Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A tryst with the lord

Sachor and I waited at the gates for the safari canter to pick us up
for our last safari. The minute the canter drove into our place we
realised our chances of spotting a tiger was zilch. The vehicle was
packed with cantankerous school girls, for whom the safari was just an
extended socialising session. Weird are the ways of fortune. Just a
quarter of a mile into the core zone of the forest, I met the king.
Majestic even in his laziness. The bright orange coat shining
through the thick undergrowth on the forest floor. It was an
unforgettable sight. Just once he lifted his head as if to silence the
excited girls. The lustre of the coat, the harmony of the stripes, the
understated menace in the eyes, the dignity in his demeanour; I had met
perfection. The tautness in the nerves had gone. The splendour of the
forest, the grace of the cinkara, the beauty of the raptors and the
monitor lizards and the crocs and the storks and the trees and the
lakes ,everything now sunk in effortlessly.

I don't remember how long it took to reach the Berdha section of the
forest, but the driver stopped because he had picked out some fresh
pugmarks in the dirt track. We were now on top of the hill where the
predominant vegetation was moderately tall yellow grass. After a few
minutes, euphoria in the jeep turned to delirium, when just fifty
meters away a tigress came out of hiding and walked into a section
where the grass was shorter. She was smaller than the male we had seen
before but no less beautiful. We backed a little to stay close to her
and the girls were now hugging each other to expend all the nervous
energy that was building up from enduring all the excitement in
silence. We backed up for about fifty meters and all along the tigress
was just 30ft from us. She intended to cross the tracks behind us and
our backing up probably disconcerted her. She expressed it with the
most economical of expressions,a not-so-fussy stare. She seemed to give
the driver no choice but to stop, and he obeyed. The rest of the safari
was a daze.

Berdha Tigress Posted by Hello

Click here for more snaps

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Time is running out

Just when I thought I had met my share of interesting people for this
trip, I met Sachor on my next Safari. He hails from the Netherlands
and has already seen half the world. He intended to backpack for a
month across India. Looking at the marks he had made on the map in his
lonely planet guide, I realised that by the end of the month he would
have seen more of my motherland than me. He turned out to be another in
a series of people who brought to light my own deficiencies. I
remembered all the apprehensions I had about travelling alone, and how
uncomfortable it was to convince people around me that I REALLY was
travelling alone; about how long I had thought about how many days to
take off, and finally decided on just four; and all my anxiety that
Rajasthan is so far away, not just by distance but as a culture. And
here was a guy who had stopped over at a totally alien land with just a
bag on his back, not knowing where he will be three days from today.

The third of my safaris is a complete disaster. By now I understand
why the locals, expecially the guides and the drivers of the canters,
hate Indian tourists. For one, they are noisy. Noisy enough to drown
the distress calls of the Chital and Peacock that usually hint at the
presence of a tiger. On this safari there is a totally noisy group of indian
families, who divide their time between gossiping and trying to
explain (in vain) the point of a safari to the noisy kids they have
brought along. We sight lots of animals but no Tiger again.
My afternoon schedule included a trip to the fort. I get that exchanged
for another safari. This time I am less luckier. A local small time
politician and his stooges get on board. Between coming up with
brilliant ideas like " tying a goat to the edge of the jeep as a bait
to attract the tiger", the politician is trying hard to strike
conversations with the angrez folk in the canter. To a gentleman from
England who was carrying a little kid who looked mongoloid he asks,
"Is she chinese?". Even the terse, grim reply "She's ours" doesn't deter
our friend from asking more questions.The moron is getting on my already anxious nerves.

We have seen a lot of pugmarks but no tigers. I am now preoccupied with looking only for
orange skin with black stripes. If it wasn't for Shefali and Gaurav I
would probably not have seen the majestic Serpent Eagle staring at us
from the foliage. I feel disappointed with myself.

The first thing I do after getting back to the resort is to cancel my
ticket to Jaipur and book another Safari.

At dinner that day we chat a lot over drinks and food. I curse lady
luck and Sachor threatens Aditya that he would set the forest on fire.
Gaurav suggests that it all was a well orchestrated plan to keep the
tourists longer than they planned. The resort owners, animals and
guides are all involved.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Ranthambore!

Arrived at the Madhopur station at 4:00 in the morning. A jeep had been arranged to pick me up. I reached the resort and was immediately pampered by the army of "Singhs"! Ram Singh wouldn't let me carry my bags, Govind Singh made chai for me and Bhagat Singh told me about my day's itinerary. The first safari was at 6:00. I managed a quick bath and a shave. Before I could gloat over my efficiency, travelling in an open jeep on dirt tracks, I realised all the cleaning was a waste of time.

The jungle here is an enchanting place. It begins so abruptly that it catches you by surprise. The sheer rock faces rise out of the ground sharply and seem totally anomalous from the rest of the landscape. The forts on top of some of these rocks give the place a lot of character, and surprisingly do not reduce the wildness of the place. Instead the ruins tell you a story of the usurper dethroned and the old order reinstated. Justice done to the rightful owners. It made even a perennial cynic like me smile and say "That's the way it should be".

