[3] Bagh - The Tiger

Bagh - The Tiger 

(Original date of completion: September 2013)

It wasn’t until four years later that I got my next chance to visit the forest. Parminder Uncle, a friend of Dad’s, had just got engaged and the family decided to go on a small trip to celebrate. The choice of place was Masinagudi, a small town in the midst of the Jungles of Tamil Nadu, 7 kilometers from Theppakadu Elephant Camp- which is also the Reception Centre of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. It is really the same forest that is spread across three states – in Karnataka it branches out into the Nagarhole and Bandipur National Parks, in Tamil Nadu it extends as the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and in Kerala as the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Now a well-known town and popular among wildlife enthusiasts, Masinagudi was a small village at the time I speak of, with a police station at the start of the village, a single-lane tarred road which took you to a few farmhouses and resorts built by estate owners, and a few kiosks and shops - selling household items, groceries and toiletries - forming the only “market” in the entire stretch between Mudumalai and Ooty. Ooty (which is the more popular name of the hill station of Mount Ootacamund) is just 29 Km from here and is a steep climb with its 36 hair-pin bends that form the ascent.

We were a party of eleven: Parminder uncle (the Groom-to-be), his parents, elder sister and brother-in-law (Ranjita aunty and Atul uncle), younger sister and brother-in-law (Dolly aunty and Das uncle – who is a well-known rallyist in Bangalore) and the four of us – Mum, Dad, Anand and I. We took 2 vehicles: Parminder uncle’s Toyota Qualis and Das uncle’s Hyundai Accent. Leaving Bangalore around 7 am, we breakfasted at Kamat Lokaruchi Restaurant on the Bangalore-Mysore highway. I was hardly able to contain my excitement, as this was my first such wildlife tour after the Nagarhole trip back in 2000 when I first experienced the wild. Before I continue with my narration allow me to give a brief description of the layout and route for better understanding. The route to Masinagudi from Bangalore is via Mysore and takes around 5-6 hours to cover by car. After crossing Mysore, one passes through the Nanjangud village, which was once popular for its Ayurvedic medicines and black magic, and is even today believed by many to be a haunted place. About 60 Km from here is the Bandipur National Park, which then extends into the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary when you have left Karnataka and entered the state of Tamil Nadu. The road at the reception of this sanctuary (the Theppakadu Elephant Camp is situated here) forks in two directions: the right that goes to Gudalur, and the left which takes you to Masinagudi.

It was just before entering Bandipur- while we were still in Gundlupet town- that we took a diversion to the right, and upon asking if we had reached Masinagudi, I was told we were first going to visit the Gopalaswamy Betta temple and then resume our journey. Gopalaswamy temple is atop the Gopalaswamy Betta (betta is the local term for rock or a hill), in the dense and military-protected forest area which also comes under the Bandipur territory, and is of much historical as well as religious significance. Built over 700 years ago by rulers of the Hoysala dynasty, the temple is dedicated to one of many reincarnations of Lord Krishna. The granite roof on the inside and above the main idol is said to be moist throughout the year, dripping water over the deity. Considered to be holy, this water symbolizes the Lord’s blessings and is sprinkled on devotees who visit the temple. Being in the core of the forest, the temple is frequented by elephants. Tigers and leopards too have been sighted at times, basking in the sun on the boundary walls of the temple. Gopalaswamy Betta is also the highest peak of Bandipur and the surrounding panoramic view of the forest from here is simply breath-taking. After this divine and refreshing stop we were back on the Mysore-Bandipur Road and in the next few minutes reached Bandipur.

[Fig. 3.1] The view from Gopalaswamy Betta (image from a later date in 2010)

Parminder uncle was at the wheel (we were in his Qualis) and it took some time and effort on Dad’s part to convince him to proceed at a slower pace, so as to allow us to spot animals in the bush. We did spot a few deer on the way, and when we reached Theppakadu we saw many elephants being fed in an enclosure. At the time we did not enter the elephant camp as it was well beyond the visiting hours; I did get to see the camp on a later occasion, but more on this in a subsequent narration.

