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That Night when we chased a Tiger


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Fear… Dreadful Fear

The first thing I remembered as I opened my eyes that night, I was screaming at the top of my voice and everybody else in the room was doing the same. It was pitch dark both inside and outside the room in the middle of the forest. I had never screamed with such ferocity… I can remember that I was scared… we all were - very very scared !

As we screamed, I saw a shadowy figure, some human form made of fog.. a greyish fog… that strange figure was the only thing I could see in the pitch dark and it was coming towards us from the other side of the room. I had never known a fear more scary ! We screamed on like no human had done before…

Prologue

Let me tell you at the onset - This is not a food travelogue ! So hold your tongue right there and keep your eyes wide open for what am about to describe is one of the most mysterious nights of my life !

”Keep your eyes open. We are travelling right through the forest and if you are lucky you may just see a tiger by the road. We keep on striking that luck quite often ourselves. Its scary though”. Our car was travelling on the Tala-Umaria main road which cuts through the buffer and core areas of the Bandhavgarh National Park. As our driver told us, it was not uncommon to sight a tiger on this road itself while you are still on your way from the station to your hotel. Katni Jn is the closest rail station to Tala, a small village right outside the core park area.

Bandhavgarh National Park is the forest that covers the Bandhavgarh Hill and it belongs to the Vindhya range in Madhya Pradesh. It is relatively small, around 45 sq.km. but with a high density of the fierce big cat. It is a beautiful sight to behold when you look at the bamboo and Sal forest rising high above in their grandeur and its equally nerve wracking at the same time. ‘Bhoyonkor Shundor’ as Sunil Gangopadhyay would say.

Photos of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Kila Bandhogarh, Madhya Pradesh, India 1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

A reserve forest has mainly 2 areas - the Buffer area and the Core area ! Or should I say the less scary and the more scary. Bandhavgarh has mainly 4 zones which comprise of the core area - Tala, Khitauli, Magdhi and Panpatta, out of which Tala has the most concentration of tigers.

We had booked our stay at Tala Camp which was located at the no man’s land of Tala and Khitauli zones. And it was indeed a no man’s zone. My research for an isolated property in the jungle had paid off. As the Tala-Umaria Main road stretches on with the Khitauli core zone right by its side, we took a small diversion and travelled a few hundred metres on a dusty Kaccha road with grassland and a pond on one side and a fenced off core area on the left and arrived at a secluded set of small huts called Tala Camp. It comprised of two sets of one storey huts. On one side was the owner’s cottage with an open dining space for guests and a few paces away were 5 cottages sharing the same roof and corridor for the boarders. The camp was bordered by a fence that even a house cat could jump over. We could not see any humans or hotels or settlements anywhere around us and that was the exact kind of isolation we cherished to have when we had planned this trip.

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

But we had not the faintest idea of how much we had succeeded in the seclusion until night came down on the dense forests and the silence started to take over. As we stood on the cleared space in front of the cottages in the middle of the property, we could see no light, none at all. It was pitch black all around with the half moon giving us some respite. Well I should not use the word ‘respite’. We were enjoying this night in the middle of the most scariest forest in India. I was positioning my camera in the cleared space to try my hand at some star trails when Navtej called out to warn me. Navtej was the only other guest who was there along with us. The guest huts were aligned in a semicircular fashion where you could not see the room at the other end if you stood at one of the ends. We had 2 rooms at 2 ends of the corridor. But we decided to spend the night in one of the rooms together.

Navtej had put up at the room right beside our’s along with his wife Gaurika. They were sitting on the corridor as I was adjusting my camera when they called out. They warned me that they had spotted a cobra right where I was standing 2 days back. I was thrilled at the outside and a little freaked inside.

Navtej was born and brought up in London and was engaged with Tiger conservation back there. He was a tall and handsomely built man of about 40 who had recently married Gaurika who also seemed to be of the same age. Navtej had been to all the Indian forests more than once. This was his 4th visit to Bandhavgarh and was staying there for a week already. As he started sharing his immense knowledge on tigers, we made a circle around him and listened - engrossed.

