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Amor y Amigo  
Friend and Lover     




1995: The Declaration



Monsoon is the time when Indian jungles reawaken after months of torpor under the sweltering summer heat. And with the tempestuous showers at long last inundating and reinvigorating the parched earth, the forest, like some giant slumbering beast shaking off its sluggishness, renews itself... drawing a plush green mantle over the sun-baked crust - revived and rejuvenated - suddenly animated, bursting with activity... so alive, and so beautiful!

And, the majestic tiger is on the prowl again!

Of course, I visited the jungles and reserves all through the year - from Arunachal to Kerala, from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir - catching the different mood of the forestís annual cycle - the lush rainy and post-monsoon rebirth, the calming autumn and winter months, the vigorous spring, and the long dry and dreary summers. Capturing the changing face of the forest - the struggle for survival, and the celebration of life.

The mere thought of going to the jungles filled my heart with an immense sense of elation. Driving into that deep, dark, mysterious world, away from all humanity... The sights, the sounds and the smell... The heady thrill of listening to the winds play their seductive symphony through the leaves as I walked the dappled path, the nerve-tingling calls of the wild... The exhilarating hike, up rocky ledges; and camping under the starry sky - coming alive, in my elements. Rejoicing in my solitary reclusiveness!

And monsoon was the time I liked best - the invigorating smell of fresh, wet earth, the explosion of life in joyous celebration, and with entry to the parks and sanctuaries closed to tourist during the rainy season, I thrived on that total seclusion the forests provided without the gaggle of noisome intruders.

By six in the morning I was packed, loaded and ready... on my way to Bandhavgarh!

I had decided on Bandhavgarh for two reasons - the first was its easy accessibility (a mere fifteen hourís drive away); and two, the very high density of tiger population, which would enable me to get all I wanted faster than any other sanctuary could afford!

A relatively 'small' reserve, Bandhavgarh, is a land of undulating hills of thick deciduous forest and gentle valleys of Sal and dense bamboo thickets; luxuriant grassy meadows and festering swamps criss-crossed by the innumerable swift flowing streams. Massive rocky outcrops, steep ridges, deep ravines and towering cliffs, the hillsides dotted with pre-historic caves... And, the overgrown ruins of the ancient fort of Bandhavgarh atop the highest hill in the centre.

And though taxing, I chose to drive simply because it would be more convenient, for me... Because, I could return as soon as I was done, instead of enduring the long four to six hours drive to and from the airport and the frustrating wait for connecting flights; or waste time checking availability, and booking jeeps for my trips within the jungle.

Whizzing past villages and hamlet, and taking the by-pass around larger towns, I made good time, reaching Tala, the entry point to the Park, at 9:30 in the evening - a sleepy little hamlet, now practically dead with the sanctuary closed - and went straight to the resort. Happy and relieved to find my room ready; and my special entry permit awaiting me... along with Pappu, my favourite and trusted guide.

Ankur had been on the phone the whole day, keen to know where I was, how much longer I'd take to reach the place. Already complaining that he was missing me... So, after a refreshing shower, I called him, "I'll be here till after breakfast, around eight in the morning, and then enter the park. You won't be able to reach me after that," I informed. "But I might get back here the day after, and I'll call you then."

"Okay," he said, once more reiterating how much he was already missing me!



** ** ** **



The jungle was glorious - dark and cool under the luxuriant canopy... reverberating with the muted sounds of the forest - shrill bird calls and the gurgle of the rushing water... curious clucks from beyond the thick foliage, and faint rustles... with occasional distant barks, and howls...

We bumped and swerved along the marked pathway, now a mere strip of rutted earth after the first heavy showers, heading for the centre, and then getting out and collecting our equipments, set off on the trek up the hill, Pappu following with the camping gears and rations.