The first safari was a very fruitful one. Met a few Sambars, Nilgai, Chital, Langurs, Boars and Cinkaras. And Gaurav and Shefali. Gaurav, with his long tresses, luxurious beard , sharp pleasing eyes, and loads of wit. He told me he comes there every fortnight, and made me wish I could do that too! While he was filming on his huge video camera, I asked him if that is what he does for a living, he replied "I wish". I liked him instantly. I'll remember Shefali as the woman who negated my prejudice against women who smoke. Her parched lips and tanned face told me she probably hasn't spent a penny on cosmetics. Which explains why she appeared so good looking too. One interesting couple to go on a safari with. By the end of the safari I had stopped just short of worshipping them.

At the end of the second Safari I turned shallow. I stopped fooling myself with exalted theories that all wildlife is just as special as meeting the king. It wasn't true. I had to admit I would go home disappointed if I don't see a tiger. I had spent two of the three safaris allotted to me in this package and I hadn't seen a tiger. There was just one more left.

I met Aditya at dinner. He immediately made place for himself in my Personal heroes List. He threw away his job as an IAS officer. He relocated to Sawai Madhopur and turned into a hotelier-cum-naturalist. Former, for a living ,and the latter was,well , his religion. He downed drink after drink and the anecdotes got more interesting. Only when he started slurring did I notice the time. It was almost morning and we remembered that we had another safari in a few hours time. We retired.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Last Lap

The home stretch of my journey. Can't help feeling it was time well spent, reading a not-so-small book completely. "A House for Mr.Biswas". I like the tranquility that follows reading fully a good book. Taking a little time off to rearrange all the several pieces. To revisit the earlier sections in the new light that the later ones threw. To chew the cud if you will! I remembered what Aby said about the way he chooses the books that he wants to read. He waits long enough and then finds out if people are still talking about the book, letting it pass through the test of time. But I definitely disagree with the approach. I like to "discover" a good book . To identify the greatness of the book myself rather than to rely on the experts and time to profess it's immortality, is a high in itself.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Hunger pangs

The train stopped at Guntakal for a while. Lunch was served a while ago from the pantry car. For most Indians, the dustbin is just a place to paint the words "Use Me";it serves no other purpose. All the used foils from the lunch packets go straight out of the windows. A kid was walking next to the train picking up all these foils . A conspiracy theory immediately formed in my head; I suspected that he would collect the foils and hand them over to the pantry for the guys there to reuse them. Instead he gathered all the crumbs and bits of food that stuck on the foils and put them in his mouth. A dog that trailed him reinspected each of the foils that the boy had thrown and licked them clean. I don't know what hit me harder, the unfairness or my helplessness.

Train to Rajasthan

The first images that hit you on any train journey in this part of the world, is the squalor that surrounds the railway tracks. All my life I have stayed just a few hundred yards from these slums, but everytime I look at them from inside a bogie I get really depressed.

I was distracted from these thoughts by a compartment full of girls singing their favourite bollywood songs. The compartment adjacent to theirs was full of college boys returning home from an NCC camp.

You could tell that the attentions of each group was polarised to the other. They were very conscious of each other's presence. The bolder guys started acknowledging this by wah-wahing the girls' songs. The girls sent back high pitched giggles to make it evident that they were enjoying the attention. They reciprocated with some improvisations in their songs; "Lal shirtwale thera naam tho batha" sent the guys into a frenzy, and the Lal-shirtwala's cheeks matched his shirt in colour. The mutual attention soon reached a critical mass and they all were in the game together. Sooraj Barjatya's method of using Antakshari as a means of some undisguised, harmless flirting works in real life too!

It was striking how almost all the girls had decent singing voices, while the guys, with their adolescent voice boxes, collectively sounded like the crackle from a speaker with a torn diaphragm. Puberty can be cruel. After half an hour of the cacophony, the stress of the NCC camp apparently started showing on the guys. They rarely completed a stanza of the songs they attempted and their enthusiasm for the game soon petered out. I didn't complain.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Streets of Bangalore

From my stereo, Bono's voice belted out the words "It's a beautiful day". An,idea you can't easily concur to, when you are doing time in rush hour bangalore traffic.(There's a school of thought which ,not without reason, believes, that the term rush hour has been rendered meaningless. EVERY HOUR IS RUSH HOUR these days!!) The tape had completed a full cycle of winding and unwinding, and was now repeating the songs, but I had hardly moved a couple of hundred yards. Find a sadder way to spend a fifth of your waking hours.

After half an hour of crawling I had reached the top of the Diary Circle flyover. From there I was presented with the overwhelming sight of vehicles lined up as far as the eye could see. The apparent surface formed by the tops of all the vehicles, with the mottled patterns, reminded me of dirty mosaic. The two wheelers were moving into the spaces like water into the pores of a sponge. Finally, the cause of this jam, extra-ordinary even by Bangalore's standards , revealed itself. I've always believed that engines have a highly developed ESP about the most inappropriate places to break down, so that the maximum number of people are inconvenienced. The engine of a truck had exercised this instinct today at Diary Circle!

1,2,1,2,3,2,1,2,1,2,1,2...I shifted the gears never having once changed to the one they call the 'Free Gear'. When the traffic eased, the chaos multiplied. Two wheelers showing how fast they can change lanes, autos validating why they are also called autocrats and pedestrians showing why they make better speed breakers than road humps. Home at last! The unclenching of the muscles told me that almost every inch of my body was participating in this experience. Relief when I got out of the car. Relief, even in the knowledge that,tomorrow, there will be 5,000 more vehicles on the streets of Bangalore.