Pavankali winked at me. The wink was definitely out of place, but then elephants are autonomous creatures, persistent in what they think is right for the moment and not unduly excited by something as transient as atmosphere. The wink was out of place because of the atmosphere. We were in midst of a forest. There were tall old Sal trees meditatively reigning all around us, densely clustered in their individual solitude, in which they infrequently allowed a sunbeam or two. The sunbeam would filter through a canopy of tremulous leaves, via the tensile beauty of a spider’s web, and fall on the silent camouflage of a grey-brown insect. These were moments for recognising higher truths. Pavankali, of course, chose to wink.
She winked because her mahaout had just commented in the magical lilt of eastern UP – “Ee Pavankali toh saamne ser dekhat hee us par daurat hai” (the moment she comes face to face with a tiger she charges at him), the creases on his face defining the mysterious bond that ties mahaouts to their elephants. She winked as a teenage son would to his friend, when his mother exaggerated what seemed like adolescent foibles. She winked because she knew I was on her side. But she didn’t know that at that exact moment I was also irrevocably lost to her. For the magic word had been spoken. After all my secret finger crossing and hoping against hope, I had come across an insider, a mahaout who lived in these jungles, who could actually confirm by his casual comment, without even meaning to, that tigers could indeed be seen in Dudhwa National Park.
Now this was April 2005. The country was abuzz with news of the missing tigers of Sariska. Editorials were being written and task forces set up. And those in the know bemoaned the staged ‘tiger show’ quality of the tourist sightings in the more famous national parks. As I went about the business of packing odomos and procuring a sun-hat before leaving for Dudhwa, I was wise and superior: "Why are tourists obsessed about seeing tigers its as if the whole trip is a waste if you don’t see one there’s so much more to a forest than seeing a tiger, isn’t it?"
There is. The fact is that the forest manages to lend an electrical charge to the sighting of a caterpillar. I remember ambling disconsolately away from the forest office on my first day, having been told, no madam, you cannot drive into the forest throughout your visit because there is a tiger census on and the park is closed. I was kicking a blameless pebble, standing on the road at the periphery of the forest, when a couple of cheetal emerged. Cheetal. Spotted deer. Available all over the country, seen in several urban district parks on morning walks and caged in many self respecting resort hotels in UP. And yet my heart missed a beat. The moment of emergence from the shadowy trees when a creature is just a creature and not “cheetal” or “tiger” – potentially carnivorous, hoof-footed, antlered, slow-moving…; the recognition that there is not the slightest barrier to physical contact between the two of you; the context of sensuous life that the forest produces – sound, smell, chill, absence of familiar things – this is what they all add up to make – a forever-remembered, missing heartbeat. That is the magic of the forest. It can make the focusing of binoculars on an eagle hugely exciting, and the discovery that the logs in the Suheli river are well-camouflaged crocodiles, a matter of immense joy.
Pavankali was the result of that undisguised blessing called the Tiger Census. Dudhwa has one pucca road running through it and various kuccha but motorable forks that lead deeper into the jungle. The tiger census meant that these forks had been cleaned and the dust smoothened to create about 5-foot long mud “pads” at regular intervals. As the tiger would step on one, his or her pugmarks, individual and identifiable, would impress themselves for the census takers. Since vehicles would obliterate such pug marks, the park was closed to tourists. BUT teary-eyed journalists from Delhi could proceed on elephants on the forest floor, keeping clear of the pads. And so Pavankali, wind-bud, she who demonstrated why ancient Indian texts compared the walk of the nayika with that of an elephant, bore us patiently through that increasingly inward forest. Moist leaves mellowed further under her steps giving off their singular perfume, branches barred the way, and yellow butterflies danced about like happy childhoods. Thus began my Great Tiger Story.
Like most good forests Dudhwa is a mix of vegetation types. Pavankali moved through moist deciduous Sal forest for an enchanting hour and then waded with carefully disguised enthusiasm into the grassland. She was eating then and she ate now. Amongst the Sal, she plucked a few branches to chomp on, but when maneuvered into the 20-feet-high grass she was like a 3-year old who’d been pushed into a room full of cake. Swinging on her back we hung on to the wooden legs of the inverted charpai that was our seat. A racquet-tailed drongo posed high on a tree stump. Red-wattled lapwings called out “did-you-do-it”, frequently. Eagles defined hypnotic geometries in the air. Cheetal and hog-deer were common. We were passing by a pond, the Bhadraula Taal, at about 6.30 pm in the hope that the nocturnal hunters would stop by for a fill of water before setting out to hunt. But there was nothing but pond herons near the taal and we swung away towards the setting sun.
