Nishiraj A. Baruah visits the tiger county in Rajasthan only to find the king of the jungle along with fellow residents in a completely different avatar
It was weird. I mean it was really bizarre. And Manu was very upset. Everyone was upset, of course. This was not what we expected. You wouldn’t either when you undertake a 12-hour road journey from New Delhi to RanthambhoreNational Park, Rajasthan (India), and find tigers, the Park’s stripped glory, riding motorbikes, that too, without helmets. Is this what the king of the jungle has fallen to? There they were, everywhere, zipping past and yodelling like Kishore Kumar. At the dining hall, however, they were a picture of calm: Sitting pretty in a neat row, they wore Mini Mouse aprons and were having — now, isn’t that shocking — corn flakes and apple juice. Manu asked a waiter about this strange eating habit and he was told that the Ranthanbhore tigers have turned veggies ever since the Dalai Lama came to lecture them on non-violence. Of course, chatterbox Rini, the short and sweet 37-year-old, who refuses to grow beyond 14, was full of questions, asked in all earnestness: But how come they walk in to the dinner hall wearing shorts and chappals? Just because they are the lords of the jungle doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a dress code! Etc etc.
Rini’s questions (that often has no answers) didn’t trouble us, as usual. What really bothered us was the sequence of unusual occurrences that threw us completely off balance. No guidebooks told us about the sweeping changes taking place in this world famous Park. So imagine our surprise at the following incident: When the Conservator of Forest went on a Gypsy safari to show tigers to his VIP guests, he couldn’t spot any, much to his and his guests’ disappointment. Next morning, at his office, he gets a call from his PA that someone has come to see him. And who does he see? Mr Tiger himself, swaggering into his chamber with apology written across his face in all caps. “Sorry, sir,” the tiger said, “you came looking for me yesterday… I actually went for a drink.” He also added: “But you should have called me before coming…”, gesturing to his iPhone. The shocked Conservator didn’t know how to react, but regained his official composure soon enough to offer him a chair, and ask, “nimbu pani or chai?” Nimbu pani, of course, in the searing April heat. The Conservator then asked his stripped guest if he could call his friends now. “No problem,” said the tiger, as the VIPs from Kolkata, who have come through their contact in the Vasundhara Raje Schindhia’s office, assembled at the chamber for a close look at the tiger. Mr Tiger, on his part, glowed in the attention, moving around to flaunt his Brad Pitt butts and his stripped coat. “It’s imported,” he boasted, “Made in China!” He also didn’t let go of the opportunity to mention that, despite all official denials, there is actually a severe lack of water in the Park!
The unbelievable story travelled throughout this little wildlife-tourist hub that consists of a number of luxury resorts in a mile-long strip. In fact, most tourists were disappointed that they couldn’t spot any tigers (not everyone is lucky enough like us to see beyond the obvious) despite several rounds of safaris inside the Park. Though forest officials say that tiger spotting is guaranteed in Ranthambhore, with just about 30 tigers spread over a massive 392 sq km area, it is not always possible. The Conservator’s situation is different, of course. “After all he is the warden of the forest and his guests are VIPS. We are mere tourists,” everyone sighed.
This was not all that was to the list of the bizarre. Even the langurs, there by dozens everywhere, acted like, well, humans. I mean, monkeys and langurs have always been a bit like humans, but what followed was a bit awkward for our group of seven. My wife insisted that a photo of ours be taken along with two black-faced langurs, lazing out in the sun. They looked like a couple who sat quietly, until Manu took out his disposable cam. Picture taken, wifey turned back to the langurs to say a ‘thank you’. And can you beat this: The male langur cleared his throat to say in a baritone, “mention not’. We broke into a laughter, as much by the absurdity of this, as much by the langur’s choice of words for the acknowledgement. No self-respecting English speaking Indian will be caught uttering these two particular words. Instead, most would rather say, “you are welcome”. But then we decided since they live in the rural pockets of Rajasthan, we should not expect their English to be very polished. That was not all. I didn’t see it, but Manu said that while he was clicking the picture, he saw the male langur reaching out into his bag to take out a Bowler hat, which he quickly wore. At this, his female companion adjusted the hat in a slight slant, saying, “You look gol-motor this way. Wear it like this.” This, even as she hid her face. I guess she mistook Manu for a Page 3 paparazzi.
On our way to the famed Ganesh Mandir, high up on a fortresses, more such incidents were in store. But the one that was amusing was when we were coming down the ancient steps. A couple of donkeys, back after delivering crates of Pepsi bottles at the stalls near the mandir, were also descending alongside and one of us happened to shout, “Look donkeys!” At which, the donkey stopped in its tracks, looked at us pretty sternly, and corrected, “I am not a donkey. I’m a horse!” Inspired by this, now it was their owner’s time to burst forth on how these donkeys, er, horses, are dearer to him than his life and how he feeds them 30 kg of gur everyday, blah, blah, blah… Rini’s volley of questions followed.
