National Geographic Traveler
The tiger was close: a fact that had finally managed to pierce the clouds of my pharmaceutical fog. Having just bolted at gut-churning speed over a series of dirt tracks in an eight-seater, open-top Gypsy, our ranger Kaustubh suddenly cut the engine and brought the vehicle to a stop next to the source of the noise we had been chasing. A tribe of Langur monkeys were going nuts, jumping between branches and emitting the shrieks and growls of their alarm call. It was a warning signal to other potential prey that there was a predator very close by and a clear cross-species message to me that there was ample cause to be very afraid.
‘They’re seeing something we can’t,’ said Kaustubh with Jurassic Park-like intensity. ‘It’s either a leopard or a tiger.’
I stood up to try and dispel the sleepiness. I was learning the drowsy way that drugs do not enhance the safari experience. At least not the kind of drugs I was taking. My last-ditch, self-administered dose of Diphenhydramine, a multi-faceted miracle med sold as variously as an antihistamine, an antiemetic and a sleep medication, was giving me all the benefits of bumpy-drive nausea relief but also adding intense somnolence into the bargain. Such were the perils of an adventure holiday mixed with chronic and embarrassing motion sickness: all afternoon, my husband had been prodding me as I dozed off in my seat while we passed a host of once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings including Spotted and Sambar deer, wild boars, peacocks, a jackal and several ominous birds of prey in a holding pattern overhead. Now, through the diphenhydramine haze, I was faintly aware of a mounting buzz stemming from the anticipation that seven hours of bumpy off-roading was about to come to a dramatic crescendo. This mixed with the sobering awareness that, should the drama become too intense, we were most vulnerably exposed in an open vehicle with not so much as a water pistol to protect us from the jaws of a hungry Shere Khan.
The Pench National Park – situated in the Seoni district in the middle of India across the state lines of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – is Jungle Book territory. These are the forests where the contentious poet and literary voice of the British Overseas Empire, Rudyard Kipling, had his man-cub Mowgli fostered by a family of wolves. As a child raised more on the Disneyfied version of Kipling’s tale, and as an Anglo-Indophile adult fascinated by the author’s accounts of the British Raj, I had long harboured a desire to visit the place where men and beasts mingled in an all-singing, dancing, morally instructive kind of way. And though in seven hours we hadn’t seen as much as the swipe of a wolf’s tail (nor that of a snake nor a bear, not to mention the elusive large cats), there was one group of characters that were out in force: the screeching grey Langurs, the reprehensible Bandar-Log, the Monkey People cast as evil, dirty, shameless outcasts and reviled by Mowgli’s mentors, Baloo and Bagheera.
Maybe it was the drugs, but looking at the little guys up close, it seemed like Kipling’s was a harsh assessment. As far I could see, the Bandar-Log were a pretty cool bunch: they hung out in groups, often clinging to one another in pairs, grooming, fiddling with stuff on the ground, eating leaves up in the trees and shaking the branches enough to send a few pickings down for the deer who waited expectantly below. In addition to this, the Langurs played a vital role in every other paying human’s raison d’être in the park, namely a much-coveted glimpse of a large, striped, carnivorous cat.
The tiger-spotters need all the help they can get: like most safari parks in India designed to simultaneously protect and make a buck from the animal, Pench is home to a mere smattering of them. Its 881 square kilometres houses only about 60 of the cats, around 12 of which live in the much smaller area apportioned to visitors. It works out at roughly one tiger per 10 square kilometres, which, when I did the maths (about six hours into the drive, as it slowly began to dawn on me that the odds were very much against us), turned out to be a feline needle in a huge jungle haystack. Still, our guides did an excellent job of remaining animated and buoyant throughout. This game of safari hide and seek that was their bread and butter was actually also their passion, and as soon as I verified this, the chase took on another dimension.
To a punter, the jungle seems like a hostile place: it’s dense and dry and rife with teaks, frankincense, banyans and the ghost-trees whose sinister white branches radiate like the fingers of the undead through the otherwise greeny-brown vegetation. All I could see around us were vertical stripes, bark piled on bark and lots of foliage. How could someone pick out anything through all this visual noise? The trick, as Baloo taught Mowgli, and Kaustubh subsequently tried to teach me, was to learn junglespeak.
