“Don’t you think we should return to the tent now?” I asked my bespectacled friend.
“Shut up!” replied Ramesh.
I sighed helplessly and shifted my cramped position very slightly, causing the camera that was slung around my neck to bump against my chest.
Ramesh and I were crouched uncomfortably behind some bushes at the edge of a small lake, somewhere in the middle of the Ratnapur Bird Sanctuary. Ramesh, with binoculars glued to his eyes, was watching the reeds some sixty feet away along the curving edge of the lake. Dusk, like a soft, velvet blanket, was slowly draping itself over the surrounding landscape, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before Ramesh himself decided to call it a day. No bird-watcher, however dedicated, can operate in the dark.
Ratnapur Bird Sanctuary lies some ten kilometers south of Ratnapur town – which is situated some sixty kilometers west of the town where Ramesh and I live. Both Ramesh and I are student members of the Indian Ornithological Society, and it was the rumour that someone had seen a bird resembling the Eastern Grey Wagtail at the Ratnapur Bird Sanctuary a few days ago that had brought us here, to camp for a weekend in early July and confirm the rumour. I had brought along my camera, since a photograph was essential to prove our identification – because an Eastern Grey Wagtail had never before been positively identified in this area. If we succeeded we would have added one more bit to the knowledge of birds and their movements. “Almost like making history!” Ramesh had exclaimed, when we set out on this expedition.
At that moment, however, my thoughts were as far away from history-making as could be. A slight breeze had sprung up and the darkness had begun to litter the sky in a most ominous way. I glanced at the intent Ramesh, but still said nothing. A keen bird-watcher doesn’t like chatter when he’s hoping for an identification. And Ramesh, I knew from experience, was apt to be snappy when disturbed.
There was a slight movement in the reeds some twenty feet away. Ramesh stiffened, motionless, the binoculars steady in his hands. A small brown-grey bird waded perkily out into the shallow water at the edge of the lake, made a quaint bobbing bow, and then waded back out of sight – exactly as though it had come out to receive applause.
It got no applause from Ramesh. “An ordinary Common Sandpiper!” exclaimed Ramesh wrathfully, not bothering to whisper. “Is this what I’ve been watching out for the whole day?” He gave a snort of disgust and lowered his binoculars with a jerk. “Come on! Let’s go back to the tent!”
I was only too glad to agree.
We got stiffly to our feet and dusted our clothes. I looked at the darkening landscape around us and then glanced uneasily at Ramesh. “We must’ve come some three or four kilometers from the tent,” I said nervously. “Can you find it?”
Ramesh snorted. “Of course! That first lake we tried was due east from the tent. This lake was south from the other, with a bit of west in it. We’ve only got to reverse the bearings.”
As he spoke, Ramesh was putting the binoculars into his rucksack and getting out a compass. He held the compass for a moment for the needle to stop swinging, got his direction – a little east of north – and then started off confidently.
As I always do, I followed.
The breeze had, by now, strengthened into quite a rough wind, and I was glad I had brought along my jacket. The sky had become completely overcast and it wasn’t long before Ramesh took out his torch. The beam from the torch cast eerie shadows around us and, in spite of myself, I began to recollect the stories of strange spirits which were reputed to haunt the forests and marshes of Ratnapur.
Suddenly, something grabbed my foot and I crashed to the ground, screaming. “Ramesh!” I yelled. “Help me!”
Hands grabbed me and hauled me to my feet. “Idiot!” exclaimed Ramesh angrily. “What are you screaming about? You tripped over a fallen branch! Why can’t you watch where you’re going?”
While I recovered my breath, Ramesh peered at his compass. “We’re still on course!” he announced. “Come on, let’s go!”
We moved on again, with a slight downhill slope beneath our feet. How long we plodded, I cannot say, but it was not very long before Ramesh began to walk more and more slowly until, suddenly, he halted. I almost bumped into him.
“Wha-what’s up?” I asked.
“We ought to have struck that other lake by now,” said Ramesh quietly, a note of worry creeping into his voice, “but the ground’s starting to rise again.”
An icy hand began to clutch at my heart. “Maybe we’ve got a bit too high,” I suggested quickly. “If we head downhill to the left…”
Ramesh spoke casually, but I could hear the apprehension in his voice. Downwards we plodded, on and on. I peered ahead, hoping to sight water – and then, suddenly, froze in my tracks. I grabbed Ramesh’s arm with shaking hands.
“A-a m-man!” I chattered, my hair standing on end. “Over there – t-to the l-left!”
Ramesh stared at the tall shape that had loomed up a few paces away, and then gave a shout. “We’re all right!” he cried joyfully. “It’s that rock spike – remember? Only two or three minutes from the tent.”
