In January 2006, Scotchie and I participated in our first tiger census in Bandipura Tiger Reserve, a park I consider almost natal for the deep sense of attachment I feel for it. There are prettier parks and there are larger ones, but for me there is none like Bandipura, where the heart throbs to the rhythm of the bamboo creaks and the mind sees what the lantana bushes obscure from view. Indeed here, not to leave the spirit of the animal denuded, the very forest ensconces the tiger’s soul under her luxuriant cover.
Five glorious days had shown us a clean pair of heels, as we spent all our time walking the animal paths, the dry nallahs and the jeep tracks, working to collect data on tigers, and had the passage of time been less palpable ever before, I didn’t know of it. It therefore felt as though the figurative ice-cream had melted before its journey to the mouth. The tiger had of course eluded us, as it was eminently inclined to do, its mythical character kept safe and intact by its own will and the way of the forests that harbour it in their bosom with the fortitude of a mother who hides her child beneath the veil of her saree.
Of signs, however, there wasn’t a dearth. Our footprints from the previous evening had often been treaded upon by this spectre, an imprint of enigma having been tantalizingly left for our contemplation on our early morning treks and thus would begin our day, which would no doubt be very hot and dry despite the winter, with the fire season looming menacingly round the corner. During the day’s toil the brows would therefore be suitably sweaty, the thighs weary and the chest pooped, but hope – not fatigue – would be the most forthcoming thought on our mental faculty. After hours of spirited walking we would find a pugmark here or scat there, and little else. But this in itself would be to us a reward, the evidence of a tiger having passed the way an inadequate but nevertheless gratifying find for the day’s efforts.
On the last morning we sat on our favourite fallen tree trunk and watched the Chikbargi Lake. The sun had already risen and shone behind the bamboos very early, just as it had on all the mornings of that glorious week. The menfolk of the little hamlet of Chikbargi had already unclogged their exhausts at the lake, and having splashed their bottoms after the deed had been done, had embarked on the day’s work in their fields. A little green bee-eater sat on a dead tree, watching me with its head tilted at a Euclidean angle. I wondered whether it would come back every day even after we were gone, and whether it would recognize us when we would be back some day, such thoughts of severance filling my mind because departure was imminent, and reluctance to leave obdurate. Every so often my ears would hear the distant drone of a vehicle, the one that would collect and jettison us back on our bottoms to the throes of civilization.
|The picturesque Chikbargi Lake in Bandipura, January 2006|
A kingfisher took off from a nearby bush and flew across the lake to a farther perch, noisily announcing the transfer. A pair of egrets settled down on the highest branch of the tallest tree in the vicinity. Every so often langurs provoked a swish of leaves from their gambolling and sky-walking. A solitary wood sandpiper looked for morsels in the moist exposed soil of the receding waterhole.
And then all was silenced by a singular sound.
Scotchie and I met eyes and gestured towards the source. Both had heard it. We cocked our ears and listened in rapt quiet. The dry wind hummed its tune in a low, heavy pitch. A mongrel barked. Then a jungle cock cackled its cacophonous verse. Some minutes passed.
Scotchie and I were now straining every nerve to hear that sound again, for surety and thrall. The sense of concentration was so heavy that the heart seemed to have to beat faster just to bear the load. I could hear it beating now, like the faraway footsteps of an infantry doing their morning march, brisk in its progress and impressive in its symmetry of rhythm. Every cell in our bodies listened.
Then came a faint drone, but a long-drawn, purposeful and deliberate “Ooooongh”. It was as though, in a form of auditory acupressure, it was designed to hit a specific spot in the brain, penetrate the hide and stimulate some particular receptor deeply entrenched in the heart.
It was as though the soul’s calling had arrived.
Scotchie’s eyes widened, and I noticed that his mouth, shaped by a contorted smile, had opened round like it was about to ingest a ping-pong ball of some considerable proportions. An expletive or two of common usage escaped my paralyzed tongue. I noticed that my hairdo, hitherto recumbent, had assumed an erect posture; and dotted by numerous Goosebumps, my skin resembled a ribbed doormat.
Suddenly I felt my legs, for the very good reason that they were aching, and I learned that in a befitting piece de resistance, my body had managed to attain a profoundly ridiculous position – one that loosely resembled that in which one finds oneself when caught by the wife red-handed while procreating with a temptress of one’s choice.
An “Aoooongh”, this time even more distinct, rang through the air. Scotchie and I looked stupider than ever.