Travels in India, 2001: (6) The Jungle (Madhya Pradesh)

Tiger!

Before leaving Delhi, I had arranged for a car and driver to take me to the nature reserves of Bandhavgarh and Kanha. In Britain, having your own driver is reserved for lottery winners and drunks with good insurance, but here the cost was so embarrassingly little that I shall refrain from telling you what it was. There was a drawback, however, that only became obvious when the car arrived at my hotel in Khajuraho. Now, to be fair, I had been asked if I wanted a car with air conditioning. I’d said no: I like open windows and the er in my fis. What I hadn’t appreciated was that there was likely to be some correlation between air conditioning and the d.o.b. of the vehicle in question. So it proved. The car waiting outside my hotel was an Ambassador and about as old as I was. My heart sunk. I’d been told that the journey to Bandhavgarh would take seven hours.

There are two things to notice before volunteering for a long journey in an Ambassador. First, headrests. There aren’t any. The back of the seat finishes below the shoulder, so should you be relaxed enough to dose off, improbable though that may be on Indian roads, your head has nothing to hold it up except your neck muscles. These, however, are useless for support purposes because they, being attached, tend to nod off when you do. Second, suspension. There isn’t any of that, either. The car has no ability to ride bumps. When the road goes up, it goes up, and when down, down. I climbed into my allotted place in the back, determined to put a brave face on things.

The kindest thing I can say about the thoroughfare from Khajuraho is that tarmac is not totally unknown. On occasions, there was even enough of it for two cars travelling in opposite directions to pass comfortably. But the norm was single track. From time to time this degenerated into a black snake-like trickle, which, while it might masquerade as a highway, was, in fact, a signpost. At least you knew if you followed the asphalt traces, you weren’t going to end up in some farmer’s field. Potholes were everywhere and, on occasions, craters, but, generally speaking, few were large enough to disappear into. Apart from the volume of traffic, which was high, it was the sort of track they used to have in the Highlands of Scotland across open sheep country, before the EU decided that the only way to turn Thurso into a thriving megalopolis was to inject billions of taxpayers money into 3-lane highways that nobody used.

My driver for the trip was Rajjan, a decent man not given to conversation. We got on fine. I took his sudden swerving and braking in good heart, and he gave me a crash course in how to drive on Indian roads. Given that the black stuff was in short supply, jungle rules applied: small gives way to large, just as, at the waterhole, the buck gives way to the tiger. We vacated the tarmac when lorries and buses bore down. Bikes and cars with a retail value greater than zero gave way to us. Jeeps, however, presented Rajjan with a test of manhood. They were bigger and stronger than we were, but the Ambassador, for all its shortcomings, was solid. It was leopard v jackal. Your money is on the leopard, but if the jackal stands firm and looks determined, the leopard will sometimes give ground. So when a jeep came towards us on the central strip, a steely look would come into Rajjan’s eye. He would align himself for a head-on collision and accelerate towards it. I sat in the back demonstrating as much backbone as jelly on a plate. When the cars were about twenty yards apart, one of them would weaken (thank God), cut off onto the rolled earth that ran alongside, and hammer along that before swinging back onto what, in golfing parlance, we would call the mown surface.

Curiously enough, I adjusted quite quickly to the fact that, like skiers, we were proceeding in a forward direction by means of sharp left right zigzags. What was more difficult was that each pothole jiggled my head up and down like a pea in a pan of boiling water. I suppose it only bumped against the roof about once in twenty jigs when the road was good, and one in ten when bad, but this is the kind of thing that gives you a headache.

The landscape was dry, flat and vaguely Spanish in appearance. There were villages now and again with dogs lying by the roadside and cows deep in contemplation on the tarmac. Mainly, though, Rajjan’s macho manoeuvrings took place amid tranquil acres of neat farmland. Where, I thought to myself, in one of those brief moments of lucidity when I wasn’t being bounced like a beach-ball on a choppy sea, had all the people gone? When I came to India, I assumed that there couldn’t be any countryside. Perhaps the occasional pocket of greenery sandwiched between those teeming millions, but not long stretches of open emptiness. I was wrong. India, let me tell you, has country. Miles upon miles of it.

