The SUV’s metal hinges creak its protest at having to abandon tarmac for the inconsistent undulations of the dirt road. A weathered arch made of bone dry wood and half hearted intent, like a signboard from a Ramesh Sippy masala western, draws near and is forthwith surpassed. The foliage condenses, but in a stick-overlaying-stick sort of way, like a vast congregation of very tall and thin people getting closer to gossip over our intrusion. Unlike the forests in the South or at the fringes of the formidable Himalayas, the woods of Tadoba near Nagpur’s black soil country, are not draped in leafy boughs that absorb sunlight like woolen coats. They dress light for the afternoon sun.
This scantily clad foliage is the more obvious reason why the odds of spotting a tiger in the wild is greater in Tadoba National Park than in any other forest sanctuary in the country. The less obvious ones were sitting beside me.
The crew members on board the SUV are tanned that lovely shade of brown you earn working in places where the atmospheric ozone still has some dominion. Akshay stands wedged against the bucket seat, his eyes voraciously chomping up the terrain, alert to a pin drop of anomalous stir. Pranad is zen, the yin to Akshay’s yang, dormant, like a submerged crocodile. They are the naturists in the employ of our hosts The Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge, pandering patiently and eloquently to the city bred curiosity of visitors. By naturists, I mean our eyes and ears, our ushers and spiritual guides into the hidden chatter of the forest parliament. My induction to these parts was ongoing.
Tadoba Andhari is the oldest national park in Maharashtra. It is a dry deciduous forest, and one of the very few of its kind to house tigers. Teak trees hold sway over a majority of the forested space along with thickets of bamboo and meadows of lush wild grass in shades of green, that are almost yellow for most parts, but darken like an afterthought at the periphery. Thin pathways slice into the woods every few hundred metres, driving deep into the mysterious green oblivion, which I am informed serve as barriers to break forest fires, the most visceral enemy of the local habitat. The other more obvious chimera to this Eden — the people living at the rim of these jungles, are being urged to rehabilitate. The process is slow, the impediments are many and the successes are few and far between. One such ghost village, Jamini, which we drive past, only has the rapidly decaying walls of a school long vacated swearing its human inhabitation from not too long ago. Leopards, I am told, have good attendance here these days. Pushed to the peripheries by the meandering lords of the jungle.
Bengal tigers love to walk. They walk for miles journeying through the heart of the woods their soft paws, clawing gently at the clay. But in the hardened, spindly terrain of Tadoba, these soft pawed felines abandon camouflage and head straight for the jungle roads where their tracks litter in abundance. It is not entirely uncommon then, to suddenly drive around the bend and spot a tiger walking on the other side, bobbing its head slowly as if grooving to a jungle vibe, with the nonchalance of a much-in-demand polygamist.
The terrain is delightfully inconsistent rolling along nicely at a steady hum of flats for miles before suddenly switching to rumbling crests and troughs as the path weaves like the trailing thread of an unraveling ball of twine. It builds anticipation of a surprising visit from some furry fauna at every hairpin bend, at every blind corner. Akshay and Pranad occasionally pause excitably upon spotting birds of rare plumage on the trees. They explain their peculiarities to me while I struggle to spot them without the assistance of an extended finger. Meanwhile, without my knowledge a covert little operation had been unfolding between the driver of the vehicle and the naturists.
While I was looking towards the sky, the driver, had been inspecting the tracks adjacent the wheels. The subtle information he was scanning got passed to the others, to deduce the age of the information and its utility in the here and now. Pugmarks, spoor and clawed wood.The detectives were already on the trail of the great cat. I only realized this when the first round of inquisition began as a gypsy packed with passengers that didn't look particularly different from me, rode in from the opposite direction and stopped beside us. A string of soft words were exchanged, heads rocked in every possible angle, and an emphatic repetition like a shaman’s mantra, “Ek (one) number, ek number” followed. Then the drop of a name just as the gypsy drove away — “Maya” — its potency amplified in Tadoba’s mesmerising surroundings.
‘Ek number’ is a lake adjacent a massive clearing where we find a herd of deer grazing amidst a chattering troop of monkeys. I am explained their relationship as gregarious herbivores, involve combining skillsets to keep an eye out for carnivores. The lake attracts a few sambar deer that lap as much at the water as the flies around their eyes, while tiny brightly coloured birds perch and preen on it’s formidable antlers as if it were a newly opened restaurant, and they, it’s celebrity endorsers. A couple more jeeps join us on our watch. A peacock’s cry pierces the air, tensing every visible and presumably concealed living being in the vicinity. A wild boar crashes into the proceedings, its head pressed up like a disgruntled government officer demanding more respect than it begets. Anecdotes of Maya are now exchanged like afternoon snacks being passed around.
Maya, the ‘Lady of the Lake’ patrols the Pandharpauni zone within Tadoba and is known for her affinity for the lake’s waters around which she was born. She has quite the list of admirers with local heroes Gabbar and Amitabh, both ferocious male tigers, rostering social visits at her doorstep every once in a while.