The first thing you notice upon reaching Masinagudi is the signage of the Masinagudi Police Station and a small kiosk maintained by a co-operative society. The latter serves the best coffee available in all of Masinagudi, but it was only recently - after all these years of visiting this place (little had I realized that this town would become almost an addiction and that I would return many times thereafter) - that we discovered this fact. A row of jeeps can always be seen parked to the left at the entrance to the town and a small collection of shops and tourist information centers that offer boarding, lodging, safaris and guides. We did stop here at the “market” for tea and refreshments and a few minutes later were on the only tarred road towards our place of stay that Das uncle had booked. Forest Hills, a guest house boasting of a few cottages, a machaan room and a couple bamboo huts spread over a few acres, was at the end of the string of several such resorts and farmhouses in the Bokkapuram area of the town. The place was then owned and managed by Rajiv and Savitha – a very hospitable couple and because of whom we would later get to see the Tiger! It is now run by Savitha and their son, as Rajiv passed away a few years ago. I learned of his death only in 2011 when I tried calling them up for another booking, and was deeply saddened upon hearing the news.

Coming back to the narration- Having separated the luggage, putting it in different rooms according to their occupants-to-be, and freshening up a bit, we were served tea and refreshments, which we enjoyed in the verandah of our room. This room was a four-bedded cottage and hence the largest at the guesthouse, so on the three days we were to spend at Forest Hills, all members of the party assembled here for discussing the plans for the day and for general small talk, after breakfast and during the evening tea.

Between tea and dinner that day, we walked about on the estate, and seeing a watch tower made of wood and dry bamboo, decided to climb it. We took turns, as this structure was a wobbly affair that creaked heavily on each rung being stepped on. It was dusk by now, a time when neither is there enough natural light that will allow you to see things clearly, nor is the light from the flashlight effective enough to illuminate things as a light beam works best only against a completely dark setting. Thus giving up, we descended the tower and got back to the rooms, seeing something strange on our way back with the help of the pocket torch I carried with me. It was like a big, white stone, except that it had an awkward yet symmetrical structure. We decided not to explore at the moment and to return the next morning. No sooner had we kids reached the dining hall for dinner, when two big, black and muscular looking dogs started barking and darting towards us. We screamed and bolted inside the dining hall, upon reaching which the dogs did not enter but remained at the door step. Savitha calmed us down, saying the dogs were their pets and were usually left in the open after sunset, in order to ward off wild animals. Upon hearing this I immediately recollected that from my previous trip to Nagarhole, I had learnt that leopards were attracted to such dwellings where dogs were kept as pets, but as though in response to this very thought, the same moment we were informed that it was just a few months ago when one of their dogs had gone missing, suspected to have fallen prey to a leopard. However, they said, the dogs were still their best bet, at least to scare away the other animals and also to alert the guesthouse owners and the staff in case an animal entered the property. Rajiv also narrated an incident when merely a few weeks ago an elephant had come close to the cottage – the one we currently occupied – and had caused much damage by breaking the windows and the bamboo door, in addition to scaring its occupants and causing fear and panic among them. It was the dogs’ barks, coupled with the screams of the guests, which had awoken the others, who subsequently managed to drive the pachyderm away before any harm came upon them. Knowing we were in the same cottage that had, not more than a few weeks ago been thus attacked, we grew anxious, and questions about the safety of the place started propping up in our minds and at our hosts. They explained that this was an isolated incident and that although elephants have been known to cross this property on their night journeys, never in the past had an attack occurred. Though they did not sound very convincing, we knew this was a risk we were willing to take, as we would not have been there in the first place if this weren’t the case. By way of consolation a domestic aide told us about an elephant that visits the property regularly for the past few days, not showing any desire to attack so long as it’s left alone. There is, he explained, an elephant skull that came about lying in their premises few days ago, and that this other elephant visits it every night, spends time there and moves it a little distance each night, probably trying to move the skull to another location. Elephants are by nature very sensitive and emotional beings, and have been known to sense and feel the remains of a dead herd member with their trunks for hours and sometimes even days, exhibiting signs of mourning and grief and refusing to allow anyone to close in on the remains, guarding the carcass as though guarding a young one. The mention of this skull immediately reminded me of the unknown strange white object we had seen few minutes earlier, and the thought of it being a skull - of an elephant at that - sent shivers down my spine. In any case, the subject was conveniently left aside when it was announced that dinner had been served.