For me, shooting wildlife wasn't taking a jeep and going after the animals, hanging around waterholes, sitting atop jeep roofs, machans or elephant backs and clicking away. I always chose to trek deeper into the forest, off the regular tracks, camp out in the wilderness, and wait for the animals to come to me! And that's exactly what I was doing now, heading for the fort on the hill. Not only was I going there to see if that idea about an 'uniquely-different' photo-shoot would work out, but also because the surrounding cliffs and ledges of the fort was home to some of the most rarest, and critically endangered species of vultures in the world, affording amazing views of their nests, and their taking flight... and I wanted to take as many pictures as I could of those rare creatures. And if I didn't get my tiger by then, well, I could always follow the Lord where he deigned to be!

And as Bandhavgarh is famous, the rains came unannounced - a sudden, torrential downpour out of the clear, blue sky - sending us scurrying for cover under the rocky ledges, huddled under mackintoshes to protect ourselves, and our equipments.

Camped up on the hilltop, I got some breathtaking shots of the ruins - ramparts and the archways - and the caves and grottos... and yes, the soaring vultures! Of course, I had already canned rolls of cheetals and sambars, and the ubiquitous langur... and even a sluggish python lazing under a shrub, while trekking for my destination. But that first day, the tiger eluded me.

Pappu cooked a decent enough meal, and now, alone in that wilderness under the bright, starlit sky, with the sounds of the jungle and the loathsome cachinnations of the hyenas filling the night air, Ankur's thoughts came crowding...

Suddenly missing him, missing his presence... His bright face and his laughter... his incessant chatter, and that spontaneous touch of his strong hands. Missing that constant look of wonder on his handsome face - the look of joy, of consternation, and of awe... The furrowed brow, those amazingly long, dark lashed, twinkling eyes... and those full, pouting lips... those swollen, bee-stung lips... with that hint of a mischievous smile constantly hovering over them. His dazzling smile and that fresh, musky scent of youthful maleness.

Repeatedly going over our numerous encounters, recollecting the little things he had said... and his unending questioning...

Though resisting every moment, yet with each passing day I had been unwittingly getting more and more involved... Ankur becoming a part of my life... a part of me. And as I thought of him, recollecting our moments together, I realised with a shudder that I was falling insanely in love with himÖ



** ** ** **



Waking up to Pappu's persistent nudges, I scrambled to catch the magnificent panther skulking behind a nearby chattri (domed pavilion), quickly getting in a few shots before, alarmed, he scampered down the steep incline, lost in the thick undergrowth.

The arrival of the panther heartened me... reassuring me that I might just about pull off my bold idea... that I was right in choosing my location!

Day two also gave me some more amazing views of the vulture nests... and as we trekked across the ravines, I got more footage of monkeys, deer and wild boars, and of course, birds - hundreds of them, resplendent in their colourful plumes.

But at the end of the day, the tiger had still eluded me...

Disheartened, I decided to go back to Tala the next day, maybe, even spend a day at the resort before returning to the fort.

And that night as I lay awake, tossing and turning in restless agony, I realised that it wasn't somehow the same anymore... I wasn't feeling the same... the way I always did when in the woods. Yes, the jungle was the same, and as beautiful as ever... and yet, something seemed to be missing... No, it wasn't the tiger... it was Ankur. I was missing Ankur, I wanted him!



** ** ** **



On the third morning, we set out early... trekking down and then taking a different track through the forest... taking more pictures of animals and birds... snakes and insects... before returning to Tala just about lunch time.

Ankur, waiting for my call was ecstatic.

"Where were you?!" he demanded, "Where are you?"

"Ankur, I was inside the sanctuary, right at the centre... and now, I'm at Tala"

"Okay, so, did you get what you wanted?Ē he demanded to know, ďAre you coming back?"

"Ah, not yet," I told him.

Letting out a disappointed groan he asked, "How much longer?"

"Maybe another couple of days..." I said, tentative.

"And the next time you go off, roaming around the countryside, enjoying yourself," he commanded, "you better take me along, I refuse to be left alone!"

"I will, Ankur, I will," I promised, feeling a surge of warmth towards him... suddenly feeling very good.