After a couple of hours, we stopped at a tourist café a few miles before a town called Satna. The owner greeted us with the usual enquiries about whether he could serve up a four course meal with all the trimmings – politely declined – and then remarked that the road from Khajuraho to Satna, the minefield upon which we had just been travelling, had been good. Good?! If that was good, what I wondered, was bad. I was soon to find out. It was much worse, he said, on the next stretch from Satna to Bandhavgarh. This was not music to my ears. (Actually, as it turned out, he was wrong about the road. It wasn’t much worse. Much worse would have meant cutting a way through with machetes. It was just worse.)

I was about to avail myself of the café’s facilities prior to enduring the five hour pounding that lay ahead, when an ultra-modern coach, air conditioned, with full working suspension and radial tyres, pulled in, and a party of Americans poured out. The ladies immediately made for the one washroom, and a queue of 15 females formed outside. This was a set-back, but the thought dawned on me that I might be able to cadge a lift up to Bandhavgarh and let Rajjan rattle himself to death on his own. I therefore decided to engage the friendliest looking of the bunch, who was probably called Abe, in conversation.

‘Going to Bandhavgarh,’ I proffered.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘you’?

‘Yes.’

‘Travelling alone’?

‘Yes.’

He glanced around. ‘In that?’ he said pointing at the Ambassador.

‘I’m afraid so,’ I replied, ‘I organised it before I realised what the roads were like.’

‘Hey, you’re pretty gamey,’ he said and I don’t think he was referring to the fact that I hadn’t made contact with soap and water for some hours.

‘Mm, the suspension’s gone and I’ve got a splitting headache. Heaven knows what the next few hours will be like.’ And then, chuckling in my most winsome manner, ‘How’s the coach? Comfortable? Plenty of room?’ I enquired, leaning heavily on the last phrase.

‘Yea, smooth and spacious,’ he replied, smiling.

At this point, when all seemed to be going according to plan, when the happy ending was there for the taking, I ran into the buffers of what you’d have to call a clash of cultures. My expectation of how the conversation would carry on from here went something like this:

Abe, reading the need in my face: ‘Hey, I’m sure there’s a spare seat. Would you like to hop aboard.’

Me: ‘No really, I couldn’t impose.’

Abe: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, we’d love to have you. Hey Chuck, this Limey is looking for a ride to Ban.’

Chuck: ‘Sure Abe, the more the merrier. Hop on in.’

That’s how I saw it going. What actually happened was rather different. Abe, being American, assumed that, if I wanted a lift, I would ask for one. You don’t ask, you don’t get. So he carried on smiling, waiting for the request, while I carried on smiling, waiting to be asked. We were grinning so fixatedly that Tony Blair could have taken lessons. I, of course, cracked first. ‘Well’, I said, ‘it’s back to the old bone shaker for me. See you in Ban.’ I walked back to the car, reached in to my travel bag and made sure he saw me taking a couple of aspirin.

We were soon in Satna, and Rajjan proceeded to push his way through. I now knew why I had seen so few people in the last couple of hours. They had all moved to Satna. The place was heaving. Street after mud street was packed with milling Satnians and dilapidated shacks selling the three essentials of Indian living: food, clothes and car tyres. The town also boasted an extraordinary collection of animal grotesques. Two very peculiar pigs were rooting around by the side of the road. At least I presume they were pigs. They might have been domesticated wart-hogs. A goat, descended from a long line of giraffes, strutted across the street in front of us. On top of its protracted neck perched a tiny head, sandwiched between a Hapsburg chin below and a topknot above. It was probably auditioning for a part in a Star Wars movie, and was off for a quiet cigarette and a stiff one before its big moment. And there were dogs of the sort that, if your kids brought one home for adoption, Mum would run screaming out of the kitchen shrieking that no-one will get any food until that THING is out of her house.

