“Cometh the hour, cometh the friend” should be revised the saying. The grounds for such a demand arise from the timely receipt of benevolence from Harshad Barve when we were driving from the Jhurjhura dam to Rajbehra on the fateful afternoon of 15 May.
Having checked the Jhurjhura dam and found it to be free of a cat, we had set out for the king of the meadows to chance our little luck there, when Harshad, on his driver Pinku’s hot wheels, strode in from the opposite direction on Nilgai Road, bearing the look of a man on a mission.
From his body language he appeared not to have the time to smell the flowers or even the gusty breeze for that matter, as he seemed determined to put his nose to the exclusive function of smelling tigers out like a seasoned bloodhound. Be this excited state of his olfactory senses as it may, his even more animated disposition betrayed a message he proposed very soon to convey and we became all ears. “Turn around,” he said, “and head back towards Jhurjuhra.” In simple terms, he prescribed a volte face, for the very good reason that Auntie was tipped to be heading straight towards the said venue. With no vindication to disobey this directive, our vehicles’ commandants, exercising great dexterity, steered around on the narrow path, and in some time, Harshad and we were parked along side each other at the dam, finally catching breath on a fine sunny afternoon and it was not the weather on our minds.
The brown water of the hole, perfectly placid, gleamed opaquely back at us.
We turned towards Harshad questioningly and he said nothing but “She is on her way,” breaking into a wry smile. Some sighed, others giggled. I generally tried to break the ice and must have tried to crack a joke or two in whispers, for Harshad caught me cackling on camera. Shortly thereafter, Rajarshi Banerji joined us and it was, happily, more like an after-safari campfire meet to discuss the day’s sightings than the site of a sighting itself!
This informal party carried on with much bonhomie until at one minute to four, walking almost at a canter, Auntie emerged from the right of the frame, walked parallel until she reached the middle of the ‘well’, then descended straight down half way, circumvented the water, treaded the footpath on the recline, turned around and eased her derriere first and then the subsequent body works in the water. Then, she put her tongue out and started lapping the brownish – all in precisely thirty two seconds.
It was after a few dazed seconds that we remembered that the cubs had not come along. Our hearts didn’t so much as sink, but certainly fell into the water and started floating.
A few minutes later came the unexpected musical that almost put me off my rocker – a delightfully mellow, orgasmically euphonious “Ooooongh”, not unlike the lowest note of a cello or the homely harmonium. It was guttural and throaty, rasping and of a husky baritone, but it had the most unique, inescapable tuneful quality that I suspect even the most gifted songbird would struggle to emulate. It’s true that a court’s ministers could very well be talented to no trivial degree, but when the king himself pens that poem, plays a piece or belts out those strokes on canvas, it becomes, de facto, par excellence. In a tiger’s case, however, greatness has little to do with royalty and everything to do with the essence of a mother who from the fiercest predator becomes a little softie and calls out to her cubs.
This hinted at the possibility that Auntie might not, after all, have left the cubs behind, and had probably returned from a hunt or pursuit of some other nature, and was willing the cubs on to join her for an afternoon’s rejuvenation whence they were. Whether the cubs were within earshot to hear their mother’s call was now the question and I assure my reader that we hoped as hermits that they were.
Over the following thirty minutes, the concert continued, as Auntie kept the beckoning at intervals of virtually ten seconds. Every time her booming voice would resonate through the stony hole with shattering intensity and then branch out to the surrounding forest and then be absorbed in the invisible pores like the slowly raising vapour makes its way towards the clouds.
But it didn’t seem to carry through to the cubs, for they didn’t show up.
Auntie seemed very patient despite the lack of response, but after several minutes of fruitless communication, I began wondering whether her calls had begun assuming a tone of concern or even despair, although I’m sure I was imagining it. I felt pained about her cries going unheeded, and for a few moments I confess I wished I could find the cubs and bring them to her. Little did we know that four days later, it was to be the cubs who would call out desperately to their mother, without getting the reassuring answer. Little did we know that the ace would be silenced to eternity; a living voice would be muted and the dam would never reverberate again with her booming call.
At 4:34 p.m. she decided she had had enough, and with the abruptness of a warbler flying off a thorny bush, got up brusquely and stormed out of the water leaving a wet trail behind. Soon she melted into the undergrowth and disappeared from view as fast as she had arrived. Some thought she’d come back with the cubs and waited around, but she never returned that afternoon.
When the dreadful news came knocking, it took us a good chunk of days to get over the shock, not so much about the end, for, everybody is one day to die, but about the way the end had come. A glorious chapter in Bandhavgarh’s history had been mowed down and in the aftermath of the calamity was left behind a feeling that those who campaign a tiger to be merely a tiger, and nothing more, with no individuality, personality or character, have little or no chance of comprehending.
Harshad, Rajarshi, Prodipto (Lahiri) and hundreds of us who loved her as an individual were bereaved of a unique soul who looked the part, walked the talk, and never lost her dignity. What had been lost forever was what was never there in our lives before her, and what could now never be replaced. Only the last view she granted became etched in our eyes as an image of permanence. And in the cruelest of ironies, her loving calls became her swansong.
The aunt had sung her own requiem.