By the Ramganga

Prerna Singh Bindra on the simple pleasures in the land of the tiger

I am in Corbett, whiling my morning, and afternoon, away, lounging on a rock by the river Ramganga, armed with a pair of binoculars, a bit of cheese and water. I am doing nothing, or so would say the economists. Don’t believe them, and take my word – it is the most productive time spent to date. It’s nearing summer, and the water’s low, barely touching my legs dangling below. Waves wander up occasionally, though, tonguing my feet, gently, its cool freshness teasing, tingling. Rejuvenating.

I am alone, in this lush, beautiful world, but not for long. By the by, denizens of the forest cross my path. The first animal on my horizon would not be viewed kindly by most, but I am glad for its presence. It’s a marsh crocodile, soaking in the sun, even more inert than I am. It’s so still, that initially, it appears one with the rock, till gradually, you take in the craggy countenance.

Many eons later, it stirs, opens its mouth wide, exposing its weapons of mass destruction, spiky teeth advertising their evil strength. Strictly unfair, this ill-deserved repute. True, watching a croc tear and kill its prey is a blood curdling experience, but it eats to survive, performing an important ecological role as top predator and scavenger of the aquatic eco-system. Medieval creatures these, survivors of another era, the croc is the closest living relative of the dinosaur.

I shift my attention to the pied kingfisher, a brilliant black-n-white bird hovering over the water. It peers into the river, plunges into the water in a swift movement, before emerging triumphantly with lunch. In a manner not befitting its beauteous looks, it thrashes the poor li’l fish to death before its history in a swallow. A magpie robin perches itself on the bank, daintily spoons water into its beak, pauses, pecks at the water again. The bird is joined later by another of its kind presumably its mate, for they chatter nonstop, undoubtedly discussing important household matters.

A huge flock wings its way towards the river looming over like a dark, drab cloud. As they draw close, they take shape as cormorants, among our most common birds of the wetlands, yet none the less prettier for that. These are the ‘greater’ variety donning shabby coats, self-patterned, with an ash patch livening its face. Fishermen by trade, they are excellent at their job, here they are now, hunting in unison, hemming in a shoal towards shallow water; dipping, plucking, diving in and out in breathless haste. It is said, in China fishermen have used their employ in the business.

Recent research says that birding is a great stress buster. I can vouch for this one. I close my eyes, taking in the sounds, the muted gurgle of water, the occasional screech of parakeets and the lively song of the Himalayan whistling thrush, fondly called the Schoolboy, owing to its joyous song, soaring through the glorious morning. I like the way we Indians have myths and legends associated with most animals, and our dapper purple thrush is no exception.

As the story goes, the young Lord Krishna was taking a nap, when a naughty schoolboy ran off with his famous flute. Enraged, Lord Krishna, transformed the culprit into a bird, but the creature had played and imbibed bits of the music. Enchanted , he continued to play his notes, pausing (as the thrush does) when he forgets the music.

The morning drifts towards noon, but mercifully the sun’s not too harsh yet, its rays, reflecting, rippling, dancing on the waves, clear, blue water marred a little by ugly froth, a grim reminder that the pristine water is being polluted by the innumerable resorts that have mushroomed upstream.

A sambar makes an appearance on the other side of the river, its gait measured, cautious yet inherently regal. It’s a stag, sporting a handsome crown of antlers and a shaggy brown mane. I think it is my favourite deer of all, I won’t commit myself, though, for I know I might merit the same idea when my eyes fall on a dainty cheetal doe. Still, there is a lot to be said for this handsome antler, bearing its crown with dignity, moving with a grace that belies its size, silent even when crashing through dense foliage.

I can see another one of its kind, just a peep of its broad ears, rising above a bush, the rest of its dark, brown coat, mottled in the sun, emerging thereafter. It’s a rind, and decidedly anxious, for it bears the responsibility of a tiny one, a skittish, little creature, incredibly endearing and blessed with an innocence that is the right of the young.

While on the subject of the deer, there is one species I must mention for its title of the Most Nervous Creature of the Forest. You would know what I mean, if you have chanced upon the barking deer. Dainty to a fault, forever on the edge, and always alone, it is plagued by the perpetual terror of the persecuted. A barking deer madly dashing at my approach gives me the feeling of a criminal on a rampage, as the animal hurtles forth like a Hindi film heroine with an evil rapist in hot pursuit.

Back to my riverside soap. As I prepare to leave for lunch, a head bobs out of water, another, then another. Otters, nine, no ten of them, swimming across, and onto the bank, tiny, brown bodies rippling and shining in the sun. They indulge in a bit of otter-fun, rolling in the sand uttering excited yelps, not unlike that of a hyper-active pup. One or two run back, into the river, faint ripples indicating their movements. They pop out of the water, victorious, fish dangling from their whiskered mouth.

And I vaguely recall reading that otters are bred in captivity around the Sundarbans, by fishermen to assist in their trade. They are tethered to the fishing boats with chords tied around their middle, as they flush out fish and drive them towards the fishing nets. Its irks me, the brutality of men, that they tame wild creatures, and abuse them at will.