At the time I write of, Savitha cooked all meals for the guests herself, allowing aides to help only with smaller chores such as cutting the vegetables, setting the table and so on. All food was then laid out in a buffet-like manner, and guests dined together at a large central table, accompanied by the host couple as well. Though the dishes were simple, the spread was lavish, with varieties of rice and rotis (Indian Breads), curries, pickles and other accompaniments.

Earlier that day, upon enquiring what activities we could indulge in in and around the guesthouse, Rajiv told us about the jungle safari conducted by the Forest Department at the Madumalai reception centre, and the private jeep safari and a short trek in the jungle which could be arranged by the guesthouse. With an entire day ahead of us, we decided to make the most out of it by participating in all of these activities, starting with the trek early next morning. 

A few hours’ sleep in the jungle is always more refreshing to me than sleeping for hours at end back in the city, and the 4 hour-sleep we had after winding up with our discussions during dinner the previous night and then spending some time listening to the sounds of the forest, were sufficient to make up for the lack of sleep of the day before. We began the trek at 6 AM, when it was still dark and foggy. I noticed the object we had seen the previous night – the elephant skull – was now farther away towards the machaan than it was when we saw it last night, and there were elephant foot-marks all around it and dung nearby – all signs bearing witness to the tale of the mourning night-elephant we’d heard of.

Two guides were to conduct the trek- both locals and knew the forest like the back of their hand. One of them led the group while the other was at the back, a machete in his hand. Only five members from our own group – Dolly aunty, Sonia, Dad, Anand (my younger brother) and I – had opted for the trek, while others from the trekking party were mostly couples who were also staying at the guesthouse. We were briefed by the guides as to refrain from talking and making noise, to not wander away from the group, and to remain calm in case of a chance encounter with an animal. Just as we were about to venture out, Anand twisted an ankle and had to return to the cottage as he would not be able to walk with us. Our trek started off on a positive note though, with the sound of over a dozen peacocks welcoming us from different directions. A half hour into the forest, however, Dad and I knew our chances of spotting any animals were minimal, owing to the amount of noise the others were making, chit-chatting all through the walk and thus scaring away any nearby animal into hiding. We must’ve walked for about an hour when we came across a small waterhole, looking beautiful in the middle of the forest with the canopy of trees overhead. A few people entered the water, even as the guides protested to the idea. The latter explained that in the event a big animal – such as an elephant – happened to approach the waterhole for a drink, it would be taken aback by our presence and we would not have enough time to move away, thus putting us in a risky and unpredictable situation. Once the full significance of this had sunk in their heads, coupled with our requests, they decided to come out of the water much to everyone’s relief, and we continued with the trek. Other than hearing the sounds of peacock and several other birds that remained unidentified to me, we did see rabbits and jungle fowl, though nothing larger. The three hour trek was thoroughly enjoyable, albeit tiring, and we proceeded to the dining area for breakfast after a quick bath upon returning to the guesthouse.

The spread on the breakfast table was as elaborate as the dinner the previous night, with bread, buns, butter and jam on one side, and puri-sagu and idli (Staple food items of South India) on another. A basket on the table contained guavas freshly plucked from trees right outside the cottages. After breakfast, those who had been on the trek retired to their cottages, while others strolled about the estate.