As a strong swimmer shoots to the surface after a high dive, my soul rose suddenly from the depths to which it had descended. I stared at the shape in front of us, and quickly recovered myself. “You’re right!” I exclaimed. “The little stream’s on the other side of this low rise!”
Going as fast as we could, Ramesh and I passed the rock pinnacle, went uphill for a few paces, and then trotted more steeply down. I thought fondly of our little green shelter with its sewn-in ground-sheet and the two sleeping-bags. The wind had become distinctly chilly and I thought how glad I would be to see the tent.
We came to the little stream gurgling in its narrow bed and turned down it. A pool, glittering in the darkness, showed just ahead. “There’s our washing place!” I exclaimed – then came to a dead halt. I stared at the empty flat place above the pool unbelievingly. Beside me, Ramesh, too, stood frozen. To match the dramatic moment, a clap of thunder pealed right above our heads and then a drop of water splashed onto the tip of my nose. I ignored this warning of the storm that was about to break loose. At that moment, I was totally preoccupied with the nightmare vision that confronted Ramesh and me.
Our tent had disappeared!
Ramesh, as usual, was the first to recover. “The tent blew down,” he said suddenly. “That’s what must have happened – we’ll find it a few yards downstream.”
He started off along the bank of the stream. I followed without a word. I knew how strongly those pegs had been put in; and the wind, fierce though it now was, wasn’t violent enough to carry the tent away. A little below the camp-site the stream curved sharply between its low banks. There were rocks here. If the tent had indeed broken from its moorings, it would have been caught up on these rocks.
We came to a halt. Ramesh shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “All this is beyond me,” he said.
I looked fearfully back at the camp-site. “C-could it h-have been gh-ghosts?”
"Nonsense!” snorted Ramesh. He looked at the overcast sky. “First things first! We must find us a shelter of some sort – and quickly! It’s going to start pouring any minute now!”
As if to back up his statement, another burst of thunder followed. As a couple of drops of rain-water spattered on my head, I looked helplessly at Ramesh. “But where will we find a shelter? The town’s too far away!”
Ramesh thought quickly, and his face lit up. “Of course!” he exclaimed suddenly. “Remember the cave we passed while looking for a camp-site yesterday? It’s not too far from here! A cave will be good enough shelter, won’t it?”
“You’re right!” I exclaimed. “That cave will suit us just fine!” Then a doubt crossed my mind! “But will we be able to find it?”
“It shouldn’t be too difficult,” replied Ramesh confidently. “If I remember right, the cave is almost due south from here. And just about half a kilometer away.” Ramesh suddenly became grim. “Anyway, we’d better find it – it’s our only chance!”
As I shivered at these ominous words, Ramesh took out the compass from his pocket and shone his torch on it. He got his direction and set off quickly. Wearily, I plodded on behind him.
The drops of rain were beginning to fall faster now and showed signs of soon strengthening into a drizzle. A streak of lightning zig-zagged drunkenly across the face of the sky, followed quickly by a dull clap of thunder. The wind howled about me, slapping leaves and twigs against my face. I hoped fervently that we were going in the right direction. Numbed and leg-weary, I forced myself to stagger on behind Ramesh’s dark figure. I began to feel as if I was dreaming, and somehow The Eastern Grey Wagtail kept coming into my dream. ‘Size: Bulbul…forehead and round eyes white; crown, nape, ear coverts, all round neck, entire back and rump black…summer breeding visitor…’ – phrases from the Bird Recognition book repeated themselves in my mind.
From just in front came a splash and a startled exclamation. Next moment, I too, had stumbled into the shallow water at the edge of a reedy lake!
“Are you all right?” I heard Ramesh shout.
I peered about me until I located Ramesh’s figure a few feet away. He was standing knee-deep in water. “Y-yes, I’m all right,” I replied.
“Follow me!” I followed Ramesh to drier ground. Ramesh’s torch shone on the pebbles at the lake’s edge and on the level ground a pace or two above. “The cave should be around here, some place,” began Ramesh – and then his voice died away with a sort of sound not unlike the last utterance of one of those toy ducks you inflate and then let the air out of. I followed the beam of Ramesh’s torch to see what had so startled him – and then my jaw dropped.
Nature, with the perfect sense of timing it had shown the whole evening, chipped in with its own dramatic contribution. First, the sky was lit up by a jagged streak of lightning which seemed to tear the heavens into two parts. This was followed by a tremendous clap of thunder. Then the sky began to pelt water at us. The storm had arrived. But I barely noticed all these upheavals. My eyes, as well as those of Ramesh, were riveted to a spot a few paces away from the edge of the lake we had just waded out of. The sudden, brilliant flash of lightning had revealed – our tent!
I turned and stared at Ramesh. “How – how did our tent get here?” I shouted above the roar of the wind and the rain.
