As a family, we are not chronic wildlife enthusiasts. Nor are we appalled by it. We harbor a neutral, non-aligned view on it and have learnt to accept it as a natural part of our existence. As an army family, a quarter of a century in the defense services has taken my father and us to every unheard of place in India and abroad. Wildlife manifests itself in the most wondrous forms of godly creations in our lives: as reptiles, rodents, mammals, canines, cats and what have you. After serial hysteria at finding diverse snakes, wild boars, jackals, leopards, scorpions etc in the most awkward spots in our sprawling bungalows and unending backyards that stretched right into the wilderness, we finally gave up the screaming and swearing and accepted the fact that it was we who encroached on their territory by building our houses and roads, and not the other way around. We grudgingly resigned ourselves to sharing our home and hearth with them and live with mutual respect and harmony. It therefore seemed ironic when my father proposed we visit Bandhavgarh on a short vacation. After all you just had to venture in my backyard and the wild would find its way to you. But my father, who is rather methodical with his travel list, pointed out that this was the only tourist place in MP that was left for us to visit. We kids naturally refused to come along, having already journeyed at a tender age more than what an average Indian would travel in a lifetime, and I had the summer vacations homework to finish. But there we were, at Bandhavgarh, where after a quick bite, our host bundled us into a gypsy with a British couple for a safari in the tiger park. The guide enthusiastically pointed out every Langur, Peacock, Sambar, Barking Deer, Chital that came our way - but no tiger - the only animal we hadn’t had the pleasure of making an acquaintance in our back yard. The British meanwhile howled with childlike delight at creatures we treated as commonplace, while we looked about in polite silence. When the guide chose to point out a monkey, I asked him if he had been to the Central Secretariat at Delhi? I pointed out to him that there they had an army of monkeys, and well-fed and sprightly fellows, whereas his monkey looked malnourished and morose. All that the first trip of four hours on a dusty trail yielded anything remotely resembling a tiger was alleged tiger pug marks, tiger scratches on trees and tiger poop. We couldn’t have made out donkey excreta from a horse’s, but then we took the guide’s word for it.
It seemed more wild life existed outside the reserve then on the inside; the moment we emerged from the park a vast motley of wild dogs, pet hen, stray cattle, overloaded tractors, speeding motorcyclists and juvenile cyclists descended upon us without warning in the chaotic village.
The next voyage launched the same afternoon produced similar results with an emerging pattern. Vehicles would halt in the middle of nowhere and all of us would anticipate the lord of the jungle to stroll past, with baited breaths. Any passing vehicle would also halt - anxious not to disturb the elusive lord’s of the jungle arrival. The foreigners demonstrated excellent self-discipline and showed yogic skills at holding their breath the longest.
In the next trip we realized the guides were confidently claiming a tiger had been sighted on route B, if we were coming from A, and sighted on C if we were coming from B, and so on. The idea being to keep up our hopes alive. Back at the hotel everybody claimed they knew someone who had seen the tiger, but who that person was, no one had met them quite yet. After the fourth trip, having spent a fortune on safari (each trip costs 10 pounds per person), we gave up and decided to meet the tiger some other place, some other time.
Aptly, the sign at the park Exit states a message from the tiger:
“ HAVEN’T SEEN ME? DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED, I SAW YOU!”