Before that night fell upon us, I happened to sit all alone on the corridor, in front of the room at the far end. Bordering that room was the fence and beyond that lay the mysterious jungle. I decided to close my eyes and soak in the silence. But could not keep them closed for long. The silence that you feel in a forest has got a strange strangeness about it. Underneath the quiet blanket roams the strangest of sounds. It’s never really quiet. You could hear the wind speaking softly to the leaves, the distant calls of an unknown carnivore on the prowl, listen closely and you could hear the dust moving around over the dry stretches of the inland forest brushing everything on its way, listen even closely and you could hear the army of ants on the ground too ! As I listened, I heard soft footsteps somewhere close, somewhere behind the deserted end of the corridor, it was coming closer until I heard them right in front of me. I opened my eyes. The long grasslands in front of the corridor were still swaying gently. A discomfiture started growing around me as I tried to close my eyes again and this time decided to not listen much too closely.
I had them closed for about a minute when the footsteps returned. There was surely something walking on the grass ! softly… counting its steps. Dusk had formed an envelope already and visibility was already impaired a great deal. But with weakening eyesight, the sense of sounds were growing every minute. I listened closely as the steps grew louder. It was now on the concrete of the long corridor balcony. And it was coming closer to me. I had to open my eyes now though I had no idea where I would run if I had to, as the steps were advancing from the end of the corridor where our room was. And to my right was the gradually vanishing jungle itself. But I had to see what it is that I hear so clearly now. I was still in the dilemma when someone called right beside me “Bhaiya !”
I opened my eyes in great horror and to my relief I found Mohan standing beside me with a cup of coffee in his hand. I managed a smile and took the coffee from his hand. He was one of the 2 teenagers who were cooking and serving for the small resort. Mohan and his sister. They were about 14-16 years of age. I sipped on the coffee and looked at Mohan. He was still standing there. I asked “Do you need to tell me anything ?” He never smiled in all the days that we stayed there and always had a stern expression on his face. He had the same cold eyes when he told me those words.
“It’s better if you don’t sit alone at this end of the corridor.”
I might have seemed like an idiot as I stood up instantly and asked “Why ? tigers ?”
“May be. But more than that there are weird things here. I had seen a lady walking in front of this room when there were no occupants in the hotel ! I see her often and she is not from any of the villages here.”
“Holy fucking cow !!!” I said to myself as I said to Mohan with a smirk on my face “ohh ! ghosts you mean. Its better not to start Ganja at such a young age. Thank you for the coffee. Now go.”
I felt just one thing at that moment - RUN ! But I sat down and stayed until Mohan was out of sight.
As I came back in front of our rooms, i noticed a spare room right at the middle of the corridor inbetween 2 guest rooms on either side. It had its doors closed and there were swarms of ants on the floor beneath the doors. An unusual number of ants !
As we sat and chatted away, darkness engulfed the forests all around us. Navtej and Gaurika joined us and we listened again over glasses of Old Monk.
“Its strange how silent tigers are”, Navtej said. “They will never let you know when they advance or move. You will never hear the footsteps of a tiger even if its standing right beside you.” I looked around me to make sure. Just in case ! Navtej and Gaurika have been going on daily evening walks after 8 PM in these forests to spot some form of wildlife in the dark. We could not believe someone could even think of this and looked around at the opaque darkness around us. But it thrilled us nonetheless and we told them that tonight we would love to join them on their walk.
“Have you ever seen anything on these walks?”
“Well not very surely but we have heard. Heard sounds and uncanny footsteps beside us.” Gaurika said.
We were enthralled by the uncertainty of every moment as we sat there. The fear of tigers that could be anywhere inside the campus right at that moment, or it could be waiting right beside me as I talked, the strange noises beyond the darkness - they all were building it up… the fear !
Suddenly all of us looked at each other, startled by a shrill sound. It was already 8.30 and looked like 12 in the night. Navtej stood up like lightning. “That’s a spotted deer calling” We looked at him. And again came the call, not once but thrice. And then another scream. Not the spotted deer this time. “Its the howler monkey. And this is no leopard mind you. There has to be a tiger. The calls are coming from within 200 m radius. So the tiger is around.” As he said these he had already sprung to his feet and was running towards the gate with a torch in his hand. I followed him without thinking any further and others did the same too. We ran out from the campus and out came into the open moonlit road through the jungle. Navtej had said that due to the pond behind the campus, tigers would definitely come at some point of time. We only had to know. Tigers had areas of their own. The male tigers of Bandhavgarh had earmarked their areas within which it roamed free and hunted and defended the area fiercely from other males. As we walked silently on the kaccha road with only our torches to illuminate the path in front of us (moonlight was pretty dim that night), I remembered what we had been hearing about the tiger that day from different people and I thought to myself that it would be better if we donot come face to face with a male tiger. A male tiger could be more than 250 kgs in weight and stands upto a height of over a metre. Bamera, which has been the dominant male in Bandhavgarh for quiet a long time weighs 280 kgs and the sight of it sends shivers down the spine, even the experienced drivers in the safari jeeps. Bamera’s dead predecessor, the great Charger was an equally fearsome beast if not more. If jeeps encountered him, the drivers wouldn’t know what to do for the first few moments. Nerves failed at the sight of Charger. Its that huge and that dreadful. And Charger didnot just leave you with the hypnotic stare. It would live up to its name and charge at the safari jeeps as soon as it saw them.
Navtej led the way and he had the only torch except Gaurika who escorted us from behind. They asked us to keep quiet so as to increase our chances (of what !!!???). I was charged up too and looked with narrowing eyes on either side for any sign of the slightest movement. We spotted a movement soon enough as a pair of eyes from the distant became a pair of headlights soon as it stopped while passing us by. There was Deepak, the owner. He peeked out and asked why were we roaming around at this time. Navtej explained the calls and Deepak said its okay as long as we stayed off the main road that bordered the Khitauli core area.
We walked on in search of the tiger. Navtej warned that the tall grasslands on our left could be a perfect camouflage for the beast. We approached the main road and soon our kaccha road had finished. We stood in front of the main road and looked at Navtej when another call came. This time the barking deer. A frantic call. Navtej pointed towards the darkness where the Tala-Umaria road has vanished in front of us. We decided to ignore Deepak’s warning and move on as it was a night of a lifetime.