Some tigers defy introductions and command eulogies. Particularly if a tiger has his family name congenitally tattooed on his forehead. And the world has ever known only one such.
The name doesn’t conjure images of a fierce predator or a swashbuckling star, but evokes rather tenderer emotions that belie those reserved for a massive predator.
There is a certain homely emotion about him of which puristic naturalists may disapprove, but in the case of this tiger, it’s almost entirely inevitable. In the human world, although familiarity normally breeds contempt, for Munna it breeds unbridled affection.
For he is less a tiger and more an ever-unfolding experience.
I first met Munna on a winter afternoon. He sat broadside on the rise of a vehicle track in Karaighati, looking suitably imposing.
I had heard stories – grand reports – of his exploits: escorting visitors for miles; offering photo opportunities until memory cards brimmed with imprints of his comely mien; walking until arms bearing lenses flailed in resigned exhaustion.
I had admired his pictures, throbbing with ample evidence of his boldness and calm, and missed him narrowly the previous year. But although his reputation preceded him and his forehead preceded his reputation, being faced with him in the flesh was a prospect that made anything outside the present a non-entity.
I was now in the midst of a phenomenon.
Over the next half hour he walked behind us in a motion that at once combined the grace of a swan and the ease of a fish, disembodying my presence of mind. When the whirlwind was over and the dust settled, I evaluated him at leisure.
Being named after a guide (who had a limp at the same time the tiger did) is only the beginning of his anthropomorphic persona.
Of course virtually any tiger seen often enough is likely to be named – either after the area he haunts or a physical characteristic – and any tiger who’s named is likely to be popular. But Munna’s charm lies in his emphatically nonchalant truce with vehicular presence.
Jim Corbett described the tiger as a ‘large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage,’ and I couldn’t think of a tiger that vindicated the flattering assertion more completely.
And Munna’s courage isn’t rooted in complacence or conceit, but rather in trust and tranquility of constitution. He is neither a naive simpleton nor a haughty steamroller.
His is the way of polite authority.
And that’s why, watching him is at once both terribly exciting and strangely calming.
And his bravado is well matched by his resilience and strength of character.
In the winter of 2016 pressure from other males forced him out of the park. But he wasn’t one to give in easily.
Spending a few days in exile to recover, he was soon back in his favourite haunts, patrolling and claiming his territory as befitted a king. His body showed signs of ageing now, but of his spirit nothing seemed lost, proving that notwithstanding what happens, all that matters is walking on.
In him we have much to admire but from him we have much more to learn.
After my second encounter with him I asked my guide, who had been working in Kanha for twenty-five years, if every sight of Munna still excited him. He looked at me with an incredulous expression, marveling at the inanity of my question, before embellishing the query with a dismissive and emphatic “Of course!”
That summed up what Munna is to everybody who’s come to be touched by his magic.
Every tiger is special, but some that grant us the privilege of more than a fleeting acquaintance, a precious peek into their otherwise mystifying, private lives, will always linger in our memory to touch and inspire us to save their ilk.
And it is in that pantheon that Munna will remain forever as a legend, an ambassador of Kanha, a tiger you couldn’t avoid falling in love with, the ultimate cat.