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Tuesday , December 18 , 2012
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In the magical world of Mowgli, alive is awesome!

Pench National Park

Hurtling down the agonisingly long and pitch-dark NH 7 through Pench National Park, I wondered if I was being taken straight to Shere Khan the Tiger’s lair. Pench sits tight on the Madhya Pradesh-Maharashtra border, occupying a bit of both the states. Till Amitabh Bachchan made it famous with NDTV’s Save Our Tigers campaign in 2010, Pench was happy being the playground of Mowgli and his animal friends in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. That the jungle lodge we were headed to is called Baghvan — ‘the abode of tigers’ — was anything but comforting at 11 in the night.

A three-hour drive from Nagpur airport later, our Innova tore through a bamboo thicket and finally stopped at the lodge gate. No tigers in sight. Glowing with a soft yellow light in the dark, Baghvan rather looked like a fairy-tale tavern that lulls the weary traveller with the promise of a warm broth and a cosy bed. Head chef Sachin Sharma, of course, decided to stuff me with a delicious Maharashtrian thali of veggies, mutton, fish, yellow rice and three kinds of roti.

A dozen cottages on either side of the reception area make up Baghvan, one of the four wildlife lodges run by Taj Safaris in Madhya Pradesh (the other three are in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna national parks). A day at any of the lodge would usually start with a safari and end with a safari, with some fabulous meals thrown in. When one is not feeling too outdoorsy, exploring the camps is a treat in itself.

An afternoon drive to Khoka Talab is on schedule and before that I thought of catching up on reading in the machaan. A wooden staircase outside the bedroom runs up to the machaan on the terrace level in every cottage. The traditional machaan was a makeshift seating arrangement on treetops from where the sahib hunters would keep an eye on the game. Here it’s like a gazebo, open on all sides with the curtains pulled, branches and leaves brushing the edges, a large square bed in the centre. For background music, there’s bird chirp of various notations.

I realised Pench is not called the paradise of birds for nothing. Birders can spend a whole day in the machaan with a pair of binoculars. There are birds hopping, skipping and jumping in every direction, in the most amazing colour combinations, sizes and shapes.
For lovebirds, nothing gets better than this wild nest with no prying eyes. (Don’t mind the birds and the bees.)

For an overfed-at-lunch night-bird like me (chef Sachin had laid out a full-on Italian fare on the deck adjoining the dining room), the soft machaan bed and its fluffy pillows presented a heartwrenching dilemma — should I just forget the afternoon drive and curl up like a cat? Or should I quell the bheto Bangali in me and let my adventurous spirit rise? “Decide!” my inner voice snaps. Okay, catnap wins.

The cottages are located on the edge of the forest reserve. Which means when you are on your verandah, you are staring right into the heart of Pench. The verandah is the best place to begin the day. Rocking in the jhula with a cup of freshly-brewed Darjeeling tea and home-made cookies, watching the morning dew slide off the green-brown-yellow leaves. It’s so quiet I could almost hear my heartbeat.

The piece de resistance is this bamboo-fenced ‘open shower’, which literally opens up to the blue sky. Standing on a wooden plank listening to bird chatter, bathing in the soft sunlight and warm shower — nothing can feel more liberating. Alive is awesome!

The open reception area is hemmed by trees and shrubs. Sit down with a drink or book or both. You might have a sambar for company, grazing in the lawn.

Pictures: Reshmi Sengupta

Sunset in Khoka Talab

The sun is sleepy at 6am in the third week of November, leaving Pench cold in a cloak of mist. A Mowgli Mahotsav is on in the village and several excited school kids have been bundled into open jeeps, like us, for a morning safari into the fantasy home of Rudyard Kipling’s boy hero.

A safari starts with slowly driving into the forest (speed limit is 20kmph) along designated tracks. A naturalist is at the wheel and there’s a forest guide keeping an eye and ear out for animal/bird sightings.

With winter setting in, this green forest of teak and palaash has started to get that lovely tinge of yellow. Scattered now and then are large black boulders of igneous rocks, “the favourite hiding places of leopards”, says Shree Nidhi, my naturalist. Didn’t Bagheera live behind a boulder like this?

As the first rays of sun shake the forest out of its slumber, our guide spots a lone jackal at work, sniffing around a shrub. Could that be Tabaqui the Dish-licker? The mischief-making, rumour-mongering jackal who eats rags and is afflicted with the most disgraceful disease — dewaanee (madness). “The jackal is a scavenger and plays a crucial role in preserving the ecosystem,” Shree reads my mind.

“Ssshhh… she’s around!” Our guide hisses, his hawk eyes scanning the mesh of trees, shrubs and tall dry grass. A chital has sensed a tiger on the prowl and sounded the alert call to its herd. We pause and then follow the deer call for some distance. A few minutes later, out comes this magnificent striped thing only to disappear in the thickets. Phew! If I had blinked, I would certainly have missed. That was Baginalla, the tigress who has cubs on the other side of the track. Guessing that she might call out to them to follow her, we wait. But mom tiger startles us with a coy roar. “This is not a call for her cubs,” Shree shakes his head. “It’s for a certain male tiger that she’s trying to distract from her cubs because if a male tiger finds cubs not fathered by him, he will try and kill them. She will even sleep with him to keep him away. If need be, she will fight him to death.” Well, where on earth is life easy for the She kind?

Pench is also famous for its leopards (formerly the panther) and sloth bears. But this morning Mowgli’s two chuddy buddies — Bagheera the Black Panther and Baloo the Brown Bear — must be making merry in some other part of the jungle. Which may be why the langurs are so happy, bounding from tree to tree creating a big ruckus, munching on leaves, scattering twigs and dropping some on us. No wonder Baloo and Bagheera would be so pissed off by the fickle-minded, attention-seeking Bandar-log. Best to go by the wise Baloo’s advice to Mowgli: “We do not notice them even when they throw nuts and dirt on our heads.”

So we ignore the noisy langurs and move on. We pass by preening peacocks, jumpy chitals, a couple of contemplative Nilgais and some suspicious sambars till we reach the river Pench that flows unperturbed by all the hullabaloo around her. Some egrets and herons are wading in its serene waters. “In the afternoon, we will go to a place where you will see more birds,” Shree promises.

Post-lunch and a nap, Shree drives me to Khoka Talab, a shallow lake nestled between the forest and the village. In the sunset glow, the still Talab is like a mirror into other worlds. Shree and I squat on its hard grassy bank, gazing into the horizon, sipping black coffee. Birds of all sorts are flying back home — kites, parakeets, storks, hornbills, Roufus Treepie... more than I can remember in this lifetime.

As we trot back to Shree’s weathered Gypsy, huge fruit bats fly past, almost grazing our heads. Night at Pench is almost on us and my mind starts playing tricks again. Would that be Mowgli peeping out of the bush, singing the Night-Song with Baloo and Bagheera….

Now Rann the Kite brings home the night
That Mang the Bat sets free
The herds are shut in byre and hut
For loosed till dawn are we.
This is the hour of pride and power
Talon and tush and claw
Oh, hear the call! — Good hunting all
That keep the Jungle Law!

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