With just one more day in our hands and the burning desire to spot the big cat, we set out towards Mudumalai a half-hour later. Having reached the reception center and procured tickets to the bus safari – the cost of a ticket being a meager 35 rupees then, and remains the same at the time I’m writing this - we now queued up to enter the vehicle, as occupying a window seat was of utmost importance on a safari in order not to miss any sightings. My experience with the safari was, to say the least, disappointing. One must understand, however, that though animal sightings are not always guaranteed and that the chances depend a lot on luck – and I completely acknowledged this at the time as well – lack of sightings was not the sole reason for my disappointment, for I would like to mention here that there were other factors that could have been avoided, thereby increasing our chances. To start off with, the bus itself had a poorly maintained and thus very noisy engine, which accounts for driving away any animals well in advance of our approach. Secondly, the bus stayed on the tarred road around the reception center, barely entering the scrub jungle, and even when it did, not venturing too far into the bush. Lastly, the passengers on the bus were a noisy lot themselves. A little more care and diligence might have led to better results – and even though one can never say with certainty, I would rather be in a position where I can attribute the lack of sighting to chance than to the folly of men. In any case, we proceeded to get back to Masinagudi for lunch. Rajiv had arranged, at the request of Das uncle, for us to lunch at Jungle Retreat, another guesthouse at Bokkapuram and not very far from Forest Hills. Jungle Retreat belonged to Rajiv’s brother, and is built more in the fashion of a city-resort, with facilities both modern and more in number as compared to its counterpart, with the result that Jungle Retreat is more favoured by visitors looking for resort experience while Forest Hills by visitors looking for the feel of staying in the Jungle. Another difference was the food: suited to the more civilized palate of city dwellers, cooked by appointed cooks and in the manner of hotels, thereby lacking the charm that was offered by Forest Hills. Having returned to our guesthouse (Forest Hills), we lazed around listening to the sounds of birds and the breeze through the forest cover waiting for 6 pm – for while we were at Mudumalai we booked two Jeeps for an evening safari. The safari lasted for an hour and a half including the pickup and drop from and to the guesthouse, and was more enjoyable than our experience of the afternoon at Mudumalai. We had sightings of an elephant, chital, sambar and peacock, but the experience was very different, as the drivers and guides – there is usually a person accompanying the driver, commonly referred to as guide for the safari - did not use flashlights for spotting but employed a method new to us. The guide stood on the foothold at the rear of the vehicle, thus gaining a vantage point above the jeep’s hood and scanning the forest area lit by the vehicle’s headlights in the front, and upon seeing an animal or even the slightest movement, signaled the driver by a thud on the roof. The driver slows down, but only for a moment, and almost always, the driver too has by now sensed the exact direction in which the movement has been observed by the guide. This is very interesting, for there is not a single word exchanged between them, save for the thud that is an indication that something has been spotted. The driver has, within a moment, turned the jeep to face the direction of the movement, advances the vehicle quickly and then brings it to a stop, illuminating the entire area in the headlights and showing the animal as clear as day. It is not until this moment that the jeep has been brought to a halt that we others are able to place the animal – often chital, sambar or even a  huge elephant -  standing merely a few feet from us and taken aback by the blinding light and sudden intrusion of humans upon their feeding ground. One has to experience this to fully understand how thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable this method of spotting animals is! We returned to our rooms, finding that a bonfire had been lit right outside the dining hall to the advantage of the guests – for the night was cold and the guesthouse was full to its capacity. Bringing food out from the hall, we ate around the fire, narrating our safari experience – of both the afternoon one as well as the one we had just returned from – to the other guests, who listened with excitement and planned on booking the Jeep safari the next day.

