There are whole herds of nilgai which have made the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus their home. Everyone who lives there must have seen a nilgai at least once, but no one knows much about them. Such a nilgai could be seen sunning itself outside the library or chewing cud behind a bristly bush. Some spend most of their time furtively crossing roads at night. Others can be seen playfully jousting among themselves as stray dogs look on with bored curiosity and an alarmed peacock ushers away his harem of peahens into the safety of the straggly wilderness. Once in a while one can see small groups of people staring and pointing at the sight of a grazing nilgai. The impassive nilgai returns the gaze almost curious that some people are finding it interesting.
There are very few stories about the nilgai in JNU. They figure very slightly in the imagination of the average resident. The legend one will most commonly hear is that if you see a nilgai in the first week of your coming to JNU, you will leave the university with a PhD degree. The strangest story I have ever heard about the nilgai, however, was told to me by a friend named Amrapali. Desperately lost inside the JNU Caves, she told me this story as we attempted to gather our wits and find a way out as the sun began to set on a cold January evening.
There are apparently caves inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, though I must confess that I have never seen anything even slightly resembling caves in the area so called. The region called the Caves is basically a wide expanse of greenery which has been untouched by construction, lying between Brahmaputra Hostel and the West Gate road. In winters, students go in droves to the Caves, though I am not sure how many of them are able to find the way. The Caves are situated in what we would call a ravine, a geographical cleft on the face of the earth, accessible only through the open gate behind the EXIM bank library. One of my classmates, Amrapali, had already been there once before. Since me and another friend, Alisha, were also curious to see these natural wonders, she offered to be our guide in this expedition.
It was almost 3 ‘o’ clock when we finally set out on our little picnic. The only preparation we had made was to wear shoes; other than that we didn’t consider anything else necessary. The sun was our friend, its rays warmly caressing us as we walked down the Ring Road towards the EXIM Bank library in high spirits. Passing through the open gate behind the library building we crossed onto a dirt track whose only speciality was that it was bordered on both sides by trash of all kinds, broken furniture, plastic packets, old shoes, and newspapers. The Caves seemed to be just another dumping ground of sorts. The sun was on our backs as we finally passed the last of the trash and reached an open area where several little paths diverged, converged, and diverged again. The vegetation was sparse and mostly of the dry, prickly, thorny kind. There were also many patches of earth which were charred black, lingering remains of bonfires and midnight merriment. This region was still the outlier to the main ravine, where the caves were said to be located.
After a little while of meandering across the uneven terrain, we came to a spot where we saw a single, solitary hat on the ground. It was a straw hat, kept at the point where two paths diverged into the woods, one left and the other right. Our guide seemed to find her bearings after seeing the hat, and she took the path that led right. As we followed that path we noticed that we were descending downwards into a ravine of sorts. A lonesome little dog, which had been tracking us for a while, seemed to dissuade us from going further by breaking into short, sharp little barks, but we didn’t pay it much attention. After a little while we could no longer hear its cries.
The Caves are simply a strange set of rock formations. It seemed to me then, that this ravine was probably formed by a river or stream which used to flow in the area but had stopped doing so, perhaps thousands of years ago. Or perhaps, there is some other geographical explanation for this natural phenomenon. There were no caves per se in that area, but a lot of cavernous holes in the cliff wall. We went inside one or two, but there wasn’t much to explore at all. They didn’t extend beyond five to ten feet into the cliff wall anyway. While the caves themselves were not what we expected, the exercise had made us feel exultant and we took a lot of photographs to mark our first expedition. In our excitement, we forgot to mark the path which had led us into the ravine, and after a moment’s deliberation we took off on an unfamiliar dirt track, reasoning that it had to lead somewhere, after all.
