The idea of the jungle is a powerful one indeed. While the British ruled India the Orientalists made it out to be a dark and savage place full of snake charmers and rampaging beasts. For the feudal Maharajas it was a hunting ground where the wildlife were nothing more than trophies waiting to be stuffed and mounted on the well populated walls of minor Princelings’ hunting lodges. For the post colonial ethos the jungle was a concept so full of romance that an entire genre of literature is dedicated solely to the quivering anticipation and thrill of seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. Unfortunately history hasn’t always painted its heroes favourably and for a long time the predators of the Indian rainforests were villainised as savage meaningless killers partly contributing to their dwindling numbers. Now in the 21stcentury it’s become uber trendy to go on safari with everything from large canter buses squeezing dozens of people in to luxury-tented camps with private jeeps. However, the first time I dipped my proverbial toes into the wild it was sort of in between the mysterious unknown and the new hot spot. Without giving too much about my agedness away, we’re talking the early 90s and a long and windy train journey to the village of Katni where a large man with a curling moustache, dressed head to toe in Khakis, picked us up from Katni station and drove us in his jeep to Bandhavgarh Jungle Camp. Thinking back now when we’re old and jaded everything about him was so cliché. Minor royal with a grand name, converted hunting lodge and a litre bottle of whisky nestled by his seat in the jeep; half full I might add, which now is alarming, but then … achingly cool.
I’ll have to preface this by saying that the only singular part of a safari experience I don’t adore is waking up before the crack of dawn so when they come around with your bed tea some pretty guttural cursing is the first thing that comes to mind as you’re raised from the dead but nonetheless, bed tea imbibed, we squashed into the jeep with driver and naturalist riding shotgun and proceeded into the jungle.
Now, nearly 30 years later, I can still feel that piercing cold wind cutting straight through to bone and thinking to myself what have I signed up for? It’s colder than a Polar Bears paw and why am I awake when it’s still dark outside but then, in an almost religious experience, there was light. The reason the detail stays with you decades later is because it was one of those experiences that maybe changed you for the better. To experience something so far removed from your own is cathartic and awe inspiring to say the least, so when the light swept over the Jungle and the deer in the clearings looked at us startled and inquisitive I stopped feeling my own body and just became hyper vigilant of where I was. Of course the deer in the clearings soon became de rigueur and the hunt for the main attraction was afoot.
I wish I could describe what seeing a tiger in its natural habitat for the first time, or any other time, feels like. It’s like if George Clooney walked up to you in a crowd and said come marry me and live with me at my villa on Lake Como. It’s like beating Usain Bolt at the Olympics in the 100m dash. It’s like winning a Nobel Prize and seeing your parents with misty eyes looking at you as you accept your medal from the King of Sweden, it’s all these things but better. It’s nothing short of a transcendental experience that is entirely unforgettable and life defining. As a 10-year-old kid to have so many feels was quite overwhelming. I’ve heard of stories of people who weep when they’re in therapy or in meditation because the catharsis of their feelings were just too much to handle, this was like that.
His name was VP. He was the living, breathing embodiment of Sher Khan. Beautiful head, whiskers for days, laser defined stripes, amber eyes that could make you shit a brick if he made eye contact and paws the size of anvils. He walked with shoulders undulating seamlessly and settled in a cloud of dust by a thicket and spread his shockingly enormous length for us to see in perfect Tiger Pose. Ask yourself, is there a creature on earth that can hold your attention in complete stillness with maybe the sporadic flick of a ear? The answer to that is a resounding no! We sat there is rapt concentration, eating up his every tic. He stretched, licked a paw, yawned and swished his tail and every movement was an event. Finally, after he gave his adoring public what they wanted, he padded back into the underbrush and disappeared into the jungle. Like every great superstar he knew how to leave us desperately yearning for more.
I don’t care if you’re Ansell Adams with a 1000mm lens, no photograph can ever do justice. When you see a Tiger in person their colour is astounding. Their coat has the coarseness of grain leather but shimmers like satin in the sun. Each whisker is scintillating and the movement ….
The movement is precision mechanics but also butter. I cannot urge a jungle virgin to go and see it in the flesh enough for this very reason. To see the scars on a stags snout and the texture of a muddy lake after a crocodile snaps at a painted crane isn’t something that can be captured on film.
That trip we saw an embarrassment of treasures. Bear, Sambar, Nil Gai, Wild Boar and even a pack of the elusive Dhol. At that age nothing came close to seeing VP and the other Tiger we spotted a few days later but now when I go on Safari I want to imbibe everything in the Jungle. Every tree is magic, every sighting is a contribution to this eco system we’re being allowed to get a glimpse of, but I won’t lie, a Tiger can make you question your existence on a number of levels and unlike most things in life it just doesn’t get old.
Kerman Chowna is a landscape designer, professional tree-hugger, amateur scribe and bonafide jungle bunny. She’s a firm believer that all wildlife should only be experienced respectfully in their natural habitat unlike most people.