Literature comes alive with adventure, luxury and creatures of the wild as Mita Kapur drives through the jungles of Bandhavgarh.
I don’t know what the literary world will think when I say I exchanged Palash’s book for Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. And that I gave my 11-year-old son Palash’s book to read. I could hear Jeet rap his way through the prologue while Rehan popped his head down from the upper berth saying, “Mum, this is so cool. Mr. Khosla’s wife’s ass is so big and all he keeps looking for is a rat in the tenant’s room....”
I think to myself, should my heart swell with smouldering pride that my son could read into the dark underbelly of Delhi society or should I simply lose myself into Jeet’s Bombay of the poor and the underprivileged.
I chose to pour a large Macallan in a thermocol glass and step out. Glass in hand, I open the train’s door and look deep into the darkness. There’s nothing like beginning a journey into the wild with a whisky, legs dangling out of a train and the wind beating into your face.
Some sound, some wind and a lot of darkness. A village rushed past, the gravel below chugged, the mind hurtled, eyes burnt as the whisky snaked it’s way down burning down to embers all that existed in the pit of my stomach. We are on our way to Bandhavgarh. The reading light on my berth burns right into my head. I carry on reading Narcopolis. I can hear Jeet give cadence to the reading and the voice speaks in my head.
The Jaipur-Jabalpur Express chugs into Katni at 7.00 a.m. The two-hour drive to Bandhavgarh is like a slow motion shot into oblivion. First, the blackberry messenger stops working. The sms’ stop in the next few minutes. The signal goes into SOS mode. Nice! The Samode Safari Lodge looks as deceptive as the jungles that surround. The machan-like entrance discreetly hides the world that opens up once you are inside.
The Bandhavgarh National Park has 448 sq.km of deciduous jungles. Tall Sal trees and bamboo stand sentinel to the wild life. It has 80 deciduous trees species and 276 different kinds of bird species and 515 flowering plant species. Although Bandhavgarh is mentioned in the Shiv Purana, the fort has not been dated as yet. The fort has nine avatars of Vishnu and had been under the Baghel dynasty since the 12 century AD. The area reeks of history, set against the ruins of Rewa dating back to the 3 century AD. Bandhavgarh was, according to legend, given by Ram to Lakshman, hence the name. In the 16 century, Maharaja Veer Bhanu had granted Kabir his patronage. Tansen is known to have belonged to Rewa and was sent as a gift to Akbar’s court by Maharaja Ramchandra Deo.
Waiting for our passes at the entrance of the park, we spot a grey hornbill, a changeable hawk eagle and rose-ringed parakeets on a leafless tree. The game drive begins. Our guide points out more birds as we trundle along. Spotted deer and monkeys are often seen together, choosing to eat fresh grass. Our guide teaches us to figure out mating calls from deer. We pass an enclosure of abandoned tiger cubs. A three-year-old male makes an appearance.
The drive through the jungle is suspense filled. Your eyes and ears strain to pick up calls from deer and monkeys that alert us for a royal viewing of a tiger. The four-wheel drive suddenly breaks. We lurch forward and become still. So a tiger decides to parade past, vanish into a thicket and almost condescendingly, slowly turns back, comes close, just close enough and abruptly turns his back. Majestic. As if to say, “You’ve seen enough. I’ve had enough of you, now scat!” We cross other groups with similar hope on their faces. Our guides exchange information. “The early morning group had a sighting for 20 minutes — a mother and her cub were at the lake drinking water.” We drive to the lake. The pug marks are still there.
Three hours later we return to the comfort of Samode. Tea is laid out to feed all of us who are ravenous by now. Sitting out on the deck, watching the sun going down, we speak in soft tones. The peace around compels us to. Darkness settles and stars explode in the skies above. Our necks crane upwards even as we troop to our villa. Velvety midnight blue embedded with countless sparkles. You don’t see them anymore. Our hosts at Samode understand hospitality. Friendly, warm yet unobtrusive. Dinner was set on the deck, white sheers and candlelight spreading a warm glow. A bottle of Chardonnay to go with a thali which overfed us with bhuna ghosht, baingan bharta, dal, crispy potatoes, paneer, raita and rose petal panacotta with basil seeds. The sounds of the night lull the mind into calmness. Somewhere from the depth of the jungles, a panic call echoes; the almighty tiger must have appeared.
The game drive next afternoon was after a rose and dead sea salt scrub, massage and steam — just to gear up for the afternoon in the jungles. But not before a relaxed lunch under the trees with carrot, bell pepper soup, snow peas and cherry tomatoes salad, pan seared fish and banoffee pie. The story for that afternoon was that a forest guard had been chased by a tiger in the morning when he ventured behind the bushes to do his business. So the tiger decided not to make an appearance that evening. We spotted the Indian roller in a bright blue flash, a rocket tail drongo who drives away other birds by loud noises. Tree pie jungle babblers romped about as deer flashed past, black storks stood regally in the middle of the Dhabhadol lake. A large group of black ibis flocked by the side.
The big cat
The third drive into the jungles was at 5.00 a.m. Bundled up in thick fleece blankets, we weren’t exactly a happy lot, a bumpy ride made worse by the morning chill. Rehan sullenly curled up and slept and woke up only when I hustled him, “See, that tiger’s just walking away with her cub.” We were graced with their retreating royal gait. A sleepy afternoon on the manjhi in the veranda with Saad Bin Jung’s — perfect setting for a fine book. “How come you aren’t reading Narcopolis?”
“I need a whisky and a chugging train for that book.”
We were back for another night — head horizontal saluting the night skies, revering the stars. I could see black in many hues — the trees were dense black, the sky was midnight blackish blue, the lanterns on the path turned the grass blue grey, the spotlights on the bamboo overgrowth turned them olive greenish-black.
The Lal Chowk at the Samode Safari Lodge was the venue for dinner. The ambience was red — from the floor to the candles, table linen, lanterns and wrought iron chandeliers — the colour of passion yet subtle. The evening meandered through gentle conversations, creating good memories and warmed veins.
The stay at Samode was more than pleasant — wooden beams, flaming red cushions, books stacked around casually, Bastar artefacts in metal, toys, figurines, old vessels add to the character of the place. They make you feel that the lodge is faithful and belongs to the area. The villas are understatedly luxurious. Bastar tribal art figures widely — even as mosaics on the bathroom walls. It’s definitely one place I’d like to go back to — the call of the jungles beckons and so does Samode.
An Indian wedding can cause traffic jams even in small place like Katni. We barely managed to throw ourselves into our compartment. The journey back was quieter. “Why does the Yellow Umbrella chapter have to read so sad? Palash doesn’t like writing happy stuff?” Rehan asked. I was dealing with Lee’s death, “The story in my book is also sad…”