The tiger was the target, as it was with everybody in the cars that passed. "Did you see the tiger?" was written on every face, reading the luck of others. The plentiful other creatures were mere pickle on the side. The aerobatic Indian rollers, a wake of brooding vultures on a bare tree in golden sun on a wide grassy plain, shamas, spotted owls, jungle owlets, minivets, serpent eagles, kites, tits, pipits, red and yellow lapwings, and sambar deer, and the stately barasingha which have miraculously escaped extinction, sloth bears, wild boars, dholes, so many creatures appeared creating a sublime setting—but what's its use when the tiger's not on the show?
The drivers always stopped when they passed one another and exchanged information freely on sightings, pugmarks.
We had entered the Kanha National Park at the Mukki Gate. We were three in our vehicle. Guru, the naturalist from the hotel, was also the driver. Ramothi was the mandatory, government-assigned guide.
About an hour after we'd gone in, on a track with dense woods on either side, Guru braked and put a finger to his lips. I obeyed, but there was nothing to see or hear but a low, repeating, clacking sound. "Langur's distress call," Guru whispered. I'd until then associated distress with cries and screams and screeching. This was a restrained sound, near-metronomic, calm. We could see the langur on top of a sal tree on our left, and soon as we spotted it, another langur leapt up to a canopy on the right. A herd of gaur appeared from the right and froze in the middle of the track: the matriarch, three calves behind her, and more gaur further behind, half concealed in the bush.
The langurs on top and the female gaur on the ground all had their sights trained on a spot in the greens. Only the langurs had a view of what lurked therein. There was no sound other than the first langur's. In the periods between its clacking, a profound silence prevailed, broken by soft squeaks and knocks as we shifted our weight and handheld items.
We waited. I was aware of my breathing and of the curdled air. Despite the gift of flight and easy escape, the birds had also ceased calling. None flew about. I rechecked the settings on my camera and wondered where the cat might appear—and if I was in position to frame it.
More minutes passed, and suddenly the langur stopped its sound, and a troop of langurs behind us started to leap around. The tension dissolved. The two langur scouts abandoned their perches. Only the gaur stayed put; the matriarch craned her neck for a better view into trees and bush.
Whatever had lain in there had backed off. We'd not seen nor heard the predator, but I'd felt its presence deeply—the experience beat a sighting. Guru, who'd been sitting on his windowless door, flopped back into his seat. He started his noisy engine and took the car a few metres forward.
The matriarch gaur wasn't willing to cross the track and put the calves at risk. Usually, a female gaur ignores passing vehicles, but right now, this one shook her head and demanded we back off. Guru moved back a few metres; she advanced and shook her head again; we went back some more; she came up and gestured again. In reverse at top speed, Guru drove back the long way to the crossroads from where we'd come down. There he turned.
And soon, he braked, just as he had before. He and Ramothi had both sensed something and were standing, binoculars at their eyes. We were in a new vista: a vast plain on our left, with some three dozen spotted deer and, far behind, a big-size herd of barasingha. On our right was dense forest.
"Watch the spotted deer," Guru said to me who could discern nothing, while he trained his binoculars toward the other side. The distance from our car to the trees was covered in low grass. The morning rain had turned grass, shrub, and tree into shades of glinting green.
We didn't have to wait long.
"Tiger!" Guru exclaimed just as Ramothi took a sharp breath. The handsome mass of orange muscle with black stripes and white trims emerged from where my companions had been looking. He strolled in our direction and paused. He considered the expanse behind us, shook his head, arched his tail, and let it fall. His mouth moved but never closed. After a few moments, he went back into the trees in an arc, taking his time all the time. Just as he reached the verge, he let out a great sound—not a roar, not a growl, but a plaintive resonant groan that rose from a depth greater than within his being.
"For the female," Guru said. "Not threatening, you see. We're lucky. Rarely we see the tiger and hear him at the same time."
"Wow," I said.
Was this the same fellow we'd waited for a while ago? He'd caused such consternation there—a mere young male aching for love!