We had almost managed to climb out of the ravine, when I saw what was definitely the strangest sight we had seen the whole day. The dirt track had opened onto a wide expanse which was mostly dry and barren. Right beside the dirt track was the skull of a large animal. It had been bleached white by the sun, and its visage, grinning idiotically, confounded us all. A little ahead in the distance was a hole in the ground, inside of which there was a small pile of bones. The skull and bones seemed like they belonged to a nilgai, but I really couldn’t be sure. The real mystery was not the bones in themselves. What really puzzled, and alarmed us, was that someone had taken the trouble to dig a hole and put the bones in it. The sun had begun to set now, and it dawned upon us that we were hardly on the correct path. None of us had torches, or even a lighter, and we knew it would be impossible to find our way out in the dark. Our walk became faster and more urgent the moment we turned our back on the peculiar burial site; we were no longer smiling, or even talking. The vegetation had become thicker and more impenetrable with every step. The dry, thorny branches of trees began to prick us with incessant regularity. The more we walked onwards, the more disoriented we seemed to get. Finally we had to stop, to catch our breath and get our bearings. Amrapali took out her phone and called a friend, the person who had brought her to the caves the first time. He was very unhelpful. All he said was to walk in the direction of the Central Library building. It was true that we could see the nine-storeyed structure in the horizon, but we could not find a way up out of the ravine. Whichever way we went we ran into the cliff wall, which was sheer and insurmountable. We could also see Brahmaputra hostel in the opposite direction, but that was also inaccessible. The sun was setting quickly now, and pretty soon it would be dark.
To keep ourselves from succumbing to panic, we sat down and tried to talk. We were talking about the bones we had seen and how they would form the basis of quite a few horror stories. We were going on in this vein when Amrapali began to speak. “There is a very strange story about the nilgai which I am sure none of you have heard”, she said. “I heard this from one of my seniors, who heard it from her senior, who heard it from someone who was studying in JNU in the eighties. JNU in those times was a heavenly place. No one who came here ever wanted to leave. But of course no one could stay here indefinitely after finishing studies.” She paused for a bit, then continued. “At that point of time there weren’t any nilgai in this campus. It was much more barren and dry than it is now. There was this group of friends who made a pact according to which they would never leave the campus. But their course was nearly finished, and they decided that they would take whatever steps they could to make sure their stay in JNU was permanent. One full moon night all of them came to the Caves. A guard had seen them walking past the gate at night, but since there were quite a few of them, he let them go on, thinking they would be safe. It is a fact that none of them ever returned. No one knows what happened to them, but it is believed that one of them was skilled in the magical arts. Through magic, and devotion to the gods, all of them were transformed into the majestic animals we know as nilgais. It is a fact, that shortly after their disappearance, which caused a lot of controversy, nilgais were spotted in the campus, around the academic area. All the nilgais we see in campus are the descendants of those first nilgai. That is why they all seem so scholarly, and so shy. I have even heard that sometimes, at night, when students aren’t allowed into the library, these magical creatures go there to fulfil their desire to study. That’s also the reason behind the legend that if you see a nilgai on your first week here then you’ll be here till you finish research. The nilgais choose to show themselves to the ones they think are research worthy.”
All this she said to us, quite commendably, with a straight face. I would have laughed, had the situation been different, but right there, with the sun setting and still no way out of the ravine, we were glum and woebegone. Suddenly we heard a rustling in the bushes behind us. We turned, hoping against hope that it was a human being, someone who could guide us out of this predicament. In the distance, I saw what seemed to be a pair of legs disappearing into the wilderness. All three of us got up with alacrity and raced towards that spot. We called out as well, but no one answered. When we got to that place, we discovered that it was a way out of the ravine. In the distance we could hear the hum of a motor vehicle, possibly the 615 bus that went to Poorvanchal. As we clambered up the slope we nearly ran into an elderly man gathering firewood, who was perhaps more surprised to see us than we were him. A little in the distance, we could see a young, lissom nilgai looking at us through the trees. It caught my eye, then slowly turned away and vanished into the woods.
The man pointed us to the road, which was hardly a few metres from where we were standing. Utterly exhausted, we sat down on a large boulder by the side of the road, plucking out thorns from our shoes, clothes, and hair, as a big green 615 trundled onwards towards the last stop, Poorvanchal Hostel. The raucous peacocks began to make their daily obeisance to the setting sun, and the lamp-posts slowly began to flicker with life.