"I miss you, Darsh," he said, softly.

"I miss you too," I confessed for the first time, blurting out, "I miss you very much, Ankur!"

"You do?" he exclaimed in wondrous surprise and then squealed, "Oh, Darsh, I love you... I love you!"

'I love you too, Ankur,' I nearly said it... but then held back... suddenly feeling choked... I knew I loved him, and he had just professed his love for me... Then, why the reluctance? What more did I need? What was I afraid of?

"Darsh?" he enquired at my long silent.

"I'll be going back tomorrow," I said, quickly changing the subject, "and hope to get my tiger this time..."

"Get him, and get back!" he replied, happy.

He called back thrice that evening... once more chattering, demanding, making me promise that I'd return to Tala every alternate day so that he could talk to me... and I went to bed late that night, praying that I'd meet the tiger soon... and meet him the way I wanted to.



** ** ** **



It was late afternoon of our fourth day that my perseverance was finally rewarded.

We had just returned to the fort, and Pappu was in the process of setting up camp... when suddenly the jungle seemed to go ominously silent... even the winds seemed to have stopped... the forest holding its collective breath...

Pappu paused in his work and looked up.

And then the hillside exploded in a cacophonous orgy... resounding with the raucous call of the peacocks, and the alarmed chatter of langurs...

"Tiger..." Pappu cried in a low whisper, dropping the chord and signalling me.

Instinctively I grabbed my camera and followed him under the vaulted ruin of a chattri , both crouching low.

And then we saw it bound up the rampart wall on the far side of the northern courtyard we were setting our camp in... a large male, spectacularly magnificent!

Was it simply luck... or was it my intense, maddening desire to return home, return to Ankur, being answered by the gods in high heaven? I don't know, can't say... but there he was, exactly where I had wanted it... pictured it... as if there solely for my benefit... doing exactly what I would have demanded of him if he had been a human model posing for me!

Tall and proud upon the rampart walls... Majestic and regal... Oblivious, unconcerned, almost disdainful of our presence as he surveyed his domain... holding the pose!

Shaking off Pappu's restraining hand I crawled forward... scrambling around the rubble strewn courtyard as unobtrusively as possible... working like a maniac as I got shot after breathtaking shot of the amazing scene etched permanently on film... Silently praying, 'One more... please, one more! A little higher... a little to the left...'

He pranced along the wall, his long tail swishing, the powerful muscles twitching under the tawny, stripped skin... pausing mid-stride... and then, lifting his head high, he let out a roar... dramatic.

He looked around and then walked under a still erect vaulted bastion, shoulders high, once more lifting his head and letting out another roar, now magnified by the domed structure... before crouching low and then sitting down in that classical big cat posture... hind legs curled, front paws spread forward... mouth open, tongue lolling...

And then, to crown my amazing run of good luck, the skies suddenly opened up... pelting the earth below with a torrential deluge...

He froze, the sinewy muscles tense, and then lifting his head up sniffed the air, letting out another rumbling roar... as if remonstrating the heavens for daring to upset his royal jaunt upon the citadel walls... springing up and swiftly, with imperial grace, bounding over the ridge, out of our field of vision...

I had it... had it all on film... I could do a flip, nay, a double flip. Ecstatic!

The whole sequence of event must have taken all of three or four minutes... but to me it had seemed like an eternity... and now as I stood exulting in triumphal glory... exuberant in my success... still stunned, staring unbelievingly across the rampart walls... the pouring rain meant nothing to me... getting drenched meant absolutely nothing... totally unaware, oblivious, till Pappu ran forward with the mackintosh, covering me, and the camera still in my hand...

I had no further work in the jungles... no desire to remain there... I wanted to be back, get back to Ankur... and overriding Pappu's protests, we immediately set out for Tala, cautiously trekking down the hill in the fast growing darkness, practically driving blind in the blackness of the forest night... reaching the resort around midnight to the surprise and consternation of everyone.

I left for home early next morning... desperate to be with Ankur!


to be continued...      


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