We were famous, the talk of the town. Everyone knew us; the official at the gate wrote my name down each morning and each afternoon without having to consult the safari ticket. He grinned at us, exchanged a few words, and wished us luck. “Now at least, you must …”
At the end of each safari, as we signed out, he looked up hopefully. We shook our heads, almost delighted at being so difficult, and he let out his breath and gave us a crooked smile.
“Everyone is talking only about you,” said our driver Ashish. “All the time, everyone in Navegaon – the guides, the drivers, everyone – is only talking about somehow showing you a tiger. Yes, it’s a jungle, and yes, it’s unpredictable, but how is it possible that after seven safaris, you still haven’t seen the tiger?”
We smiled. The people at the forest gate and the hotel seemed more upset than we were. We felt tempted, over and over again, to apologise to them. “People come for a single safari and see the tiger,” said one of our guides. “But you …”
We went round and round the forest like mad people, making everyone around us more and more agitated. We followed pugmarks for kilometres on end. We even heard tiger cubs roar. But seven safaris down, we still had not seen the great cat. We wanted to apologise to them, to all the people who were so frustrated at this game of hide and seek. They were so upset, but we …
We saw wild dogs three times.
We saw adorable four-month old monkeys playing. (That’s when I realised I did not know what the young one of a monkey was called. In our endless lists of young ones in school, we never learned that one.) The infants (Google gave me this answer; correct me if you know another word) wrestled and jumped over one another. One ran away to an older monkey and hid, as if to say, “Mamma, I don’t want to play with them; they’re too rowdy!” We watched them for about half an hour, chuckling at how their tails moved, how they jumped all over the place, on top of one another, over one another, up the trees and down again.
And then, early in the morning on our very last safari, in the darkness of the forest before the sun had risen fully, Pandu, the five-year-old male tiger, crossed our path. He crossed our path three times during that safari, and each time was brief, yet breathtaking. He was so quick that we barely had the time to register that he was there. Yet, he came, as if to tell us that Tadoba would not let us go without at least a glimpse of the great cat.