Seeing a wild tiger in today’s India is a very public affair.
Every day scores of vehicles ferry noisy visitors and scramble about in the jungle in search of the big cat. Once spotted, the scene looks more like a zoo. Excited people are exclaiming loudly, eating, drinking and taking selfies with the tiger, who is more often than not, hemmed in between the vehicles.
Every mobile phone camera is in operation. More elaborate photographic equipment is chattering away like machine-gun fire in a few jeeps carrying people who, at first glance, look like BSF commandos just returned from a war. Camouflaged head to toe in military fatigues, wearing bandanas and wrap-around shades, they tote massive Camo-covered lenses. Like Roman charioteers, they are hustling their respective drivers into better camera positions. The drivers themselves are negotiating for space/fighting/arguing for that little extra few inches so that their client can get a better shot. These are the wildlife photographers. Ironically, I too, am one of this species today.
On a recent visit to Ranthambhore in the company of a veteran ‘Ranthambhorite’, we decided that we wouldn’t go anywhere near this kind of crowd, whether we saw a tiger or not. We would accept what the forest gave us and enjoy it for what it has always been – a magical place devoid of human sights and sounds. If one is lucky enough to see a tiger in this setting- a completely different experience from the circus one experiences today- then that would be a fantastic bonus. A one-on-one. You-the tiger & the forest. The magic of this kind of sighting is in a different league. It is almost a spiritual experience.
As luck wouldn’t have it, we didn’t see a tiger on that day. On our way back to the hotel, we reminisced nostalgically about our most memorable tiger sightings, many of which, for the veteran, had happened on foot. This brings me to my one and only ‘on foot’ experience.
Back in the mid 70s, as an 18 yr. old, I was visiting family friends in Madhya Pradesh and we all took a trip to the Kanha National park. Driving through big, lush forests like Kanha and Corbett was a little different back then. It would be hours before you would notice the presence of another vehicle. The magic of the forest would literally wrap you in its fantastic private bubble and then spit you out at the end of your ‘jungle ride’ back to civilisation, at the Forest Guest house.
At the end of one such morning ride, my friend and I were struggling to entertain ourselves. Afternoon is the ‘down time’ between game drives, till one goes back out into the forest again for the evening drive.
Bored, with nothing much to do, we managed to find a shuttlecock and 2 badminton racquets in a musty closet. Quickly a badminton court was improvised in the guesthouse backyard, and a seriously competitive game of ‘baddie’ was on.
On a particularly hard fought point, I managed to miss-hit the shuttle and it went sailing over the Bougainvillea-covered fencing around the backyard.
A brief argument ensued between us over who should go out and retrieve the shuttle.
Since “ You hit it out, you go get it”, my friend reasoned. I went in and around the building to the wooded area behind the backyard wall. It took me a few minutes of looking around in the thick undergrowth to eventually locate it. It was stuck high up in the thorny vines of the creeper on the fencing. It wasn’t going to be easy to extricate it. Eventually, I managed to get up on my toes to reach for the shuttle, trying to avoid the thorns by contorting my body until I managed to get my fingertips on it. As I gingerly began to pull it down, my body twisted precariously with my head tilting at an awkward angle.
In this position, through the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw that I was not alone. Behind me, through the leafy shrubbery about 30 yards away, there was a striped head staring at me unblinkingly.
It couldn’t be! Was it my imagination? Was it a shadow? A Sambar deer? Was it a tiger?
Now I don’t remember exactly what happened next or how long it took because it felt like someone had poured iced water all over me. A cold numbing sensation coursed through my entire body. Thinking back, it is probably because I must have broken into a sweat. It took me some time to process the fact that there was indeed a tiger, within leaping distance from me, looking straight at me.
Thorns pricked against my arm and extricating it quickly might have initiated a reaction from him. I was helpless, silent and immobile- and in hindsight, perhaps fortunate. I tried to keep my eyes on him as I began to very slowly and silently work around the thorns and lower my arm. It felt like ages but was probably only a few seconds. By the time I looked up at my arm and then back down to where I thought he was, he had vanished.
My eyes darted across the landscape, looking for some movement or a glimpse. Had he come closer? Was he stalking me? But there was no sign of him. This was when I noticed that I hadn’t been breathing. I sucked in a deep breath and slowly backtracked alongside the wall and found my way back into the guesthouse without further incident.
With my body breaking into spasms and hyperventilating with relief, I ran to tell my friend about what had just happened. To my shock, he smirked indulgently and said, “Oh, ya, sure! Of course you saw a tiger! You were down 14-17; shall we continue the game? ”
Frustrated, I went to tell my friend’s father who also smiled skeptically at me. On further debate & discussion with the forest staff present, it was determined that yes indeed, there was a male tiger who came by this guesthouse frequently to mark territory. They eventually got inquisitive enough and ventured back out to where I had been behind the fence and saw fresh pugmarks.