The year was 2009. Digital India and UPIs were a distant utopian dream. And all transactions had to be done in cash. So our first day in the vicinity of the Corbett National Park wasn’t spent gazing at the sylvan wonders of ancient forests and wild animals but walking the sunbaked streets of Ramnagar in the 45 degree heat looking for an ATM. It felt like a trial by fire one had to suffer to get a little peek at peace.
To make matters worse, every ATM I went to had some issue. The network would randomly disconnect leading to momentary panic or a weird red light would blink in the middle of entering your pin or the machine would just turn off while you were waiting for your cash or, of course, the most predominant malfunction of them all, it would just not have any money. Eventually, the one that did work was one that I was sure wouldn’t work, an unguarded Canara Bank ATM decorated with cobwebs in a grungy building.
Thankfully, we did not have to wander so far and wide in search of a driver to get us into the park. AR got in touch with PC, a self-proclaimed veteran of Corbett, who said he knew every nook and cranny of the jungle. His rates were more attractive than his pitch, a highly reasonable 2000 Rs. per day. He took us on a tour of the bureaucracies of the forest department, made us fill forms and pay fees, paperwork that might have taken us days to figure out if we were doing it by ourselves.
The Forest Rest House at Dhikala was the best place to stay, he said, and if we couldn’t get a bed there, we could try bribing the forest officer with a piece of chicken early in the morning. We thought he was joking and laughed it off. But PC wasn’t kidding. Early next morning at 5 am, when we were waiting in line to submit our forms to get our permits, PC asked me to hurry up and get some chicken because apparently his insider scoop had revealed that Dhikala was completely booked. Neither AR nor I were that desperate to stay in Dhikala and we did not want to jeopardize this trip with some silly act of bribery. So we had to disappoint PC who looked quite crestfallen when we gave him the news.
Every other establishment on the main street in Ramnagar appeared to have some direct or tertiary connection to the tiger tourism industry. You could casually wander into a roadside mobile store to recharge a prepaid card and find the guy asking you if you needed a gypsy. You could be eating in a restaurant and find the waiter wearing a tiger t-shirt wondering aloud if you wished to stay at a resort owned by his friend’s uncle where you could wallow in unimaginable luxuries.
Right before we were to leave into the Corbett jungles, I went to a local café to get a quick bite because I did not know when the next meal would come by. There were no customers here and the walls were decorated with humongous pictures of tigers demolishing all manner of prey. A big man with a big moustache sat behind the cashier’s desk and glared at me. There were no waiters about.
“I’d like to order some food please”, I said.
“Only dal roti chawal here”, said the big man.
“Okay, I’ll have that”, I said, disappointed that I couldn’t get a last meaty meal before heading to the jungles where such pleasures were forbidden.
“Did you take these pictures?”, I said.
“Yes”, he said, “I’m an award-winning photographer. If you go with me, you can also take award-winning photographs.”
“Go with you where? Aren’t you running this restaurant?”
“This is just a part-time business. I take whoever eats here on safaris. Do you want to go?”
“I would love to”, I said, “But my permits are already done and I’ve already paid a driver to take me and a friend.”
“That’s a pity”, he said, “If you come with me, you’re certain to see the tiger. I know its behaviour very well. I can smell it many miles away, which no one else here can.”
“There’s always a next time”, I said.
“There won’t be a next time if you don’t see a tiger. Most tourists get disappointed when they don’t see one and never come back.”
“I’ll definitely come back even if I don’t see a tiger.”
“Who are you going with?”
“We’ve hired this man named PC.”
He burst into a laughing fit.
“PC?”, he said, trying to bring himself under control, “You’re going with PC? Then you’ll never come back.”
“Why?”, I said.
“We have a nickname for PC. You can ask any operator here.”
“We call him barking deer.”
Another laughing fit.
“And what do they call you?”
“Tiger”, he said, beaming with pride.
Full marks for entrepreneurial zeal, I thought.
“I would love to continue this conversation but I’m getting late”, I said, “Thank you for the meal. I’ll definitely see you when I come back.”
“Tell barking deer Tiger said hi”, he said, bursting into another laughing fit.
Barking deer was waiting in his gypsy. It was a long ride to Gairal, he said, and we had to make it by noon. I told him about “Tiger” and asked him if what he said was true.
“Yes, he is a tiger”, he said, “And if you go with him he’ll also eat you up like a tiger. These people say anything to trick and fool tourists. I’m a straightforward man. I don’t give any guarantees. Maybe you’ll see a tiger, maybe not. Only a very few people who go in see one. It all depends on your luck. If your luck is good, you might see one right now.”
And on that note, off we rode into the legendary jungles of the Corbett National Park.