New Books: Staring Down a Lone Wolf

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s latest book, The Lone Wolf: The Untold Story of the Rescue of Sheikh Hasina published by Penguin

by Dr Neha Dwivedi

The seemingly normal walk back from school through the forest suddenly took a dangerous turn as young, nine-year-old Ashok found himself staring directly into the eyes of a wolf that was no more than thirty yards away. Not surprisingly, the sight stopped him in his tracks.

In the year 1951, much like the rest of the country, Delhi was still coming to terms with its fledgling independence. Unlike the urban behemoth it is today, back then the capital was mostly made up of open land and agricultural fields interspersed with extended swathes of wilderness. It took less than a decade for the city to begin shedding its agrarian roots. The vast openness gradually gave way to the demands of a functional city: residential areas, intertwined with commercial establishments. But in 1951, four years after Independence, Delhi was still in touch with a certain wilderness.

It was in this year that Ashok Tara’s family left their serene and spacious residence in Baird Place for East Patel Nagar, a relatively busier part of Delhi. The DAV school that used to be at a convenient distance of one kilometre from Ashok’s Baird Place residence, was now all of 10 kilometres away. But his new neighbourhood gave him the opportunity to indulge in his favourite activities, like exploring the neighbourhood and hunting down pigeons with his slingshot. He especially enjoyed taking part in the events organized by the society committee during festivals, like the rath yatra: a procession of a tableau borne on horse-drawn chariots in which he would play Lakshman and sit alongside another boy playing Ram from the Ramayana (one of the two Sanskrit epics of ancient India).

Despite the promise of adventure, the long distance he had to travel to get to school and back not only involved greater travel time, it also posed a certain amount of danger. Ashok and Kirti Tara, his elder brother, now had to pass through Rajendra Nagar, a semi-occupied colony and a forested ridge behind Birla Mandir (Gole Market). The only transport available to them was a single-route, Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus that set off at 6 a.m. and returned only before sunset.

The brothers had to catch this bus, even though classes began at 8 a.m. and ended at 1 p.m. The route of the bus was circuitous: West Patel Nagar Depot–East Patel Nagar–Willingdon Hospital (now Ram Manohar Lohia)–Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, where the brothers disembarked and the bus continued onward.

Willingdon Hospital, founded by the British in the year 1932 for their own government staff, was situated adjacent to the Gol Dak Khana of today and came under the jurisdiction of the New Delhi municipal committee post-Independence. A few years later, in 1954, it was transferred into the purview of the central government, but retained the same name until the 1970s, when it was changed to Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, after Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, a socialist, political leader and a popular activist in the Indian Independence movement.

Like clockwork every morning, at about 6.10 a.m., Ashok and Kirti would catch the same bus along with other early commuters—most of them still sleepy. But the Tara brothers would be wide awake and always sit in the front seats of the bus, eager to take in the view through the windscreen and enjoy the cool morning breeze before alighting at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib.

After a hasty Partition, Delhi particularly experienced a mass influx of Punjabi refugees from West Pakistan, who had chosen to make India their home. The Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, located at Connaught Place in the heart of Delhi, with its notable golden dome and tall flagpole known as ‘Nishan Sahib’ would be buzzing with activity at any given point of the day. Worshippers would arrive in groups to offer prayers, meditate or just perform seva (service) by way of paying their respects to their guru. Today, this structure is much more magnificent, complete with large marble entrances and additions of other architectural extravagances. Even in those days, with its tranquil sarovar (a holy lake situated inside the complex), it served as a haven for anyone who sought peace and solace. There was a garden outside with date and jamun trees where children and adults alike spent their time plucking fruits.

After a bone-rattling journey aboard the rickety and dusty DTC bus, Ashok and Kirti would proceed straight to the gurudwara to offer prayers and get prasad (sanctified food), halwa and puri, which had been cooked by the people doing seva. This had become their breakfast. They would finish their breakfast, rinse their greasy hands in the sarovar and proceed to school.

Ashok’s school was about one kilometre away from the gurudwara, while Kirti’s, a separate branch of the same school, was closer to the gurudwara. With time weighing heavy on their hands before their respective classes started, the brothers invariably took a detour through the gurudwara’s orchard and filled their pockets with dates and jamuns, some of which they ate themselves and the rest they saved for distribution among their classmates and the children of the school peon. Thus, more often than not, even before school started, both the brothers would have purple-tinged pockets on their crisp white uniforms to match their purple-tinged teeth.

*

Born to Chattarpati and Damyanti Tara, Ashok belonged to a fairly large family with two older brothers and one younger sister. Ashok and his siblings grew up with stories of World War II as their father had donned the military uniform during the war. Their learning didn’t end with just the stories of the war; they were also reared on a strong set of values and encouraged to believe in what they knew, learned or heard rather than on any unfounded and irrational fears or superstitions.

The Tara children were intrepid and always on the lookout for adventure, unlike most children of their age, who tended to be more timid. On their way to school from their house at Baird Place, the Tara brothers took a shortcut through a graveyard. While most other children either avoided this route or passed hurriedly through it, Ashok and Kirti would stroll leisurely past the gravestones and, on their way home, would even tarry a while to play marbles in the quietness of the cemetery. As most people in their neighbourhood were steeped in superstition, Ashok and Kirti would often come across earthen pots containing fruits or coins being burned with herbs in the middle of the pathways, to supposedly ward off the evil spirits. Whenever the brothers espied these simmering pots, they would waste no time in kicking them aside, quickly picking the fruit and pocketing the coins, before ambling away nonchalantly.

The extended journey to school from their new home was more of an adventure rather than an inconvenience for the two brothers, one that they couldn’t wait to embark upon every day.

