3.30 am. We woke up reluctantly to the insistent alarm clock. Soon the telephone alarm of Kanha Earth Lodge followed. The appointment, this time, was with the wild. Hurried and reluctant cups of tea at that unearthly hour could not take away the whiff of the adventure that lay uncertain, ahead of us. We were a sizeable party of ten, with four sleepy and groggy children, not quite happy at being woken up. It was night yet outside, and, it was cold, even in late March and we generously wrapped around us the blankets provided in the jeep. The jeeps were ‘open’, just as they are in all wildlife safaris and we knew our wild neighbours, including the predators, were loose and they could just emerge, out of nowhere!
There was hardly any talk. Silence was to be the order of the time, for our ears were slowly tuning themselves to the sounds around us – dry leaves falling, crickets singing, a slow ruffle here and a push there, followed by a run. Intriguing and sometimes even scary to us, who have only learnt to regard the world from the perspective of the humans.
This was Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India, divided into the buffer region and the core zones of Kanha, Mukki, Kisli and Sarhi. Our first safari was towards Mukki, then, Kisli and last, Kanha.
The thrust is always towards sighting the tiger, but to say so is just like the humans, who always prioritise, and label; there are many others too, waiting to be explored. It is their world, after all. The night scene, beckoned, with its quiet calmness; the jeeps raced forward through unmetalled roads, amid the saal trees, the moon, a quiet crescent atop us, and Soham, breathing fast in the thrill of an imminent horror script. Ira almost narrated a recent ghost anecdote heard in her friend’s poolside birthday party. The parents tried hard to keep them snuggled in the icy breeze that cut deep into their skins even in the summer months. A stretch of speedy fifteen kilometres came to an end at the Kathiya gate. A brief wait, before we were ushered in to their kingdom.
Kanha is interesting, because the authorities have increased forest area by pushing away human habitation to give more space to our earth-friends. Hence, vast stretches of clear ground alternate with the deeper clusters of the saal and bamboo trees. We are made conscious of the inhabitants of this land – the wild boars, the Indian gor and the sprightly spotted deer – they are almost everywhere. They are busy and they barely look at us. They are accustomed to the sound of the safari jeeps. Sometimes, mostly the spotted deer or the langur look up, startled, as if interrupted in their thoughts or sweet speech –
Even if you do not spot any animal, the forest itself whispers its life to you. Here, the world has a different rhythm, literally far from the civilized centers, the land cuts itself into its own shape – the trees are consciously not of the ‘plantation’ variety; hence, large patches of burnt wood sometimes alternate with the new greens, at other times, the dry browns ruffle in their aridity, sometimes, insects eat into them to fell them, all in the rhythm of the natural, jungle law.
Humans are largely misfit over here. In fact, always conscious of being the master, the human may here be made to feel the intruder. You intrude, upon their privacy, their society.
They have their language, the langurs know when the tiger is near, the macao knows, the peacock knows, the other birds know, they can navigate their ways back and forth. And among the humans, the forest guides know – all the roads and by-lanes, back and forth, so they can instruct to follow, the tiger trail. It’s breathtakingly intoxicating – the jungle and its language – and when you spot the big cat, it seems you have hit the jackpot! What grace, what poise, what elegance – you instantly fall in love with the striped beauty. You are at a loss, how to react – whether you gape in amazed wonder or whether you shoot with your lense – what is the better alternative. Beautiful they are in their quiet dignity and poise and all they evoke is wonder and charm, not fear. The forest guards relate to them like humans – they have names – DJ, Lakshmi, Munna.
Even their children have names – Balwan is a handsome cub, all of three years old. We were blessed to see him from close quarters, for over half an hour. He even played a little game of hide-and-seek with us, when he disappeared into the bushes, before gambolling in front of our jeep. Souvik and Soham were in a different jeep, I was in another. For a moment my heart stopped, but somewhere, I knew, Balwan could never hurt. They are not like humans, they can be trusted.