There was a time, not very long ago, when one saw tigers, cheetahs and other wild animals in the course of official journeys.
One evening, when I was returning from a railway township called Lumding in Assam. On a dark stretch of a lonely road, a full-grown tiger suddenly bounded across, right in front of the jeep. As we hurried by in the open vehicle, feeling greatly apprehensive, that majestic beast with a fulsome tawny mane, turned and gazed imperiously at us.
The whole feline body pointing in the opposite direction and a look of utter bewilderment in its eloquent eyes, the quavering beast looked accusingly towards us as intruders. Hoping that a motorcyclist riding close behind would not be attacked, or lose his balance after sighting the tiger, we looked to see if all was well. The un-helmeted rider on the bike rode on valiantly, without the slightest sign of losing his composure.
On reaching the next urban settlement, a town named Lanka, we stopped to assuage our curiosity about how frightened the motorcyclist might have felt on encountering a tiger at a distance of a few feet. Imagine our surprise when our excited queries were answered by a baffling question: “Where was the tiger?” Perhaps to his good fortune, he had blindly ridden past the sight of a lifetime.
On another occasion, going past in an old Willys jeep, still in good condition, we came across a herd of elephants, two dozen of them, cows and bull elephants with many calves grazing happily in the nonchalant magic of childhood.
Opting to wait as the more prudent course of action, our patience wore thin, as the group carried on grazing in a hilly meadow, with no sign of heading anywhere. We decided to ride past swiftly.
No sooner had we started than the biggest mastodon, amongst the happily disporting bunch, began a murderous charge. Even in a state of panic, it was wondrous to see the mighty beast charge and gain upon us. The old jeep chugged us faithfully away from what would have been a furious assault and a last stand.
Another time, coming from Siliguri, and going towards a tea garden called Leesh, in the stunningly beautiful sub-mountainous belt called the Dooars, we came across a lone elephant, perfectly camouflaged in the dark. Although lone foraging elephants are usually the rogues, it was thankfully the larger mammal that headed away into the darkness.
Going for a meeting in a requisitioned helicopter, a rogue pilot once flew us across the Unesco-recognised natural heritage site of Kaziranga. He was not supposed to do so, since the jarring rotor sounds disturb the intricate mating rituals of carousing rhinos, tigers and other passionate mammals.
Flying at tree-top level, we came across a disheveled tiger that looked shocked and quickly disappeared into the undergrowth. Then, we came across elephants. The herd did not scatter off but quickly organised themselves into a circular battle formation, the larger elephants on the outer periphery, with the younger ones safely wedged inside.
As the machine circled around them, the protective outer ring of elephants trumpeted furiously, while moving in tandem with the flight of the helicopter, facing us all the while. Jim Corbett wrote of the tiger being a gentleman with boundless generosity, stating in the exuberance of his impassioned writing, that if ever the tiger was hunted to extinction, India would have lost the finest of its inhabitants. Many of us entertain the same fond views of the country’s animal kingdom.
Of all the fabulous stories ever told of the sub-continent called India and of all the tall tales that have emerged, the most endearing are the ones about its winged, four-footed and other magical creatures of sky, bush and river.