Here, in the running waters of the Ramganga, they swim free. Occasionally, one stands on its hind legs, looking around alertly for possible signs of danger. I hardly dare breathe, not wanting to spoil this rare time with these fascinating creatures. And to think that we trap and skin otters and fashion them into coats and gloves. Oh damn, the beauty of nature shamed by the deeds of man. It’s near impossible to lay back, and just enjoy nature without being nagged by the threats that prey on such pristine wild environs.

They are constant companions in the wild, joy and sorrow, hope and despair, as each moment of happiness is clouded by the fragility of its future. I consciously halt my train of thought, since I am determined not to spoil the morning, but it’s not easy to keep grim reality at bay, even if it’s just for the day.

Afternoon, I succumb to the madness that grips all those who venture into the forest: The desire, no the obsession, to see a tiger. Oh, I love the Panthera tigris tigris no less, I long to see him, this striped beauty that fires and soothes my soul, but no never, ever again, will I join the race of tiger spotting. I am not even talking of the inane tiger shows that plague Kanha and Bandhavgarh, or even the obscene traffic jams that loom over and torment the poor tiger whose misfortune it is to have ventured into the path of the tourist. No, I only question this singular goal to spot the tiger.

Why must the spirit of one-upmanship arise, why let this rabid competitiveness mar the calm, here, in the tranquil forest? I am ashamed that I gave in to the frenzy, too, racing hither and thither, like a headless chicken, careening the jeep where be tiger. Or rumoured to be. A tiger here, a tiger there, a tiger nowhere. Tiger! Tiger! Mr Patel saw one, damn. Mr Sharma & party saw a mother with three cubs. Double damn. Why not us, we have paid money, is the peeved outcry. The knives are out, abuses are slung, guides accused, bribes dished.

Mortified by this insanity, I request the disbelieving driver to give up the rat, er, the tiger race and just drive on, goalless, aimless, through the lush, verdant jungle. I look up, to note that an owl, (a tawny fish owl?) peering at me below, golden eyes locked with mine. The jungle reveals its treasures, when you open your eyes and your heart to it, not be fixated by absurd ‘tigerine’ ambitions.

So, off we go, at our own pace. Taking in miles of green, broken by a stream. A closer look reveals two turtles just below the surface of water. Immobile, seemingly dead to the world.

Then a herd of elephants. We stay put at a distance, I peer through the binoculars just in time to watch two utterly adorable elephant calves, tails curled in uptight little circles, hair standing on head like Golliwog, plunge headlong into water. They have a ball, splashing and squirting each other, and the three accompanying adults are no better, as they let themselves go, worshipping the water.

I don’t care for the ethics of anthropomorphosis, all I know is that elephants make you believe that animals have emotions, for even the blind could see that the pachyderms were in high spirits, reveling in their communal bath. Till Homo sapiens came and spoilt the party. Our jeep moves, and the animals read, ‘danger’! In a micro-second the babies are rounded up, protectively encircled by the adults and in a flash they crash through the forest and are gone. How I hate myself for having spoilt their fun, It wasn’t intentional, but I guess our reputation precedes us.

As we drove back, I wonder if those who destroy wild spaces have any idea of the weight of their crime? When dams submerge forests; mines, ports, industries ravage habitats; when greed swallows natural landscapes; when the lust for money murders the tiger, elephants, otters and so many other creatures, free and wild. When they grab cash for raping paradise, destroying forests, creating a sterile vacuum. Have they measured the wealth of a forest?

And no, I don’t mean it in economic terms – the value of the timber, the oxygen produced, the soil enriched with minerals, the water catchments. Economically speaking, it would translate into many zeros, but its real value is priceless. And no, I cannot forgive them, God, even if they know not what they do.

Interested in the postscript of the story? I came back and my friend’s Man Friday who had come along and taken over my vigil by the Ramganga said that the tiger had come calling. A huge male Royal Bengal Tiger that cooled off in the sun by half-submerging in the water, in the manner of tigers. Did I curse and scream, rave and rant? I admit to a twinge of regret, but no, I had seen the flourishing land of the tiger, and that, trust me, was more than enough.

2 Responses to “By the Ramganga

  • Hello,

    I have been looking infact you can say especially digging out writings on tiger’s from the net and I came across your writings.

    Indeed blogging is a good way to spread awareness but I am also aware that the people who should be stopped do not read blogs.
    I really appreciate your effort and truly salute your work and findings you have consolidated in the blog.
    I myself dont know how to support this cause as I too really ( if i see myself want to do something for saving wildlife but not doing it case)..tried to donate few times to the sites that pose they are working towards the cause..but not satisfied enough..

    Although I am not a true wildlifer by profession but yes i do have a history being in wild and visiting lot many parks myself…

    As i have already mentioned that your deeds in field is really appreciable I would also like to gain your advice as to how can people like me support this noble cause and really do something…to atleast get few politicians/state forest offices in line and stop red tappism that is prevailing.

  • wow..can I live like you for a while ? I still havent seen one tiger in the wild..and of course, Ive only been to a few parks in the south
    Lakshmi

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