It’s 45°C, the sun has practically cooked us. We’ve been in the open jeep for at least four hours and still have another three to go. The children have drunk more Sprite than I’d allow them in a week. They’re on a sugar high, which is manageable by itself but not exactly under control when it’s coupled with a wildlife high. They are also covered in a thick layer of fine Ranthambhore dust. All attempts to Bedouinise them by wrapping their heads and faces up in scarves have failed.
I can’t say I enjoy anything more than being confined to a jeep with them in the park. We’re surrounded by the wilderness I love and there’s absolutely no possibility of them escaping, their mother’s mad affections. Besides, they look at me with unusual awe when the tiger is around. It’s almost as if they think I’d fight it off for them — well most of the time.
Anyhow, here we are, parked along the dirt road facing a depression into which two tigers have just sauntered. We’ve watched intently all morning. They’ve sniffed one another, cuddled, circled each other, sat many feet apart pretending disinterest and now look as if they might just decide to mate. My daughter has already asked me half a dozen times under her breath, “Have they mated, mama?” and my son has decided he has a stomach ache, “Why do we have to see them mating?” he’s muttered, following the question up with a pained expression on his face.
I am looking forward to this moment, however undignified and voyeuristic it may be of me. Fornicating tigers might be of no interest to the rest of the world, but to a mother of two pre-teens it’s a gift from God himself. What better way to skirt questions about the mysterious mechanics of reproduction than National Geographic ‘Live’.
The tigress that has been lingering under a tree for a while approaches her mate. Just then a forest guard on an inordinately loud motorcycle rolls past oblivious to the scene unfolding below him. T-25 (our man the tiger) cocks his head up and looks straight at us. He crouches slightly, then with the swiftness of an arrow cutting the wind he turns his back to us and bolts.
Within seconds, he has vanished. He has bounded up the depression we have been staring at wide-eyed for the last four hours, leapt across the dirt road above it and disappeared into the hill. No wonder his other name is Zalim! T-17, (our lady, also known as Split) looks about as perplexed as we do or perhaps even more. She nods almost humanly into the vacant forest and walks away in the opposite direction. Just in case anyone imagined that getting the pictures in this book was a lark, it took us eight hours of waiting spread across two days just for those two!
I love the jungle, I always have. There is an unpredictability about it that is just beautiful. You never know where and when you will encounter the life you ought to live — untamed and feral. Everything is defined only by its own existence. Animals are what they are — unabashedly themselves.
The jungle of Ranthambhore lives its wildness well. Ruins of forgotten majesty lie overrun by the brush. Once resplendent forts have become the abode of wild animals. The lakes are deceptively placid, hiding ferocious crocodiles within their silent waters and golden blades of grass effortlessly play the evening light into tiger shadows. I love this jungle because it is old, older than any of us will ever be. Its constance is calming. I find myself seeking it out as often as my family will tolerate. My husband Robert has allowed the wild to grow on him as well.
I first came here as a 13-year-old. Driving around the jungle with my parents in much the same way my children do with me, I was enchanted by it. I think it was my father’s love for nature that spirited itself into my being. I take photographs because he taught me to; no other reason at all really. I photograph what I notice. When I was younger I wanted to hold the moment. Now I have no wish to keep it, I just take the picture I see.
My camera is my diary of ever-changing images. I never thought I’d share its contents in this manner. It was Anjali’s idea, quite casually aired on a jungle drive while we stuffed our faces with aloo masala chips. “We’ll do it for us,” she said in her typically impish, matter-of-fact tone. So we did, and it’s been great fun in the making.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is the executive trustee of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation
This is an edited extract from Ranthambhore: The Tiger’s Realm