Part of Vernon’s right foot was gone with the roof of the aircraft. His boot was missing and so were his toes. A limp mass of red and white was dangling flimsily from the ankle, losing blood like a burst drainpipe. Amar had dragged him away from the gaping holes and was trying to pin themselves to the floor. He loosened a length of cord from his backpack and wound it tightly around Vernon’s lower leg to stop the bleeding. He was helping him with water from his tin bottle when Charlie opened the cockpit door again and started signalling them to bail-out.
They clambered towards the cavity of the missing bay door, Vernon limping on one leg, leaning on Amar. Waves of pain and bleeding had clammed him up but he appeared alert. ‘I’m going to need you in the hills below, Amar.’ He said and jerked himself away before Amar could respond.
Amar pulled open his chute soon after he jumped, remembering the blunder of his maiden fall. But he could see Vernon’s figure free-falling forever right into the hills below to the east. It struck him that Vernon’s chute could have failed him, or he had probably blanked out and his heart sank. It was hard to keep an eye on him with all that wind roaring past his ears and eyes. He sorely remembered the plastic goggles he was supposed to be wearing during the descent. Just as he despaired that he had finally lost Vernon among the dense canopy of trees, a round umbrella bloomed above him. ‘Hallelujah!’ He smiled, recalling the favourite utterance of the plump British merchant who had taught him English. Then the thought of Vernon’s maimed foot dampened him again.
For a second time trooper, Amar landed perfectly on a sloping hill. Vernon was somewhere to the east in the thick of the trees. He repacked his chute as fast as he could and pulled out the compass moving down into the forest. He came upon a clear stream of water at the base where he washed his face and refilled the tin bottle. He jumped when a sudden burst of howling rent the air. Not before he had scrambled to a nearby shrub and snatched out his .45 pistol in a combat position, he realised he was up against a family of hoolock gibbons. When the gibbons quietened as he kept hidden in the bush, he realised that a similar war cry was emanating from elsewhere too at regular intervals, muted by the distance. Figuring that was where Vernon may have landed, he began moving towards the shrill hooting alongside the stream. He soon found him hanging upside down on a hollong tree, ten to twelve feet from the ground, his face soaked in blood. There was a general furore in the trees as the gibbons, who were trying to deal with the man who had crash-landed from the skies till now, were confronted with a new enemy. One of them jumped onto the shrubs below and it seemed that another had planned to fling itself directly on Amar’s face but met a resounding kick instead and was flung away in the undergrowth. Amar shot a bullet aiming his pistol at the sky and the warlike primates vanished deeper into the jungle swishing through the trees and tall grass.
Amar was annoyed with himself to have fired away at a petty provocation. It could easily give them away to the Japs if they had infiltrated the forest already. And he had heard enough about the rabid headhunters, sworn to hound and kill for human crowns, leaving the rest of the corpse for the carnivores of the wild. It was said the heads putrefied together while the eyes were put in vinegar. It would raise the esteem of the hunter among the tribesman and the chief. The more skulls one had in his attic, the more eligible tribesman he was. It was a question of life and death for them, answered by severed heads alone.
Slithering up the hollong tree was fine for Amar but extricating Vernon who was suspended midway tested his mettle. He had to slither up to the top and find enough length of the tangled cord that could allow Vernon to be released to earth without crashing, a feat he could manage after many attempts. Vernon kept rambling all the time. ‘Ask the Japs to stop howling and fight like they have balls!’ When he returned to earth he found him groggy and incoherent, floating in and out of consciousness. Remembering the morphine tablets in his kit, he administered a couple of them to him.
‘Where in the hell are we, Amar?’ Vernon was insistent.
‘We’re probably in Assamese territory, sir.’ Amar said at last.
‘Who fired at me, then?’ He asked.
‘It was I scaring the gibbons.’ Amar said.
‘Funny how you’re calling the Japs gibbons. They are pigs.’