Last time when he had been staying in Tala camp and drinking his cup of evening tea on the corridor, he sensed something strange, a sense he had acquired from the jungles itself. He lifted his eyes from the cup in his hand and looked at the tall grasses in front of the cottage. And there it was - the Big Cat. It looked at him with the hypnotic eyes. One look at those and you are stupefied for a few moments. Navtej did not freak out or move even a bit. The cat observed for a few long seconds and then made her move, slowly towards the jungle beyond the fence.

“So you are saying that tigers do come here ? inside this property ?”

“Oh yes. Tigers, leopards, bears or any kind of wild animals may come here. Because this camp stands between the fenced core area and the water body right behind this property. So they often cross over either through the camp or outside the fence.”

Deepak, who was the owner of the camp confirmed that tiger sighting was not uncommon inside, though not often. Deepak was associated with the Forest Reserve and has been involved with wildlife all his life. He had lost both his legs. We never asked why !

We spent half the night on the corridor as we listened to the darkness. Who knows when something would show up. There was no light except the dim bulb that lighted the guest dining space outside Deepak’s cottage. We spoke less and listened more to all the creepy sounds that the jungle made all around us. Before we finally retired to bed that night, I think we heard something on the other side of our corridor. But nothing came out of the darkness.

The next morning at 6, we entered the Magdhi zone. This zone was the shallower and consisted more of wide spaces. Within 10 minutes, we were staring at the most rarest of sightings in a forest. We were staring at the most fiercest of animals whom even the tigers dread. 3 wild dogs blocked our way and looked at us with clenched teeth. The driver was not permitted to drive when a wild animal blocked his way. We waited there as did the dogs. They were one of most dangerous wild bunches and were not afraid of attacking the jeeps. But time was running out and the driver decided to break a few rules. He flashed at the dogs and they immediately cleared the way.

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

When in a forest, its the ears that become the eyes. Tigers are spotted through calls. Calls that all the other wild animals produce when a tiger moves. The monkey, the deer, even the wild cocks make sounds to alert everyone else of the tiger’s whereabouts. The most significant is the barking deer’s alarm call which is heard over miles. One such call led us to our first ever tiger sighting. It was a female tiger which made its way through the road that the jeeps had left clear from both sides. She was as graceful as the Queen of England and as fearsome as Osama bin Laden. She seemed to have all the time in the world as she made her way in between the jeeps in the most elegant cat walk at a pace of a Queen. All of us remained dumbstruck as she disappeared slowly into the forest.

So the day of that fateful night had started ! And that too with the sight of the tiger !

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

That Night

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.

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

I had once gone out on a similar search with torches in my hand at the dead of night. Back then I was searching for a dog on the streets of Kolkata.

Soon reality grasped us and we realised we had moved far away from our only known shelter, the Tala Camp. Navtej was pointing his torch on the impenetrable forest by the side of the road and we stopped occasionally to look at the trees which seemed to move suddenly. We had already come a long way, about a couple of miles. Navtej said there was no way left now to see it but one. I looked at him in confusion. He said he would imitate the tiger. He would have to call the tiger in its own voice. Only that could bring it out of the woods !

It was darkest of the dark hours in the night. The forest could not be seen but could only be felt… all around us ! The eerie silence and the presence of the jungle was slowly growing around us, building a wall of no escape, engulfing us every second. Navtej called out towards the forest with his palms around his mouth, amplifying the sound that he just made, the sound of a tiger, the sound of a roar. And then he called again. And I thought it wise now to stop him and stop our little adventure. I interrupted his roars “Navtej, I think we should head back. Its exciting to see it if it comes out right now but what then ? We have nowhere to run. Nowhere to go back.” To my surprise, Navtej seemed to agree and said that a few days back a group was attacked by a tiger. One of the them was attacked and taken away, dragged in a lightning into the forest by the tiger.

We started coming back. The calls had died down a while ago. But Navtej had enlightened us earlier in the evening. A tiger has night vision and it can see you from a distance of about 200 m. So if the calls were to be believed, then the tiger must have seen us while we were out. I tried to think of the joints and Old Monks that lay ahead of me instead.

