It was mid March 2007 and I was visiting the Kanha National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, India. I was traveling with four other 50+ years old friends of my father. How I ended up in a National park with such an elite group of individuals is for another posting. Kanha’s primary attraction is a State protected sanctuary for tigers. As of the census of 2006, the park had 131 adult tigers (the cubs are not counted). This makes Kanha a popular park for spotting a tiger in the wild. Tourists from India and abroad flock to the park to get a glimpse of the majestic Indian Tiger. The State Government’s wildlife department has set up strict rules for controlling the number of visitors and automobiles that enter the park. The department has issued permits to local taxi companies to drive people inside the park during certain hours of the day. These taxi companies own a fleet of the gasoline (petrol) model of the open top Maruti Suzuki Gypsies. They employ local teenagers to drive the tourists around and pay these drivers on a per trip commission basis. This incident is about one such driver.
We reached one of the entrance gates (Kisli gate) of the national park at around 2 PM on a Saturday afternoon. As one of us was enquiring about lodging at the State Dept office, a scrawny teenager of about 15-17 years approached me:
Kid: Namaste Saheb, hotel chahiye kya? Chotu naam hain, hotel yaheen pass hee mein hain. Le chaloon?
(Greetings sir, are you looking for a hotel? I am Chotu and I can take you to a nearby hotel)
He was about 5 and half feet tall, wore a full sleeved beige colored shirt which was tucked out over bell bottomed grey polyester pants. He was wearing dark colored rubber sandals. He was thin, with a pale brown complexion, and had that earnest and unadulterated look which can be seen only on the real village folks of India. (Higher education and urban living washes that look away quite effectively).
Haan, lekin hotel acchha hona chahiye. (Sure, but the hotel better be good).
Chotu nodded and asked us to follow him. He hopped in an open top Maruti gypsy and we followed him on a mud road deep into the woods. After driving for about two kilometers through a cloud of dust we entered a driveway of a modest resort. My older fellow travelers checked out the property and haggled over the prices. After about 30 minutes of deliberation we settled in a modest lizard infested room. The bungalow had a nice covered wrap-around porch. The resort was surrounded by tall trees (primarily timber). Chotu had receded in the background and was watching the proceedings. I was wondering what his part in the whole affair was. He probably got some commission from the resort owner for bringing in guests to his property during the off-peak season (March happens to be the end of winter and the mercury slowly rises to an uncomfortable zone in the Central part of India). I noticed that he was not leaving but was observant of all of us. As soon as he noticed that we were all settled in the room, he made his sales pitch:
Chotu: Saheb, aaj sher dikhega, thodee der pehele hi ranger office mein report aayee ki teen sher dekhe gaye. Main le jaoo saheb? Gypsy hain aur permit bhi. 4 ghante ka Rs 750 aur video camera ka upar se Rs 250. Mera nahi, Sarkaari rate hain. (Sir, I guarantee that you will spot a tiger today, a little while ago the ranger’s office got a report of 3 tiger spotting. Can I take you? I have a car and the permit to drive in the park. It’s Rs 750 for 4 hours and Rs 250 extra if you wish to take a video camera. It’s the Govt rate, not mine).
Chotu had spotted the handy cam bag on my shoulder. My company of old men got into a discussion with him about the rates, the time, how he can be so sure of a tiger spotting, the weather, and the condition of his Gypsy etc. I was the silent observer. Chotu answered each question patiently. He showed a surprising knack at fielding these questions for someone his age. (This might not sound like a big deal, but try doing a business deal with four middle aged Indian men – all of them Government employees themselves). The smile on Chotu’s face indicated that he had made a deal.
The five of us settled ourselves in his car and Chotu hit the gas. We arrived at the check post of the park where after paying the fees at the forest department office we were allowed entry into the park. I noticed that Chotu was quite a well known figure; he was waving and talking to a number of the forest department employees and other fellow gypsy drivers. No sooner did we enter the park, we spotted a number of wild animals – flocks of deer grazing in sun-soaked grasslands, peacocks, bisons, the Indian jungle pig, antelopes, the famous and elusive Barasingha (a large deer with huge antlers with 12 branches from the main antler). All of us were quite thrilled by the experience of seeing these animals in their natural setting, minding their business and in tune with their surroundings. While I was busy enjoying and soaking up these sights and capturing them on film, the rest of the group was asking Chotu about his claims of the “tiger spotting”. Chotu was quite confident that he will be able to lead us to a tiger. It was about 4 PM in the evening and all cars were supposed to be out of the park by 6:30 PM. Chotu informed us that the rangers enforce this rule quite strictly and the drivers who are late in leaving the park are made to appear in front of the officer on duty. The taxi company is fined a sum based on how late the driver was. The fine is subsequently passed down to the driver in the form of less commission or no commission at all. This left us with 2 hours to try and spot a tiger. The time was ticking and the pressure mounting. I could see the stress on Chotu’s face; he was sincerely praying and hoping that a tiger crosses our path. It was 6 PM and there was still no sign of a tiger. We were getting a little desperate now – the deer, peacocks, bisons, monkeys were not amusing anymore. At this time Chotu spoke in a disappointed voice: “Saheb, cheh bajj gaye, ab toh wapasi ka rasta pakadna hoga, warna deri ho jayegi aur mujhe peshi deni padegi.” (Sir, its 6 PM and I think we should drive towards the gate since we might get late. If we do get late I will have to appear in front of the Forest Officer)
“Sher toh nahi dikha, par kal subah le jaoonga saheb, kal zaroor dikhega!” (We did not spot a tiger today, but I promise I will take you in the park again tomorrow and I assure you we will spot a tiger). By this time all of us had also given up and resigned to the fact that a trip tomorrow morning was inevitable. My fellow travelers were no longer blaming Chotu for the no-show by a tiger. The sun had set and it was getting dark. Chotu told us that he was not allowed to turn on the headlights inside the park. We were driving in the dusk light and heading towards the exit of the park. Everyone was quiet in the car. All through our drive Chotu was constantly listening to the rustling of the leaves, watching the behavior of the monkeys and the birds in the trees. It was as if he was trying hard to listen to something that we could not. As we were driving back, Chotu suddenly slowed down the Gypsy and was focusing on something in the bushes on our right. I was trying hard to see amongst the thick vegetation but all I could see was more vegetation. Chotu then with restrained excitement asked us to focus in the bushes; he had spotted the royal beast. After a lot of training our eyes to separate the out woods from the animal, we were able to spot it. Each one of us jumped out of our skin. A chill went down my spine. In minutes the tiger crossed the road we were on. His stride was regal, his look was menacing. The evening air was full of excitement and thrill. It is a singular feeling of being in such close quarters with a tiger in the wild. Clichéd but true – you have to experience it to understand it.