To cap it all, the place was awash with cows. I know that every Indian city has them, but Satna looked like Dodge City after the boys from the Rusty Nail had brought the Trail Drive into town. There were dogies all over the place and we found ourselves becalmed behind a herd that had decided to pitch camp on the main road out of town. Given that killing a cow is, for a Hindu, absolutely verboten, I thought we would be there all night, but this was to underestimate Rajjan’s skill as a motorised cowpoke. He had a method. He stood on the horn, and nudged them up the backside with his bumper. The cows hopped sideways a few paces, thus enabling – if I might borrow from the imagery of Khajuraho – penetration to be achieved.

Once through Satna, Rajjan put his foot down. I think he had noticed my recent attempt to jump ship and wanted to show me what the car could do. Normally I would have been happy to let him blow off steam, except that, as attentive readers may remember, I had earlier been deprived of the relief that roadside café’s traditionally furnish. To say I was now desperate would have been an understatement. However, we carried on into the middle of nowhere for as long as I could bear it, whereupon I asked him to pull over. Actually, I grabbed him by the shoulder and forced him off the road. I leapt out of the car and, in the best Indian tradition, began to hose down the dry earth. My tank was still some ¾ full, when I heard the purr of 21st century hydraulics, and looked up to see the Americans’ coach come round the corner. Abe gave me a friendly wave as he steamed past, while 15 women just stared. Having come from Khajuraho, they had a discerning interest in the finer points. I did my best to give them a cheery smile.

The road became, as predicted, narrower. The ratio of pothole to tarmac approached 1:1. Monkeys played by the roadside. We bunny-hopped past some very African looking women walking bolt upright in the direction of Bandhavgarh carrying large loads of straw on their heads. A little later we passed another group carrying identical amounts of straw walking in the opposite direction. Modern technology is a wonderful thing, I couldn’t help thinking. If only these women could pick up a telephone and say, ‘hey, I’m phoning from Y and am planning to bring a bale of straw to X. Nobody there by any chance bringing a bale in this direction? There is? Good. Why don’t we get together on this and save ourselves a bit of lifting?’ After this illuminating insight, darkness fell suddenly and thereafter all I could see were trees in the headlights, the whites of the occasional inquisitive eyeball  and, now and then a village. When we arrived in Bandhavgarh, my head felt like a cricket ball after a Tendulkar double century.

I was staying in a rather up-market jungle camp. I even had my own hut. A smell of barbecue was coming from somewhere and, having dumped my bags, I went to investigate. The somewhere turned out to be a campfire, around which a group of English people were deeply engrossed in their dinner. The choice was meat, meat or meat, which posed something of a problem. No flesh had passed my lips since coming to India. However, since I had had nothing but a few bananas all day, I piled my plate high and asked Ram for forgiveness and a strong stomach. Afterwards, I lounged around, drank a few beers and chatted to my new friends. My headache had cleared. A benevolent mellowness was beginning to wash over me and then someone produced a guitar. Conversation ceased instantly, the first chords were strummed and everyone around me erupted into a reedy rendering of ‘Kumbaya’, followed by ‘Green Grow the Rushes O!’ I sunk back into my wicker chair. It is at moments like these that I am proud to be an adopted Scot. You wouldn’t catch a coach-load of Scots singing Kumbaya, I can tell you. I sneaked off to bed. A strange creature was hissing on the roof of my jungle hut, but it didn’t detain me for long.

The time to see tigers is at some ungodly hour of the morning, don’t ask me why. Either tigers are early risers or they party late. Whatever the reason, Peter, Paul and Mary, a couple of other crooners from the night before, and myself, were sitting in a jeep at first light, rattling along and freezing to death. It is cold, first thing, and I hadn’t thought to pack a coat. Well you don’t, do you, going to India? The jungle wasn’t as I had imagined it. I’d thought we’d have to slash a path through dense tropical vegetation, peer through curtains of hanging creepers and pluck leeches out of our necks.  Instead, the trees let in light, a stream meandered gently below us and, from time to time, the canvas opened up across acres of open grassland.

