Jarbi Singh lay stretched out on his back on the grassy slope that overlooked the tiny village below. His goats, tough and surefooted as only mountain goats can be, scrambled up the hillside, leaping unconcernedly onto the smallest of ledges. This was what he did every day since his father had been killed by a bear, a couple of years ago. His mother had died when he was only two and now he lived with his uncle who was a village shikari and tended his goats.
It was October now and the green grass on the mountain slopes was fast dying and it seemed that the entire countryside was rusting. All the goat-herds had driven their goats down to the lower reaches of the mountain now, for soon it would begin to snow. Then, a thick white shroud would cover every bit of bare ground, making it impossible to use the paths, and the village would be cut off from the outside world for months. The Garhwal Himalaya were not really a welcome place in winter! A six-day old kid rubbed against Jarbi's side and he fondled it lovingly. Yes, both man and beast looked forward to the summer months when the snows melted. The goatherds would then drive their goats up to the higher pastures, where they were treated to gastronomic orgies. Natures sudden outburst of activity would be manifested in the colourful fields of spring flowers. Jarbi loved walking through the carpets of pink and wine- red primulae, the blue and violet irises and gentians and the yellow marigolds. Occasionally, when he returned home after grazing his goats, he carried a bunch of white lilies with him.
Tara Devi was a comely lass of twenty, and it was agreed by the village menfolk that she was by far one of the prettiest maids they had ever set their eyes upon. As fate would have it, Jarbi was the cherished youth of Tara's dreams. Jarbi himself had no inhibition on reciprocating her love and he longed for the day when she would come to him as his bride. Ah! wouldn't he be happy then. He pictured her often; dressed in her bright long robes, the yellow 'thippu' over her head, the big bangles on her slender wrists, the golden anklets, the nose and ear-rings and that enchanting smile playing upon her lips ... But happiness is not always served upon a platter.
As Jarbi lay stretched out on the grass now, he reflected on what had happened when he had gone to Tara's father this morning to ask for her hand in marriage.
Tara's father was an old weaver and he earned his living by selling his hand-woven, coarse woollen blankets and mats. As is the custom in the hills, he had offered Tara to the man who would pay the largest sum of money, or an equivalent in kind for her. A maid as pretty as Tara had drawn many suitors. The headman's son had offered the weaver four of his best cows. Others offered land, while a wealthy landowner from the village across the river had come the other day and said that he was prepared to pay thousand rupees in cash. The old weaver was delighted. "We'll see. We'll see," he had chuckled, baring his gums when he was asked which offer he would accept.
Jarbi had taken the three goats which he possessed and had gone to the weaver yesterday. He knew that his goats were insufficient to match the rich offers of the others, but this was all he had, and he begged the old man to accept it. He had been surprised and delighted at the sporting gesture made by the weaver who had said: "These goats are not enough. But I shall give you a fair chance. High up in the mountains, near the glacier, lives a small but tough species of wild sheep called the 'Urial'. I have heard that it is a rare animal and have always wanted to possess its horns. If you can produce them before me within a month's time they will have compensated your tiny offer and I may consider you for Tara."
Jarbi had thanked the weaver and had gone back to his goats on the hillside. Now as his thoughts wandered as he relaxed, he began to think of the urial. His uncle had told him many tales of that magnificent sheep which could get over the steep hillsides and the precipitious cliffs with remarkable ease. They were extremely alert and it was for that reason that few people ever saw them. If he was lucky, he would find a lone pair on some rocky, slaty ridge, near the glacier. It was a long shot and a difficult, though not an impossible, proposition—the hunt of a urial.
The next day, Jarbi left for the upper slopes with his uncle's old shotgun—and a pouch containing home-filled cartridges. The only other articles he carried were a coarse woollen blanket and some food wrapped in a huge piece of cloth.
