthusiasm and advised us to make our hobby our profession. They intimated us what courses to study after graduation. We thanked them profusely and decided to study these courses and enjoy a life full of adventure.
Awaiting our results after the final exams, we wanted to use the time fruitfully. So we came for a camping holiday. This time not a castle or old temple but to a forest. We were told that there existed a different kind of Adivasis, whose customs and life style is quite unique. We were also advised not to venture too nary to them as they are considered to be violent.
After a days journey by train and another half by bus and truck, we reached our destination. There are a lot of tourists, as those forests are considered to be having beautiful waterfalls. We took a room in a local hotel, which has nice, hospitable staff. We befriended Gopi, our room boy asked the we seeking. He seemed disturbed and said, “Why do you want to go close to them, sir? It will be better to be near the periphery of the forest and watch the water falls. Mostly tourists come here for that purpose only. If you want, I will take leave for a day and be your guide.”
That seemed like a great idea. It’s really a blessing to have a local lad as a guide instead a professional one. So we agreed and after refreshing ourselves, we went along with him for our adventure with the forest. Before going on his advice we bagged eatables and drinking water. As the road is bumpy and we are young and robust, we thought a walk would be pleasant. There are some tourists around. Everyone is in a jovial and in holiday mood. As most of our attires are colourful, we looked like butterflies roaming in the garden.
All that day Gopi took us from one waterfall to another, all breathtakingly beautiful. Some are small, some are big and some are large but all of them are equally majestic. We took some rock and plant samples for further study when we go back. By evening we came back to our hotel.
Saket wanted the real feel of the forest and wanted to spend the night in the forest. We are used to camping in the open before too. We asked Gopi to help us in this matter but he declined saying he need to at home to look after his ailing mother. He also tried to dissuade us, saying that night camping at forest is not advisable and even locals seldom venture into the forest at night.
“Are there wild animals” asked Saket.
“Maybe more harmful than the wild animals”, replied Gopi.
On that Krishna and Saket roared with laughter.
“Why Gopi, are you hinting at super natural beings? If there are any, I want to befriend them.” Krishna said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“You will certainly encounter them, but do not blame me later. I warned you”, said Gopi with a grim face.
With his warning I felt something is really wrong but put that away from the mind looking at my friend’s exuberant manner.
To camp in the forest at night we need equipment which we did not bring with us. For that too we took Gopi’s assistance. He took us to a person who rents those things and who also owns a patch of land near the periphery of the forest. He is very unfriendly and hostile. “You can go to the forest and roam the whole day, but why at night?” he grumbled. But gave us the tents, lamps, beds and even a stove, so that we can have early morning tea. ‘If you survive the night’, his voice frightened me.
“Let’s drop this idea, I am feeling uneasy”, I said nervously.
If you are scared, you can stay behind. We are leaving. Said Saket and Krishna. And I succumbed to their enthusiasm.
We went into the forest as dusk is setting in. When I looked back, I noticed Gopi watching us with a melancholic expression. I am in doubt again. Is it wise to spend the night in the forest? If everybody are warning us, then there must be something sinister in the forest. But my friends already went ahead. Suddenly we felt some movement in front of us. There are men with rifles and they are not soldiers. As darkness already settled in I thought my eyes are playing tricks with me.
We reached the site where we want to camp and suddenly I noticed that I left behind my bag. Without it we are crippled, as there are camera and other needful things, especially mosquito coils! So I went back to the hotel while my friends assured me, they will set up the tent in my absence. By the time I came back it is totally dark. On reaching the tent, I realized there is no one there. The tents are set up but the bags are only half unpacked. An eerie silence engulfed me. My heart started to pound. I could hear my own heart beat. What happened to Saket and Krishna? I tried their mobiles but they were left behind. That seemed very strange. They never part with their phones, even while attending nature’s calls. Instinct told me something happened in my absence, something very sinister. All the horror movies we watched danced before my eyes. Is it true there are supernatural beings in the forest? It would have been wise to have heeded Gopi’s advice, but now it is too late. What should I do? As it will be dangerous for me to be there alone, I returned to the hotel. Fortunately Gopi is still there. When he saw me, he came running.
“What happened, sir? You look terrible.” With that I blurted, “Somebody abducted Saket and Krishna”.
“I feared that sir, that’s why I warned you. We can do nothing in the darkness. We will go for help with day break. Take rest now”.
‘How can I take rest, while my friend’s are helpless in the forest? Who knows if they are alive or not?’
With that thought and my own helplessness to help them came out in tears.
“Please don’t cry sir, I will say something important to you now, only to put you at ease. Do you know anything about poppy?” Asked Gopi.
“Why yes, But what is the connection between poppy seeds and my friend’s disappearance?” I asked with surprise.
“There is’!” Said Gopi dramatically. “If you know poppy seeds then you must be knowing that opium is made from it”.
Ofcourse! I also know that it’s cultivated selectively and the government has banned it’s cultivation in large scale.
“There are some people who cultivate it in the forest”, said Gopi in a hushed tone, “and they don’t like any one encroaching into their territory”.
I am flabbergasted. What is Gopi saying? Cultivation of Opium so near to the civilized world! It seemed impossible. But Gopi’s gaunt face made me realize he is saying a fact.
What should be done now? I am at my wit’s end. “Can’t we go to the police?” I asked, as that seemed the only option.
“There might be someone in the police force who are informers. Otherwise this may not be possible” said Gopi. After some thought, he said, “There is a higher officer who came here yesterday. We can go to him”. But there is fear in Gopi’s eyes.
Early next morning, we went to the police guest house and met the special officer, who was deputed to bring the opium cultivation to stop. He lauded Gopi for the information he gave and asked him to accompany them for the raid. I was asked to wait, but I could not leave Gopi so I too went with them.
With Gopi’s direction, we reached the destination. Police are stunned by what they encountered. It’s acres and acres of poppy plantation. Then only I realized the gravity of the situation and why the police came full force. It took three hours for them to bring the situation under control. Then I am reunited with my friends, who are naturally very shaken by this episode.
Later the police officer gave the prize money that was announced for the information to Gopi and me, which was very substantial. He counselled me and my friends saying, “You are students and have your whole life in front of you. As you want to be Archeologists, go to a good college in another state or better still go abroad. So that these criminals will never reach you.” Which seemed a sound advice.
As far as Gopi is concerned, he was offered a post in the Police force and was sent to a far off training Centre. The officer promised that he will see to it that Gopi will never be posted in the adjoining areas after his training period is over.
So, that’s how our adventure in the forest ended. On hind sight, it’s a lesson we will never forget.