When a Tiger Walks…

It was our last ride of the trip and we had barely seen a chital that evening. Not to slight the herbivores with their lovely spotted coats, with the male of the species sporting superb head-gear in the form of magnificent antlers and the female, when not emitting her strident, high-pitched alarm, displaying a grace of neck movement that the most dexterous danseuse would struggle to challenge – this is all quite perfectly stupendous, but I trust the reader to concur when I say that they are but still relatively common in our tiger jungles and one must have the luck of a dodo or possess the universal repulsiveness of a cockroach to go a whole ride without seeing one. Yet, we couldn’t recollect having hit upon a single member of this ilk that afternoon, and I wondered which of the two reasons was applicable.

Nothing was astir. There were the occasional pugmarks but otherwise the jungle was remarkably at peace – no alarm call, not a trace of life. Having therefore resigned ourselves to an anticlimactic end to what had been a very pleasant sojourn, we ventured to exit the park for the last time during the trip, just when we encountered another vehicle, whose driver told us that there were chital calls near Nagin Road and that some vehicles had even spotted a tiger in the bushes before he disappeared into the undergrowth. The hope in our hearts thus having reignited, our guide, Ramavatar Yadav, steered us back to the area and put us up at a strategic position at a corner on Nagin Road. It was around 4:45 p.m.

Where we stood the road curved towards the left some ten feet ahead of us, and slightly further to the right was a narrow forest clearing – a sort of a passage and game path that cut across the road. We waited for five minutes in deathly silence. We had already seen Bokha that morning and even though we could never have enough of tigers, we weren’t exceptionally anxious to see one as a jungle experience is best enjoyed when expectations are kept to the minimum, and we waited with a nothing-to-lose attitude, the opportunity of being one with the woods, the absolute solitude, tranquility and rest to be enjoyed in the process being our ready reward. I’m not sure whether you too think that often it is when one doesn’t desire something that one chances on it. Would that be the case this evening? We didn’t know.

But Ramavatar was supremely confident that we would see a tiger. “I was born and raised in the jungle,” he declared, “I know the ways of the tiger.” His cheerful chutzpah was admirable and somehow, as tempted as we were, we didn’t treat it with cynicism. His pronouncement was brave – as is any assertive statement of generalization with an animal as enigmatic as the tiger, but equally, his belief was infectious.

For the fear of disappointment, however, we tried not to think about a tiger sighting and simply lingered enjoying the silence when suddenly the grammatical object was shattered by a piercing call of a chital. It came from something like fifty feet away to the right, from where the Nagin Road met the perpendicular road that leads to the park exit.

Almost instantaneously a fleet of vehicles came en masse from behind us, racing towards the source of the alarm call with the vim and vigour of many a rally driver. Several of the menfolk exhorted Ramavatar to follow, but he had other ideas, and mostly steely ones at that. Almost with eerie calmness he stuck to his ground and announced “Hum yaheen intezaar karte hain. Tiger yaheen aayega.” He rounded off this prophetic declaration with a word of admonishing advice to the other vehicles too: “Phir burr burr karte idhar mat aana!” he chided.

We had scant grounds to treat Ramavatar’s obdurate strategy with skepticism, but it’d be a costly miss if the tiger thought differently and outsmarted this wily old player. What if the tiger weren’t in the mood to conform to his usual behaviour today? It was a gamble, perhaps a highly calculated one, Ramavatar might say. It was also a matter of intuitive belief overriding hardcore rationality. Logic has its place but the man of the wilderness uses it less often than the sixth sense he’s so consummately blessed with. Everything became calm in a couple of minutes and we found ourselves relaxing again.

I had my lens mounted on the monopod and had set it up to get a decent angle, should the tiger decide to put in an appearance. I checked the light and found it to be very poor, so I pushed the ISO to 800 and looked through the lens to study the composition when I felt a hand pressed on my shoulder. And then those magical words were whispered: “Tiger aaraha hai!”

This singular utterance had not in the least bit a moderate effect on my vital signs. It is just as well that in the biological scheme of things my heart was encaged in a sound casing of ribs and flesh, for any less fortified a configuration would have proved too frail in preventing it from popping right out like the parrot that breaks open its windows and sounds out the hour in an alarm clock. Beating wildly like the dance steps of an inebriated party-animal, it fluttered with random orientation, as though swept by a gale, levying a heavy toll on my oral moisture, and dehumidifying my throat with remarkable effectiveness in less than an instant.

So anxious was I to capture the moment that caused this bodily upheaval that I never looked with my naked eye! My vision was glued to the viewfinder with something of a celestial permanence, and it took about three seconds for the tiger to walk into the frame. Slowly he emerged from behind the bushes, but his gait was purposeful. When he saw our vehicle, which was the only one there, he paused for an infinitesimal moment to evaluate the situation, and decided to keep his course but for good measure issue us a silent snarl! Then he continued to walk, only once more looking in our direction as in this sub-optimal photograph, and stepped on to the sandy path and crossed over to the jungle on the left.

Bokha the Tiger Walking in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve
The tiger walks.

We pursued him for another two minutes, during which we could see him walking through the bushes, all his enormity melting into the surroundings as effortlessly as a sugar cube in boiling tea.

Off the path a herd of sambhar spotted his dreaded form and belled out with skull-cracking resonance, as every creature in the vicinity was apprised of the lurking danger to their fragile lives, as into the darkness of the forest disappeared the creature of many a reverie and nightmare.

Maine kaha na, yaheen aayega? Jab ye tiger sirf teen mahine ka tha tabse dekh rahahoon ise,” Ramavatar gloated justifiably. When every other driver had rushed to the source of the alarm calls, Ramavatar had quietly stayed back, fully aware that if we hadn’t seen a tiger, he’d be guilty of not having followed the herd. He knew better. And even as we stared with agape mouths at this sensational piece of tracking, the only expression that greeted us was Ramavatar’s nonchalant, content smile.

I wouldn’t have considered it incongruous had he even laughed in thrall, for he had made the difference between a dream unseen and a tale for posterity by showing us what happens when a tiger walks.

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