The river came gushing forth from where the ice melted at the glacier. The surrounding countryside was cut up into sharp spura leading down from the high ridges into the river on either side of it. At the lower reaches of this deep V-shaped valley were thick birch forests which was where the village shikaris hunted the Himalayan Tar a species of wild goat. Beyond this, further upstream were steep penetrating gorges which made walking along the valley-floor almost impossible.
Jarbi stayed to the left-bank and worked up the valley, above the line of the birch forests, and began to walk up the grassy ridge. The occasional 'monal' pheasant rushed out squealing from the rhodedendron bushes and seemed to herald his approach.
This was the sort of country Jarbi trekked through in the first few days, and had time not pressed him on, he would have liked to linger here longer. One evening he had seen a family of brown bear. Hiding behind a boulder and not daring to breathe, he watched as they shuffled past inches from him along the track. On another occasion, he had all but bumped into a herd of 'Ghoral' and had silently watched them grazing for a long time, before they moved away.
When night came he slept under the shelter of an overhanging rock. Wrapped in his coarse woollen blanket, he shivered through the night while the sharp, biting winds and the cold played around him. He would be up early next morning at sunrise, before the mists could clear, hoping that he might spot a lone urial at that hour,
A week on the move brought him close to the snout of the glacier. Ahead of that stretched a rocky ridge of gendarmes which towered high. To his sides, the snow-capped peaks rose and seemed to dominate man, making him look insignificant amid creations of great beauty. This was forbidden ground and people seldom ventured forth so far from the village into uninhabited country. Besides, who would care to undergo the rigours and the pains of such a hard journey away from the comforts of civilization, except a few lunatics who called themselves "mountaineer"?
But this was perfect urial country with its steep, craggy slopes above the line of forests and below the snowline. Jarbi smiled. It was now merely a qustion of luck.
The sun was sinking below the crest of the ridge in the west burning the sky with its orange and yellow tongues which gradually merged into the blue. Jarbi had been resting on a boulder and letting his eyes mechanically sweep the crest of the ridge. He had been doing that for quite some time and now he suddenly froze. His heart raced as he made out the dark shapes of a herd of three full grown urial—a ram and two ewes-sil- houtted against the setting sun in the horizon. It was a golden opportunity!
Jarbi flattened out and crept up on all fours, taking great care to keep out of sight. He crawled upwind and gradually inched himself forward, as if he were part of the earth beneath him. When he was barely thirty feet from the unsuspecting urials, he raised his gun and trained it on the ram's neck. The herd was licking salt off a slab of stone, quite oblivious of the danger behind them. Confident that he could not miss at this range, Jarbi took good aim and squeezed the trigger, bracing himself for the inevitable boom.
The loud metallic click of the firing-pin striking home was omnious in the pregnant silence, but there was no consequent loud report of the cartridge being detonated. The seconds ticked by painfully, but nothing happened. The cartridge had misfired.
On hearing the click behind them, the urials whipped around, startled out of their wits and after throwing surprised looks at Jarbi, decided that he was up to no good. In seconds, before he could react, they were bolting up the steep grass-slope, snorting in alarm.
It was almost dark now and the mists were closing in. Jarbi knew that he had lost his quarry—at least temporarily—and so, cursing his ill fortune, he turned to find a suitable overhang to spend the night under.
Early next morning, after a spell of hard tracking, he caught a brief glimpse of the same family of urial on a ledge near the crest of a rock rib. They were moving away from him towards the lateral moraine at the snout of the glacier. Jarbi realised at once that he would have to skirt the rock rib they were on and surprise them ahead, as they came down past him.
Climbing down onto a pitch of loose rock, he moved down gingerly, taking care not to dislodge any steps. He cautiously traversed a couple of gullies covered with loose slate, and in half an hour he was at the base of a thirty-foot vertical "chimney". He realised that he had to scale this if he was to reach the urials in time, before they passed by.
The "chimney" was really a huge cleft in the rock face and it grew wider and wider as it got to the top, where it was about three foot wide. There were good handholds and the climb did not look too difficult to Jarbi.
He slung the ancient shotgun behind his back and began climbing carefully and steadily, taking full advantage of his bare feet and the abundance of good holds.