By and by, the dappled sunlight worked its way through the patina of ice that had formed around me and I started to enjoy myself. We rooted around some venerable caves, once home to a holy hermit, and now to horseshoe bats. We stopped by a stream, watched the bubbles of invisible fish rise to the surface, and inspected the dry red mud for tiger tracks, as if we had the first clue what we were doing. We even saw a tiger in the distance, by a bush. Well, everybody said it was a tiger. All I could see was a dark impressionistic arboreal-looking blob. But that didn’t matter. It was a good day to be out and pootling along in an open-topped jeep with the sun on your back, and exotic animals you have only ever seen in wildlife documentaries doing their thing alongside. A wonderful day in fact, from which I am able to offer you three selected observations on the Indian Jungle at Bandhavgarh.

(1) Tigers must have good agents. Star-struck tiger-groupies drool over their droppings and chase in all directions on the off-chance of a sighting. Once rumbled, the Tiger finds a comfortable spot in the sun a couple of miles away and goes to sleep, while the groupies take out their long lenses and go at it like paparazzi who have caught a Royal Princess sunbathing topless.

(2) Monkeys are very like us. A Langoor (monkey) sits like a human with the weight of the world on his shoulders, fiddling with his whiskers or resting his arms on his knees, wrists limp. The male, when with his mate, will put his arm around her like a young lover gazing at the sunset. The female is never happier than when displaying her new baby to a gaggle of other females, while telling them how hopeless her husband is at getting up nights. After dinner, they all gather around a campfire and sing Kumbaya.

(3) Strange things happen as dusk descends. Faces, wondering what’s for supper tonight, appear amidst the undergrowth and stare. Branches crack. Low growls hover on the stillness. A Tyranosaurus Rex lurches through a clearing pretending to be a tree-trunk. If you go down to the woods tonight, be sure of a big surprise.

I left next morning for Kanha, an even larger tract of jungle. I don’t know where Rajjan had holed up during the last couple of days, but the break seemed to have done him good. His driving was relaxed and leisurely. We meandered past fields of reddish brown earth, green crops, yellow crops, oxen pulling a plough, trees interspersed like oak in an English landscape, women elegantly and colourfully dressed in their saris carrying pots on their heads, backs ramrod straight, and old men with bow legs walking to heaven knows where. We rattled through villages packed with curious smiling faces, looking out as Rajjan went through tooting his horn.

Now that we were no longer travelling at terminal velocity, it was a treat just to look around and watch the sights of rural India unfold – men squatting by the roadside, bottoms not quite touching the ground, knees by their chins; haystacks of the sort they used to have in Europe before the First World War and still have in the Balkans; a man on a bicycle carrying three times his weight and five times his volume in a package balanced precariously over the back wheel; and another, not taking any chances, cycling along under a cloudless sky with a rolled umbrella under his arm. We stopped at a small village to buy a bunch of bananas (my lunch, 5 rupees). It seemed like a well-to-do little place. The houses had clay tiles mostly and occasionally were 2-storey. One of the buildings had a satellite dish, so there must have been TV and electricity. Nobody pestered me. Nobody begged. There wasn’t much traffic. This was country life, as it should be, and why anyone would want to swap it for the squalor of the towns, I couldn’t imagine.[i] But they do, by the million, though whether they think it is such a smart move when they arrive in the big city is another matter. Rajjan approved of village living. ‘Varanasi too much traffic, too many police,’ he said, fingering his 3-day stubble and the collar on his designer golf shirt simultaneously.  He was a good man. Wiry, unflappable, happy to drive or not to drive.

We stopped by a river for lunch. Rajjan produced a paratha from somewhere and munched on it. Fifty yards away, an old and redundant bridge with pleasant, symmetrical arches sauntered across the water. Trees lined the banks on either side. It was a hot day in an Indian winter, and there was hardly a soul about. Every 15 minutes or so a battered conveyance of one kind or another chugged by. I gazed around in raptures, while Rajjan leant on the car roof picking things out of his hair. A middle-aged man on a scooter drove up, and stopped. He turned his engine off and watched me in silence as I dealt with what remained of my bananas. I thought of nodding to him, but didn’t. I watched the river. He watched me. That was fine. After a while, we set off again for Kanha. With 50kms to go, the road as good as ceased and the navigable surface became as ruckled as an under-sheet after a night of passion. Rajjan took this as a cue to put his foot on the gas and use my head to flatten out those indentations in his roof that I had put there, involuntarily, two days ago. When we finally arrived, I dosed with aspirin and had a lie down.