However, Ashok was still a little boy, barely nine years old. His adventures were always under the watchful eye of his elder brother. Kirti, as a senior in school, had to stay back for certain extra-curricular activities on some days. Whenever Kirti couldn’t leave at the same time as Ashok, the plucky nine-year-old had to make the trip back home alone.

The route included a kilometre-long walk through Birla Mandir and then across the thickly forested ridge that added another kilometre or so to the Taras’ daily trek. The boys had to cover all of that on foot before they could reach the main road to hitch-hike which, in those days, meant thumbing a ride on a bicycle, flagging down a bullock-cart or a push-cart, or hitching a ride on an odd bus. They had quickly realized that, in the relentless Delhi summers, after a long and tiring day at school, their trek home felt more like penance than an adventure. It was an understatement to say that trudging through the dusty forest paths, with the trickling perspiration making their shirts stick to their bodies, was exhausting.

The ridge, which is a northern extension of the ancient Aravalli Range, some 1•5 billion years old, extends from the southeast at Tughlaqabad, branching out in places and tapering off in the north near Wazirabad on the west bank of the Yamuna river, covering about 35 kilometres. It is also known as the ‘green lungs’ of the city of Delhi. In those days, the undergrowth was wilder and more unspoiled than it is now. Furthermore, it wasn’t merely called a forest, it was complete with dense foliage and dangerous wildlife as well. Today, as expected, there exists an urbanized version of it, with tourist spots like Buddha Jayanti Park, with ancient monuments nestled within it.

The forest ranger would regale them with hair-raising stories about wild animals—bears, wolves, monkeys, foxes and a variety of reptiles that roamed at large in this area. Every once in a while, he would go so far as to even lend them his stout wooden stick, which had an iron spike mounted on it (like a spear), for protection, especially from reptiles.

Ashok’s class IV final exams were approaching when, just as in the recent past, Kirti told him he had a football match that was going to keep him from accompanying his younger brother back home. And so it was that a tired, but carefree, Ashok had to walk through the woods alone.

Just like every day, Ashok walked into the forest, exhausted and thirsty, but still alert, placing one foot in front of the other, hoping he wouldn’t come across one of the reptiles that the forest ranger had warned them about. He was thankful for the light, albeit dusty, breeze that caressed his face every now and then. However, the eerie rustling of leaves made him look around to make sure he didn’t have an unwanted companion. He wondered why, today of all days, he hadn’t insisted on borrowing the watchman’s stick because that would have definitely made him feel much safer. Ashok picked up his pace, hoping to traverse through the woodland as quickly as possible. The sooner he got out of the jungle, the sooner would he be able to hitch a ride home.

Ashok had barely gathered speed, when he froze in his tracks. With a loud crash, out leapt a massive wolf from the undergrowth and stood snarling in the middle of Ashok’s path.

As the wolf and the boy faced each other, the ticking seconds stretched into what felt like an eternity as the lad realized just how vulnerable his position was. His legs felt leaden and that warm summer breeze that had felt balmy only moments ago now felt icy, like an invisible hand on the nape of his neck.

As if on cue, Ashok thought of his maternal grandfather, a keen hunter, fondly addressed as ‘shikari’ by the people of his village. The old man had often recounted his experiences to his grandchildren who crowded around, listening with rapt attention; and, in his storytelling sessions, he had shared much sound advice with his young audience. Ashok’s grandfather had told the children:

. . . when confronted by an opponent, even if it’s a wild animal, stare at your opponent with a confident and stern expression. This show of courage will effectively deter them from launching an attack.

Ashok had never imagined that he would ever be in a position to apply that piece of advice, but he now took a deep breath, stood his ground determinedly and glared at the wolf.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, the wolf baulked, retreated and slunk back towards the bushes. Before Ashok could heave a sigh of relief, the animal halted and looked back. Ashok held his stance, his expression fearless and undaunted. The wolf slowly moved away, perhaps losing its will to attack, just as his grandfather had said. After the wolf had vanished, Ashok immediately changed his route and pelted towards the main road, his mind still reeling with what he had just survived.

As soon as he was on the road, he met two forest rangers and told them about what had just transpired in the forest. They said that they were aware of the wild animals in the forest and were actually surprised that he had made it out alive.

Upon reaching home, he excitedly narrated the chilling episode to his family. They could barely believe that such a young boy had stared down a wolf like a seasoned hunter and had lived to tell the tale. They assumed he was making it all up.

However, as days went by, they heard about similar sightings from the forest officers and realized that Ashok had been telling the truth.

When Ashok’s eldest brother asked him why he had not thrown a stone at the creature or run away, Ashok coolly reminded him of their grandfather’s advice of never provoking the opponent, especially if it were a wild animal. Even the slightest provocation would have resulted in an attack, was little Ashok’s reply.

They say lone wolves are the most dangerous kind. Ashok had not only faced one by himself, he had also walked away from it unscathed and with a kind of empowerment that would stay with him for the rest of his life. His own father had often told his children how ‘fear is nothing but a state of mind’. After that day, Ashok learned that it wasn’t a meaningless platitude.

Little did he know that this chance encounter had perhaps taught him to turn into a lone wolf himself in the face of adversity and was going to carry him through the most dangerous moments of his life in much the same way.

That the significance of that event would be monumental to not just his life but to the history of the world, was another matter.

Click here to order your copy of this book

Neha Dwivedi, a Kargil War martyr’s daughter is a doctor by profession and writer by passion. She is an alumnus of DPS RK Puram and Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi. Writing is what brought solace to her post her father’s martyrdom. She now lives in Delhi, where she works as a childbirth educator and an infant and young child feeding specialist. She deeply believes in the healing and inspirational power of stories and hopes to continue bringing more untold stories to the forefront. Her first book was Vijyant at Kargil: The Biography of a War Hero. 

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