Photo Essay: My Big Cat Blues

Have a whisky and soda,

With a plate of pakoda,

Lost the plot in Jabalpur,

Aimed for tiger, got langur,

So what? Just chill, da.

One standard Madrasi way of dealing with disappointment is to make a wry joke. A wry limerick is also allowed. On the third and final day, with no tiger in sight after dedicated morning-evening safari drives, the limerick competition was heating up among the four of us.

And then the school kids arrived. A sizeable group of a hundred boys and girls, arriving by bus all the way from Ahmedabad, noisily got onto the safari jeeps and within moments saw (by various accounts) two to five tigers. All hundred of them.

Munna, the oldest tiger of Kanha and the darling of locals, waited for our jeep to enter the jungle. The decrepit and hungry beast, unable to hunt swiftly moving prey any more, walked over to the highway in broad daylight and picked up a buffalo for lunch.

Our car driver along with other drivers watched it happen near the car park – the great Munna dragging his kill back into the tall grass. While we were busy inside the jungle, searching for Munna and his ilk.

The general belief in Kanha and other tiger reserves is that you don’t decide when to meet the “Great Striped One”. He chooses to grant you access or not. Since we were decent people, the animal had no reason to avoid meeting us. It was a matter of time. And all else was a prelude to that.

And what a beautiful prelude Kanha can be!

Giant jungle spiders dangle mid-air, mending their near-invisible webs.

A sambar raises its head at the pond and stares us down for about 20 seconds. Convinced of no trouble, it resumes drinking water, taking no further notice of us.

Sprightly female barasinghas (swamp deer) run and making merry in the tall grass.

The Indian jackal moves briskly in the underbrush, mindful and cunning, with some villainy afoot.

The bright, blue plumage of the Indian roller set off against the white puff of a cloud.

A butterfly settles on a leaf.

A hunky sambar deer sticks out its tongue, who knows why.

An aggressive crested hawk screeches on a branch nearby.

On one hand, there’s the unforgettable gaze of a young chital (spotted deer) observing us with barely a stalk in front of it for protection, its natural timidity held in check by its curiosity. And, on the other, a parent-child duo of langurs watch us pass by. One defiant and the other worried.

The still forest looks stunning under the golden rays of the sun.

An artist friend, whose opinions I value, looks at my pictures and remarks that the animals are practically posing for me! There is a trick to this, I think. Be there in the jungle on the first few safaris of the season, first day, first show. It’s important. The monsoon crowds are thin unless you encounter a busload of children. And the overcast sky after the monsoons is fantastic. The light is even and soft, with hardly any shadows.

The only way things can go south is when it actually begins to rain. Which happens to us, on our last visit to the jungle on the final day of our stay. Seeking to set right the unfulfilled big cat agenda, we drive into the torrential rain. We know this is the end. There is not a squirrel in sight. Limerick time.

The men at the ticket counter, who know us by now, do us a favour by not asking the question they ask us every time. “Dekha?” Strangers walk up to us in the tea shop, whip out their cell phones, and show us morning videos of a tiger or two strutting down the road as if on a runway.  It stings.

In a couple of weeks, time does heal. I gain perspective. Looking at the photographs and talking about everything we saw, all is crystal clear. There is more to Kanha than just tigers. Really.

Munna and cousins will have to wait. Until we decide to drop in again.

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