Now, the forest has the quality of quietitude but it is rarely silent. Leaf-crunching and wind-rustling are perennials, insects can be deafening, and the sheer survival needs of birds and animals make up an aural universe of alarm, mating and baby-calling sounds. Suddenly, the mahaout froze. “Cheetal”, he said. Having seen Cheetal aplenty that evening I wasn’t sure why this was so noteworthy. “Cheetal ka alarm call”, he said, pointing to a sound in the distant air, which I, novice, could not see. It took a moment to sink in. Alarmed Cheetal is equal to predator in the vicinity. Predator is equal to tiger. Vicinity is equal to MY immediate surroundings. In that moment the world changed. Without realizing it our voices dropped below human octaves to something whispered and animal. Our bodies became breath, blood and electrically-charged cells. We stopped moving. Was it to not scare away the tiger or was it to not attract him?
I expected the mahaout to chase the receding Cheetal calls but he reasoned that the deer would be escaping in the opposite direction while the tiger’s trajectory led towards the taal. Accordingly he turned Pavankali back to the pond. She retraced her steps with no protest, resigned to human foibles. We emerged at the edge of the grass on a marshy patch near the taal. There was no sign of a tiger. We stared at the pond for a good minute but, no tiger. Suddenly – and I am sorry but these stories are not possible without a liberal use of “suddenly” – suddenly driver sa’ab sitting at the back of Pavankali made a peculiar sound. I looked around in reflex. And there was the gorgeous apparition sitting at the edge of the grass, barely 30-40 feet away, clearly thwarted in his desire to reach the water. He had evidently been looking at us for the full minute we had been looking at the pond.
It was all transparently clear: why poets would coin immortal phrases, why Ramkrishna Paramhansa visiting a zoo had fallen to his knees in bhakti, why a conservationist would demand a status of symbolic divinity for this – this inscrutable incandescent orange thing with unparalleled focus in his eyes and incomprehensible kinetic energy in his body. As a writer I am happy to say that words failed me. As a photographer I am proud that it didn’t even occur to me to pick up my camera. We were simply replete with the sheer tigerness of the moment. I wonder what the tiger saw. Three frozen human beings on a grass-happy, occasionally ear-flapping elephant. Pavankali, of course, was at a right angle to the tiger and so not “face to face” with him and therefore, did not charge at him. Thank God for big mercies as well.
When the sight of us palled on the tiger he turned back into the grass and vanished. Now tigers do not walk the forest floor at random; they prefer the pagdandis, the mud tracks, maybe because they are creatures of habit, maybe because scrunching leaves on the forest floor would impede stealth hunting. That’s why census pads are made only on these paths and that’s why our mahaout, who seemed to carry knowledge of the area in his blood, confidently pointed and said “that’s where he’ll emerge”. Pavankali set off again this time at what she clearly thought was a trot. We were not chasing the tiger (which would be bad practice) but, having calculated where he would emerge n the arterial path, we were trying to reach a point on the path ahead of him, so we could see him again without making him feel threatened.
Having reached the point I strained for a glimpse of moving orange through the indeterminate green but, even using binoculars, could see nothing. The tiger phenomenon, however, loses none of its richness simply because he can’t be seen and the mahaout’s periodic “there he is”, “nearer now”, were tiny islands of thrill on a sea of expectation. And he did emerge at the expected spot, saw us ahead on the road, and stood there assessing possibilities while we gloated some more and drank in the spectacle. When he moved back into the grass, there was an orgy of self-congratulation. We patted the mahaout on the back, he felicitated us, Pavankali ambled along with an added spring in her step, when, what else but, suddenly. It was driver sa’ab making his peculiar announcing-the-presence sound again. We whipped around. There, for all the world like a kitten peeping from behind the kitchen door to see if the milk pot is unguarded, was our very own feline, peeping at us from behind a bend in the road, all head and whiskers and huge eyes, suddenly adorable.
We never saw him again...