Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The new year pussy-footed in


Since the 1999-2000 millennium crossover, we haven't spent a single new year's eve in Mumbai. Because:
1. The city traffic is too crazy to try and tackle on 31st night.
2. You can, but you don't want to take kids to a restaurant, hotel, discotheque, whatever.
3. Sitting around at a friend's place and drinking silly is what you do every other weekend.
4. Most clubs and gymkhanas, including mine, insist on a suit and no kids. I don't have a suit and have kids.

We've spent new year's eves in Lonavla, Murud, Madh Island, Himachal, Rajasthan and what not. The locations vary, the pattern of the parties usually doesn't: Drink, play music, ring in the new year at midnight, act silly, talk, make attempts at dancing, drink, keel over, wake up when the new year is already threatening to become old.

This time we didn't bring in the new year; the new year took the key from under the mat and let itself in.

It was just the four of us, the wife and kids. We had a glass of wine each, no, not the kids, and were in bed by 10PM and snoring. We woke up ten minutes after each other, starting with me at ten past four in the morning, yeah 4:10 AM, so we could spend some precious time sleeping while the others used the bathroom. It was too early and too cold to be excited about the new year and wishes were muttered rather than shouted. We stepped out at five and into a chilly dawn that immediately froze the palms of our hands. We had mufflers for the ears and the neck, and layers of clothing and socks and woollen caps, but no mittens. By half past five we were shivering in an open Gypsy, waiting for the gates of Kanha National Park to open.

A slow mist was rising in the jungle and there was frost on the dry grass that lined the mud roads. We drove straight to the centre point, put our name in the list of those wishing to get onto an elephant in case the forest department mahouts sighted a tiger.

The guide and the driver decided to explore the Churi region of the jungle. As we drove up, a returning group made a face and shook their palms to say, 'No tiger'. We continued peering into the bamboo thickets on either side until the guide suddenly declared, 'Fresh pug marks, he has passed from here recently'.
We had seen too many 'pug mark' signs, it was our third trip into the jungle and it was too cold for us to feel any kind of enthusiasm. Five minutes later:

A TIGER WAS WALKING FIFTY FEET AHEAD OF US.

There were three vehicles ahead of the tiger and two, including ours, behind it. We walked the tiger, that is, the vehicles kept moving steadily, egging him on and keeping enough space ahead for him not to feel trapped... Until a late vehicle roared in from behind, in hurry and excitement to catch a glimpse. It did catch one - of the tiger's tail disappearing into the jungle.

Ten minutes. But what a frenzied ten minutes. Teeth almost chattering, frozen fingers barely able to focus the lens and click, the vehicle moving, the constant worry that the vehicles ahead will not leave enough space and the tiger would get off the path and out of sight...

In our first two trips we had been labelled lucky by the guides because we saw the rare and shy leopard on both occasions. The first time, from a distance; it sat in the thicket eating a fresh killed monkey. We could barely see its back, neck and head. The second time, two vehicles had pulled over and were peering into the jungle. We pulled up behind them waiting for them to locate him. For some reason the wife turned around and there he was: Walking away from us! "Rare, very rare," the guide and driver said, "To sight the shy leopard walking down an open road".

But rare or not, it was no comparison to seeing the tiger. The sheer indifference stemming from his arrogance of being the most powerful predator in the jungle. His pride, his smooth coat... A tiger is a tiger. Only he can create that strange hollow feeling in your gut and choke the words in your throat.

Later in the evening, among the new year wishes flooding the phone, was this one: "Bid farewell to the Chinese year of the Monkey. Welcome the year of the Tiger".

Yes. The monkey was dead and the tiger had arrived.

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