Esprit de Corps

Auntie with Dhitti (left; now called The Rajbehra Female) and Chhoti (top; now called Kankati) 

This sight was very common in that magical summer of 2009 when Auntie and her two female cubs were seen almost every afternoon at the Rajbehra Dam. Sometimes she’d lead the way and the cubs would follow and at other times one of the cubs would take her place in the water and Auntie would join later. Those days there were no routes to be adhered to in the afternoons, so we’d go straight to where the action was the moment the gate opened and occupy a prime position and wait for them to show up, which they usually did at around 5:10 – sometimes a bit earlier and sometimes a touch later.
In that hour and a half we’d be cooked ripe in the scorching sun but it’d be worth it, for from the time of their arrival there’d never be a dull moment. The cubs would be up to all sorts of playful antics, stalking, swimming in the water and charging at each other, and in most heartening sight, neither of them could stay away from their mother for too long and would take breaks from their sporting pursuits to rub faces with her in affection and for assurance. None of this would ever make Auntie smile visibly, though, and all the while she’d sport that quintessential serious look that earned her her soubriquet and occasionally even bare her teeth to her offspring should they overdo the affection act!

Although her presence was regular, Auntie herself never once stole the show. She’d always be in control but never in the limelight. Vastly different from her sister from the same litter, the late Siddhbaba female, she was far removed from what you’d call a showgirl. On any day, she’d rather occupy a quiet corner and watch dispassionately, soliciting no mischief and harbouring no nonsense and allowing her two mercurial daughters to hog all the attention.

Now why anyone would want to disturb the originality of such an idyllic setup is beyond any rational being, but the authorities quite inexplicably did just that by building a tedious “watch-tower” on the rocky outcrop to the southwest of the dam wall. This structure, which stands as a singular eyesore to date, is a cottage-shaped structure with a gap in the wall for viewing and ‘protected’ by an unsightly grille on all sides and located perilously close to where the tigers would settle down for cooling on hot summer days.

One afternoon, a family of tourists that included two children took position in the watch-tower on the afternoon ride. Now this was a very bad idea because when tigers were being seen regularly from vehicle, it was hard to understand why anyone would want to sneak into that ghastly enclosure and risk spooking a tiger off but that’s what they did anyhow.

Sure enough at a little past five, one of the cubs made her way to the edge of the water right at the far corner on the east and sat inside. A short while later Auntie emerged behind the rocks, descended gradually, walked up to the corner going past her daughter and sat in the water, lapping up some of it. All the while, the family sat in the hideout, so far undetected, but with a cat’s senses in the equation, that status wasn’t to last long and inevitably, there must have been a whisper, a footfall, maybe the slightest brushing of clothes or probably even a slight movement of the head and sensing someone spying on her, Auntie instantly broadcast her profound displeasure at such unauthorized intrusion with a categorical snarl. Seconds later, in two bounds, she was out of the water, off the rocks and into the obscurity of the thick bushes beyond, leaving behind a disappointed audience imparting hostile looks to the occupants of the watch-tower, who sheepishly crawled out of their bunker and melted away from sight in an instant. After the grumbling guides and drivers left in a trickle, a deep silence fell in our hearts in light of what could have been.

Many feared that Auntie and her cubs would not return after this experience for some time at least during the day but just two days later she was back as though nothing had ever happened and gave me and many others some of the most memorable tiger-watching times of our lives, proving that like most cats, Auntie was gifted with the ‘forgive and forget’ spirit much more than an average human is!

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