Before this safari, which was the first of her first ever trip to Bandhavgarh, my wife, Sourabha Rao, had never seen a tiger in the wild, and it’s likely no wild tiger had ever seen her either, for it’s only her second time on safari and first time on Madhya Pradesh soil, so I was naturally very keen for her to see the theatre of the animal even before she saw the animal of the theatre of her mind.
With so many firsts at play, this went off rather really well, with the weather even this late in May remaining dry, and the clouds of dust raised by our safari comrades as though consecrating the premises when ignited by the rising sun, who showed his familiar rotund self in yet another unique iteration of a morning.
Bhadrashila looked pretty and tranquil in its assumed duty of reflecting the fresh sal leaves, like a melted mango-flavoured popsicle. Mahaman Dam’s revised, more open, design lent itself wonderfully well to being introduced as a waterhole and not just an inexplicable ‘dam’, as it was earlier. At Sukha Dam we saw a male’s pugmarks leading to the buffer.
At Bagh Naka Neeraj turned left and we passed Jawaari. Near the caves in Kood Baba there was a whiff of dead meat, but of Solo’s in-person appearance there was no sign so we carried on through Sehra and on to Salenda.
Somewhere en route a pair of baby langurs played. A gaur positively glowed in opposite light, her sienna hair upgraded to a contingent gold, and her smooth horns shining like brushed metal. A common hawk-cuckoo pressed on with its brain fever allusions explicitly and a peacock put in his registration of presence in a euphony of distinctly nasal phonemes.
At the Bhool Bhulaiya junction we came upon the pugmarks of potentially Dotty’s cubs, which naturally caused much excitement, particularly to my dear wife, for cues are the fuel of imagination, and for Sourabha now the dream of seeing a tiger, that startling corpse-waker of a stunning animal, seemed as plausible as a Pollard six in the death.
The view of Pateeha opened up as always, and if there ever is a scene that is at once both exhilarating as well as anticlimactic, it is one of a bunch of vehicles gathered in a haphazard fashion with their elements-exposed occupants training their optics in unequivocal orientation. Tigers were about.
We pulled up slowly and Manjeet greeted me first with a pleasantry, and then with the pleasantness of tiger news. Dotty’s cubs were in the grass and all the vehicles — every single one present — had stopped right at the junction between the Pateeha Road and the road that bypasses Sukhi Talab and goes directly to Pateeha Camp, to let them cross towards the waterhole. So disciplined were they in their restraint, that the sight was rife to convince anybody to surmise momentarily that the said road had been shut to tourist traffic!
I insist on recording this because all too often, as with other arenas of public affairs, we’re quick and prompt as cuckoo clocks on the dot to move tendons and point fingers to criticise a mistake, but are mysteriously shy to applaud good behaviour and are even blinkered to its occurrence in sensationally dismal regularity.
But back to the topical highway: soon, a pair of elephants arrived and although Dotty’s cubs have been known to be notoriously shy of them, they exhibited just then an unusual curiosity and commenced following their oscillating tails, quite contrary to the expectation of the gathered spectators! This is also when one other cub broke cover from the grass, so Sourabha’s first tiger very quickly gave way to her second tiger, and soon a third, and in a second, three tigers had made her first time with tigers quite spectacular, as she gasped from both mouth and eye with generous exhalations of exultation.
It is always special to witness a loved one who is tuned to the same frequency on emotion modulation seeing their first tiger. It doesn’t matter how many times it has happened on the planet before; it seems to me like its happening one more time still completes another neural circuit of some mythical collective creature, and the skies shower flowers and the wind sings in silent joy.
Now when all this happened and I was just expounding to Sourabha some statistic pertaining to how much time she had taken to see her first Bandhavgarh tiger (about 40 minutes) compared to me back in 2007, a ranger in transit dropped off an exciting update and we emigrated forthwith to Umaraha and the age of caves.
The first thing I remember seeing is a cub running, then another cub being run after, then, as we continued further, a cub sitting on a rock, and then, the mother of them all, I mean literally, Solo, who once was a cub but no longer, in the company of the fourth cub!
Then the cub with Solo rose, and after a brief interaction with its mother, sued to play. Another round of rock sprinting ensued, followed by rock climbing and then sudden reverse rock abseiling. Then one cub resorted to rock cheek-rubbing, while another chose over-rock watching of the one rock cheek-rubbing. At the end, two of the rockers moved to first the lip-shaped broad cave on the right and sat snugly like rabbits in hiding, while the other two held a show of rock fashion, ramp-walking in front of the mouth of the cave, with its dark interior providing an excellent sight screen.
Once or twice they returned to the sambar kill their mother had made previously (and hence the “whiff of dead meat” earlier), and nibbled on half-heartedly.
Then three of them crowded themselves into the centre one of the three caves, this being the highest of them. It was like the coronation of play-minded young Turks, at which they strove hard to look serious. This went on for a length of time during which significant steps were taken by some present to boost hard drive sales and the revenues of outfits offering camera shutter repairs.
Then one by one the cubs left the middle cave, and after a brief flirtation with their ‘rabbit hole’, and unsatisfied with any of these quarters, repaired to the boudoir of their fourth cave, which is out of sight from the road, even as Solo flattened herself for a good day’s shuteye and shut-shop.
Sourabha’s state of rapture was by now at an altitude that can be termed soaring. Going from a tally of 0 to 8 may not seem noteworthy until you’re talking about the number of wild tigers you’ve seen in a morning! Twinkles in her eyes were now forming faster than the dashing across of shooting stars on a Leonids night, so we thought this was an apt time for some breakfast.
Following the consumption of some spicy Maggi and saccharine tea, during which the topics of discussion only varied between the beauty of Solo and the cuteness of the cubs, and why we cannot take one of them home, we got back on track through Bodha. Our aim was to reach Mardhari and look for Pateeha, my old favourite, but our advance was once again halted in the anticlimactic fashion recorded earlier.
All three of Dotty’s cubs were now in the water, at Sukhi Talab!
For the next few minutes they played in the calculating style that tigers adopt when they’re too bored not to play but too hot to put their heart into it. After normalising their temperature to less appalling levels they climbed up the bund and toyed briefly with the idea of hoisting themselves up vertical trunks, but didn’t make much headway in a northerly direction. We hoped that they’d cross the road towards the caves but they didn’t make progress in that direction either, electing instead to rest in poetic stance behind the solar pump and watering our hopes for an encore of the show in what Neeraj dubbed the “Wankhede Stadium”.
With that, we departed in satiation. And as we drove back via Charger Point in reverence of the past, it was truly hard to imagine how the present could’ve been better.