The night before we were due to leave on our journey, I managed not to sleep at all. I didn't think I was running out of time till it was 3.30 a.m. and I still hadn't packed. Not that there was much to pack -- clothes for five days, with an extra just-in-case set, and no need for formal wear of any kind. My approach to cold-weather clothing is to change only the under-layers so there wasn't much bulk. But I took an extra bag to hold the few gifties I was taking along for Christmas. That took till four and then there didn't seem to be much point in even trying to sleep then. So I made tea to fill into the two flasks we were taking along with us -- and by the time I finally got the proportions right, it was time to jump into my travelling socks and leave.
We set out at 5.45 a.m., in our friend J's Pajero, J driving. The fog (for non-Delhi-wallahs: this time of year the temperature hovers around the 5-9 centigrade mark and dense fogs swaddle the northern plains of India) was kind to us -- we had about 50 yards visibility and were soon speeding along. Nine-and-a-half hours later, speeding through squalid towns and hamlets, past brilliant yellow mustard fields, overtaking toiling bullock-carts and grossly overloaded lorries, scattering squadrons of monkeys foraging on the roads and catching fleeting glimpses of tall, graceful Sarus cranes with their neat gray bodies and long crimson necks, we were there.
J's uncle, Billy Arjan Singh, a legend in his own time, lives on the banks of a pale tan river (the Sohaili) that partly defines the margin of Dudhwa Sanctuary, partly winds through it. I had never met him before, but had of course heard of him. More specifically, I'd read of his extraordinary relationship with a tigress called Tara, whom he later successfully released to the wild. My memories were hazy and so, when I saw him, a dignified nut-brown man, seated at a tea-table, wearing dark-glasses and a plaid golf-cap, I didn't have expectations. Over the course of the stay, my impression of him changed to include what must have been his earlier self: a body-builder and a strong personality, the kind that's more at home taming big cats than tending to city-guests, yet warm and welcoming towards us.
He lives alone with a family of retainers to look after the house and himself. Tiger Haven is a collection of low, white-washed buildings constructed as the need arose, with an accent on functionality. In front of the house is an open yard, with a couple of tall ficus trees, bare-branched as it happened -- on account of the floods earlier in the year, said Billy -- but starting to fill out with leaves again. Beyond it, agricultural fields. There was a standing crop of bushy-headed sugarcane waiting to be harvested. Along the horizon, trees. To the right, a wattled-fenced area, with a thatched roof or two showing above the fence, where the staff live.
Amongst the first questions Billy asked us was, "Will you have a bath now?" It took me by surprise: later I realized that the question triggered a memory of arriving home to my mother whose first command always was "Have a bath!" -- regardless of whether I'd just returned from day-school or come home for the holidays from boarding.
In the event, we had tea first, sitting in the porch in front of Billy's room, with cake and cookies as accompaniment. I poured tea, pleased to see the silver sugar-pot rising up on four spindly little legs, like a very tiny, friendly lap-dog; the sugar scoop with its handle shaped like a hockey-stick, to commemorate a club trophy whose details were inscribed on the front and back of the spoon's bowl; and the milk jug with its beaded veil to ward off flies. All familiar, yet so rarely met with these days that it was like entering a fondly detailed Merchant-Ivory production. A peacock appeared, stepping forward in its tentative way, looking for a hand-out. One of the retainers fed it scraps of chappati, which it gobbled up with unseemly haste. In the distance, its more wary companions watched but did not approach.
E and J went up for baths while I tried to resist. The fact is, I don't like water and I bathe only when physical discomfort or fear of my mother's censure dictate that the time has come to face the inevitable. However, I succumbed later just before going to bed, using a bucket of hot water that had been thoughtfully left in the bathroom -- there's no running water, so hot or cold, supplies must be carrried up in buckets, except for the toilet, that flushed normally.
Pre-dinner, we joined Billy in his cosy drawing-room, a fire already crackling cheerily in the fire-place with its white-washed mantelpiece and the walls hung with photographs of Tara and the other felines who have enriched Billy's life. We watched a video film called "The Leopard Who Changed Its Spots" about the superbly elegant Harriet, the cat who preceded Tara and the one Billy named in a magazine interview as the one true love of his life. The narrator of the film was David Niven. Amongst the amazing footage shown, was an encounter shot in Sri Lanka, between a family group of wild boar and a stalking (unknown) leopard -- ending in a rout for the leopard! Two of the boars were apparently so outraged that a predator would dare to threaten their piglets that they just rammed into the cat, literally turning it upside down and sending it scurrying off with a decided kink in its tail!
The dining table was alongside the drawing-room, and we helped ourselves to food laid out on the side-board: deep-dish minced meat with writhing whorls of mashed potatoes artfully piped onto the top of it, two types of veggies, and fresh salad. For dessert, vanilla ice-cream, poached apples and Hershey's chocolate fudge sauce! If this is jungle-living, I'm pre-hooked.
Yes, there's electricity -- from a grand old generator thrumming in the yard, as well as from the Govt. The yard supply gets switched off around 10.30 p.m., after which there may or may not be enough juice in the wires to run the lights. By then, we were variously tucked up in our separate rooms, Billy downstairs, J in one of the rooms above his, E and me in the "guest" quarters a hop-step away. Billy's sister-in-law, who spends some part of the year at Tiger Haven sees to it that all the niceties are maintained -- bare floors are covered with warm dhurries, the cots are three layers deep in blankets, cotton-quilts and clean sheets.