After dinner, all dispersed to their rooms, while we stayed at the fire, chatting with Rajiv – as Das uncle was a friend of his – and he narrated to us some of his experiences in the Jungle. One such experience he told us about was of his encounter of a few days ago. Savitha and he were returning in their SUV one night from Ooty where they had been to get supplies for the guesthouse. They had nearly reached the estate, when Savitha exclaimed “Tiger!” and caught Rajiv’s arm. Both had been drowsy as it was late in the night and Rajiv admitted he had thought for a moment that she had dreamt it, and was about to voice his opinion when he brought the car to a screeching halt. Right in front of the vehicle and standing in its full magnificence in the headlights, was a tiger! It briefly stared into the headlights, then – very calmly – turned and walked into the bush. With utmost excitement and goose-bumps – both from the cold and his narration – we listened intently without uttering a single word. When he was done, and there was silence for a whole minute – the only sounds being that of beetles and of the crackling bonfire – I ventured: “And how long ago was this?” to which Rajiv responded “Three…maybe four days back”… We all looked at each other. Clearly the excitement was mounting and we had the same question in mind: could it be possible that… “Rajiv, what would be a good time to go out for tiger spotting?” Dad interrupted the thought, as though reading our minds. Looking at his wrist watch – which caused a dramatic pause – he said: “Gyarah baj rahe hainAbhi nikal jao…?” (“It is close to 11 pm… You could go right now”). Expecting a more typical reply of the kind  “January to March”, I was dumbfounded on hearing his words, and this may have been the case with others as well, for we all blurted something out at the same time, with the result that no-one understood what the other was saying. Motioning us to silence, Dad asked “but we don’t have a jeep? And surely we would need someone to guide us?” Without answering, Rajiv turned behind, called something out, received a response from the kitchen and the next minute one of the farm-hands was standing beside us. They spoke briefly in Tamil, and Venkat - the name by which I shall refer to him, as I do not recollect now what his name was - disappeared in the direction he had come from. We waited for the reply to Dad’s questions, but there was none. Das uncle winked at us, indicating that Rajiv may have had a little more (drink) than he probably should have. A few moments later Venkat re-appeared, with a torch in his hand and a muffler around his neck and covering both ears. I was catching up with these happenings and the train of thought in my mind, when Rajiv turned to Dad and said “Venkat will go with you. You can take your Qualis, it is well suited for such terrain and shall not give you any trouble. Take some warm clothes with you”. Even before allowing a minute for these words to sink in, we got up without saying a word, and started towards our cottages, while Rajiv remained at the fire. As Dad and I reached our cottage and I was taking out a jacket and my torch – a small Eveready torch I owned at the time – from the bag, we saw Das uncle approaching. He said “You didn’t take him too seriously I hope… He is a little tipsy tonight”, and winked again. “I think we should call it a day and go to sleep”. Even as I began my protest Dad said “This is our last night here, before heading to Ooty tomorrow. And who knows, with the tiger spotted in the area just 3 days ago... besides, what have we to lose anyway?” I was relieved dad wasn’t going to give in to Das uncle’s attempt at dissuading us from going. Mum was in support of Das uncle’s opinion though, saying he was right and it’s too late in the night, and that should we go, she’d have to stay up all night worried about us. But we were joined next minute by Dolly, Sonia and Parminder uncle, who now had their jackets and gloves on and asked why we weren’t at the car yet. So that was it: The three of them, and Dad, Venkat and I would go, while Das uncle ridiculed the idea and said he was tired and needed his sleep. Anand, having hurt his leg in the morning at the beginning of the trek, decided to stay back with Mum. Ranjita aunty, Atul uncle, and his parents also chose to stay put.

The six of us buckled up in the Qualis with Parminder uncle at the wheel, and thus started the safari that will always be etched in my memory like it were just yesterday. We left the guesthouse limits at a snail’s pace, out of necessity, as Parminder uncle could not have driven faster for the path was open jungle with no tarred roads or even a flat mud-path, and the night being a moonless one, engulfed the forest in pitch darkness. The ladies were engrossed in small talk as we caught on to the road – for it was virtually impossible, in addition to it being extremely dangerous, to drive in the bush – I flashed my torch around and saw a pair of little shiny dots. With this sight the entire Nagarhole experience came back to me in a flash, as I said “Shh! There’s something there”. Everyone fell silent and Parminder uncle hit the brakes, and as I settled the torch-beam on the eyes we saw it was a rabbit! I should take a moment here to explain that the rabbits in the jungle are not anywhere close – in color or size - to their little white cousins that we are more familiar with. For the rabbits in the jungle are in this part of the country more or less off-brown in color, and huge in size. Venkat had two things to say. First, he commended my eyesight and congratulated me on having spotted the animal. Then he commented that starting a safari with the sighting of a rabbit was considered good luck. Of course, the vague nature of the definition of having good luck makes it difficult to verify such claims, for even though that night was certainly a most lucky one for us, in all the years thereafter, there have been many occasions on which I have seen rabbits in the wild and yet haven’t had the prize I’m always after – the king of the jungle. In any case, spotting an animal right at the beginning of the drive made us optimistic. So much so, that the ladies were more interested now in peering outside than in chit-chatting (much to our relief). It was at this time when we also learnt that the rechargeable flashlight Venkat had carried and that had looked so promising in his hands when he stood beside Rajiv and at his disposal, would be useless that night as he had forgotten to charge it – a fact that came to light (pun intended) when he switched it on in the quest to focus it on the rabbit and we saw no beam coming from the torch. Now depending solely on the torch I carried, and on the car’s headlights, we chugged along towards Mudumalai, seeing more rabbits on the way. The plan – a rough sketch of the layout I have provided here will be of some help I hope - was that we would first cover the stretch from Masinagudi to Mudumalai, upon reaching which we would then go down the Gudalur road for some distance before heading back to Masinagudi.

