An apple farmer from Pekhri village in Tirthan Valley recounts his family’s encounters with wild bears – at a time when their crops were all they had
Story by: Pratap Chauhan
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Back in the 1970s, when I was 8 or 9 years old, I vividly remember one night in my village Pekhri. My father had asked a few of his friends to help collect the apricot kernel when they were ripe for plucking. It was the month of Bhadra (roughly August – September in the Hindu calendar) and they set out to the oil mill nearby to extract oil out of the kernel.
By the time he came home, the sun was about to set. That night, after having his dinner, he ventured out into the fields to guard our crops from wild animals. We had built a temporary wooden shed to sleep out in the open. And we had to be very careful and alert to stop wild animals from climbing into the shed! All night, we would keep a fire going since animals tend to avoid the fire.
As darkness fell, my father lit his mashal (stick with a fire burning at the top) and marched off to the shelter on the upper end of the field. But as soon as he reached, he heard the unmistakeable sound of a bear eating the maize!
He began yelling at the bear to chase it away. But instead of leaving, the bear began approaching my father, following his voice. The entire field was fenced, so the only exit was on the opposite end of the field, in the direction of the bear!
Scared for his life, my father ran through the rows of maize. By then, it had begun raining and as he ran, the light in his torch went off. Everything went pitch dark! He picked up a stone and flung it into the darkness without much hope. But suddenly he heard a roar, which got deeper and deeper. The stone had definitely hit the bear.
My mother heard the noise first and we all rushed out together. She urged my father not to shout but stay silent instead. She suggested that we make noises to distract the bear’s attention from him. Luckily my mother’s plan was successful! Soon, my father reached home safely. Meanwhile, the bear had crossed the village from the other side and disappeared into the forests.
The next morning, my cousin came to visit us from Shrikot village. Just when we thought the drama of the night had died down, he began telling us about a bear he and his friends had encountered on the way in the dense forests of Shrikot.
“Mama ji! I saw a bear who looked up at the sky and rubbed his eyes and cried!” he told us excitedly. He claimed that the bear didn’t even notice the presence of a human being nearby. My father was sure it was the same bear he encountered the previous night. The stone he threw in the dark might have hit the bear in the eye.
Back then, Pekhri was a small, beautiful mountain village in the Tirthan Valley, home to 80-90 families, surrounded by barren, rocky land on one side and deep forests on the other. It was a habitat for numerous wild animals.
We grew food for our sustenance, but money was always a challenge. People had to venture far away to find labour work. Instead of one good plot of land, we had several plots scattered all around the mountain.
Many years after my father’s narrow escape from the bear, we had a three-day village festival around the same time in the month of Ashad. Like before, we would sleep out in the open to keep wild animals away. But since the festival was extremely noisy, wild animals stayed away during that time. On the first day of the festival, I remember my mother asking my father, “Will you be guarding the crops tonight?”
“I don’t think so,” he replied confidently, “Let it be.” The same conversation was repeated on the second day. I suppose my father just wanted to relax and enjoy the festivities with his friends.
Finally, on the third night, he went to the fields and was shocked to see that there was nothing left. A bear had been paying our fields a visit every night! There was very little maize left for us. Resigned to his fate, with no anger or malice, he said, “that’s life.” We must survive with what we get.
Around the 1980s, people in Pekhri began to grow apples. These days, the maize crop has reduced significantly, and apple has become our main cash crop. Wild animals are still around, they still enter our village, but they can’t climb trees so they don’t destroy the apples much. The forest line is also much higher these days, with much of the forests cut for firewood and to build homes, so there are fewer bears around. If people go into the forests, the chance of encountering a bear is very high though.
Now that I’m about 56 years old, I can look back and say that sharing our land with hungry wild bears was not easy. But as my father said, that was life.
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