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Dipalee — the girl in the jungle

By Frederic Friedel

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Rose Cottage in the 1950s, where I spent the first years of my life

Much of my early childhood was spent in Lonavala, on the slopes of the Western Ghats, India. The town was a favourite of the erstwhile British colonialists, and we, a German-Portugese family, had a very nice house there.

The Steins: Trudy and Paul, who had a research station in the jungles

It was called “Rose Cottage” and was quite luxurious. But I spent a lot of time with my Uncle Paul and Aunt Trudy, who had an agricultural research facility, some distance outside Lonavala, in the middle of the jungle.

My father was a herpetologist — a German who during the War had been interned in a snake-infested prisoner-of-war camp in India and become an expert on snakes. After the war he set up a lab on Paul and Trudy’s farm, full of cages for snakes. There we spent all our free time, with me roaming the jungles, Mowgli style, getting into all kinds of trouble and out of it. But all that is another story for another day.

In my teens, immediately after the death of my father, I moved to Germany, to my relatives, did my A-Levels and went on to study philosophy in Hamburg and Oxford. Then I became a TV science journalist, then a software entrepreneur, and a writer. I have I travelled a lot, adventure trips as a student, research trips all over the world as a journalist. But I never went back to the jungle lodge of my childhood. Until two years ago.

In 2014, accompanied by a few friends, we at last travelled to Lonavala and spent two days searching for Rose Cottage. In vain. Things had changed, completely, the town has been largely rebuilt and most of the original colonial style houses had long been replaced by something modern.

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Searching for “Rose Cottage” among the remnants of old Lonavala — but we never found it.

So we set off to Aawandhe, the little village that was the closest inhabited place to the Steins’ station. That was easy, but now came the daunting task of finding the actual location of the old research station. In my childhood we travelled to it by bullock-cart, or got on the Deccan Queen, a train that connected Bombay and Poona. My father would ask the engine driver to stop in the middle of the jungle so we could get off. Now there are highways and roads in the region, and everything looked vastly different.

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We drove around in this seven-seater, looking for a house in jungles that had partially given way to agriculture. We found the estate of a famous Bollywood star, and houses and settlements, but no research station. It was hopeless. Just when we were about to give up, a passing pedestrian said: “Try that road over there, it leads to some houses.”

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This is a “road”? But our friendly driver named Islam was unfazed and navigated his seven-seater over it.
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And there it was, the Steins’ agricultural station from the 1950s, with our snake lab, not in mint condition, on the left.

The owners of the house were naturally quite surprised to see European travellers in an SUV on their property, but they welcomed us warmly and invited us in. We could not understand a word they said — they spoke only Marathi — but the friends who had brought us there translated for us.

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New walls, different furniture, of course, but I could remember how it looked, over fifty years ago.

Are you absolutely sure this is it, my wife Ingrid wanted to know. It is easy to fool yourself, especially when you really, really want something to be true. We went outside and I said: “Hidden behind those trees there we should find a well.” We walked across and there it was, exactly as predicted.

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The hidden well which I remembered from my childhood.

But that was not enough: “If we walk down this path,” I said, “and turn right, there is a big mango tree, and another well behind in it.” And so it was, providing final proof that this was the location of my childhood adventures.

Standing at the second well I said: “In that direction was a Katkari camp,” explaining that as a young boy I would wander over to tribals who were practically living in the stone age (the only metal they had were a few pots and some knives they had somehow managed to trade).

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A girl had joined us, and she said, in fairly fluent English: “They are still there, would you like to go see their village?” Of course we would. So off we went and after a ten-minute walk arrived at the Katkari camp, led by our new friend. She was nineteen and her name was Dipalee.

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It was exactly where I remembered it, in slightly updated condition.

We spent an hour in the Katkari camp, and one encounter was particularly important. Dipalee had gone from house to house (hut to hut, actually) and spoken with the people living there. She came to me and said: “There’s a man who says his family has lived here for generations,” and took me to meet him.

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Hanumanth was his name and we conversed through Dipalee. At some stage I asked him: “Does the name ‘Raoji’ mean anything to you?” He was quite startled: “That was the name of my grandfather!” — “And the name ‘Takya’?” Now he was truly mystified. “That was my grand-uncle, the brother of my grandfather.” And it was his turn: how could the foreign gentleman possibly know these names? Imagine space aliens land on your lawn and talk about your aunt Matilda. Dipalee asked Hanumanth’s wife if she knew Raoji and Takya — she had no idea who they could be.

I told them. Raoji was the chief of the tribe when I was a child. My father would go hunting and kill meat, deer or wild boar, for the Katkaris. In return Raoji was given the task of keeping me alive — the wild boy who would roam the jungles alone (or with a lad or two from their camp). There were all kinds of carnivorous or otherwise dangerous animals, poisonous reptiles, water falls and cliffs. Raoji would try to follow and make sure no serious harm came to me. It was not always possible for him to keep up, but hey, here I am writing about all this, so he did succeed on the whole. More about this phase of my life in separate articles. You can rely on it.

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Now comes the really inspiring part of today’s story. At some stage I turned to the young lady who took us to the camp and said: “You are not from here, are you?” “Sure I am,” she said — she lived in one of the houses on the original Steins’ plot. “But how come you speak English?” — “Oh, because I attend college.” College? Here in the jungle? “I have to walk to the college in Lonavala,” Dipalee said. “It takes one and a half hours, each way.” She walks through the jungle three hours every day, five days a week? “No, six days a week,” she said. They have courses on Saturday. “But isn’t that dangerous?” Yes. Once she was bitten by a poisonous snake and spent a week in hospital. I asked the friend who brought us there to fetch a gift I had given him the day before and which he had in the car: a five-cell Maglite police flashlight. “This is for Dipalee,” I said, “she needs it more than you.” A flashlight and a weapon.

The final part of the story concerns what Dipalee was studying. I asked her and she said: “Indian culture.” No, she didn’t. She said Hindu religion. No, not that either. Indian music, dance? Herbal medicine? All wrong. The correct answer follows at the end of the article.

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Dipalee and me at “Tiger’s Leap” in the Western Ghats. They are part of the Deccan Traps, one of the largest volcanic features on Earth. Together with the Chicxulub impact the Deccan Trap eruptions were probably responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
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Some of the community, 42 strong, living on the Steins’ plot today — with the surprise visitors from Europe.
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The Sinhgad Engineering Institutes that Dipalee attends — on the outskirts of Lonavala.

And now for the answer to the question: what was Dipalee studying? Her answer: “C programming language and microprocessor architecture.” Of course, not music or culture, but hard-nosed technology. A few days ago, two years after I first met her, I got the following message from Dipalee, which filled me with pride and inspired me to write this article:

Hi Fred, How are you? I am happy to tell you about the great success of my bachelors degree in engineering. Today our university results were declared and I got 81% and the first rank in my college. All my teachers and friends were congratulating me that it is great achievement by hard work and struggle for education. I am so happy about this result. I visited Tigers Leap once again with my friends, but I missed the time I spent with you and Ingrid and your friends. I wish to meet you all again.

You bet your life you will, dear Dipalee. Maybe in Europe, soon?

Photos by Ingrid and Frederic Friedel, Amruta Mokal

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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