[Fig. 3.2] General layout (not to scale) and location of tiger sighting

Upon reaching the Masinagudi check-post, a guard at the outpost approached the vehicle while another was at the controlling end of the barricade. The former said something in Tamil and Venkat responded. We anticipated being chided for venturing out in the dark and ordered to turn the vehicle back and return to the guesthouse, but almost immediately Venkat dismissed any such speculation by telling us what the guard had tried to convey. He said that the guards stay up all night in order to man the check-post, and that some baksheesh would be greatly appreciated. This was to our relief as it meant we were not being turned away and could continue our safari. With a warm smile the guard pocketed the tip and signaled the other to let us pass. We had just turned a curve after clearing the check-post and in the headlights panning the bush saw a hundred shining eyes. I recognized, at once, the familiar sight of scores of deer herding together and staying close to human presence for safety from predators. What was new this time though was that the deer were not on their feet and moving about, but seated and resting. It appeared that not all of them were alarmed by the sudden intrusion; Only a few at the boundaries of the herd were alert and turned as still as a stone for a brief moment before returning to their relaxed state and not bothering much about us. I would guess that they have reached a comfort level with human beings, and the lights of the vehicles through the night are more of an assurance to them than a concern. We continued onto the road and after a good 20 minutes of no animal sighting (other than the occasional deer), once again Parminder uncle brought the car to a halt. This time everyone peered outside, including myself, trying to figure out what had prompted Venkat to ask for us to stop. “Yaliphant” (elephant), he whispered in his crude accent. There was an excited hustle within the car as each person peered out again with a hurried “where?”. “Hush!” he exclaimed, asking Parminder uncle to reverse the car. Back at the guesthouse and at Rajiv’s suggestion, we had turned off the reverse-beeper on the car. The purpose this served became evident only now, as the car backed up without making a sound. “Yes, Yes” Venkat said as I gave him the flashlight and we all looked in the direction he pointed it at. Grey as a boulder and the only identifiable mark on it being the right eye shining in the flashlight, a huge elephant stood only a few feet into the bush and facing away from us. In the manner of the safari jeeps that we used earlier that day, Parminder uncle backed the car a little further, and turned it toward the animal to give us full view of the beast in the headlights. Without turning to see what had happened, the elephant’s first instinct was to disappear into the bush, but a moment later we saw it again, this time the whole of its head sneaking out of the thicket in an enquiring manner. How it managed to go into the bush and turn around - all without making a sound and so quickly – was simply amazing. Sensing conflict we backed up a bit, and turned the headlights off, as though by way of indicating we meant no harm. A few moments passed and both the elephant and our group now knew the other’s intent was not to cause any trouble, so it continued to graze while we admired it for a few more minutes before moving on. Having seen only rabbits and deer thus far on our drive, the elephant sighting was most satisfying, and more importantly, reassuring.

We were now at the Mudumalai reception, and turned left on to Gudalur Road. After driving for about 10 KM, well past the Kargudi check-post and not having spotted a single animal, we decided to return. In the stretch between a quarter of the way from Mudumalai to Masinagudi and till about three quarters of the way, we spotted what must have been at least a dozen wild boar. The Indian boar or wild–hog, though as fierce as its counterparts from the other regions of the continent, is surprisingly found close to human habitation – in fact, boar in South India are as common a sight in forests nearby dwellings as the stray dogs in the city streets - and are often harmless unless provoked. They range in color from dark to light grey and can show great variation in size, the smallest adult being the size of a house cat while the larger ones growing to over 3 feet in height. Except on two occasions where we spotted a lone boar, the others were in groups of two or three. Of course, there could have been more just behind and in the thicket, hidden from view by the bush and the meek beam of the pocket torch on which we depended. It was at this time that I changed the batteries on the flashlight, for the beam grew very dull as the current set of batteries had virtually run out.