It was a language in which Kaustubh and Subash, a professional tracker riding up front with him, were highly proficient, both aurally and orally; after every few minutes of trundling over rough, bile-invoking hillocks in the heavy-footed Gypsy, Kaustubh stopped the car and switched off the engine (a mercy call for my nausea). He and Subash rose out of their seats and listened while scanning the minute gaps between trees for the tiniest sign of movement. The moment was so still and they were listening so hard, I felt like I could almost see their ears twitching. I tried to do the same: to me the noise of the jungle was the backdrop of birdsong and other unknown sounds that comprised the cacophony of feral gobbledegook. To the guides, however, it was a complete syntax, ready to be deciphered, followed and more impressively, replicated. Kaustubh had an extensive and quite entertaining repertoire of animal sounds, from Langur cries to various birdcalls and even tiger noises. As he methodically identified and repeated each sound to me, I started to recognise the noises myself. The mating cries and alarm calls were the most easily discernible: deep hoots emanating from the monkeys turned out to be the calling card of a primate in search of some tail. (It was a sound I initially took to be one of distress, a misreading that leads to me suspect some psycho-sadistic element in the animals’ sexual makeup.) The monkeys’ actual alarm call sounded more like an old man hocking up a loogie, while the spotted deer made a noise like a deep klaxon. The rhythms were quite particular – long periods of silence followed by a barely perceptible ruckus among some distant trees that jolted our guides back into action. Kaustubh restarted the Gypsy and we sped off in the direction of the disturbance, though again and again we kept losing the thread of the chase.
Still, Kaustubh (or KT as he had us call him in the national tradition of reducing to acronyms names that were challenging or tiring to pronounce) was skilled at softening the disappointment after a false tiger lead by way of maintaining a contagious zeal for every other aspect of the park: from the shrubs and smallest flowers to the benign deer that stared out from among the trees before scuttling off at the first sound of a motor engine. He brought us to an abrupt stop to point out a tiny owl camouflaged against patchwork grey bark, an osprey perched on a dead tree protruding from a watering hole, a drongo sitting on a branch above our heads or a green bee-eater, barely visible on a far-off fence post.
After the intense commotion, the Langurs started to lose interest. The noises they were making died down and it no longer sounded like we were visiting an emphysema ward.
‘That means whatever it is, it’s moving away from us,’ Kaustubh said, trying to follow the monkeys’ gazes as they slowly scattered off into the green murk. ‘It’s probably headed for the watering hole. Let’s go.’
The house where Rudyard Kipling spent his earliest years is hidden among a clutch of dense greenery in the grounds of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. Unknown to most of the city’s residents, it’s an elegant, green wooden structure with slender columns and dispersed latticework. Under the close scrutiny of the art school’s security guard, who is bemused by visits from the occasional intrepid Kipling acolyte, I peered in through darkened windows to see evidence of modest habitation despite the general exterior air of neglect. A bust of the author’s head is situated on a plinth on the front porch with a plaque that wrongly states he was born in this house (actually it was constructed a few months later, in 1866). Due to his father’s posting as a professor of sculpture at the school, it was here that he spent a his pre-school years, frolicking through the tropical shrubbery with his little sister and in the care of their Indian ayah, whose vernacular language initially came more naturally to the young Kipling than English. In his biography, the author refers to this period as a kind of unbounded Dream Time when even such horrors as finding a child’s severed hand in the back garden, did little to detract from the magic of innocence.
The current state of Kipling’s house in Mumbai is in some ways representative of a wider ambivalence towards the author. Depending on which side of the fence you fall, either he was an imperialist, racist and orientalist in the worse sense of Edward Said’s definition of the terms, or he was a devoted product of India’s great melting pot with an insuperable fascination for the country that spawned him.
1860s India was a curious place for its population of Anglo-Indians: the Colonial Administration was really digging in its heels following a national uprising in 1857, and expat life was often difficult, distrustful and downright hot. Those who could escaped the worst of the heat by heading to the hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas where, reinvigorated by the mountain air, the Brits bred all manner of scandal within high-society circles. Kipling, who from the age of 16 worked as a journalist first in Lahore, then in Allahabad, was witness to this strange society in summer exile – whose capital was the very English-looking town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh – and wrote copious stories of its exploits in a volume called Plain Tales from the Hills.
Despite earnest claims to the contrary by locals invested in pushing the Kipling buck as far as they can, the writer never actually visited the Seoni Hills. All the detail he included in his Jungle Book stories came, as he himself stated, from something called the Sterndale’s Gazetteer, and in fact he didn’t write the Jungle Books until five years after he left India. If it wasn’t clear to readers already, it needs to be reiterated that The Jungle Book is a work of pure imagination. Which made sense. If not, where were the bears, wolves and lumbering elephants?
About 10km from the entrance of the park, the mud-and-brick village of Amajhiri straddles a concrete road that disappears into dust at its edges where it meets the rounded whitewashed walls of the village compound houses. The doorways and courtyards are spotlessly clean and still bear the fresh rake-marks of a broom’s bristle. We were there on the invitation of Raj. Born and bred in Amajhiri, father of one-and-counting Raj works at the Baghvan Safari Resort, the place where we were staying. Upon our arrival there, he was assigned to us as a general granter of wishes and organiser of whims, as well as local oracle. As such, I had one huge favour to ask of him: could we take a few hours break from the safari and go and check out his village?