After about 2 minutes the tiger disappeared in the woods and we were all still squealing with joy like little girls. Chotu let out a sigh of relief and his face and eyes wore a perma-smile. He was glad to have satisfied his customers. We drove out of the park. We thanked Chotu, patted his bony back and praised him for his keen eye-sight and intuition. Chotu left after leaving us at our hotel.
We were still talking and re-enacting the tiger encounter. Hunger beckoned and we found ourselves in a roadside dhaba (eatery) not too far from our hotel. The radio was playing some old Hindi movie songs, all kinds of flies were buzzing around every lamp and the monotony was broken by squeal or a shriek of a wild animal deep in the jungle. The smell of the fresh tandoori rotis from the tandoor was making as all salivate. I noticed that Chotu was around the eatery with a couple other kids of his age. One of my fellow travelers also noticed him and wondered whether he is loitering around for some extra cash or a free meal. I got up from my chair and approached them. The group of kids suddenly fell silent as they saw me walking towards them. I said “hello” to Chotu and his friends. I noticed that Chotu was still wearing the same clothes and that he was trying hard not to smile. I asked him if they had dinner or if they would like to join us. Chotu replied – “Haan, khaana toh kha liye hain”. (Yes, we had our dinner). I handed him a 100 rupees note for a job well done. He very respectfully denied saying “Saheb Sher nahi dikhayee deta toh kya main tumhen rupaye deta? Yeh toh mera kaam tha, aur mera commission toh mujhe mil hi jayega kal. Agalee baar aao toh meri hi gypsy mein chalna.” (Sir, had we not seen the tiger would I give you money, it was my job and after all I will get my commission tomorrow. When you come next time, look me up and hire my services again). I did not try to force him into accepting the money and quietly slid the money back in my pocket.
I said that since we spotted a tiger today, we would not need his services the next day and that we will head back to Nagpur after tea early next morning. Chotu just nodded in approval. I noticed his hesitant body language and asked him if he wanted to say or ask something. He grinned and in a very diffident voice said “Saheb, kya aap wo sher ki video shooting mere doston ko dikhaa sakte ho?” I broke into a spontaneous chuckle by this simple request! These boys have probably seen a live wild tiger a number of times and here they were asking to see it again on the tiny LCD screen of the video camera. I asked them to come to our hotel room in an hour. The boys were waiting on the verandah when we returned from our dinner. I got the camera and we sat on the cold floor of the verandah. I replayed the footage on the camera; the boys were struggling to shove their heads in front of the small screen to get a good look. I could tell that they were quite ecstatic. I replayed the scene about 5 times. Chotu was very thankful and a little confident now. He asked me about what I do. I talked to the group of kids about my life in the US. They had many questions for me – “Udhar maruti gypsy hain kya?” (“Do the Americans drive Maruti gypsy?”) I tried to respond to each question with utmost sincerity and the conversation continued with questions from my side about their lives. Chotu said that he used to go to a polytechnic in Seoni to be an electrician but it was hard for his mother to pay for his tuition (I sensed that he did not want to be an electrician and hence probably was using the “fees” excuse). I enquired about his father. His father used to work for the Madhya Pradesh electricity board and had died 4 years ago of a freak road accident. Chotu was the youngest of the three brothers. He was 17 years old. His good name he said is Manish but only his teacher at the polytechnic school called him that. He was Chotu for everyone else. He started driving the tourists in the park about 2 years ago. He made on an average of Rs 3000 per month in the peak season he said. His aspirations were not too high – Chotu talked about going to Jabalpur or Nagpur in a couple of years to work as a driver. He added that he aspired to be a driver in Nagpur and wanted to drive the Indian cricket team from their hotel to the cricket ground someday. Despite these aspirations, he seemed strangely at peace with the life he was leading. We spent quite some time talking about tigers, America and cricket. They left after admiring the video one last time. I sat there on the verandah of our hotel room in the silence of the woods and the faint blue glow of the LCD screen.