With the new, bright light beam – symbolizing my own replenished faith and determination – I peered out once again in the hope of catching a glimpse of the prize we had so excitedly begun our safari for. But the King was not easy to come by, for we had not yet made acquaintance with all of his subjects. While these thoughts were running through my mind, I saw the biggest eyes I have ever seen by torch-light. Letting out just the term “bison” in the now accustomed manner of calling out the spotted animal’s name, not saying anything more until the car was backed up to the point I thought I saw the quarry, scanning the area with the flashlight and then a “haan” (“Yes” in hindi), I now focused the beam on the animal. We saw only the head of the bison and a portion of the right shoulder, for it stood in a trench next to the road and on our left. With the bison so dangerously close to the car and its head bigger than the Qualis’s tyre, I suddenly remembered having seen another set of eyes about the same instant I spotted this beast, and shifted my torch above the bison and behind it in the scrub. There it was, another bison, definitely not as large as the one in the trench but just as beautiful, with its full body visible in the light. All four legs in white from the knee down, and the rest of the body of a uniform reddish-brown color, its head held a countenance of serenity and peace even as it chewed on its graze in the mechanical manner of cattle. Satisfied that this second one was at a safe distance, I turned the torch back toward the one in the trench, for it was closer to us and thus warranted caution. At this point it seemed to grow a little impatient, so we left the bison alone and thought it best to move on. On reaching the Masinagudi check-post we were greeted by the guard, an unmistakable hint of recognition in his otherwise sleep-ridden eyes. He let us pass with one hand held up as a way of showing gratitude, perhaps for the tip we had unhesitatingly handed out earlier that night.

So that was it; The Safari was finally coming to an end. We had certainly enjoyed every bit of it, but somewhere at the back of my mind I knew my ultimate desire was not satiated. To be honest we were not very hopeful to begin with, having spent 2 days at the place without a sign of the tiger and our desperation evident from the fact that we had allowed ourselves to be carried away by the words of a man who, I confess I now was beginning to agree with Das uncle’s assessment back at the cottage, was not entirely sober at the moment. Just as we neared the right-turn on to Bokkapuram which would subsequently bring us to the guesthouse, Dad suggested, “Shall we try out the Ooty-road as well?”  To this I promptly voiced support, but we were met with protesting, drowsy glances, so we negotiated for a few moments and it was agreed that we would go only for a few kilometers and then call it a night. Reluctantly Parminder uncle hit the gas pedal and the car chugged along. It was now just a few minutes past one, and we were close to the place where the ascent to Ooty starts. We had not spotted a single deer or rabbit and others in the car showed their regret for submitting to our request. Parminder uncle turned the vehicle around to return. Nobody questioned him this time. With the number of cars moving about - for post-evening vehicular traffic to and from Ooty was not banned at the time I write of - it was becoming more and more difficult to believe that we would find anything at all in this part of the Jungle. To add to this, Parminder uncle now raised the speed to almost 80 Kmph, making it clear that his goal now was solely to get us back to the guesthouse. I continued holding the flashlight lit and against the rolled-down window, with sarcastic remarks being hurled at me. Even as sleep was beginning to catch up on me, there was a flash in my now-faint torch-beam. I thought I had imagined it, but the reflex I had now acquired made me call out – “Stop!” The convention was usually to call out the name of the animal spotted and then to focus on zeroing in on its position; But this time something kept me from calling out the name; My heart skipped a beat the instant I had seen two round yellow eyes, and more importantly, against the face of what I knew to be that of a tiger. Parminder uncle showed no inclination to stop, and I cried “Please… please stop just this once!” and Dad asked him to slow down. By the time we stopped we were far ahead of the mark, and he started reluctantly backing the car as he expressed his skepticism and said it was mostly a deer or a boar I had seen. Remember that I had not, until this point, indicated that I believed this sighting to be of a tiger. I now blurted out the words “but it’s a ti…” and hesitated, as though fearing the ridicule that I would receive had I been wrong. I said “Here!” and he stopped the car. I flashed the torch around and looked. Just as Parminder uncle began saying something, I said in a whisper “Tiger! Tiger!” and Dolly aunty and Dad saw it too when I rested the light-beam on it. Dad hushed everybody to silence and Sonia and Parminder uncle struggled to catch a glimpse, as they were seated on the right side of the car, and the tiger was to our left. Venkat, who had fallen asleep a half hour ago, now awoke to the excitement and hustle within the car. Dad asked Parminder uncle to back the car a little further, as he suspected the tiger wanted to cross the road, which would explain why it stayed put and did not disappear into the bush upon our intrude. Parminder backed the car but turned it in the tiger’s direction, in an attempt to get it in the headlights. “No” we all shrieked at the same time, and saw the tiger’s whole majestic body as it turned sideways and then – in an instant – disappeared. We waited for another minute but there was no movement. With the car now perched half in the scrub and the other half on the road, we were now blocking three vehicles that had gathered there, so we brought the car back to its original position. Not wanting to give up as yet, Dad asked us to stay quiet and let the cars pass by, and once this was achieved, he said again- “Anuj, flash the torch”. I obeyed and a moment later saw its head again. The tiger was now back to its position, crouched and facing the road, confirming Dad’s speculation of its desire to cross. The light from the torch was faint but now the tiger’s face was clearly seen, and for a whole minute we looked at it while it stared back at my flashlight. Another car reached up behind us and wanted to join the excitement and began flashing a torch as well, in an attempt to figure out what we had seen. We tried to indicate that it was a tiger and to ask them to be silent, but they were too impatient and noisy, and after a few moments, left the scene. In the confusion they caused, we lost sight of the tiger. Another couple of minutes passed by and we knew the tiger had now taken to denser vegetation. All was quiet now, and with the air no longer tense with excitement, each member let out a sigh, as though digesting what had just happened, letting it all sink in. As for myself, I had the widest smile on my face, all of the remaining way right till we reached the guesthouse. A guard hurried along on hearing us approach, and was accompanied by the two dogs, who then retreated after having satisfied themselves that our arrival did not warrant any action. As Dad and I entered our cottage suite, we found mum was awake and anxious, worrying about our safety through the night and not having slept since we left. I lay in my bed as all events of the night were coming back to me, and I do not remember at what point I dozed off.