We went into the sanctuary (or one of its relatives) on each of the four days of our stay. It was the wrong season for seeing animals because the grass is tall and the weather cold. But it was a thrill each time -- the sense of hidden possibilities lurking in every shadow, the silence, the soaring trees. There were spotted deer of course, and once a rather forlorn little boar shot across the road, as if forced to make an appearance just to prove that others of his kind WERE after all residents in the forest. We saw pug-marks -- tiger footprints -- here and there in the loose soil alongside the roads, and several very clear ones in the wet clay by the riverside at the Kishenpur waterbody. That's also where we saw swamp deer posing regally, multi-tined males posturing for the attention of a single female, in the great distance across the water. And a group of three barking (also known as muntjac) deer, a rare find these days.
E and I went for a three-hour elephant ride through the rhino-enclosure, with a six-year old baby elephant in tow because his mother (on whom we sat) wouldn't budge without him. His father was a wild tusker and already the little one had foot-long tusks. He had his own mahoot sitting on top of him, to control him. At one point, he was being encouraged by his mahoot to pick up a piece of plastic garbage from the trail we were on, and he resisted, first by refusing to do it and then by bellowing loudly for Mom -- who turned around immediately -- it was amazing, an animal of such size and bulk, swivelling around in the tall grass like a four-footed ballerina pivoting on one foot -- and bellowed back in response. After much thumping, clucking and coercing, we were headed around the right way again and once more on our way. No rhinos to be seen -- but the ride was dreamlike and magnificent, deep in the bosom of the forest.
There were water birds aplenty, a fishing eagle or two, black-necked storks and the dearest little jungle owlet, like a well-rounded stuffed toy, blinking at us from the safety of a tall tree as we picnicked near it on the last day of our stay. Billy's farm had a number of resident peafowl and jungle fowl, but also a charming shrike whom E was delighted to see because it is many years since he saw one in Delhi. Oh -- and a racquet-tailed drongo -- much to E's chagrin because we'd been told to look out for it on our very first visit to the sanctuary and yet when it finally flashed across our combined paths just as we were leaving Kishenpur, he looked the wrong way and missed seeing it altogether. The rest of us ribbed him mercilessly -- it is indeed a handsome bird, black as a moonless night, with the long split-tail that other drongos have, but embellished by two further, graceful extensions, ending in the rounded "racquet" from which it gets its name.
All through our stay, the conversation returned repeatedly to the crisis affecting the wild areas of the country and the world. Billy is a passionate conservationist -- but these words do not capture the man. He is bowed by his 87 years and needs a cane to walk, he's a little hard of hearing and says that his eyesight is diminished since he had cataract surgery. Yet he's lit from within, he's a furnace of idealism -- to sit in his presence is to be warmed by that rage to reach beyond the limits of one lifetime, to go beyond the ordinary boundaries of human endeavour.
I have a private theory that the reason so many millions of people are incapable of achieving very much during their lifetimes is their fixation on getting their daughters married. Look around and what do you see? People running around like witless little ants, either attending marriages, scheming towards them, recovering from them, scraping together their life's savings for them, murdering their unborn daughters to avoid them, or (worst case scenario) burning one daughter-in-law in order to procure another, more productive one. Whichever way you look at it, the relentless pressure to pound everyone under the mill of marriage seems to crush all individual initiative, all idealism, all creativity ...
Oh okay -- I'll stop my rant. It won't change anything, I know. Lemmings will be lemmings.
But Billy -- he's no lemming. He's a crusader, a fighter, an idealist and (this is how I see him) a sculptor. He sculpts reality around him, using the tool of his personal energy, to get others to do his will. He's a shaper of lives and destiny. He causes light to bend around him, he has gravitational weight. He has a favourite photograph he likes to show, of himself hugging Tara. The shot's taken from behind him, showing his back, with Tara's striped furry head cuddled over his left shoulder, and around his right side, her huge paw, holding him. What a guy.
Meanwhile, the tsunami.
We missed the news when it happened, hearing about it only Monday night, with the newspaper's arrival. My family wasn't in any danger, as the house is far from the coast, but of course it was shocking to imagine the colossal scale of the disaster. My cellphone lost its signal en route to Tiger Haven, so we were out of touch until mid-morning Tuesday, when I got a signal again. I really only caught up with my sister Geeta the next day -- believe it or not, she was actually at the seaside when the wave struck! They'd gone to visit their small beach-side plot on Sunday morning, she and my brother-in-law. They'd all felt a mild tremor in the morning but dismissed it. They were on the highway when the wave actually struck but had no idea that anything was amiss until they reached the turn-off to their property and were shocked to see a river of water flooding up the incline towards the highway ...
G says she saw water bizarrely fountaining UP out of the soil, as if the force of the wave first drove water into the beach, then surfaced some distance upland, where she could see it frothing out. She called the newspapers on her cell-phone, just as, on Marina Beach in the middle of Madras a wall of water crashed down on hundreds of morning walkers and fisher folk, dashing cars and fishing vessels against the walls of venerable old Queen Mary's College, where my mother did her BA.
G was unharmed, and so were the small caretaker family that lives on the plot -- they saved themselves by the simple expedient of running up towards the highway, rather than out towards the sea-shore to gawp at the odd spectacle of the sea withdrawing itself for over a kilometer. There was a good two hours between the quake and the strike -- if anyone had been alert, if only others had remembered those lessons we learnt in geography class of the typical warning sign of an impending tidal wave (the unnaturally receded sea) -- maybe thousands of lives would not today be lost, at least in India, Sri Lanka and Somalia, all of which had time to react.
It's going to be a long and terrible time, recovering from the disaster. For news, links and information, please visit Kitabkhana and Zigzackly, listed to the right.