When we were inside the campus Navtej made a few more roars towards the forest. A male tiger may come in search of the source of the sound eventually. If he happens to be within audible range, he may consider it to be a male or a female call. Whichever he considers, he will come. He will come for the oldest instincts of life. To make love or to make war.

Our sessions did not stop there, it only became more intensive as the night grew darker. Eventually, we learnt that Gaurika was an … hold your breath… Occultist. This was the only thing that was left for us that night. An occultist amongst us ! So started her anecdotes on demons, spirits and all those otherworldly beings. The night was getting more and more terrifying by the minute and now we were not only afraid of a tiger that may be around but also of the ghosts around us.

The ‘Tiger and Ghost’ couple retired to their rooms at 1 AM. But we decided to continue getting scared on the corridor outside. A silence had come upon us too and we didnot speak for the next hour. When you stop speaking in a forest, slowly you realise how loud your surroundings had been all the time. The cricket’s spooky loud calls seemed deafening all of a sudden and we we would startle at sounds every now and then.

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

It was time to retire for us too and as we prepared to go back to our rooms when we heard a clicking noise at the far end of the corridor, the deserted end. A click and a hush. We looked at each other and decided to see what’s lurking. With cautious steps we crossed the bend and lighted up the dark end with our torch. There was nothing. We decided to have a smoke while we stood there for a few minutes as it was quite a thrill in the darkness. But we soon realised it was a very bad idea. We were already scared to our bones and could not take any more of the night. We turned back. In the middle of the corridor the only light in the whole campus was burning dimly. It was hung over the only non-guest room. The one that was bolted and had a lot of ants on the ground. What’s in there ! Like all horror movies, I realised there were always those idiots who would not leave certain things alone. In this case that idiot was me. I opened the door. Like all horror movies it opened with a screech too. We showed our light inside. There was nothing in the room. Except for a huge dining table with chairs all round which seemed to have been seldom used. The table had 4 candles on it. All half burnt !

We came out of the room, bolted it and turned around. As soon as I turned around, I felt something was wrong and looked behind. The only light was gone. Had went off the minute we came out. And it was thick darkness as far as we could see. Well, we did not wait to see anything. We ran. Ran hard and straight into our room. Bolt up !

We saw the light over the corridor coming back to life from underneath our door. We decided to call it a day and go back to sleep. No more adventures. No more creepy scares. It was 2 o’clock.

The girls slept on the floor while the guys laid back on the bed. No, its not a story of sexual discrimination. So, feminists behold ! The floor was not wide enough for 3 guys but good enough for the 2 fairer sex. I closed my eyes and tried hard to sleep.

Fear… Dreadful Fear

The first thing I remembered as I opened my eyes that night, I was screaming at the top of my voice and everybody else in the room was doing the same. It was pitch dark both inside and outside the room in the middle of the forest. I had never screamed with such ferocity… I can remember that I was scared… we all were - very very scared !

As we screamed, I saw a shadowy figure, some human form made of fog.. a greyish fog… that strange figure was the only thing I could see in the pitch dark and it was coming towards us from the other side of the room. I had never known a fear more scary ! We screamed on like no human had done before…

So what really happened while we were asleep? Well, the girls seemed to know. They had not been doped like us and were in full senses. So sleep was hard to come by at the end of such a psychologically suffocating day. After about half an hour after we had crashed on the beds, Ananya was woken up by a strange footstep outside. Someone was walking on the corridor. She was already on the floor. So seeing underneath the door was no huge task. She listened carefully. The footsteps, which sounded like someone walking on stilettos, stopped in front of our door. But she could see no shadow. It moved towards the adjacent window. Then a click click sound started coming from the window. Someone was knocking. With fingernails. That’s what the sound seemed like. Ananya sat up, wide awake. The sound stopped.

A few minutes passed. Nothing happened. Opposite to the entrance door was a small window on the other side of the room. This window opened into the deep forest behind us. As she was still sitting upright, she heard again. this time beneath the small window on the other side. Something walking on the fallen leaves. A muffled voice. And then a scratch on the window pain. She hurriedly called up Dyuti, who was still fast asleep beside her. Both of them listened as fingernails seemed to scratch down the iron mesh guarding the window from outside. It grew louder. And then it started to bang fiercely on the window. It seemed the window will give up and break down. Terrified, they screamed and started shaking us. Sourav woke up to screams and he started screaming too before knowing anything, Kaushik woke up to screams and he joined the scream bandwagon and then I opened my eyes and all I could see was mouths opened wide and a room filled with frantic screams. I screamed. Screamed like never before. Screamed out all the fears that had taken cover below the blanket of bravery throughout the day.

