Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tall Tails

Travel & Error
Tall Tails
A roaring time in tiger country
Pankaj Sekhsaria
Halkat is a word in Marathi that has no English equivalent that I can think of. Lout might come close, but there is something in the sound and usage of the Marathi original that cannot be matched. And when a wildlife guide uses it to describe tiger-crazy tourists in one of India’s premier tiger reserves, it ought to be an interesting story.

It was September 2010 and I was on my first visit to the famous Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in the heart of India. It was our first safari of the trip and there were things we learnt from our guide Bhaskar (not his real name) that will remain with us for a long time to come.

Bhaskar was serious about his job as a wildlife guide and this was evident even as our Gypsy just about crossed the one-kilometre mark. He had shot off on the history, geography and politics of the park even before we had settled in. There was also a lesson on eco-logy—a well-scripted account of how the presence of the tiger meant that the deer were there and that the forests and the grasslands were thriving and how the “forest is the mother of the river”. Soon he was cursing Maharashtra’s politicians and senior forest officials for having failed to support Tadoba unlike their counterparts in Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh. Bhaskar had taken over.

Those who speak too much, particularly in forests, do it often to cover their serious lack of knowledge. Bhaskar was an exception. Birds, trees, reptiles and the tigers of Tadoba, he knew them well. “I’ll try to show you the tiger,” he said, “but it’s not in my hands. We guides take the credit, but you know,” he made a profoundly philosophical turn, “nobody shows anything to anybody. It’s your luck—rajyog.” Then poured the anecdotes and accounts incredible—the ‘circuit’ tigress, the royal wild boar, the drongo that dances on the termite mound, the crocodiles in the lake and the pythons by the forest guesthouse.

Bhaskar was enjoying our company and we were now enjoying his. He told us stories with riddles that tested our knowledge of wildlife, recited poems he had written on delicate treasures of the forest, narrated accounts of his interactions with long-lens-wielding wildlife photographers and the young researcher from Pune, who taught him how to handle snakes.

Swati, my colleague, pointed to a bare white tree that we drove past. Bhaskar knew it, of course. He told us that the bark of the tree changed colour at least three times a year. My knowledge of botany (incorrect, as it turned out) kicked in unexpectedly. “It’s the Naked Lady of the Forest,” I said and turned to Bhaskar, adding half in jest, “Why is it called the naked lady and not a naked man?” Bhaskar’s reply was prompt: “It’s the king who decides—and what are we to say?” It was only days later that I realised I was wrong. The tree was the Ghost Tree, Sterculia urens. Bhaskar hadn’t known either.

The serious wildlife lessons, meanwhile, were also getting interspersed with other juicy gossip—about tour operators from Nagpur and beyond, the resort owners around Tadoba and their rich clientele, wildlife researchers and their research, forest staff and their difficult life in the wilds, and how the new reserve director was a good fellow and how his predecessor was shunted out because of differences with the boss in Nagpur. (Now you know why I’ve called Bhaskar, Bhaskar!)

And, finally, about the halkat. We were on the last leg of that morning safari and Bhaskar had been telling us how the forest had so many different things to offer. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why tourists are interested only in the tiger.” As if on cue, a bright yellow Maruti Gypsy appeared around the bend by the stream. “These,” said Bhaskar, as they went by, “are the halkat tourists of Tadoba. They’re after the tiger as if their life depends on it. And look at that vehicle—do you go into a forest with a vehicle that colour?”

Tailpiece 1: Gossip is a wild sword that swings free in the wind. If on your next trip to Tadoba you hear stories of a group of tourists that was less interested in tigers and more in gossip, please let me know at

Tailpiece 2: We didn’t see the tiger during our two-day stay at Tadoba; other halkat tourists did.

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