The morning was young and the sun gentle when we hit the cheekily nicknamed Aloo Bonda Road.
The track is known by this curious moniker for it takes you to Hardia, where you can throw in the towel mid-safari, and having relieved at once your bursting bladder, devour an assortment of toothsome revivers, chief amongst which is the eponymous potato-snack.
Many a cold morning have I spent in this melting pot of motley tiger-watchers, exchanging notes with guides over copious portions of tea, and politely ignoring friendly mongrels seeking itsy-bitsy bites and village lads selling things I didn’t want to eat.
But the real point of interest about this milk route is something far more appetising than any snack.
About halfway from Chakradhara to Hardia, the route stipulates that you turn right at Bathan Junction, where there is a cave frequently used by tigers and particularly favoured by the incumbent royal.
It had been something of a regularity since the previous winter for Dhiti, the Rajbehra Female, to walk down that road from the cave until the Badhaini Junction, where an unseen line marked the boundary between her home range and that of her swashbuckling sister Kankati.
But not today.
There was no sign of her near the cave – no langur watchman coughing out his spasmodic plaints, no chital emitting its panic-stricken shriek, no sambar issuing its abrupt call for cover.
Even the resident peacock, who usually sits at the rim of a pit hanging his long tail therein, wasn’t cackling away his war cry until the crows came home.
No dust was raised except by our vehicle as it cut through the cool air that abounded here on the open meadow, where it could bond with the brown grass.
Bandhavgarh normally lets out her night time secrets by the crepuscule, but now she was holding her cats close to her caves.
Instead, he concentrated. With every cell.
When he’s not picked up the scent of a sighting, TP is the chattiest man around. If you care to ask, he’ll tell you about everything from frightening tiger encounters to inane tourist demands – all in his somewhat phlegmatic and otherwise self-pleased persona. Sometimes he’ll tell you even if you don’t care.
Speak with him for a few minutes, and you can easily tune in to his wavelength. His wavelength is of a profound passion for Bandhavgarh and intimate knowledge of her tigers.
But presently, TP only tuned in to the sounds of the jungle. They are always present if you have a receiver to pick them. TP was ours.
We were now parked at Anicut, an idyllic corner of Tala where the backwaters of a stream tranquilly reflect the vibrant-green sal trees on its banks, forming a painting that hangs here by day.
Three spot-billed ducks waded in the water, the ripples they caused smearing the painting, and their alternate stillness magically restoring the artwork. I wondered if they knew anything about the tiger’s whereabouts.
Until TP cupped his ears, pointed northeast, snapped his fingers and said “Bagh!”
An impossibly faint chital call had brought the word to his ears from almost half a mile away.
When Saleem got us to the cave junction, a tigress stood aloft just off the vehicle track.
The cat was out of the cave.
For a moment she stood motionless, with the rising sun behind her cleanly accentuating her sinuous form in an ethereal orange halo. The trees cast ominous shadows on the dry earth as she reflected the early rays coolly, revelling in her own serenity.
Satisfied with the perfection of the moment, she put her best paw forward. The freshness of the morning was upon us as the restful forest had come alive.
The amber moon had risen.
Just like the celestial body, she was big, beautiful and ephemeral. Her sight had the feel of a sun-kissed dream but the sobering whiff of stunning reality.
I was drunk on her spirit.
With effortlessness of a flower drifting in the wind but the purpose of a peasant out to plough his land, she motored noiselessly over the leaf-littered floor with a fluidic finesse I couldn’t hold a simile to.
For the grace of a tigress is nonpareil.
But I’ll say she resembled a living sculpture shaped lovingly to the specifications a literary genius had laid out in a poem, which a virtuoso had set to a soulful score. And Saleem had parked us perfectly to consume the spectacle.
Descending then into a dry riverbed, she emerged near a tree, rained her brand on it and walked straight to us, sporting the gait of a world-winner and the usual feline mindset of being the universe.
She had been bold as a child, growing up under the empowering vigil of the fearsome Jhurjhura, who would have no doubt introduced her to some of her potential.
But as insouciant teenage gave way to the effects of time, she was neither a conqueror like Kankati, nor a recluse like Mahaman. She wasn’t the perennial underdog like Mirchani, but nor was she an elegiac beauty like Chorbehra or an orphaned hero like Banbehi.
Romance didn’t seem to be her forte. She was distinctly Teutonic and walked the line of moderation.
Five years since, she neither shunned the limelight nor sought it, and in an otherwise ubiquitous climate of uncertainty, had raised four cubs sans drama.
Now, flanked by a mercurial Saleem and a TP bearing the cat’s-that-got-the-cream smile, I mulled over what to make of her present.
Until in her gemstone eyes I saw a glint of her redoubtable mother, and a silvery shadow told me that she was the intrepid Athena.
More images of Intrepid Athena: