In the following season, the pug marks of a tigress began to appear on the sandy paths. They were apparently smaller than those of an average adult tigress, so the guides and drivers thought it to be a cub’s. But when over time the size didn’t show inflation, they concluded she was probably a fully grown but slightly-built cat.
Such speculations were the order of the day, because this tigress liked staying invisible and leaving more to people’s imagination than the Indian movies of yore, where a pair of converging garden flowers would be employed to denote the carnal exploits of the protagonist couple. Which is to say, pretty much everything.
Over time some began wondering if she existed at all, or indeed if she did, if she really held the territory, but the fact that no other tigress ventured there was testament to her being more than an apparition. They said she often descended from the fort and had a big home range.
Over the next two years she was seen very rarely, and once or twice someone managed to get a picture of a part of her face or body obscured in thick bushes, but the general conclusion was that one couldn’t hope to see her. So meticulously did she avoid people that she just came to be known as the Chakradhara female with hardly anybody really having seen her in Chakradhara! Thus she had one foot in people’s minds and one on the doorstep of lore.
Often while passing through her precincts did I attempt to paint with the brush of my thought a picture of her on the canvas of my imagination to fill the void, to give a face to the pug marks, visualising her walking on the tracks or sitting by the road in the boudoir of her secrecy sheltering herself from the prying eye. For a cat in an invisibility cloak is even more enticing than a cat wearing her impressive robes.
How do you photograph a tigress about whom even locals say, “Hum ko hee dikhti nahi!”? You need serendipity to start with, then a very smart guide to build on it, a patient and tenacious driver to keep at it, the smart guide to be at his astute best to give it shape, good sense and patience on the pursuer’s part to not interfere with the smart guide’s work, a little bit of maniacal desire, a little instinct, and, ultimately, a generous quantity of random chance, finished with a lot of good fortune. Now, for all of this to come together you need a lot of luck (did I mention luck already?). That means you need to get lucky enough to get lucky. That doesn’t sound very likely at all; in fact it sounds like a miracle.
But that evening entering Tala while co-leading a Toehold Tour, we reached Jamunia and found a vehicle stopped, with a tourist pointing intently into the bush. Chital alarm calls rang at close range as we pulled close. We strained our eyes expecting to find a leopard (so remote in our minds was the thought of encountering Chakradhara) but Bahadur, our dexterous guide, espied the hind works of a tiger as it melted into the undergrowth like it never existed.
Could this be she?
It could of course be a male, but my feeling was it was she – whether this was an intuitive voice or simply the foolish ignorance of the alternative possibility due to intense excitement intermingled with optimism is a matter of conjecture that took backstage to the throbbing in my heart that only asked if Chakradhara the impossibly shy, the obscure, the ghostlike, the mythical, the damsel in the invisibility cloak, had shown up naked. Had she indeed?
With little hope of her betraying herself again, I found myself in this bizarre and troublesome space between elation at having come so close to her and the deflating wishfulness that I had got to see her.
It is with this ambivalence that we turned around and waited, more with a sense of resigned formality than any realistic expectation, but to my unstymied surprise, she darted across the road way ahead of us as we were looking hither and thither.
I had just missed her twice in as many minutes!
We advanced towards where she had crossed but she was safely obscure, with only the telltale babbling of the alarmists testifying to her whimsical passage. Soon the chital calls subsided, and many vehicles left. Right after them it came – the purposeful call of the tigress herself! It rang from slightly ahead, back towards Jamunia, so we drove forward and waited to see if we could catch a sight of her in transit, but the calls kept getting lower and farther.
It seemed that she had slipped away, unseen even in broad daylight.
Wasim grasped his hand around the ignition key, asking me if we should leave in pursuit of less slithery tigers yonder, and at times like this when logic prescribes departure but your heart wishes a lingering, I’ve come to practise the action of staying just for two minutes – two minutes longer from the time the question of leaving first arises. It’s perhaps a silly superstition, a bit like tossing a coin, but the twice I had failed to do it earlier this year, I had come to regret it – first when I left the Rajbehra female in the Sehra grass, where she later walked out and crossed towards the caves while I desired an examination of Salenda (luckily we made it back just in time as she crossed over on that occasion), and the second time when Solo crossed over towards Kadi Pani after her tree-climbing act at Umaraha (on which occasion I had concluded that she’d probably spend the entire day there based on her hunting disposition and gone in pursuit of the Bamera Boy and New Kankati at Tadoba instead, who didn’t show up) – both in May. This time the heartbreaking misses had wisened me to the merit of exercising the talismanic act, no matter how irrational it seemed.
A few seconds ticked away. All other vehicles left. Only silence remained. And then, suddenly, it was broken. By her voice, which resounded much closer to the road! Anticipating her advance we drove to the bridge, but she slunk through high up the hill. We drove a little ahead and finally: I saw her! Third time lucky that afternoon, I saw her for the first time, as her elusive form negotiated the rocks in dappled light like a creature of an underground society, before she disappeared again.
Still in the pursuit of that one picture which would help me put a face to the pugs, Bahadur directed us to the Jamunia fire line, where I had seen the Chorbehra female on a cold December morning in 2007. Helping the tour participants get ready, I pointed to the crest of the fire line and waited. Seconds passed, until suddenly:
There she was! But so heart-popping was the moment, that her arrival seemed unexpected, although we had been hoping for her to appear precisely there! I lifted the camera to my eyes and fired away as though it was the last day of my life.
|The Orange Ghost breaks cover! Chakradhara Female at the Jamunia Fireline, November 2016|
I don’t know who was more surprised about the other’s presence – we or she – for she stared at us in ostensible disbelief for a surprisingly long couple of seconds. My whole body seemed to be filled with her questioning glare as she held her mouth agape and limbs taut to take flight. Finally, after a couple of seconds, she descended the crest and decamped out of view. And it was with great effort to stop my heart from bursting out of my chest with excitement that I completed the rest of the safari.
For after all a miracle had occurred, the Orange Ghost had been unveiled and ‘Pictory’ had been achieved!
At the Hardiha Centre Point Rajeshji, one of the senior guides, enquired enthusiastically if I got a picture, which I affirmed, and his elation was considerable, showing that a miracle once occurred delights many.
|100% crop for ID (click to open larger file)|