A Game of Chess


It was very early on a Tuesday morning. Even the usual harbinger of daybreak, the jungle cock, hadn’t crowed his raucous call yet to silence the crickets. Spotted owlets still screeched at the gate, as groggy faces and eager minds strode in with wide eyes to absorb the dim light.

Route B mandated that we drive past the rocky overhangs at Siddababa, which we did as an adjutant stork cooled his heels in the Charanganga. Near the temple we found fresh pug-marks of a large male, the second most exciting find after his Highness himself, when one’s out in the jungle looking for tigers. 
Mukesh’s initial guess was B2, but I begged to disagree, presenting the argument that he was unlikely to have walked this further afield from his usual haunt of Chakradhara, the far end of which he was reported to be inhabiting the previous evening. Little was left to doubt barely half a minute later, as a brown head broke the monotony of the green grass that abounds this beautiful meadow. There, sitting regally and as nonchalantly as a house cat awaiting his morning milk from the lady of the house, was the “New Tala Male”.
I must state here that this gentleman of regal bearing is the male cub of Chakradhara from the litter of 2005, and possesses the singular ability to transform any and every beholder of his stunning proportions and overwhelming handsomeness into a doting, smitten fan.  On account of owning such inescapable charm, he is the heartthrob of hundreds who visit the park and a cynosure of all adoring eyes.
Surely, if this game were to be played on a football field, such an expeditious tiger find would have been termed the quickest goal in history, and the prettiest too.   But the very early hour has no comity for the photographer, and therefore capturing all this feline scenery was a handful – a bit like carrying two tender coconut shells in a single hand.  
The one luminary who could have stamped a positive difference on the proceedings – the sun – seemed to be struck down by a bad bout of indolence it seemed, as he reluctantly rose spreading a slowly blotching shade of pale orange in the sky behind the sal trees, in the process flowering gradually, as it were.
The sight of a male tiger sitting out in the open is a spectacle in any part of the world, so many vehicles bearing eager tourists gathered to witness it pronto. Now the cameras were there, the light was about to switch on, and some ethereal power must have said “action!” So, as if on cue, having convinced himself that a respectably goodly audience had foregathered, he rose to his feet and gazed into the distance, towards Chakradhara.
This spectacle sent the chital on the hill-side, grazing peacefully hitherto, to an expected frenzy of calls and foot-falls. Presently a langur watchman on a tree-top, having witnessed the striped death astir, awoke a handy number of jungle creatures from their slumber with his spasmodic coughs.  The presence of a lethal cohabitant thus having been cacophonously established, the meadow became fleetingly clear of all life except the tiger’s in a few seconds, who appeared to have blown it all the way to Pretoria if at all he had intended to manufacture any breakfast. 
But, instead of regaining his befitting state of repose, he began stalking in the grass.
There was a peculiar silence at the scene of this slow motion after the initial jostle for vehicular position had mercifully subsided, as every watcher held his breath, as though there was a communal failure of lungs, to gape a moment at the astounding show unleashed before them.  
This pneumonia was followed by paralysis, as limbs were held back taut when he raised his paws, and gasps were released when he grounded them carefully, one at a time. Sensational though this was to watch, nobody must have thought he was doing anything more than target practice, for in the direction that his stalk led our eyes was no visible living creature except members of the botanical family that, factually, needed no stalking to predate.  His movements were equally perplexing, with the average number of long-drawn strides being three or at best four, and an almost perpendicular change in direction occurring at each interval thereafter, as though on a chessboard.
And then he reached a bush and plunged right into it, prompting the issuance of a macabre shriek and out he emerged, clutching an already dead doe in his jaws like a big steak. It hung from his mouth from the scruff of its dainty nape, which, still in its relative infancy, had already been throttled perfunctorily by the devastatingly powerful jaws of its consumer. 
Mukesh had installed me in a relatively good position, and although my insistence on getting down to the eye-level of the tiger left me with a whole lot of dry grass in the foreground to cope with, it was so exhilarating to watch, that as the tiger stood motionless for almost a second in that position, three of the five pictures I shot off effectively excluded half the tiger’s face from the frame. 


The New Tala Male with a new chital kill
Whether the chital had not seen the tiger coming, which is unlikely since she would have at least heard the alarm calls, or taken a calculated gamble to hide rather than bolt, she made a fatal error. Then there is also the possibility that she might have been lying there immobilized by an injury. 
Whatever the story, only a tiger could have heard or seen the chital in that thick undergrowth, and only a tiger could have knocked down its prey with such finesse and precision, all the while making it look like an easy but lethal game of chess, in which the pawn once knocked down, cannot be placed upright again.

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