There are, in the world, a few select places, where the heart is quick and prompt at warming up upon entry and welling up upon exit. Weaving their charm, they reduce the heart to a dependent juvenile, all happy and gung-ho as a child at a candy store when there, and miserable as a wet pup when kept away from them.
Bandhavgarh is one such for me.
In this Central Indian Eden, beauty seems indeed to grow on plants and trees, clinging to the grass blades, resting on the dry nallahs, spreading out on the vast meadows, tiding over the hills and winding along with the mysterious jheels. Every time I visit Bandhavgarh, I don’t just take excursions into it; I unearth a paradise all over.
And at an unearthly hour of my fifth paradise-unearthing expedition, there was ice in the air, fire in my belly and a tiger in my thoughts.
By the end of the first hour of the inaugural ride in the park, which in the first month of the year was deeply chilling and dripping with dew, lightness had commenced. Jungle incumbents and visitors alike took hearth in the rising sun as the chirping of birds signaled the birth of dawn – a daily miracle that leads to another called life in the wilderness.
A brown carpet stretched out tenuously before us, merging away indistinctly into the mist. It seemed to invite the devotee of the park to pursue and explore the many riches that lay yonder in her sacred bosom. The sal and bamboo forest looked every bit as rich, welcoming and intoxicating as I had left it the previous year and the vitalizing promise of new sights and experiences buzzed around my head.
Approaching Rajbehra, the track took a sweeping curve and nothing suggested that it would open up to anything apart from the beautiful topography that had been pampering our eyes for the initial hour. But when the curve was passed and the path straightened, trotting away right on the track at a canter was a pair of jackals.
Now it must be said that these canines have a special place on the map of Bandhavgarh’s fauna. Nowhere else, not even in Bharatpur where they’re plentiful, have I seen so much and so many of them. The jackal was the first carnivorous mammal I ever saw on my first visit to Bandhavgarh and since on at least one occasion, has been the last. I have seen them inside, outside, and in the fringes of, the park, I’ve seen them walking into our camp, scampering after four-month-old tiger cubs, sticking their noses up a big male tiger’s kill, stalking deer half-seriously and heard them making eerie calls at night. And here again were our old friends, the wily old marauders, extending to us a brown-carpet welcome on a new dawn in a new year.
Possessing no knowledge of jackal society, however, let alone any field expertise with these fascinating creatures, and what with every passing summer eroding my common-sense a little bit more, I couldn’t tell the gender configuration of the couple, but that they possessed the very feminine qualities of excellent hospitality, warmth and tolerance was emphatically obvious, for they escorted us in a most agreeable fashion for quite a distance until they found a patch off the road that lent itself well to a dose of spray from their hindquarters.
A short distance down the road, they walked off to the left and descended quietly into a field of grass, which although luxuriant, did little to ensconce them as they advanced menacingly towards a flock of four peacocks that stood in splendid formation. It soon emerged that they had no real intention of hunting them and the peacocks seemed to know that, for the birds abandoned their poise not for a moment. As though in admiration of their spectacular plumages, the jackals took a closer look, and having satiated their sightseeing appetite for the morning, proceeded back towards the jeep track.
The sun had by now become resplendent and begun having a telling effect on the half-hearted mistiness lingering until not long before, while the white grass flowers that still bore fresh dew from the gelid morning must have been grateful for the warmth from the jackals’ itchy feet as along they came treading on wet ground. Approaching our vehicle, they seemed determined to not pause a moment, and thus intrigued by their peripatetic predisposition on this morning, Vikas stuck his neck out to query about the whereabouts of these two very busy bodies.
Turning to whom he thought was the male first, he ventured “O Bhaisaab, are o Bhaisaab, kahaan jaarahe hain aap?” This chant he repeated twice more until no answer came forth. Hence turning to the “female” to try his luck, he begged the question “Memsaab, kahaan chaleejarahee hain aap? Thoda rukiye to sahee…”. But paying scant heed to his appeal, the “lady” crossed over behind her partner and walked into the bush on the right to embrace another day in the extremely exciting life of jackals.
As to where they would go there was no answer but there was frost below, fire on top and a jackal in the frame.