“I don’t know and I don’t care!” he shouted back. “Let’s get out of this rain!”
Good old Ramesh! Forever practical. Whether the tent had got there by witchcraft, or whether it was actually the ghost of our vanished shelter, didn’t matter to a pair of half-frozen bird-watchers. We staggered up to the tent in quick time, like a couple of avid movie watchers making a beeline for the ticket counter just seconds before the start of the show, managed to undo the door-lacings with nerve-less fingers, and fairly fell inside. I had a dim recollection of fumbling at boot-laces and stripping off wet socks and shirt. The sleeping-bag I struggled into didn’t feel like mine; probably it was Ramesh’s, but it wasn’t important. My friend was fastening the tent door and muttering something or the other. Good old Ramesh! I felt warmth creeping back into my body. Outside, the rain lashed on and the wind pushed at the tent fabric. Inside, it was snug – and safe. A wave of weariness and relief swept over me, and before Ramesh had crawled into the sleeping bag beside me I was asleep.
When I woke and stretched stiff and aching limbs the sun had come over the low horizon and the tent was glowing with morning light. Ramesh had just woken up and was talking excitedly. “Wh—what?” I mumbled sleepily.
“I said the mystery’s partly explained,” Ramesh repeated forcibly. “Look at these!” He pointed to some objects in a corner of the tent. “Tinned sausage – we didn’t bring any. And these sleeping bags. Blue covers, and ours are brown. This isn’t our tent!”
I sat up with a jerk and stared around me. “You’re right!” I exclaimed. “It isn’t our tent! But whose is it? And where’s ours?”
“Don’t ask me,” said Ramesh. He unfastened the tent door and pulled the fabric aside.
The opened door revealed a morning sky from which the sun was already clearing the slight haze, and a small lake. The pebbly beach was a stride or two from the tent doorway, with brown rushes fringing the shining blue water. Flicking its tail on a boulder in a tiny stream that fed the lake was a black and white bird.
Ramesh froze motionless with his hand holding the tent curtain.
“Camera! Exposure-meter! Quick!” He spoke under his breath and out of one corner of his mouth. I groped for the camera, hardly daring to breathe. The light meter was in my jacket pocket. It’d have to be a hundredth of a second – F.1.9 would just do it. As I raised the little camera I noticed the black wings, the black tail with white outer rectrices. It was the Eastern Grey Wagtail! The camera clicked. A swift wind-on and a second exposure to make sure. The colour film would clinch this miraculous identification. A moment later Ramesh, who had been screwing his face into horrible contortions, let out a resounding sneeze and the Wagtail instantly took wing. “Chi-cheep…chi-cheep” it piped as it vanished.
Four hours later, Ramesh and I were striding down the road that led to Ratnapur town. The mysterious tent was strapped tight on Ramesh’s rucksack and I was carrying the sleeping bags and stores. A young man, who was coming from the opposite direction, halted and stared at us as we approached him.
“Good morning,” he said hesitantly. “I—er—I suppose you don’t happen to have my tent?”
Ramesh glanced quickly at me and then grinned. “I wouldn’t be surprised!” he replied. “I suppose you don’t happen to have ours?”
After that, it took only a moment for our new acquaintance to clear up the mystery. “I’m a keen bird-watcher myself,” he told us, “and I got hold of that chap who thought he’d seen the Eastern Grey Wagtail here a few days ago. He agreed to go up and camp with me, by the pool where he’d seen it. However, yesterday morning, this chap woke up feeling ill. I could see he was really bad – malaria, it turned out to be – and I had to get him to a doctor. The doctor took him over and I went to the Youth Hostel, where I’m staying. Some of the chaps there volunteered to go and bring my tent – I was just about all in, you see – and I gave them pretty vague directions…”
“And they brought back the wrong tent!” broke in Ramesh.
We began walking towards the town. “Bad luck for you,” I said thoughtfully as we walked, “but—in a way – good luck for us. Because we’ve not only eaten your tinned sausages, but also bagged your Wagtail!”
“Yes,” agreed Ramesh. “If this mix-up hadn’t happened – and our tent had not been picked up by mistake – we would have been in the wrong place at the wrong time this morning and would not have been able to photograph the Wagtail! You, anyway, were not there to see the Wagtail – you were in town!”
Ramesh and I looked at each other – both of us thinking the same thought.
“Tell you what,” said Ramesh, finally, giving voice to our joint thought, “we’ll share credit for the sighting and the photographs with you. After all, that’s the least we can do in return for your sausages – and unintentional help in sending us to the right location for the sighting!”
Our new friend grinned happily – and I thought I heard, in the distance, a faint “chi-cheep…chi-cheep” echoing the Wagtail’s agreement…