Akshay interrupts the narrative and says, “4.30. She will come here at 4.30”, speaking to no one in particular.
I look at my watch, and with another hour to go, I wished desperately that he was wrong and that I got to catch a glimpse of her sooner. Almost as if sensing my desperation, the engine chugged to ignition and we thrash our way deeper into the jungle. “Do (two) number” is our destination this time. As we skirt between points in the forest, we sight Nilgais, Gaurs, Dholes and that rarest of rare spotting, the solitary Chausingha. But eventually we return to Maya after every pause, her myth growing stronger, like the whiff of prey in a winter breeze.
At 4.15 a motorcycle goes by, with two people riding in from god knows where, in this deep jungle. Again words exchanged, peppered with Maya’s name. The bike rides away. I look expectantly at the more seasoned occupants. Pranad smiles and whispers, “She is on her way. Her cubs are coming with her.”
But the whisper had travelled on the back of the motorcycle and just as his words, spewed sprays of anxious anticipation in my veins, a cavalcade of jungle gypsies crashed in on the opening. The safari cartel had arrived, forming a tactile auditorium, gypsies fighting for space like people squirming to get to the head of a rock and roll concert. The onset was sudden and noisy, like a tear in the wall surrounding this jungle serenity, through which the madness of the city was vulgarly peeking inside.
Maya arrived on the opposite side of the lake (exactly at 4.30 might I add) to cheers from the assembled crowd. Her cubs playing with her, using her body as a mobile jungle gym, dangling from her tail, crashing in on her shoulders, riding against her ear, while she patiently lowered herself into the waters of the pond. Wildlife aficionados shushed the crowd, but in the rare occasion it worked, the noise would eventually rumble back to anarchy.
I could say the tiger was majestic. I could say that I felt gratified and uplifted, spotting one for the first time in the wild. I could say that I had never seen a sight more endearing than the small family of tigers climbing onto each other, out of some keen gene deep necessity to always feel each other’s black and yellow fibre. But it really wasn't all that. I felt glad that I had seen a tiger. Even if it seemed strangely reminiscent of the time I’d first come to Mumbai and stood outside Amitabh Bachchan’s house and waited, for ‘a sighting.’ But much like it was in Mumbai, it was more the place itself than any star crossed moment that endeared it to me.
The patchy putting together of clues, the sudden disappearance of the SUV’s shudder whenever we stopped, only for the silence to smash against my ears and overwhelm more than the loudest sound I've ever heard... The confounded look on the gaur when we stopped next to it, the chausingha fabricating a ‘just remembered something I need to finish’ lie and scampering off. The birds, the oriental honey buzzard, the Eurasian sparrow hawk, the blyth’s leaf warbler, and so many others with colors so bright and patterns so brilliant that surely a master painter lived somewhere in these woods to refresh their coat every once in a while. The nilgai, a magnificent cow, that no wonder seems like a bundle of nerves, since it's free to be hunted in a state that doesn't mind banning beef. All of that and the tiger is why Tadoba has enchanted me.
As we head back, we stop at the grand Tadoba lake where Akshay has spotted a Black Ibis in the blur. Pranad tells me the etymology of Tadoba’s name.
“Taru was a powerful village chief killed in a mythological encounter with a tiger. A shrine now exists on the other side of the Tadoba lake and this region has been named after him.”
And as these words were said to me I watched the sun, setting against a sky set ablaze, reflecting like a blinding disc on the waters, where it hovered above the frame of a sambar deer submerged till its shoulders, chomping at the water lilies that surrounded it, without care or concern. I imagined a curious coincidence that maybe that sambar would emerge any time now, dripping and anthropomorphic — half sambar, half man.
I now head back to the Bamboo Forest Safari Lodge. The resort is an oasis even without the emotional and physical dehydration that causes hallucinations about anthropomorphic sambars. The villas are like terracotta jewel boxes. Nestled within patches of green bamboo shoots they glow ember in the dusk. Inside, luxury ensconces you like a soft fragrant bubble, be it in the cozy nature of the magnificent bedroom, the lakeside view or the warm and efficient opulence of the massive bathroom, which comes equipped with an outdoor bath, and a rainshower temple and toiletries that underpaid writers might feel tempted to pilfer. At night, after I have pampered myself numb, I join my gracious host, hotelier and environment obsessed gentleman, Sudeep Mehta, for a magnificent eight-course dinner spread followed by dessert that has no business being anywhere outside heaven. We soon get sozzled under a misty moon and shoot politics, economics and wildlife etiquette, with sharp tongues, and the cultured swishes of our respective mustachios.
After which I head to my villa, where in a private courtyard, I am in the company of a convex sky and a billion stars. And a few pair of eyes staring at me from within the dark.
Published Date: May 07, 2017 10:44 AM | Updated Date: May 09, 2017 21:43 PM