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OUT IN THE WILD: Band­hav­garh Fort hill 2 A star­tled young Chi­tal buck looks up from its graz­ing in the early hours of the morn­ing 3 Spot­ted deer ben­e­fit from the lan­gurs' good eye­sight and abil­ity to post a look­out in a tree­top, help­ing to raise the alarm when a preda­tor ap­proaches 4 The kind of jeep used on sa­faris set­ting of a film. A jun­gle war­bler pro­vided the back­ground score ( along with all sorts of bird­songs you don’t hear in Dubai: koels and In­dian rollers and para­keets).

There were no other guests at the re­sort, so all stops were pulled out for us, hos­pi­tal­ity- wise. There were peo­ple at hand all the time, han­dling all re­quests — for an­other cup of tea, for an ex­tra set of tow­els ( all their linen had tiger paw mo­tifs), for a hat… Even later, af­ter din­ner, there was help to hold the lanterns to il­lu­mi­nate our mi­mosa pu­dica- lined path ( the Touch- Me- Not plant) as we walked back to the cot­tages in that dim, sway­ing, yel­low lantern light, with some of us re­vis­it­ing old scare tac­tics ( boo!) to make oth­ers yelp at sud­den jun­gle sounds and then laugh. This lantern- car­ry­ing busi­ness, though, was a bit awk­ward for me, not an act I am fa­mil­iar with — one per­son es­corts you just to hold a light. *** Let me just say up­front: we didn’t see any tigers. We spot­ted a leop­ard — on the cam­era screen of one of the Ger­mans in the jeep in front of us. There was stuff lower in the food chain: a jackal scur­ry­ing off with kill gripped be­tween its jaws, all kinds of deer — barah singha and all, and lan­gurs do­ing an # Oc­cu­py­dust­street on the red soil of cen­tral In­dia. *** One morn­ing at Tala Zone, just af­ter 6am, we were hud­dled in a sa­fari jeep, per­fectly quiet, swad­dled in fleece blan­kets be­cause it was so cold, fin­ger­tips freez­ing, phones on si­lent, cam­eras on standby ready to shoot lest the tiger/ ti­gress chose to emerge. There had been a call in the jun­gle. Which was the most ex­cit­ing thing for me — “Call aaya hai! ( there’s a call!)” Golu the guide said, which is what as­tute jun­gle whis­per­ers with sharp ears and sharper i nstincts i nter­pret when there’s some rustling to in­di­cate a tiger is on the move. This was new to me — the mes­sage re­lay­ing the com­mu­ni­ca­tion lines of an­i­mals. I loved it. *** “Tiger spot­ting can’t be as­sured. But sum­mers are best to spot tigers and win­ters are best for bird­ers,” said Pradeep Kr­ishna Wa­sunkar, oliveeyed wildlife en­thu­si­ast and pho­tog­ra­pher. There were other bits of in­for­ma­tion I picked up. Like, I didn’t know a tiger eats bam­boo leaves when it has an up­set tummy. Ph­a­guni, our lo­cal guide on day two, told me this. Fas­ci­nat­ing! I re­mem­bered our Ger­man Shep­herds and how they’d go for the grass when they had the runs. Makes sense for a more ma­jes­tic an­i­mal to aim a lit­tle higher than, well, reg­u­lar grass.

At the risk of sound­ing trite ( and think­ing trite?), you can’t help re­alise: the lives of peo­ple in jun­gles are so dif­fer­ent from the lives we lead! I was think­ing this af­ter Ph­a­guni told me he goes to sleep at 8pm and wakes up at 4am, and when he wakes up, his kids wake up too, to keep him com­pany, be­fore he sets out to do his rounds of the jun­gle. Ev­ery­one has an early break­fast. Ph­a­guni’s first wife died in the jun­gle in a freak ac­ci­dent that

in­volved a tree be­ing felled on her. He was now get­ting re­mar­ried to some­one from a dif­fer­ent caste and was hop­ing the kids get along with his new wife. *** I was ask­ing Golu and Ph­a­guni what it’s like to be in the jun­gle ev­ery­day. When the day is over at dusk, I wanted to know, what do you peo­ple do? They meet at a com­mon point, have chai, dis­cuss tiger sight­ings of the day, which tiger was where and do­ing what ex­actly, what the peo­ple in the sa­fari were like, where were they from. I asked him what they’d have to say about us when the day ended. They both laughed. *** A lit­tle fur­ther up from a par­tic­u­larly dusty dirt track in one of the zones of Band­hav­garh ( and there are three zones: Tala, Maghdi and Khatauli) is a clear­ing, a medium- sized field, with tall white grasses — ‘ kaash phool’ — in which tigers like to roam. So said guide Golu, who never feels the need to wear a sweater even when the 5am tem­per­a­ture is in sin­gle de­grees. It may be a dis­tant tenth to the thrill of ac­tu­ally see­ing a tiger, but the evening light on that clear­ing of ‘ kaash phool’ in the mid­dle of the jun­gle, when en­gines had been turned off and you were an­tic­i­pat­ing jun­gle moves, was quite some­thing. The beauty in that open, si­lent field lends it­self to feel­ing some­thing deeper, dust on eye­lashes not­with­stand­ing. *** We didn’t see a tiger. But we saw a fresh tiger paw print and I took a photo of my palm hov­er­ing above it, the paw print ob­vi­ously out­siz­ing my palm. Then I sent that puz­zling pic­ture to my What­sapp peo­ple. They What­sapped back ask- ing, “Did you see any tiger [ yel­low black cat striped emoji]?” And I’d say, not yet, and throw in an­other tiger emoji. Band­hav­garh is sup­posed to be a good place to spot Royal Ben­gal Tigers. But they had ob­vi­ously taken comp- offs when we showed up with our non- tele­scopic zoom lenses, men­tally go­ing “yooo hooo, kitty kat!”

Nor did I think it too up­set­ting if, in a three- day trip, packed with two sa­faris, each five hours long, I didn’t see a tiger. Surely it would have cheap­ened the ex­pe­ri­ence of tiger- spot­ting. Imag­ine if ev­ery en­thu­si­as­tic twit who landed up in the jun­gle im­me­di­ately spot­ted Bhim or Bam­era or Kanatti or T- 90 or Mac­chli ( who killed a 14- foot croc­o­dile), wouldn’t that some­how di­min­ish the grandeur, the awe one might feel at fi­nally see­ing this beau­ti­ful crea­ture? I’m go­ing to have to go back, in any case. If I see a tiger, well and good. If not, doesn’t bother me too much. The jun­gle it­self is quite the cat.

[email protected] khalee­j­times. com TRIP TO RE­MEM­BER: 5 Lan­gurs in Tala zone at home on dust tracks 6 A jackal makes its get­away with its prey 7 Tiger prints in the sand 8 9 10 Ex­te­rior and in­te­rior shots of Band­hav­garh Mead­ows

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