For a family of namby-pamby vegetarians the Powers love their carnivores. Since Bandavgarh and Kanha happened, mention of tiger with mad light in the eye is de riguer in most conversations. Bhadra only made things worse. Ranthambore, I am sure has sealed the deal. Having gone along for the ride, I can see why.
Thanks to the senior Powers and their paranoia, check in for our flight to Jaipur was done about 3 hours in advance. When I arrived 45 minutes before take-off, happy from the rain and seeing boys running on the streets wearing garlands of pink bougainvillea, I only had to pick up boarding pass. Lucky me.
Jaipur airport. The in-flight announcement warned us that the temperature outside was 39 degrees Celsius. Brought to mind all of Blah’s dire predictions for the weekend and how I would only succeed in making myself sicker from the heat. It took us a couple of hours to get the rest of our journey organised so it was past 8:30 when our cavalcade (okay. 2 cars) pulled out onto the highway.
Air-conditioning on full blast kept the heat of the night at bay, music patched silences in conversation and laughter, the only light was that of the headlights cutting through the darkness on the narrow single-lane road. Felt like we were the only spot of light and comfort in a dark, dark world. Very purple prose. But what to do. Felt like that.
One can go into the national park within half an hour of sunrise and one needs to leave it before sunset. A more natural, if less precise clock for life. Our canter started off at 6:30 AM and when we turned off into the national park, the first thing that greeted our eyes was this.
It was a Chaturdashi. The fort that constitutes 40 sq km of the national park is home to a popular Ganesha. The Supreme Court had to bow down before that ‘gets-u-permission-for-anything’ excuse – hurts religious sentiment. Any rules and regulations on vehicles, noise pollution and number of folks within national park area are out the window. [I know. The locals have more right to be there. Me in appropriate dull clothes, on top of canter is the real visitor. The folks in bright pink, brighter red and the brightest yellow have far more right to do as they please]
Once we got past the national parking, the gates were opened and the most beautiful sights awaited us.
To me, this gate built a 1000 years ago looks as natural here as the banyan tree. Apparently one of the resident tigresses agrees. There are photographs from the time that a tigress led her cubs up to the top of the door and the three of them settled down one at each window to look at the world. At seven in the morning it wasn’t warm enough for our Lady of the Lake to seek this shelter.
The canter slowed and drove gingerly through the portals while our guide filled us in on these tales and more. Inside there were rolling fields dotted with trees, ruins from rajput palaces and several lakes. A scene better seen in the first person since description by word or photograph can never do it justice. That first morning we drove through looking at the birds, a crocodile or two, ugly monitor lizards and deer.
Occasionally our guide thought he heard ‘the call’ and the driver would set off madly over the rutted path, the Powers all got mad gleam in the eye and I hung on for dear life, wondering why we couldn’t stay longer in one spot so I could bask in the sun and look some more at the tiger birds that fascinated me. The call was never quite answered. By nine we were heading back having seen lots of tiger bird but no tiger.
Making it through hordes of pilgrims and parked cars in the national parking turned out to be a nightmare. My admiration for the skill of the driver and the politesse of the natives hit an all time high. One hour under the beating bright sun, people everywhere, constant honking, cars parked higgeldy-piggeldy and not ONE ma-behen gaali even from the almost run-over. And this only 300 kms from Dilli.
Post breakfast (or was it lunch?!) T & I showed our true colors. We backed out of future activities and into the air-conditioning. I slept like a log through the afternoon while the Powers headed off to meet more carnivores. I only heard second hand Lakshmi tales and how the senior Power grilled her human with questions on her future and the level of awareness of the forest officials of her existence and upbringing. Whatever the reality, she is so beautiful, I don’t blame the man for trying to hang on to her.
When I stepped out in the late afternoon to hear these Lakshmi tales, the clouds had begun to move in. The heat melted away like it had never been and the definite desert look of the landscape went with it. When we set off in our Gypsy with Surya (Rajasthan’sfirst lady guide) and Shakeel, we were already cheerful from the weather. The national parking of the morning had gone away and it actually felt like a national park.
Surya turned out to be talkative. She brought to mind gutsy-rural-girl types I had previously come across only in serials on DD (e.g. Humraahi). Reason she hadn’t been working in the morning: had gone to pay her respects at the temple and was one of the honking hordes we met in the morning. Reason she got recruited: the forest department needed a woman on the rolls who could talk to the village women about their foraging on national park land. Since Surya had been one of those herself, the department recruited her in a spirite of ‘set a theif to catch a theif’. Other topics: Which forest dept officer is good, who is not and should have been an ‘author’ (word uttered with maximum contempt). All of this was narrated to us with only minimal encouragement from T. I tuned out the chatter and concentrated on the cool rain-scented breeze. The monsoon-here happiness hit. If there had been bougainvillea, I would have been first in line for the garlands.
We were staked out by the Rajbagh Talao looking at the waterbirds and ignoring the tigerbirds when Suraj thought she heard someone calling and we were off bouncing along the rutted track. We met two other jeeps coming up the track in our direction. One of them had seen a tiger heading our way. The ‘call’ had also been sounded. We heard the harsh voice of the peacock and then everything turned silent. The spotted deer were still but for twitching ears and stood staring fixedly into the trees. Even our engines at higher speed seemed muted. Conversation was staccato whispers of “lake”, “us taraf se aa rahi hai”. There was a sudden purpose to everything.
Through the trees, Machli, tigress-du-jour made her way through the trees and headed into the lake. We were just about 15 feet away watching with bated breath as she padded past. For 10 minutes we sat there, the junior Powers in our gaddi whirring madly away with cams, T still asking all the questions he could think of, only voice now sounding little awestruck. Machli ignored the lot of us, wriggled her bottom in the water, washed her paws and yawned a few times. She rose at the end of her jacuzzi time, surveyed territory, occasionally raising the foot to spray a tree and then disappeared into the thicket.
Giddy from the excitement, it took us an hour to recover. Driving around to all the lakes, reluctant to leave even though darkness was falling and the breeze now had a nip to it, we listened to Shakeel’s and Surya’s tiger stories. The celebrity status of the animal all mixed in with stories of all the celebrities that had come to visit them. Royal hunting lodges that had hosted Gandhis, Bachchans, Clintons. How a magnificent 12 foot male tiger, tame to the gamekeeper who regularly brought him gifts of dead rabbits, had disappeared after President Clinton had visited him. How Machli had fought two alligators (and won). How her two cubs lived on the island and how she would not eat unless they had too. There were other stories but they begin to run together in my mind now. All I recall now is the feeling of you-are-so-lucky-the-superstar-signed-your-shirt. I’ve heard the namesake talk in the exact same fashion about the time she gifted a Ganesh idol to Sachin Tendulkar.
Back to the hotel and bhajiyas, we basked in the envy of the senior Powers who had gone in a different direction and not had as much luck.