Life’s little joys

The big story at Corbett National Park isn’t the tiger anymore, or its absence. It is about smaller
creatures: the birds, the bugs and the butterflies, writes Nishiraj A. Baruah

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How can you allow this, yaar? How can you just let anyone enter your room and get away with things?” that’s wifey erupting into a mock fury over the phone. “So aren’t you gonna call the cops? Aren’t you gonna get the thief arrested?” she goes on, as I listen lying on the bed and looking helplessly at the
intrepid intruder. Equipped with a little beak and without a care in the world, the unidentified flying object is busy plucking away the hay that makes the ceiling of my cottage. It is doing so with such professionalism that I look at it impressed, but hey, at the rate and the speed at which it has been flying in and
out of my room with a beakfull of hay strands, very soon it will have a bungalow of a nest for itself, but
will leave me completely roofless in the process. “Shoo,” I shout, but who can stop our little birdie.

The big story at Corbett National Park is not the tiger anymore. Or the elephants. The big story is about things smaller: the birds, the bees and the butterflies. Don’t believe me? Well, ask this bunch of thirty amateur photographers who have descended on Dhikuli, the buffer area of the Park for a live photography contest. Graphic designers, management gurus, school students, film animators, software pros all, none of them are interested in the tiger. Instead, they zoom their cameras on ants and dragonflies, flowers and flycatchers. Corbett, after all, has more little wonders than many other national parks.

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With 300 mm telephoto lenses and other hightech gadgets provided by Canon, and guide books on birds in their back pockets, they fan out across the forest adopting impossible positions from Gypsy tops and tree branches, some even lying belly down on wet surfaces. “Oh, no!” someone lets out a sigh. You
see, the elusive Yellow-throated Marten has just flown off the camera range. Elsewhere, it’s a cry
of I’ve-got ecstasy: another lensman has just managed to capture a rare black vulture on his digital black box. Meanwhile, well-known birder Anand Arya waits for hours patiently for a rare bird to make a wink-and-you-miss appearance; even as others discuss lenses, aperture, photo editing software, compositions and
subjects with the seriousness of satellite science. “The event is worthwhile because I am able to try out the various camera lenses before buying, which you normally cannot do in a shop,” says Hyderabad-based film animator Sanath P.C. By evening, everyone is on their laptops downloading their best shots
to be sent online to wildlife filmmaker Mike Pandey in Delhi, the judge of the competition.

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Indeed, there are prizes for the best shots. Like free holidays, etc., from Infinity Resorts and The Corbett Foundation. But more than that it is coming together of like minded individuals — nature lovers all — to discuss and share thoughts, ideas and technical know hows of nature and wildlife photography. “The idea is to bring them together on a common ground — a
natural environment — and challenge them to interpret nature their own way through photography,” says organiser Kahini Ghosh Mehta, a wildlife photographer herself, who along with her hubby and friends runs a club called Nature Wanderers. This ‘Live Photo’ contest called Canon Wild Clicks is a first of its
kind. No wonder, participation has come from all across the country: Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi
and five other cities. And from all age groups: 13 to 53. “It’s a no-profit-no loss venture for us,” says Shivam Mehta, a telecom professional by weekday, a naturalist by weekend.

The other big story about Corbett, or at least in the area we are camped in over the weekend, is fire. Forest fire. And that’s where an element of mystery creeps in: Nobody knows how it all started. It may have been started by a tourist carelessly throwing a cigarette butt on dry leaves. Or, if you are to believe
Piyush Joshi, owner of Camp Wild Adventure near Ramnagar, it may even have been started by locals
themselves to irk forest officials for imposing restrictions on them. If that’s not the case, then it may well be ‘controlled fire’ in which forest officials themselves set parts of the forest afire to clear the ground for
new vegetation. Yet another version comes from the autowalla dropping me at the Camp late one night:
“The fireline is along the highway. This is to keep the animals away from the road at night so that they
don’t crash into speeding vehicles.”

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Whatever may be the reason, but the Lakshman rekha has spread far and wide swallowing gigantic trees and countess life forms in its wake. “It’s as if my heart is on fire,” Kahini sighs. For tourists, however,
it is a spectacular sight: The night sky a flaming orange. So what has been done to control the fire?
Well, nothing apparently, except for some traditional offerings by residents in the form of a thali of diyas and drinks to appease local deities in the middle of the forest. “Don’t look at it,” says Joshi, “it’s
bewitched.”

He may have been right. For soon after a short excursion inside the pitch dark forest — mobile phone
working as guiding lights — I am left a little unnerved by what follows. As I close the window of my hut
in Camp Wild Adventure, the gold kada that I have been wearing for years slips off my right arm to fall in the bush outside the window. It has never happened before and I get superstitious. I just hope everything is alright back home in Delhi. Instinctively I reach out for my phone: But boy, where is my phone? A
frantic search confirms that I have lost it. Have I looked too closely at the Tantric thali? The night is
restless, the mating calls of peacocks and other bizarre sounds of the jungle feeding my fear. So the
first thing I do next morning is to walk up to a nearby PCO. “Can I make a call?” I ask the PCO owner.
“No,” he says. “The forest fire has burnt the telephone wires. All my phones are dead.”

Indeed, tiger tales may have lost their suspense in India’s national parks, but for the attentive, observant tourist, there are a million other tales that can keep you spooked around a bonfire. Camp owner Joshi
tells me about a possessed woman who speaks in a man’s voice and about ordinary women who
suddenly become capable of impossible feats: such as drinking water, no, not by the bottle, but by the bucket.

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Besides, there are usual tales of mananimal conflict, corrupt forest officials and so on — all narrated in conspiratorial ‘hush-hush’ whispers. And personally, that’s what I love about a holiday in the forest.

All said, the bottomline is: Don’t come to Corbett with the tiger in mind. Come here to watch the other
little things. And believe me, you will be rewarded. A bush with a bird is worth more than a bush with an elusive tiger.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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