Epilogue

We didnot go back to sleep. It was already 3.30 AM. We had our safari in an hour. However, we did go out to check what was behind our room. There was nothing !

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

On this last day in Bandhavgarh we entered the Khitauli zone. Known as the most densest of the zones allowed to tourists, it indeed was living up to that reputation. While Magdhi had been dusty with sparse and scattered vegetation, Khitauli was every bit the opposite. It was so dense that while you stand inside your safari vehicle, trees on both sides would brush your shoulders. Beautiful Nilgais can be spotted by the narrows roads. Sal, Saj, Dhaora, Tendu, Arjun and other trees blocked our piercing eyes. A herd of chinkaras jumped across our path. The rhesus macaque and the black faced langurs leapt from one tree to the other while jungle cats, hyenas and the Chausinghas roamed the ground. We didnot see any tigers that morning. But forest safaris are best enjoyed when you completely erase these hopes of seeing anything at all. The eerie silence, the impenetrable depths, the dark shadows, the smallest rustle of leaves while your car stands amidst the unknown with the engine stopped - every little bit that you conceive with your heightened senses within a jungle is what the experience is all about.

Photos of  1/1 by Rahul Banerjee

Its like a horror movie. Before you know, your senses become hypersensitive and react to the smallest of changes around you. Like a horror film, a forest is best enjoyed when you are scared. So let the horror grow on you. Suspend your disbelief and immerse in your fears. You are not on the ‘Naked and Afraid’ show. So there’s no harm in thinking at every step that there may be a tiger around the corner. That it could jump at you any moment. There’s no harm in being frightened. But enjoy that and keep heightening it. Read up a Jim Corbett. Talk to the locals who tell you all the scariest folklore and let yourself believe those. If nothing works, meet someone like Navtej or Gaurika. They will take care of the rest.

On our way back to our camp from the safari, the driver told us, “Oh so this where you have put up.”

“Why ? Is it bad ?”

“Not that. But you should know one thing.”

“What ?” - All of us together.

“Your hotel falls inside the region of the Bamera. So donot leave the campus at odd hours”

Bamera, the dominant male of Bandhavgarh who is now old and keeps on coming out into the open in search of cattles, who are easy prey and could soon be a man-eater too.

So last night we were unfortunately fortunate enough to come back alive !

Deepak, the owner listened to our experience last night with all his attention and said it could have been anything. A tiger, a wild bear, anything !

It was strange that 5 adults screaming at the top of their voices at the middle of the night with pin drop silence all around doesn’t manage to wake up anybody around. We had screamed continuously for 5 long minutes. Enough to scare away a tiger back into the deeps.

The strangest conclusion came from Navtej and Gaurika. They said it could have been the spirits that roam around. They have had proof before, which they didnot want us to know.

We left for Kanha that day. Our hearts seemed heavy and light at the same time as we bid adieu. The hangover of that night continued for many days to come. Ananya suffered a severe fever for the next few days. Dyuti and me would startle at the smallest sounds in the middle of the night for many days while we were back home. I never knew what happened to Sourav in his lonely quarters in Bhubaneswar.

There was one thing however that Gaurika told me when we were waving goodbye for the last time. The other day when I was sitting alone on the corridor, she was seeing me from the dining space in the owner’s cottage. She saw Mohan walk with the tea towards me. She saw him give me the tea. She saw us speak. She turned around towards the kitchen. She saw him working there with his sister. Mohan. She turned around again and looked towards me. There I sat with the tea in my hand. Mohan was nowhere near me.

She asked Mohan in the kitchen, “How did you manage to walk back so soon from that far end from Rahul’s ?”

I think you all know what Mohan’s answer was.

This blog was originally published on 'The Hyangla Voyager'

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