There was something about tigers in the newspaper today, about tigers and Tiger Reserves, that reminded me of the only time that I had been to a jungle. It was way back in 2003, I think, when we went to Corbett National Park. We had gone holidaying in Nainital and other nearby places, and Corbett was on our itinerary. I was really small then, and did not enjoy the beauty of nature much. So naturally, for me the only object of anticipation was seeing wild animals, especially tigers.
It is strange how one’s mind stores odd snippets of many different events, and sometimes these events get jumbled up, and one talks about one incident when one is really thinking of something completely different. And then, one’s mind sometimes blends the memories of one event with memories of some other event, or of something one has read about or seen in movies, and then one has very vivid ‘memories’ of things that might not have happened to oneself at all! Whenever I think of our trip to Corbett, I visualize a very narrow and shallow rivulet with shoals of multihued fish swimming about in it. Now, I know that while entering the park in the jeep we had crossed a rivulet, but the shoals of fish are almost certainly figments of my imagination, borrowed from various shows on Animal Planet. But in spite of my conscious knowledge, this image of fish is strangely associated with Corbett in my mind!
There is another thing that I always think of in connection with Corbett. That is about my first experience of a sharp chilly wind. As I said, we were travelling in an open jeep. It was December, and the temperature must have been pretty low. My parents had packed me up in a lot of warm clothes. I remember wearing a sweater, a thick jacket, woolen socks, gloves, and a balaclava. Now, ever since childhood, I have suffered much more from heat than from cold. That day, as we entered the forest, I distinctly remember standing up (I was tiny enough then to be able to stand up unobtrusively in the jeep) and pulling off my balaclava, much to my mother’s horror, and grinning widely at the world in general with chattering teeth and watery eyes as the cold wind swept across my face. That is probably one of my best travel memories till date!
We had put up in a place called ‘Jhirna’. I hear that nowadays it has been turned into an expensive resort, but in those days there were just a few cottages and an elephant ride area there. There was an observation tower a little way off from the cottages, and I have a rather exciting memory of the place. My father, mother and I had gone to the tower during the day, which was a pleasant enough experience. But then, my father and I went there again in the evening. I remember looking down on the forest from the tower. It was an ocean of black, with the distant trees looking like oddly shaped human figures. It was twilight then, and the sky was red and black, and there seemed to be no living being around except the two of us. Now that I come to think of it, I think I enjoy that moment much more in retrospect than I did when it was actually happening. At that age, I was more in search of adventure than scenery. After spending some time there, we came down and headed back to the cottage, only to find that a group of men had come to look for us with sticks and lanterns. We later heard that that area was often visited by tigers and other wild beasts, so they had become scared and come to look for us!
The next day we went for an elephant ride in the jungle. Our elephant was a young female called Albeli. She was a very cheerful creature, and was also rather small for an elephant. Then of course, she was not a full grown beast. We climbed onto her back from a raised platform. I sat right behind the mahout. There was one thing that still pains me whenever I think of it. The mahout had a short iron fork with which he kept poking Albeli whenever she tried to be a little naughty. From my position I could see that just behind her head she had numerous small cuts which were obviously the result of this poking. My father says that being an elephant she probably didn’t even feel the cuts, but I feel angry whenever I think of it. Anyway, the ride in itself was lovely. At one point, the mahout told us that there was probably a tiger there a little way ahead, and did we want to go on? My father however told him to turn back; he later told us that since Albeli was a young elephant she might have become frightened on seeing a tiger, and that would certainly have been very unsafe for us! We had our ride and came back, and heard that during our absence a tiger had come and killed a deer a little way behind our cottage! Ah well, we probably weren’t meant to see a tiger that time!
We had another delightful experience with Albeli later that day. My father and I had bought a packet of biscuits, and we took it to the sheds where the elephants were kept. Albeli was there, and believe it or not, she was actually dancing, shaking her head and body in a rhythmic manner! She stopped when she saw us, and daddy started giving her the biscuits. She took them with her trunk and ate them swiftly, and an entire packet was over in the wink of an eye. Then my father told her that there was no more, and as if on cue, she resumed her dance exactly where she had left it, and no trained Kathak dancer could have displayed more grace than she did that day!
We stayed for a very short time in Corbett; I think it was just for one night and two days. But it was a lovely experience, and someday I hope to go back there and spend a much longer time, and this time hopefully, I’ll be lucky enough to catch at least a glimpse of the tiger, the King of the Jungle!