IN HEAVEN’S WAKERainbow and brown trout grilled and served in lemon butter sauce is standard fare in the high Himalayas. But unlike the white wines that are relished with fish, NS Chawla ‘Noni’ preferred to buck the ‘poison’ protocol. He savoured red wines with the day’s catch at Banjar in the Kullu tract. This alumni of St John’s High School, Chandigarh (first batch of pass-outs in 1963), wears his ‘Sardar’ identity proudly. "If Sikhs follow laid-down rules, they will lose their identity! But that apart, red wine is easier to maintain and consume at those heights with trout," quips Chawla.
Chawla fishing for trout at Banjar. PHOTO: RAKESH SOOD
Along with trout fishing aficionado and former special envoy of the Prime Minister on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, Rakesh Sood, Chawla spent idyllic days braving the October chill at Banjar, a spot renowned for sport fishing in the Teerthan and Palachan streams that spiral down to feed the Beas near Larji dam. “The streams are so clear one can see the bottom 10 feet deep. If one dons polarised sun-glasses, one can even see trout gliding along the stones. In these streams, anglers can enjoy both spinning and fly casting. We would release trout which was less than 10 inches. But the flip side of crystal clear water is that an angler must guard against being spotted by the fish, which then dives under rocks. So, I would wear muted colours, lurk in the shadows of the boulders and avoid being silhouetted against the skyline,” explains Chawla.Chawla has been fishing at Banjar for the last 12 years, and this time he went in May and October. His passion for trout fishing goes back to the good, old days of Kashmir. "Kashmiri shikaris would carry butter, salt and a foil with them. After hooking and cleaning the trout on the stream banks, it was wrapped in foil with a paste of butter-salt and grilled there and then on pine cones and leaves," recollects Chawla. Paradise lost...and regained!
Bannahali island colonised by poplar plantations. PHOTO: DEEPINDER SINGH VIRK
Standing on the ramparts of the Bharatgarh fort ahead of Ropar, an island named Banniwala in the Sutlej river, commands the eye. It is now verdant with crops and agrarian reclamation. When we had last hunted here in November 1984, this island was a special preserve of the Bharatgarh noble, the late Sudershan Singh. It was an island swamped with ‘sarkanda’ grasses and buzzing with grey partridge (francolin). A descendant of the Singhpuria misl, Sudershan would zealously guard this island and allow only a limited bag of partridge taken on the wing. He was not one to be enamoured by the partridge shooting style of those days, which involved downing 200 birds a day and stocking them in deep freezers to feed VIPs till late summer!
Banniwala also attracted no less an ornithological entity as the late Dr Salim Ali, in whose presence the Punjab forests and wildlife preservation department released partridges on the island in the early 1980s. Though Dr Ali had wanted those birds to be either ringed or marked before release, the department could not ensure that. After Sudershan’s demise in 1996 and the waning interest in sport hunting, the island was colonised by agriculturists and poplar plantations.
But before that, the Bharatgarh fort (built in 1783) hosted IAS officers, Flying Sikh Milkha Singh, Holland embassy officials, scion of the erstwhile Nalagarh State, Vijayendra Singh, Sodhi Kartar Singh, Joginder Singh Mann etc for duck, wild boar and partridge shooting in winter. Sudershan himself ably wielded a Walter Locke shotgun and was renowned for his English pointer and Welsh Springer spaniel gun dogs. The dogs would be rewarded in the evening with a saucer of hot milk laced with rum after splashing through icy Sutlej waters retrieving geese, duck and partridge and nosing out recalcitrant boars!
The late Sudershan Singh in a `vasket'. PHOTO: DEEPINDER SINGH VIRK
“My father was a stickler for camouflage clothing so as to ensure the wild animal did not spot the hunter easily. He had his gun jackets tailored locally and these were known as ‘vaskets’. He would carry his cartridges in velvet pouches that came with a particular brand of Scotch whisky. He was later a member of the Punjab State Wildlife Advisory Board,”' recollects his son, Deepinder Singh Virk, who has converted the fort into a heritage hotel.
The advent of the age of development and ban on hunting has left in its wake a mixed bag for the Bharatgarh preserve. “Though partridges have declined drastically since my father’s days, population of big wild animals has gone up steeply because of the proliferation of jungle weeds, such as lantana, around the fort as also the effects of the hunting ban,” says Deepinder.