As the sandals get huge and thick enough to blanket the sun, we slip into the quietest hour of our trek. Guards parading on our front and back signal us to walk quietly. We hush up and skip on to the grassy route not to make the feet noise. Then from nowhere a grasshopper hits my face and a hoot flies from me, “Ah!” All 10 around me freeze on the spot and chill me with their stares. I flush.
This is the thick cool jungle of Periyar. You’ve got company here. An astounding variety of 2,000 species of flowering plants, 150 species of orchids, 171 types of grass, a sizeable number of them rare. Hush! Huge Hornbills could be hiding somewhere atop that tree on your left. Rarest of bison could flash off from your shadow. Before the trip my guide Rajmohan bribed me: “If you manage to lie still like a log, wild boars might just move in unnoticed. Or you may spot some 322 kinds of wild birds, or suddenly bump into a group of elephants,” I studied his face closely and realized he was not being sarcastic. “And,” Raj braked his breath for a quick noiseless chuckle, “if you happen to be living your luckiest hour, you could be stunned by any one of the 35 Indian tigers roaming here.” He fell me with that, and I excitedly gripped his arm and shook him to pass on my lovely shock.
It is for all these and more unspoken surprises that we are puffing and panting up a muddy trek that will soon take us into the innards of Periyar Tiger Reserve, where no one knows what awaits us. For the glory of the moment, I tell myself that we are chasing the big cat in this jungle. The great Indian tiger. I think of Jim Corbett in search of the Man-eater of Kumaon and of Peter Mathiessen panting up the Himalayas to spot a snow leopard. I giggle in hushed tones and jog upon the grass route in a prankish way. Did anyone catch my stupid face?
Five former poachers are guiding us through the winding routes. Dressed in army camouflage they had a few sticks and an old butcher’s knife. Just in case, if a tiger throws a surprise at us. Three of them share the camping gear weighing half-a-ton between them. Rajmohan, our guide from the Tourindia group and Biju Augustine, a forest officer with a .315 are also with us. Myself, my photographer Mohan, and the two German tourists are the guests.
The team of 11 is now taking a curve with prayers for animal sightings and suddenly, the guards stop frozen. Two of them turn to us and motion their arms toward the right where a slope rises above us with teaks. We stay where we stay. The news gets to each one in whispers and bulging eyes. “Elephants, a group,” Joern Osselmann, the German standing closer to me mumbles under his breath. Blistering barnacles! Such a treat, so soon! Joern and me squeak thrilled and quickly hunch up the slope with others. Up above on our right, on the sunlit top of the slope stand a group of elephants grazing. Huge ones. They move heads, slowly shaking large ears.
“It’s a family with two babies in the group,” guard Surendran grips my arm and pulls to his side for a better sight. I count four of them. “Don’t fancy they would take much time to run down this slope. If this happens to be a blue day for them, in three steps one of them can reach for your neck,” Surendran whispers to me. I stiffen. Yet, it is never fear that rules our heads this moment. Rather a poetic solemnity graces this encounter between the beast and man. Lords of the jungle, having their own way with no mahouts to shout orders. No man to rule them. Grazing amid the tall grass, rubbing bodies against rough tree barks, lazing in the sun, devouring the charm of their life’s every moment.
Then a bird twitters above our heads. The elephants see us watching them. Guards motion us to retreat. None of us feel the need to pull away from the loveliness of the sight. But respecting their privacy we choose to. One last look and we are gleefully back on the path for more encounters. Under the order to talk as little as possible, we keep hiking, curiously watching life around us. Trees, moist bushes, wild twines, bamboo, forest floor carpeted by fallen leaves dotted by rotting wood, droppings of animals and wild fruits. Sometimes we stop and hunch over pugmarks of elephants and sambar droppings. Over there, a large green spider has spread a web between two trunks. Frightened by our footsteps, a baby cobra flashes off under brown leaves. To this animal world, we the humans are the aliens. The only frightening creatures that kill for sport.
White-necked storks fly low over the river to the east in a cluster. The forest gets cooler. Further down, on our walk, Surendran points out the treats. Giant Malabar squirrels flitting in and out of tall teak branches. In brown fluffy coats, they are larger than common squirrels and show more agility. Suddenly the jungle looks livelier. We are catching up more sights. “This cinnamon tree has fooled me more than a dozen times,” Aji Mathai, the youngest of the guards shares his tale standing close to a large cinnamon tree whose bark Mathai had desperately tried to pluck for years. “Every time forest guards somehow got near me. I had to fly off without even a piece of her,” he slaps the tree with a laugh. Mathai in his new role as a guard makes sure no one any more fools around to pluck cinnamon barks. He is now friends with this jungle. A breeze sighs through the trees. Somewhere two parakeets coo at each other. We move on.
Of the Berliners, Joern is the jovial one. In his late 50s, he shows no sign of his age and keeps walking with a sweet smile fixed on face. He jots notes in his pocket diary. Sometimes when the team stops to rest on the grass bed, Joern meanders off and leans on a tree trunk to sketch the sights that had already entranced him. His friend in green T-shirt and black goggles always toes Joern, panting and in between managing to hum a German tune. Down our left, sun shines the river into a long gleam of gold and yellow. “Tomorrow, we’ll ride the river on a wooden raft,” a guard said.