Tea on Raj’s mum’s front porch was enamel-strippingly sweet, and served in the midst of the dozen or so children that had gathered around us to eye the proceedings with cautious curiosity. A flock of geese waddled down the high street, while a gang of kids (*baby goats*) teetered nearby on shaky, barely functional legs. Kaustubh, who was accompanying us on our visit, sighed.
‘I’d love to live in a place like this,’ he said, holding one of the baby goats up into the nape of his neck. ‘It feels like such ideal living.’
Perhaps. But now, as in Kipling’s time, village life also had its drawbacks: on the way back that night, as the Gypsy’s giant treads threw the road’s dust up into the beam of our headlights, Raj recounted a couple of incidents of latter-day tiger sightings that were too close to home: one night he actually saw the eyes of a tiger reflected in his motorbike’s headlight, just metres away in a field. He was understandably less than cool with the idea of a Shere Khan padding around the peripheries of his own habitat.
In Kipling’s day, tigers were for hunting. The British Raj’s insuperable taste for gunning down the cats has carried into modern-day poaching, since China especially provides a hungry market for Indian tiger body parts. A century ago, India was home to around 42,000 tigers; today there are a mere 1,800. But even this number may be too large, given that the animals’ territories and the corridors between them are also shrinking and altogether disappearing.
Tigers are solitary creatures. They live alone, hunt alone and only really get together with other tigers for mating or child-rearing purposes. The rest of it is a very unsociable game, to the point of hostility: if a tiger catches another on its own territory, it’s liable to fight its rival to the death. And if it is pushed out of its hunting grounds, it will wander into human settlements and pounce on whatever it can find: a cow, a goat, a dog, or – if particularly hungry – a person. (At the time of writing, there’s a hunt on for a man-eater who’s picked off ten humans to date around the peripheries of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the northern state of Uttarkhand.)
That night, we slept on the Machan (a rooftop terrace) of our bungalow at the Baghvan lodge. It was a daring opportunity to bed down under the stars and foliage of the jungle within the relative safety of a netted, curtained tree house.
‘Are you sure tigers can’t jump this high?’ I asked my husband as we both clutched at the hot water bottle placed between the chilly sheets. It wasn’t an altogether ridiculous question, given Raj’s story and Kaustubh’s earlier disclosure of a recent photo of a tiger paw print in the dust just metres away from our room.
The tigers were always close – but when you were actually looking for one, they were nowhere to be seen.
We arrived at the watering hole, and I was still toting a little tiger anxiety. On the way, we had spotted an enormous paw print in the dust, as well as the hair-curling sight of a set of claw marks ripping through the bark of a tree that a tiger had been using as a scratching post and had left like a beastly mark of Zorro to chart its passage.
Two other Gypsies were already pulled up on the same spot, having deciphered the same set of signs as we had. You could have cut the silence with a knife. Kaustubh was standing like a sensory beacon on the Gypsy’s bonnet, raising and lowering his binoculars and scanning the sound spectrum for the slightest rustle of a nearby kitty.
Then the apotheosis: KT shot out a finger in the direction of the trees in front of us, a gesture that carried in a silent wave over to the other two vehicles. In the tiny gap between the trees about fifty metres ahead, I made out a flash of a pattern that flickered between the sedentary barks. But those weren’t stripes; they were spots.
Kaustubh fixed the animal with his binoculars. ‘It’s a leopard.’ He gasped like it was his first sighting.
I thought I’d be disappointed; Bagheera in the place of Shere Khan. Somehow seeing a tiger was supposed to be the point of the whole thing. But as we watched the leopard move cautiously through the forest, it was like following a vision. And when he came to the roadside, only a few feet away from the Gypsy, I felt like I was in the presence of royalty. He put one foot very tentatively in front of the other as he felt out the ground of the road and slowly crossed, never for a second taking his eyes off us. I completely forgot about the diphenhydramine, my urge to vomit, and even my fear of large cats charging the Gypsy; all I could do was watch Bagheera, (‘as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo’, but thankfully this time not ‘as reckless as the wounded elephant’), as he receded into the distance on the other side of the road, and out towards the watering hole.
And then he was gone and all that was left behind was a bushed void of satisfaction. Everybody exhaled and it was all we could do not to high-five each other. The sky began to darken as we trundled our way back out of the park and I felt the last traces of the diphenhydramine give way to a more lofty euphoria. Some of the Bandar Log lined the trail and eyeballed us nonchalantly as we returned back out to the realm of the humans, of the rectangular fields, the villages, the fires and fences, the domesticated dogs and cows and herds of buffalo also slowly making their way back home.
A chill prickled the back of my neck as I gauged that Shere Khan was still out there. We hadn’t found him, but I figured he knew where we were, and that he would decide when and where he wanted to be found.