Like any youngster who has grown up watching wildlife documentaries on Animal Planet and National Geographic, I too, was keen to go to the jungle and experience the wild. The jungle, to me at that age, meant all the charismatic animals I could think of — tigers, lions and elephants. While working with a local NGO, I got my first opportunity to visit the mystic mangroves — the Sunderbans — and that too to take part in a tiger census!
Upon arrival at the forest department office, I got to know that women are generally not allowed inside the core zone because that requires them to stay days at length on a boat without touching base. That meant being out in the skin-burning heat all day, coming back to the boat and bathing in the salty river water while standing on the deck and staying in the lower apartment of the boat throughout the night because going up on the deck at night is simply too dangerous. But that is precisely what I wanted to experience. Almost unexpectedly, my name was in a core-zone team! And so began my four-day sojourn into a mysterious depth that was beautiful, alluring and dangerous at the same time.
Such was this world where mangroves reigned supreme and man was just another creature. Our little dinghy got stuck in the creeks while we were navigating through them at low tide and every time this young boy with a toned and tanned body jumped into the water to push the boat out, our tensed nerves throbbed against our eyes. For just behind him were the yellow and dark brown leaves of Hetal (a mangrove species that nicely camouflages the tiger) and as soon as he pushed the boat into waist-deep water, the crocs might have been waiting underneath. Every time he jumped back in, we heaved a sigh of relief.
As our boat circumvented the nooks and corners, each bend seemed to lure us into another bend and then into another. It was amazing how the wildlife lover in me no longer searched only for the tiger, but was amazed to see fat mudskippers jumping into the water when curlews and whimbrels flew at them. An adjutant stork took off when the boat came closer, never allowing us a clear glimpse of it, as if it was a mirage. The mudbanks were adorned with footprints of various creatures, all elusive and hidden behind the dense vegetation. The forest department officers with their experienced eyes were able to promptly point out which footprint belonged to which creature. I saw my first otter footprint and my first fishing cat pugmark. Far ahead a group of common shelducks lazed and cuddled along the little waves, a changeable hawk eagle watched the boat go by and a crocodile splashed into the waters.
Each night we could hear the growls of the tiger and each morning we were gifted with fresh pugmarks along the bank, close to where our boat was anchored! Did it contemplate an attack? We never knew. On the fourth evening, as the daylight bathed itself in blood red to announce retreat, there he sat, beneath a Goran, the gorgeous, unmistakable black and yellow stripes. Irked with the boat noise, it vanished into the swamps — announcing the end of a film which I replay back and forth in my mind whenever I wish. I learnt that the tiger is a part of a story. A story called wilderness and it is as much an important actor in it, as is any other creature. Together they complete the picture.