I entered the Dhikala zone from the Dhangadi gate and lost mobile network, which I desperately needed to check the climate conditions for the upcoming dates of my safaris... The sky was clear, but I feared it could rain in the next five days, making tiger sightings impossible. My thoughts bounced on the floor of the Gypsy on the bumpy road fraught with pebbles and sedimentary rocks as I headed for the Dhikala forest rest house (FRH).
Before setting out for my first safari, I wanted to investigate tiger sightings in the different zones. Amid interruptions by a troop of thieving monkeys (total haul- one water bottle and a leftover snack, not the best day to be rhesus), the news about Paarwali tigress being pregnant was the highlight of the discussions between the guides and drivers in the parking area of the FRH. I was sitting under the shade of a tree in my Gypsy when a humid breeze came to lick my sunburnt face. Ignoring the intense heat, I focused on the conversation of drivers. Most of them wore green hats which cocooned their heads in warm sweat that trickled down their necks and forced their loose olive shirts to cling to their backs. Two years ago, when she became a mother for the first time, the Paarwaali tigress couldn't raise her cubs successfully and none of them survived more than a few months. But Godmother Corbett had blessed this tigress with an opportunity to be a better mother and take care of another litter. I knew that far away from this articulate conversation, the beautiful and bold tigress must be feeding her new borns and swearing to herself to take proper care of them.
My dream, however, was to capture the Chuapani tigress and her separate set of cubs in my camera, and of course, a hunting shot. In almost all my stories, I've mentioned how eager I am to photograph this sight which has eluded me since I first started visiting the forest as a child. Corbett, my mother cooked the best sightings and served them to me. She provided me with great opportunities to get closer to Royal Bengal Tigers- beasts whose very sight is enough to make your heart tremble. But Corbett wouldn't cook my favourite dish, the hunt, something I had been dreaming of since childhood. After watching lions hunt in the Savannah and tigers in the Ranthambore Lake in documentaries coming on " Janvaro wale channel " it became my dream to view this in real life. I always wanted to relish this delicacy but I understood before having this snack, Corbett wanted me to respect all its blessings big and small, trees, monkeys, birds and Sal, and capture them with all my heart and patiently wait for my dream to get fulfilled.
My desperate attempts to find the Chuapani cubs had all failed... I had no other option but to try my chances with the Paarwali tigress or return to the FRH empty handed. Rizwan didn't seem to be very happy with my decision and still wanted to search for these cubs. I had spent four safaris looking for them, but they were nowhere to be seen; not even their pugmarks could be found.
Thirst struck me on the road full of gaddhas but reaching for the water bottle and sticking its mouth to mine was not as easy as it sounds on this road. The depth of each gadhha determined how hard the steel bottle would strike my dry lips longing for water. Cold water from the bottle toppled on my clothes and spilled over to Rizwan's cap, flowing through the ravines of an impenetrable layer of mud that had collected on Rizwan's cap since last season. It was time to take blessings from the Ramganga as Rizwan parked the Gypsy on the wooden Gethia Rao Bridge. In the glancing light, the river shone like a molten mirror and without flicking its water with my hand, I could feel it's coldness in each drop. The depth of Ramganga is deceptive as its water is crystal clear like mountain spring, safe from industrial pollution or the cruel effects of a dhobi's trade. The green, rounded pebbles on the bottom of the river and the Golden Mahashers (huge, red and golden fishes) were visible clearly. I didn't have the time to take off my shoes and lend my feet to Ramganga to drink away my body heat so with just a splash on my face of the holy water, I left for Paar.
The large territory of the well-photographed tigress Paarwali is a mix of small water holes walled by rocks, riverbeds, dense Sal woods, and her favourite haunt, the Bhaang fields. It makes me wonder sometimes if the tigress has a predilection for bhaang, but I know the fields are cool and a perfect hideout for a tiger in summer. The Gypsys were patrolling her territory, checking her favourite spots, and even the ones she hardly visits as no one could find her. My ears were craving to receive an alarm call from any direction, and my eyes were scanning every bush in the hope of catching a glimpse of a striped tail or ear. Nothing. After a quick conversation held solely in looks, Rizwan and I decided to wait near the Bhaang field; perhaps the queen could show up at her favourite spot. He was getting restless with every passing minute and his sweaty hands were slowly reaching for the gear and keys. His patience was about to give, when from the high bank we heard a Sambhar bellow twice near the slope of the road to our left, half a kilometer from us. It was certain that the sambhar had seen the tigress moving in the jungle. Rizwan's itching hands got their chance and he didn't waste a moment in kick starting the engine and taking off. With a strange grin, he steered a sharp left, which sent me and my equipment tumbling the other way. We entered the shallow depression of the nullah which was scattered with white rocks making deep furrows between the rocks probably caused by the rushing waters in the monsoons. " Yahan se bhi nikal sakti hei, aage se bhi. " With this, Rizwan revved the Gypsy up the slope, keeping a sharp lookout behind us as well, or the tigress could slip past us any moment.