Still no sight of the cat. That hoary monstrous beast, whose existence has taken the majesty of a legend by now, proves to be elusive as always. But there was always tomorrow. That night after a simple but fresh vegetarian supper under the tent, we snuggle into our sleeping bags. It’s chilling cold and three guards stay awake playing cards near a bonfire. The cries of sambars puncture the nightly silence.
We listen to the tales of our guide Rajmohan. He tells us the story of a tiger sighting. “Muthu Maran, a forest guard here came on one such tour and we camped the night almost four miles south from here. All of us were busy with our supper when Muthu looked up from his plate to see a big tiger staring at him from the bush. Muthu was as good as dead. Others with their back to the tiger went on eating without a clue. Muthu got a grip on his senses and turned his head where his gun was. In a flash, the tiger was gone.”
We listen with a nervous hopefulness. The warm-blooded Leviathan that stalks this jungle restlessly. Are you watching us from the dark? Would you decide to stun us out of our sleep? How is this trip going to end? I coil up in sleep imagining what Muthu saw in the darkness. Then we hear a throaty sound. “An elephant group,” someone clarified. Then a deathly silence followed by sounds of the wood cracking in the bonfire. Then a langur hoots. Sometime between listening to the noises and dreaming of a tiger, I fall asleep. At times, I open my eyes and see the guards sipping tea and throwing down cards fiercely and falling into arguments on each one’s hand. They never slept.
Birds wake us up into our morning in the wilderness. Chilling cold makes our early morning ventures difficult and some of us walk by the placid lakeside. Up above the lake, in the southern distance rise mountains Sokambara and Sivaloda. Woodpeckers perch on the teak humps protruding in the lake and keep pecking. The daylight slowly brings along a cool gust of wind. We hug our blankets and stand by the lake in absolute silence. I take in the fresh air and sights. Mohan wonders aloud how the wild ones begin their day.
After coffee and biscuits the day trekking begins. It gifts us a five-hour walk to the south and a grand sight of wild boars grazing by the marsh. I drink in the sight. Joern takes sketches in his diary. Mohan clicks photos. We crouch down on the grassland to watch a group of twenty odd boars, big and small. All plunging head first in the dirt along the marsh and plowing for worms. On our way back we meet hill mynas, bulbuls, and the whistling schoolboy. The book Birds of Periyar says Periyar had originally 260 types of birds. Sixty more have been identified, Augustine tells us. A jungle fowl flashes across our path into its hides. That flurry in the bush reminds me of my desire to see a tiger. Then I feel heavy in heart and feet. I realize that the tiger may never cross our path.
We walk. Cute nameless shrubs border the wild routes with their bouquets of tiny white and pink flowers. Dewdrops decorate cobwebs on grass stumps. To pep up, Joern and I plot a future trip with a tree-hut in the menu. In the pale blue sky, cranes and egrets fly toward the open side where we left the boars. “Since the grass here isn’t burned by the wild fires, no fresh grass has sprouted. So guys, the bisons may keep off,” Rajmohan declares. Sun comes up on the eastern mountains.
What about the tiger, I ask and my tepid voice by then sounds rather stupid. Rajmohan smiles. “This isn’t a zoo. Tigers do not move according to your logic. It doesn’t lose its way nor tumble out into human treks,” he says. And breaks the news he chose to keep until this minute. “No guest in the last six years has ever seen a tiger on this trail,” he smiles again to soften the effect. We walk without a word.
Shedding our urban comforts, we have been treading this unknown land for past 24 hours. Leeches creep up on me and tick fleas living on sambars bite my left arm and I think fondly of home. I remind myself that we had gained much even minus the cat. Like Mathiessen’s snow leopard and Ishmael’s white whale Moby Dick, this isn’t just about a tiger. A twig snaps under my feet. This trip itself is the start of a startling discovery. A fine attunement to the symphony of the jungle, its voices, its many moods. This fine helplessness glued to this lush green freedom. Joern pats on my back, sharing my new found maturity. “Even these droppings are enough to set me off, friend,” he says in my ear. “This is it. This is our discovery. This very moment. It never is the tiger. But the journey, the discovery that the end is never around the corner. Rather this movement of breeze, tunes of a free bird, and the droppings of the free roaming tusker are our treasures. Being a part of all this and evolving a greater sense out of it all.” Joern, the psychologist rubs off his gaiety on me. I start to smile again wondering why it never occurred to me before.
Then we flush ourselves down the Shampanal hill through the thick of elephant grass. “There is no walkable route, just follow me,” guard Baby yells out. We glide through the grass twice taller than us. It’s a head-reeling, heart-warming fun. You go down knowing not where you are going to stomp. Wading the long leaves, clusters of them, swimming through them. Once out in the open again, Surendran has slices of pineapple ready for us. We are refreshed once again.
On a tall tree a Malabar gray hornbill sits and hoots like making mocking laughs. Mohan tries to click a picture, it flies off laughing. By evening we pack up, picking up the waste we left at the site.
It is noon. In the warm sunlight a party of butterflies raid the valley. Yellow pansy, blue tiger, and tiny white Indian butterflies are fluttering all around beginning their hunt for nectar. The place has now been rightly claimed by its residents. We’ve got to leave their premises. And off we go. Besides the tick flea, a lot more things from this jungle will be with me forever. The originality of the jungle experience. The very rawness of its rhythm. Its wonders, its own rhymes, which I never knew before.
And Like Neruda, I now walk musing on the fortune I find here: I come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.