‘Did we bail out of the plane?’
‘Don’t yes-sir me!’
‘Those bastards Mark and Charlie – I am going to have them court-martialled.’
The day shone already high in the sky. Realising they needed to get out of the forests quickly, more so with Vernon’s trauma, Amar hoisted him on his back, firmly holding his wrists at the front. Years of hauling sacks of grain on his back in Burma had made him enough of a mule but he knew it was going to be a grinding journey. He began lumbering to the west, balancing Vernon’s weight with his hips, returning to the stream he had found a while back. Vernon kept telling him, even ordering him, to put him down but dozed off as the morphine hit his bloodstream. Amar carefully put him down every half hour or so to recover his breath and recuperate. He’d consult the compass and begin to the west anew in minutes.
The forest was wet with rain and the trees kept dripping in bursts irritatingly. However, tall, slanting beams of sunlight were proof enough that the clouds were gone. He kept moving through the parts with short undergrowth, avoiding the taller grasses and denser areas. He stumbled upon a faint trail under the dappled light of the never ending canopy in the fast mellowing afternoon. Vernon’s forehead was baking with high fever and he began grunting with each breath. Amar laid him down on the grass and felt as if a mountain had shifted off his back. His spine was sore and thumping dully for all that ceaseless lugging. He tried to get Vernon to drink some water unsuccessfully. For a moment he was tempted to have a quick nap himself but the thought of headhunters hit him like a bolt.
The jungle was getting restless with the rise in the clamouring of birds. He could clearly hear many other sounds from time to time, ranging from snorting to barking. Sometimes he heard loud cracks up in the trees or hurried scurrying away in the bushes, the grass moving madly. He knew that apart from cobras, vipers, kraits and pythons, there were tigers, panthers and black bears too and there was no telling which could kill faster. He had briefly turned and scanned at the back every few minutes till now, but the impending night was going to be different. He took out his crookneck flashlight and jammed it in his waist.
He kept trudging ahead with his burden fitfully, reaching a hummock in the deepening dusk. From there he could see a clump of lights far to the north-west, a sure sign of human habitat. There was a shallow river right ahead of him and he could make out a small herd of deer down to his right. He turned swiftly to the sound of soft rustling at his back and was startled to see group of small, low slung figures rushing out of the trees towards them in a semicircle. Letting Vernon go and dropping to his knees, he retrieved his pistol and fired several rounds randomly. He was drowned by a deluge of blood-curdling shrieks and chattering that quickly receded into the trees but continued unabated. Spinning towards the river, his pistol aimed, he saw the herd of deer bolting across the shallow stream. He slung Vernon sharply across his shoulder and trotted towards the river as fast as he could, not stopping before he had raced through right after the herd. Once across, he refilled his bottle and began towards the blips of lights. It was a full moon night and he didn’t need to switch on his flashlight in what was more of a grassland now but he had put on a green filter and waived it vigourously at every break he took, towards what he thought was a village or a small town, and towards the river too, so as to shoo away the persisting apes, or whatever they were.
A couple of hours after the nightfall he lost all strength in his feet but he kept pushing ahead his rubbery legs, expecting to buckle to the ground any moment. He gave another dose of pills to Vernon when he woke up with a start and started yelling. He swallowed a couple of them himself too, his knees were stinging with pain. He must have walked half-dazed on a beaten path for a good part of the night when he heard a group of people rushing towards them. All he remembered after that was being carried away on a bamboo cot along with Vernon. He could feel his pistol at the side, so was his switchblade. But rather than thinking of putting them to use, he was floating on a river like a leaf, leering at the moonlit sky through the trees. Vernon was breathing labouriously, oblivious to it all; at least, he had not died. The cot-bearers were noisily chattering below, at times even yelping. Amar kept telling himself they were not the Japs. Nor were they the head-hunters -they wouldn’t bother carrying your torso. Were they the gibbons, then?