" Gaadi roko", I didn't know if I exclaimed that or whispered it. I had caught a glimpse of something which everyone else sitting with me could never dream of! My heart, which had been pounding heavily since the Sambhar's alarm call, was now exhausted and it took a second's rest... With my eye set in the viewfinder, and my right index finger gently pressing the shutter button, I exclaimed, " Wo a raha tiger". I don't remember if I released the shutter button first, or my family and the guide sprang to their seats on all corners and looked out to see. I muttered under my breath " Koi hilna nahi warna picture kharab ho jayegi! "
The charm that always graces Paarwali's face today had disappeared. I couldn't help but notice her eyes gleaming with ferocity. She was caught red handed. Her paws were crimson and her whiskers which till now I had seen dipped in water, today were soaked with blood. The tigress was coming down the junction of roads straight towards us with a fresh kill in her mouth. A fawn's neck was caught in her sharp canines, from which its body ruthlessly swung left and right. There was silence in the Gypsy. We were left awestruck by this sight. I always knew my dream to see a tiger with its kill would be fulfilled one day, but I never considered that I would be a spectator to such a cruel act. My dream snatched away a little deer from its mother. The young baby who was looked after carefully by its mother, the hide which the mother licked when the baby was born was today soaked in blood that gushed from the jugular, which the tigress must have gulped down with relish. The tiny and delicate legs on which the fawn ran around with its family and friends were broken by the deadly jaws and were drabbled in mud as the tiger brutally dragged it. Its rear had already been devoured and the remaining flesh was bulging out of shape. I could see an untouched part of the dead body and I wished she ate that in front of me.
I wanted to see tigress's face in the tiny belly and canines with chunks of meat sticking to them. I'm a photographer. The tigress walked around twenty meters and made she way towards the elephant grass. As she turned slightly, I could see the half-closed eyes of the fawn and its tongue sticking out. The fragile neck was also broken, which its mother would never want to see. I had the advantage of high elevation and could still see the tigress move in the tall grass.
We anticipated the tigress would enter the bhaang fields, but even so, I scanned each patch of grass to be sure not to miss her. We rushed to the high bank and without any delay she appeared once again with the kill. As she entered the bhaang bushes I could hear some movement in the grass and thought my wish came true and she started eating her kill. But with further hustle I could make out she was hiding her kill from the ravenous eyes of scavengers. Time passed, and in the shimmering afternoon she walked to a small pond to take a dip. Soon, her deadly actions were washed by water and I knew the jungle was used to this brutal act. I realized this was nature. One mother had lost its baby while it filled the stomach of another mother who has to raise her new-borns which were still hiding somewhere in the jungle waiting for their mother to come back and feed them.
The weather was changing. To counter the oppressive May heat, rain clouds rushed from Garhwal district and there was a visible joy in the birds and grass which till now were silent and still. We were a few meters away from the dead body of a fawn discussing how everyone in the park missed this opportunity... My mood was swinging like the Shrike on a blade of grass and I wanted to celebrate my victory of achieving my dream picture. I loaded disposable glasses with the refreshing delight, SHARBAT-E-ROOHAFZA. The red colour of the drink was reminding me of the blood smeared pictures of tigers I had taken. I was joyful that my dream was fulfilled, and sad that a mother lost her baby. Confused, I was returning back to the Dhikala Forest Rest House crossing a riverbed which seemed to be the playground for a troop of monkeys. I stopped to photograph happy mothers with their infants. I observed three mothers sitting and removing lice from their newborns and feeding them, when I saw a mother whose baby was not a notorious one and wasn't jumping in her mother's lap. I looked carefully and saw that its hide had turned unusally dark and pale and the baby didn't move at all. This mother was more cautious and held her baby tighter and closer than other mothers. I zoomed into my picture in my camera and noticed that the baby was dead. Nature had taken away the happiness of this mother too.
My guide told me that this baby died nearly twelve days ago and since then its mother has been carrying the dead body with her. This sight left me thunderstruck. The riverbed stretched along the path and mourned the loss of the baby, wearing white pebbles to show sympathy to the mother, and solidarity, but not mercy. I realised nature shows no mercy to any of its residents, its her nature.