I was staying in what you might call a compound, consisting of a dozen well-appointed huts around a central dining area. Behind these flowed a river that, after 5 ½ hours in the Ambassador, looked irresistible. I needed a swim. The man in charge was a Portuguese Indian from Goa, by the name of Jason, and I asked him if he would be kind enough to give me the inside track on any crocodiles, piranhas or life-destroying bacteria that might be lurking within. He thought the water was safe – a rather more lukewarm assurance than I had been hoping for – but I set off anyway. The sun was blazing, and I made my way along a sandy beach – which I presume was the river bed in the wet season – to what looked like the best spot 500 yards upstream. Tall birch-like trees lined the banks. The river swirled in an extravagant ‘S’ around two sharp-edged boulders in midstream. If ever there was a place where Mowgli and Baloo might have frolicked, or Shere Khan come down to cast a hungry eye over the buffalo, this was it. No-one was about. I pondered whether or not bathing trunks were necessary but felt that I couldn’t entirely discount the possibility of a lingering piranha or two. If I was going to go 10 rounds with fish that had teeth, I would rather be wearing bathers. I stepped in, lay on my back, paddled my feet against the current and knew I was in heaven. After a while, a gnarled, black terrestrial goatherd brought his flock down to the water’s edge, and I took this as an appropriate moment to emerge. We exchanged cursory greetings, mine tentative, his of the ‘what in God’s name is this!’ variety. I withdrew feeling vulnerably pink and flabby.

I had time for a quick nap that night, before finding myself once more in an open-sided, unroofed jeep, rattling along a jungle track. It was at that time of day when sane people are still lying on their backs, making snuffly cxhor-pugh noises. In other words, asleep. Considering how early it was, we, that is a local driver, a jungle guide and myself, were remarkably perky. We stopped to watch three wild dogs chew the remains of what the guide said was a peacock, although so little remained by the time we got up close, that we would have needed dental records to be absolutely sure. We were lucky to see them, apparently. They are furtive creatures, not dissimilar to the dogs you see in the average Indian village, but these can bring down Sambur. Tigers give them a wide berth. They are Kipling’s dhole of the Deccan and, as it happened, Kanha is where the Jungle Book was supposed to have been set. The Waingunga, where Kaa swam and the red dogs plunged to their death, is 50 miles or so south. It was very Jungle Book country, very jungly. Dense vegation, creepers, vines and vast: from the highest point you could look as far as the eye could see and that was only a quarter of the total area of Kanha. Most of the animals in the Jungle Book are to be found at Kanha: tigers, panthers (a.k.a. leopards, but black), snakes, kites, monkeys, the occasional wolf, but no bears – unless Baloo was a sloth bear which he wasn’t. Kipling, by the way, took his character names straight from the Hindi. ‘Baloo’ means Bear, ‘bagh’ leopard, (hence Bagheera), ‘hathi’ elephant, and ‘bandar’ is monkey, (as in Bandar-log). But Kaa is not a python.

