Yesterday was one of the most exciting days of my life! And I'm not saying that just because it sounds good. I think it will be one of the days I remember for the rest of my life. For I saw a tiger in the wild! Now, I can already hear some of you saying - what's the big deal?!! Well, I would have been in your company till yesterday. Though I hold animals in great respect, and have developed a deep and lasting love for the 2 dogs we have had as pets, I am not what you would call an animal-lover. I used to be a obligate non-vegetarian (though now, circumstances have forced an embrace of vegetarianism - the circumstances being that if we have to eat meat, we have to go to the market, buy it, clean it and cook it - a process that is just a little too much for us at the moment!!) and while I am (in principle) against the concept of animals in cages, the occasional trip to the zoo and the circus still holds some charm. But it was always a take-it-or-leave-it feeling, as was watching animals in the wild. A subtle cynicism which could not understand what all the fuss was about! After all, everyone has seen a tiger, either on TV or in the zoo!
Which was why, when Amy suggested we go to the Kaziranga National Park on our trip to Tezpur, I did not exactly whoop with delight. Had I had my 'druthers, I would've preferred to curl up in bed with one of the many great books that line the shelves of our friends home! But having learnt the hard way that Amy is nearly always right(!!), I did not make too much of protest when I was dragged out of bed at the unearthly hour of 4 am (having not slept much for 4 days and having just completed a 6 hour drive) to make the hour-and-a-half trip to Kaziranga. It is a wonder that we reached there safely considering how dangerously close my mind was hovering to the sweet land of dreams!
Once we reached there, we were taken to the elephant loading point. As is nearly always the case in India, it pays to have contacts. One of the doctors in the hospital had put us in touch with the person in the ticket office and whether it was this or just another indication of God smiling on us, we got to ride on the largest elephant. He was a beautiful specimen of his species. Tall and majestic, yet gentle and lumbering, his eyes somehow reminded me of the gentleness that comes from great strength. We (Amy and I, Ashita and the children - more about them in another post) settled ourselves rather uncomfortably in the rickety contraption attached to our elephant's back and we were off.
Now all this was not new to me. I have been to 4 national parks in India and had 1 elephant safari. Each time, there was great excitement before it started and great disappointment by the end. Of course, we would boast that we had seen monkeys and deer and buffalo, but then, the monkeys are a dime a dozen in every populated place; deer, while beautiful are not exactly the most interesting animals; and we had a sinking feeling every time, that the buffalo were probably of the domesticated variety and were in the forest just for grazing!! The greatest injustice I believe was that every time, the park keepers would swear they had seen a tiger the day before!! And on one elephant safari, the mahout had the audacity to show us a cave and say it was the tigers den!! He obviously had a very low impression of our grey cells! So this time, while I had shaken off the shackles of my sleep, I was in no way expecting anything much. I did not realise that I was just beginning one of the most thrilling hours of my life!
Just about 10 minutes into our rolling walk into the jungle, we happened upon our first rhino. It was a majestic sight all right. And very easy to appreciate from the safe confines of our perch on the gentle giant! And then the parade began. It was as if, there was a ringmaster carefully stage-managing the events that unfolded. First we saw a mother rhino with her baby. When we had reached to within 10 feet of her (with the mahout fortunately disregarding the commands of the ladies to desist!), she snorted loudly and led her baby away from our intruding eyes. Kaziranga certainly proved it has the world's largest number of one-horned rhinos. They were everywhere. We even saw another mother with her baby at the end of our trip. And of course, there were the ubiquitous deer - in Kaziranga it is the hog deer and beautiful they are. And wild boar - though they looked just like the pigs we see running around near canals to me!!
And the majestic wild buffalo. Now I know that the ones we saw on earlier trips were the domesticated variety! The wild species are truly in a different class. The shining muscles. the long horns, the obvious aggression - here was another awe-inspiring beast of nature. The mahout said that just the previous week, a park ranger had been killed in a buffalo attack. I hope that is just what they say to all visitors to interest them though I can well imagine that animal being more than capable of it.
Of course, I have left the best for last. We were nearing the end of our safari and were just getting back onto the path (from the jungle) when the mahout spotted a wild buffalo in a nearby thicket. So he turned our elephant around and we tried to get closer. A difficult proposition thanks to the thick undergrowth. And then I saw him - the king of the jungle, the largest cat that walks this earth today, hidden in the tall grass, stalking the unsuspecting buffalo. And with that all my cynicism vanished forever. I guess I am not skilled enough in the art of wordcraft to be able to explain exactly what I felt. Suffice to say that the feeling of exhilaration still remains with me as I remember that moment. To see this magnificent creature in all his glory away from the confines of the idiot-box or a cage was enough to tear away the walls of pseudo-sophistication that I had erected around my heart and allow me to enjoy a moment of simple joy for once. And I will treasure that memory, probably forever.
The big fellow suddenly realised that he and the buffalo were not alone. He petulantly turned and then made off through the undergrowth. He passed just in front of our elephant and we had a full frontal glimpse of him before he disappeared in the undergrowth. Our mahout raised the alarm and tried to follow him and get the other elephants in the vicinity to triangulate him, but without much success. We had a last glimpse of him again as he climbed up on the road and vanished into the marshlands on the other side. But we had seen enough to fill our hearts with pleasure and wonder. No zoo creature could have ever competed with the splendour of this true king of the jungle. And my life has been somehow enriched by that chance encounter.