When he looked at me and snarled, following it up by a roar which must have shook half a kilometer of Sal forest around him, the DSLR nearly fell out of my shaking hands. For the first and only time in my life, I realized how the aggravated heart-beat sounds.
There are days and moments which become etched in memory for long. This was one such day in April 2016- and the place was Bichu Bojhi watch-tower in the Dhikala zone of Corbett National Park. Soon after the morning Gypsy safari (at around 11.45 a.m.), I was put atop the watch tower by Chottu bhai, who promised to pick me up after about three hours. Settling myself on the squeaking wooden floor of the machan, I tried to figure out if the jungle out there was trying to tell me something. It always communicates with you in some form or the other. That day it was the gushing warm wind, announcing the imminent arrival of summer, which spoke to me gently. A very talkative barbet continued to declare its presence for over one hour, but refused to reveal itself. Far, very far, a barking deer gave off an alarm call and then became silent. Somewhere on my right, some 300 yards in the foliage, consistent sound of branches being struck off the trees announced the presence of an elephant. Probably a loner minding his own business.
To an uninterested and untrained observer, the forest that morning must have been silent as a graveyard. But I knew from long experience that in a forest- any forest for that matter- things can quickly turn on a dime. Somehow I felt the pregnant silent would soon give away to something more meaningful. Or maybe it was fervent wish echoing in the chambers of my mind.
Nothing happened till 1.30 p.m. I casually opened Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air but could not proceed beyond a few pages. Somehow, Krakauer’s riveting and celebrated account of the Everest tragedy paled before the riveting beauty of forest around me, and I thought it prudent to concentrate on the present.
Suddenly, at around 1.50p.m, the jungle became absolutely silent. Decidedly more silent than it was a few minutes ago- this much I could sense right in my bones. I hurriedly checked the camera settings, bumping up the ISO in the changed light and putting it on an aperture mode. Nothing happened for next five minutes. By now, the pin-drop silence was communicating furiously with me, knocking on the doors of my sub-conscious, as if telling me something which my eyes and ears could not fathom. That afternoon, I trusted the silence more than my eyes, as I had numerous times before and with several rewarding experiences.
I didn’t have to wait for long. A jungle fowl, hidden in the bushes on my left, cackled for about 20 seconds- and the tiger appeared on my right. Smiling at myself, as there was nobody else inside the watch-tower, I picked up the camera. I knew how things would pan out (making assumption from previous experiences): the tiger would sit in the waterhole for at least 20 minutes and would give me many good shots. Ah, how wrong I was this time! The tiger did make itself comfortable in the water-hole, but I knew he was not at ease. Twice he got up with a start, and then sat down. Something was troubling him. That got me thinking, but I came to know the facts about it being a man-eater only in the evening, while sitting with two senior forest officers in the Dhikala campus.
Deciding that the tiger would not sit in the water for long, I opted for the burst mode in my Nikon camera, something which I detest in normal circumstances. That was a huge mistake. Although a thick wire mesh surrounding the `machan’ had made me virtually invisible to the outside world, this tiger- being a man-eater and not the Corbett’s `gentleman’, and therefore much more wily- figured out my presence the moment the camera sound reached its ears. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
With one single swoop of its huge body, he bolted out of the water-hole and stood on its edge. For next three minutes or so- which, at the time, seemed like three weeks- he kept looking in my direction, with the most hideous facial expressions I have ever seen in a tiger. Three or four times, he gave off loud roars. He knew there was somebody up there inside the `machan’, the smell emanating from there probably reminding of the human flesh when he had picked out and eaten one of the five labourers sleeping on Kamarpatta Road the previous month.
The roars had the desired effect on me. It turned me into lifeless jelly. Nay, it turned me into stone, an unmoving and silent stone with no desire of any kind of kinetic motion. A very bizarre thought flashed through my mind- I should not even flick my eyebrows. What if he spots the movement! Photography was out of question. The camera simply disappeared from my consciousness. In fact, the whole universe disappeared from sight. It was just him and me, and a single thought ricocheting through my brain like a ping-pong ball gone berserk: what would he do next? I knew there was no known case of a tiger climbing up a watch tower. But the thought was hardly comforting. I also knew that for a long time, nobody had climbed on Mt. Everest or gone to the Moon. But finally, they had.
After about three agonizing and fearful but also most exciting and unforgettable minutes of my life, the man-eating tiger made its move. It turned towards its right and slunk into the bushes from where the jungle fowl had announced its arrival. Half hour later, Chottu bhai came to pick me up.
The same evening when I showed the tiger pics to the (then) Chief Wildfile Warden Mr Divijay Singh Khati and the Field Director Mr Samir Sinha in the campus, they told me it was the same tiger which had picked up the unfortunate labourer a month ago. The tell-tale, half broken left canine was the mark of this man-eating tiger.
In 2019, the same tiger made another human kill near the Dhikala campus, when he pounced upon a group of daily workers returning from the forest. In November of the same year, he was captured by a forest team and safely escorted out of the park.
Clicked on April 16, 2016 in Corbett Park, this was the last photo of that tiger I clicked, before he turned me into a stone.
by Ajay Suri