We drove on into denser stuff and parked in a clearing to watch several barrel-loads of monkeys playing happily in the branches above, swinging lazily to and fro, and trying to make up their mind who should be the one to throw a banana at those stupid idiots in the jeep. This made riveting viewing, until one of them spotted something and gave out an alarm call. I may not know much about the jungle, but I know an alarm call when I hear one. I was alarmed, I don’t know about the monkeys. ‘Tiger’ whispered the guide, at which point a number of thoughts involuntarily flooded in. First of all, the monkeys were peeing themselves with panic and they were 20 foot up a tree. Shouldn’t we be the teeniest bit apprehensive?  Secondly, did the fellow who removed the sides and top of this vehicle know what he was doing? and thirdly, the fact that no man has been killed by a tiger round here since 1974, probably meant that another one was due anytime now. I’d seen a tiger at Bandhavgarh, but that was so far away it might as well have been on TV. This felt real. When you know that there is a powerful carnivore out there, probably staring at you from the long grass by the side of the road, and that there is no protection between you and it except a T–shirt, your heart does pump a wee bit faster. It would be just my luck to evade Dengue fever only to be eaten. I was wondering which of us he would go for first. The others were younger and more tender, but there was no doubt about it, if it was a hearty breakfast he was after, I was the logical choice. I was doing my best to look as thin and indigestible as possible when, ten yards in front of us, a large orange and black tiger loomed out of the long grass and, without looking left or right, ambled loose-limbed across the track, and disappeared. I take back everything I may have said about tigers. This was an impressive, not to say heart-stopping, sight and everything after that was anticlimax.

You would have thought that being a tiger was a cushy number. It swaggers around like a mafia boss in a Sicilian village and just about everything it meets either wets its pants or runs away. It would be a great life, except for the fact that in China and Japan nothing is thought to put a spring in the step or a twinkle in the eye quite like a good helping of ground tiger bones. So tigers have been, and are being, poached to the edge of extinction. Kanha was established as a reserve, as part of the Government’s Project Tiger, in 1973, but this hasn’t put an end to poaching. It was going on extensively in 1995[ii] and it still is. But what brings tears to the eyes is that even after the criminals are brought to trial – and hundreds have been – convictions for poaching are minimal.[iii] Wipe-out is a distinct possibility.

Mind you, for hundreds of years, people have been doing their best to exterminate tigers. The Moghul approach was characteristically systematic. Soldiers were employed as beaters. They strung out to form a large circle and drove whatever game they came across into an area in which slaughter could conveniently take place. Then the emperor jumped into the ring, and when he had had his fill, his officers and senior courtiers had a go, after which came lesser men, and finally the troopers and footmen. On one occasion, in 1567, 50,000 beaters were employed to sweep up the wildlife within a 30 mile radius.[iv] It took them a month. After that, the ‘hunting’ began and, according to the chronicler, ‘there was pleasure from morning till evening and from evening till morning.’[v] I bet. Not that the British were any better. They also used beaters, occasionally up to one thousand at a time.[vi] And they had the advantage of more recent technology. In 1851, Captain James Forsyth wrote how he mounted sentry over a tiger for nearly a week, ‘girding him in a little hill with a belt of fires, and feeding him with a nightly kine (cow), till half a hundred elephants, carrying the cream of a vice-regal camp, swept him out into the plain, where he fell riddled by a storm of bullets from several hundred virgin rifles.’[vii] Good sport, eh. And then there was the proud moment in 1834 when 118 tigers were killed by luring them into pitfall traps with sharp spikes at the bottom.[viii] So it went. As P.G.Wodehouse put it, ‘I like a man to be a clean, strong, upstanding Englishman who can look his gnu in the face and put an ounce of lead in it.’[ix] The only problem is that if we continue to allow much more lead to be pumped into the few thousand tigers that now remain, there soon won’t be any left. Which would be a pity.

[i] Dreams of streets lined with gold most likely, though caste might have something to do with it. If you were an untouchable in the sort of village described by Rohinton Mistry in A Fine Balance, you might grab at anything that felt like the exit.

[ii] Stanley Breedon and Belinda Wright, Through the Tigers Eyes, (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California, 1996), pp 127-33.

[iii] Julian Pettifer, BBC World, 6/8/00.

[iv] Gascoigne, op. cit., p.86

[v] Abu-L-Fazl, The Akbar Nama, vol. II, (Atlantic Publishers, reprinted 1989), pp 416-17.

[vi] Breedon and Wright, op. cit., p.168.

[vii] Breedon and Wright, op. cit., p.168.

[viii] Breedon and Wright, op. cit., p. 169.

[ix] P.G. Wodehouse, Mr Mulliner Speaking, (from Jeremy Paxman, The English, p.176).

… to be continued

 © Michael Tobert