I awoke to a quiet morning and realized it was still early to be up and about. In spite of the fact that we retired late the previous night, I have always found even a few hours’ sleep in the forest to be most refreshing, and thus decided against going back to bed. I peeked outside; It was a foggy morning and I would have loved to venture out, had I not seen one of the dogs lazing about just outside. When I checked again a few minutes later there was no sign of it, so I went in the open and strolled around. The morning sounds, chirping of birds, butterflies all around – it was all very merry, and felt like I was still asleep, dreaming, seeing the tiger appear, then the hustle that followed, and finally disappear. No, I said to myself; it was all for real, in fact as real as the muddy back of the tiger- what was that all about? Was it dried blood, from a kill maybe? Or just a mud-smear from the bush or from near a waterhole? Whatever it was, the experience had been thrilling and was still sinking in. I had a smile on my face throughout while I got back to the cottage, realized others were up and about now, had a bath, packed up my bags, and headed out towards the Dining area again. Needless to say, the topic of discussion that prevailed over breakfast was our encounter of the previous night. Awe and envy were evident expressions on everyone’s face, as seeing a tiger in the wild is not a commonplace event. Having had a hearty meal, and helping others with loading the luggage back into the cars, I saw Das uncle sit by the place the campfire was lit in the night. He was staring into the now calm, cold and silent remains of the firewood. He looked devastated, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t know why; He was the only member of the party who, at the very last moment, decided not to get carried away and to stay put at the guesthouse, thus missing out on all of the events that unfolded during the night. “It’s time to go”, I said. As though his thoughts were someplace else and brought back to the present by my words, he said while staring into the charred remains: “Lies, Lies, Lies! Every bit of it! ......Your story of seeing a tiger has no more truth in it than this pile of ashes has fire”, and threw a stick in the pile with disgust. As the stick hit the heap, there was a cloud of dust from the ash as a layer slid off and the embers underneath glowed red-hot. “Fair enough” I said with an uncontrollable smile and we both walked towards the car. 


Popular posts from this blog

A Wild Rendezvous

A Quick Trip to BR Hills!

Another Step Towards Eco-Tourism