(Don’t talk about this’to the guys at school, though. My article got printed bereft of most grammatical errors while others’ were replete with them.)
It was around Christmas, I remember.
Most of us who lived in the Northern Hemisphere were freezing. In Madhya Pradesh, it was six degrees—about the same temperature as Times Square, New York, at noon. And where we were, it felt like zero degrees.
It was in the early hours of dawn; even the sun was too tired to start shining its dazzling but ineffective light upon a cold world.
The sky was dark and the only thing that kept us awake on the jeep leading into the forest was the wind mercilessly lashing against our faces. The tips of our noses were frozen, our hands chilled. Only our eyes were alive, restlessly scouring the shadows for anything in the blackness that moved.
We were in a search for the most impressive beast of all—the tiger. Far away from Calcutta, far from the din and bustle of the city. Our jeep roared through the gates and into the wonders of Pench National Park.
Our driver, Ashok, was also one of the best tiger-spotters in the country. Carefully guiding us through the maze of dirt tracks, he led us down paths that crisscrossed right into the heart of the jungle. My heart sang because I was back in the forest—the forests that were dark and deep, with the sound of cicadas and the hoots of owls. The mahua and sal trees smelt heavenly, like a more refined version of the Forest Essentials soaps at home .
At first, there was nothing but a brief scurry and a flash of nimble legs that turned off from the path our jeep purred along. “Fox,” muttered Ashok. “Perhaps we will be lucky. Sahib, the one who sees the fox sees the king, as they say in the forest.”
But nothing much happened. Dawn broke into a misty morning and puffs of air wreathed out from our mouths every time we whispered, “Milla kuch? Any call?”
Yet all we saw was a group of young spotted deer getting on with an early breakfast. On their quick legs, they sped across the track before I barely managed to get my lens uncovered, let alone take a picture. The wild boars were as frightened, like the deer, and the very sound of the jeep’s engine made them rush into safer territory; but with less grace and more of a crashing stampede. Our school at two-thirty, I thought wryly.
There were langurs on the trees above us, all making a noise and chattering among themselves in high-spirited voices and occasionally trying to make faces at us.
“What about some elephants and giraffes?” I asked in a harsh whisper.
“Idiot,” said my father. “There are no wild giraffes in India. You should have spent more time on the Discovery channel than that annoying WWE!”
I subsided into a black gloom. No giraffes, no lions, and not even a flash of grey elephants. Deer and more deer, langurs, some sad looking pea-hens, a drongo whistling angrily at us . . . it was getting colder and colder and still no sign of her.
The road curved and coiled like a snake, right into the forest. I could sense that we were getting deeper and deeper. More deer. More boar. More langurs. More thoughts about elephants and giraffes.
Ashok was quite indifferent to the sight of the deer and not even a sambhar family could cheer him up. I guessed it was because he saw these animals every single day of the year.
“Crested serpent eagle.” Ashok ground the jeep to a halt and we saw a sharp-beaked angry-eyed bird on a single, leafless bough and all I could think was how dignified it was.
Sometimes there is this imaginary debate in my mind, wondering which was more regal, the tiger or the crested eagle. This grand bird of prey sat perched upon the branch, occasionally turning its mighty, white feathered chest and ochre eyes towards the awe-struck spectators with an imperious gaze and passing us by as lousy specimens too low for him to consider.
Our jeep moved on, and the eagle turned its neck to peer at us as we slowly backed away towards another path. I suppose the eagle wasn’t too pleased about us going . He probably could have done with a few more fascinated, foolish humans.
Perhaps I had dozed off. There was such a rhythmic sway to the ride—soothing and lulled by the wind and the cicadas and the sal smell—that I let my chin drop to my chest.
“Tiger.” It was Mum. I sat up with a jolt. Everyone was on their legs in the jeep, head craning for a better view.
“Don’t move,” whispered Ashok. There were whirrs and clicks and snaps of iPad covers. Flashing an extravagant coat of gold and black, she sauntered aimlessly towards our vehicle. In the twinkling of an eye , other jeeps had arrived. There were twenty-five humans spread over three jeeps, filming and photographing. And all the while, the tigress was answering the call of nature.
“Droppings—to mark territory,” whispered Ashok, as he changed a lens and took another snap. Later on, I figured, he would sell them to wildlife magazines.
The tigress finished her marking and began to walk again. This time towards us.
I was desperate to get a good photograph. After all, this was the sole reason for buying the Canon DSLR camera a few months ago—a good picture to post online, a picture worth my grit, a picture that showed the regality of the wild, and what a great mistake we are making by killing these majestic creatures.
The distance between us lessened—twenty feet! Ten feet! Five! The animal was dangerously close. I could have patted her with my bare hands. So close!
I forgot that I had a camera; that I could have told Ashok to start the engine and plow her down at forty kilometres per hour, because I was powerful—the representative of a species that had conquered the air and the seas, the moon and the planets . . . I looked into her eyes and saw a piercing flash of fire.
What fearful hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry . . . ?
All I could do was whimper in my mind and beg forgiveness for the sins of those who could even think of killing a beast as beautiful as this.
Her gaze softened.
Perhaps she remembered her own cubs at home, pleading not to be left alone. I don’t know what transpired.
Then as suddenly as she arrived, she turned around and began to walk loftily toward the bushes. Before being enveloped by the green, she turned once again. I tried to read her expression—fear, hatred, pity? I couldn’t understand.
By the time my thoughts’d dissolved, she was gone. All that remained were three jeeps and their twenty passengers, overcome by awe.