By now even the wildlife population community within the Park have come to know about Rini’s penchant for questions. That’s probably the reason why when we went for the 2:30 pm safari in the military-coloured Gypsy, tigers decided to run for cover. But that didn’t stop Rini from shooting off a few queries to the ever-alert nilgais and sambars grazing about in the grassless browns: How do they get to know when a tiger is on the prowl? Why do tigers like their meat? The nervous animals just shook their ears and continued grazing. We, on our part, continued on our roller coaster ride along the rocky, uneven forest, passing by massive, ancient trees the roots and branched of which formed deep hollows for ghosts to live in. Wild, alien-coloured cactus stood in stark contrast to the leafless extravaganza. Alone here and you would be dead. Not that anyone is allowed inside the Park after dark. Nobody is allowed even to get down from the zeep. There is serious danger lurking out there.
Ranthambhore is tiger country and its every step is followed like VVIP movement, messages about its ‘spotting’ sent across the wilderness through walkie-talkies. Its pugmark becomes nothing less than Lord Vishnu’s footsteps, studied, circled and worshipped. The tiger is the talk, nothing else matters. Our guide tried his best to show us one in its ‘natural’ habitat, but failing to do so, resorted to drama: He would stop every few metres, put a finger to his lips with a ‘shhhhh’, ask the Gypsy driver to kill the engine, even as his ‘expert’ eyes narrow down to some distant object. “Isn’t that a carcass?” he would ask his driver, building up the tension, even as we hopefully try to locate what never existed.
Well, we didn’t spot the tiger in its natural habitat, but unnatural occurrences continued. At the WelcomHertiage Ranthanbhore Forest Resort, the place of our stay, it was time for the plant world to take over. It had taken over already. The creepers, you know, creepers – they were everywhere — growing furiously and with frightening pace — covering every inch of the two-floor cottages. As if out on a revenge, they made window curtains redundant, even as they were lashing out at the doors to get inside the rooms… Nights were a bit difficult and sleep was disturbed, aware that the wooden doors might not hold for long. After all, creepers are known to sip through concrete.
By now, we were too shaken and decided that the best way to overcome this madness is to down a few pegs in the lawn before you sleep. We laughed, talked and generally had a good time. Dada, the designer, even did a MJ moonwalk with his skeletal-frame on the pitch dark road outside the resort. Going out at night is banned, but, five 60 ml down, who could stop this former GS of Presidency College, Kolkata. He is the Lord. Amidst all this, nobody noticed that the hovering mosquitoes, instead of sucking on our blood, were sitting ugly around the mouth of our whisky and beer bottles. Next morning, as we came down for breakfast after a peaceful booze-induced slumber, we got the first shock of the day. The waiters had no time for us. Why? Well, lying, belly up all around the grassy lawn, like valiant half-dead warriors, were the mossies — all nursing a massive hangover, even as they ordered around the waiters for nimbu pani and iced tea and what not!
Well, nothing surprised us anymore. Which is why as we took a post breakfast walk on the lonely road, we were not really bothered to see a flock of riotously colourful peacocks marching towards us with the least amount of trepidation. It was only after we came within earshot of each other that we realised our mistake: The peacocks turned out to be typical rural Rajasthani women in the brightest of blues and greens and yellows and reds, more colours than FabIndia could ever imagine. They stared at our girls in imitation-Gucci glasses. And giggled. Our girls returned the compliment with a ‘wow, what bods! They can be on the ramps of Milan!”
If animals and insects were behaving like humans, wait till you see these bunch of dark-skinned fatsoes from Ahemadabad behaving like animals. On an office sponsored junket for team building, these boors jumped on the swimming pool with war cries, muddied the pool like buffaloes in a village pond and screamed like happy hyenas, as if they own the resort. Later, they were also seen using the swimming pool as a wash basin. With mouthful of water from the pool, they rinsed their mouth after dinner, only to spit it out back in the pool.
And there was this strange story that wafted along the dark roads of Ranthambhore among the little community of tourists, drivers, hotels staffers and forest guards. As per the bits and pieces that we heard, a very drunk owner of a car slapped his driver for getting drunk! And the driver, who is a Aftab Shivdasani look-alike, responded by slapping him back. And a brawl ensured, in which he has reportedly declared in what had by now become a very famous quote: “I Pandey. I don’t tell lie. I from Lucknow”.
Well, we had had enough and sooner we get out of this thriller, the better. As we were loading our luggage on the Innova, we realised there is an uncommon silence in the group. As if some buzz, some drone was missing. It was then that we figured out: Where is Rini? A frantic search followed, but she was nowhere to be seen. And then I spotted the headline on the day’s Times of India which Indira was using as a sunshade: Tiger kills Delhi journo in Ranthambhore. Grabbing the paper we all poured over the report. Yes, it was Rini! Apparently, in her desperation to spot the stripes in its ‘natural’ surrounding, Rini had made several surreptitious trips to the Park. Finally when she did spot a tiger, she interviewed him, of course, in what was supposed to be her scoop. But then she asked him what, on hindsight, she could have well avoided: Aren’t there any man eaters around anymore? At which, the tiger got damn emotional and fondly recalled about his ancestors in Kumaon during Jim Corbett’s time. “Yes there are man eaters still,” Mr Tiger was reported to have said, and forgetting briefly about the Dalai Lama, went on to give a live demonstration.
PS: Disappointed at not spotting the tiger, stories like these kept our cheerful bunch amused.