In twenty minutes of steady climbing he had almost reached the top of the crack, when some shikari instinct made him stop. He hung from the rock in silence, straining his ears to catch some sound. . . . Yes, this time the snort was loud and clear, over the top of the cleft, to his left. The urial herd had arrived!
Jarbi had no time to complete his wonderful climb. Instead, he swung the loaded shotgun around with his right hand, the butt resting against his right shoulder and barrel pointing upwards at an angle of seventy degrees. Cursing silently for being caught in such an awkward position, he tried to make the most of a bad bargain by anchoring himself well with his left hand and feet and with only one hand free for shooting. He only prayed that the leading urial would be the ram.
After what seemed to the shikari, a long and painful wait, the foreparts of a ram appeared in the opening of the crack; its strongly wrinkled horns winding backward in a huge sweep and the grizzled ruff hanging from the chin and running down the throat. Its ears stood up stiffly as if it half-sensed some danger and it peered curiously down the crack.
The blast of the shotgun echoed down the valley. Jarbi was all but swept off his precarious perch, but so great was the recoil that he could not prevent the weapon from jumping out of his hand to clatter down forty feet below onto the rocks. Seconds later, the carcass of the urials lurched forward and fell head-over heels clown the crack, missing Jarbi by inches as it followed the course of the gun onto the rocks below.
A stunned Jarbi climbed down the rocks, rubbing his aching shoulder and wondering if he was dreaming. He stopped over the dead animal and examined it. It was a beautiful thing, complete with winter coat, and from its size looked to be fully matured. The brownish—grey wool of its coat and its full ruff at the throat would make a nice rug, Jarbi thought. The wrinkled horns curved in a circular sweep and he estimated them to be twenty inches in length. He smiled in satisfaction over a good job and got to work with his knife.
The young shikari covered the return journey to the village in good time. Running fullpelt down the last slope, he yelled like a madman as he waved the urial horns above his head. The villagers working in the fields stopped and turned to stare as Jarbi ran past them. Some just started in disbelief. Others shook their heads in sympathy .... They knew.
He headed straight for Tara's house, and did not stop to regain his breadth till he reached the place.
The old weaver was sitting on his 'charpai' with the pipe of his hookah in his hand. Seated around him were: the headman's son and two khaki-clad men whom Jarbi had never seen before in the village. They all turned to stare at him as he entered the room.
He walked to Tara who was sitting by the small fire, and without a word, placed the pair of urial horns on her lap. She looked at him—at first in surprise—and he smiled. But she had tears in her beautiful eyes and her stained face showed that she had been crying. He knew immediately that something had gone wrong.
As he turned to the weaver, one of the khaki-clad men stood up and addressed him officiously: "We appreciate your bravery, saheb, but you have committed a serious offence by shooting this animal. We have all the required proof and shall have to take you to the town. I suggest, for your own sake, that you do not display any violence and submit yourself to our custody on your own."
Jarbi had shot an animal which was protected by the Government of India.
Note : For the information of wild lifers the following are also protected under the Indian Lawr—Great Indian Bustard, Jerdon's Courser, Mountain Quail, Grey Jungle Fowl, White Winged WTood Duck, Tragopans, Golden Langur, Lakhimpur Langur, Malabar Langur, Nilgiri Langur, Travancore Langur, Wanderoo (lion-tailed) Monkey, Gibbons, Lesser Panda, Slender Loris, Slow Loris, Pangolin, Crocodile, Indian Rhinocerus, Pigmy Hog, Wild Ass, Indian Gazelle, Kashmir Stag, Indian Swamp Deer, Brown Antlered Deer, Four-horned Antelope, Blackbuck, Markhor, Takin (Mishmi Takin) , Leopard, Snow Leopard, Leopard Cat, Clouded Leopard, Golden Cat, Marbled Cat, Rusky Spotted Cat, Panther, Lion, Tiger, White Tiger, Caracal and Spotted Lisang.—Ed.