"I think that travel comes from some deep urge to see the world, like the urge that brings up a worm in an Irish bog to see the moon when it is full" — Lord Dunsany
A couple of weeks after I had come back from Ranthambhore, I saw my ex-girlfriend dressed in pure white. (Let’s call her S — short hand for Sumire, the protagonist in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart) At the risk of sounding predictable, I told her that she looked gorgeous like a full moon. The immortal chaudvin ka chaand ho was playing in the background.
What can I do, I’ve always been told that the moon is the most beautiful thing in this world — out of this world, you know. “I don’t like your fancy comparison” she said with a straight face. No wonder you’re not with me, I told myself. In good times, I remember S explaining to me sitting on my bike, looking at the sky: “I haven’t been able to crack the beauty of the moon yet.” But for me, it always came naturally.
I believe in Kahlil Gibran when he says, “the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul”. And work often shakes me out of my comfort zone and takes me to places that I wouldn’t have visited otherwise. The latest was a tiger story that took me to Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan.
Like most good things in life, something lovely happened on this trip — call it serendipity. As a journo one has to talk to people you wouldn’t as a tourist. I had to meet a cabbie who’s been taking people on tiger safaris for ages. Someone who would still go on a safari on his off day to see that his bachhe (read tigers) are doing fine. I wanted some information but didn’t know what was in store. I met him at 8pm and drove on the Ranthambhore road, as he told me engrossing stories. I kept listening to him and occasionally looking around. He got off the main road, drove a little and suddenly switched off the engine and the lights. “Leopards roam around here and sometime tigers too,” he said.
We were not very far from the town, Sawai Madhopur. The naked brown trees devoid of any leaves stood still all around. I had seen them in the morning safari. And I remember there was something mysteriously seductive about them, despite the lifeless look they wore (lush green trees in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, lacked that charm). But I figured what it was about that night.
I remember that moment like one would remember one’s first kiss. With what I could see around, and I could see pretty much every thing, it slowly hit me. I had goose bumps. The land was blazing in the avalanche of moonlight, beyond any known notion of purity. I looked up to find the sky screening poetry with the moon in all its magnificence. I felt like one of the trees around me, stripped to the soul, bathing in the moonlight.
The three nights I had spent there passed like a dream and I came back to the city feeling like Neil Armstrong. And like Laika, the dog that Russians had sent to the moon in the Sputnik spaceship. But soon the wand of urban ennui swiped me clean of any moony memories. Or that’s what I thought.
But on the day S wore white, the Ranthambhore moon came back to me. Despite her cold reaction, I didn’t give up. I sent her a message that evening: “If I were a tiger, I would’ve turned vegetarian. Drinking the moon from ponds and lakes, whenever hungry or thirsty.” This, I thought, would make her understand. Tiger turning a vegetarian, wow, I was clearly impressed.
“And If I were smart, I would read your message and understand the beauty of it,” she wrote back. So much so for a vegetarian tiger! But that didn’t kill my love for the moon. After my rediscovery of its beauty in Ranthambhore, I am always going to be in pursuit of the moon magic.
Now coming to the tigers. If you are riding your luck, then you will spot a tiger on a safari. But otherwise you’ll have to be content with the build-up. (If you can brave the Rajasthani summer, the chances of tiger sighting are the best as they love to hang around water bodies.) Every small thing with any remote connection to the big cat will be shown to you like a revered artifact by the guides.
That tree with scratches, that pond where they drink water and the pugmarks of a tiger just gone by. They’ll tell you how the tigers love dirt tracks because they have delicate paws. And you get excited at the prospect of ‘sighting’ ahead. But nothing much comes of it. You will find many tourists to share your woes. I had seen a tiger on every safari, but the best moment was when I spotted a leopard looking at me just from ten metres. The look was so sharp that I was glad it didn’t split me into two.
Fascinating are the conversations in the town that revolve around the big cats, referred by their names, more like neighbours. My cabbie friend told me how they call one tigress, ‘bombaywali’ because she’s considered ‘fast’ — having been with many tigers in the park. A tip: A trip to the tiger country is not complete unless you chat up with a cabbie or a guide.
“Travel, most people believe, is best when shared — an attitude that makes the solitary traveller one of life’s losers,” wrote Tom Swick, a celebrated travel writer recently. S told me something similar. “For me, moon is just a white blob on a black background. But it’s sad that you were alone there.” I suppose it depends on how you look at it. The moon is beautiful everywhere but it is most beautiful in Ranthambhore. And when I look back at the trip, I remember it as a time when I kept the most beautiful company.
How to get there
Sawai Madhopur is 440 km from New Delhi with several direct trains and buses.