So, you stop the car on your way to work, turn it around and rush back home. You stop at a traffic junction, curse the lights, point a finger at it and say “stay red all you want…won’t be seeing you in a while.” As you wait for it to turn green, you call up a soul mate, a fellow traveller, and ask for bags and person to be ready. You take out the SLR you haven’t used since summer, blow gently at the thin film of dust and unwrap the bubble wrap. You turn off the gas and the lights, throw in the rucksack and put your car in gear…gosh, it’s time to live again!
It’s the open road and the distant rumble of the engine merges with the gentle rumble of Don Williams’ voice as it floats away from the speakers and resonates in the cabin. Ah, a heady mix…the road hits a fork, and then the question hits you – Where am I going? And where can I go, chasing this light, away from the big smoke and the unrelenting buzzing cell-phones and droning TV sets? Where could I go for a window; into a world unaffected by the hand of a man? And whenever this question pops up, the answer flashes like a meteor across my mindscape, for there it is, hidden away in the shadow of the rocky brown hills of the Satpuras…a wild region, still untamed where roam great wild cats like shadows through the trees and where the earth still shakes under the thundering hooves of gigantic oxen as they battle for love and lordship. This is the land of Kipling’s Jungle Book – the enchanted forest on the banks of the river Pench.
Madhya Pradesh is tiger country all right. The state tourism board has done a good job of marketing it as such and almost every documentary on the tiger shot in India begins and ends in either Bandhavgarh or Kanha, the brightest jewels in the tiger treasury. Arguably, the best places in the world to see a wild tiger. But somehow, everybody seems to have forgotten about Pench, a forgotten albeit bounteous Heathcliff , blessed as much as the other two and yet, no one ever shows up here. Let me tell you about my tryst with the wonders of Pench, and maybe you’ll want to follow the light to this out-of-the-way corner in the woods, for here you’ll find all you seek on a holiday away from the world. The truth is, even I didn’t go to Pench because I wanted a holiday. I went there chasing a 150-year-old story – the story of Mowgli, the boy who ran with wolves. But the Mowgli I was chasing wasn’t the fictional hero of Kipling’s tale but a real wolf-boy, whose life inspired the legend. And what a life it must’ve been. Lost in a forest and adopted by a pack of wolves, this boy learnt to stalk and kill. Like Mowgli, this boy too returned to his village but unlike Mowgli, he didn’t return for love, nay, he returned in hunger…on moonless nights when hunting was bad, this boy and his wolf-brothers would emerge from the forest and enter the village where they’d kill and eat anything they could find – lambs, chickens, goats and even children. It’s his sinister story that gave birth to Kipling’s Mowgli.
Though that’s a story already told (see issue dated 11 May, 2008) and though it’s been centuries since, Pench still retains her mystique. Even today, you could walk by a forest stream and see a wolf pack frolicking in the shallows. If you look carefully, you might even see a shaggy naked creature amongst them whose eyes, when they look into yours, peer deep inside and shake up the wild wolves sleeping within.
But let me tell you of the Pench of today. No alarm-clocks here that just won’t ‘snooze’. Instead, here one wakes to the orchestrated harmonies of the peacock, the cuckoo and the turtle-dove. You open your windows to tree-tops glistening in the morning light and to bugle calls of rutting stags. Life goes on as it has for eons in these forests.
Near a grove by a hill stand a herd of gaur. Seven feet at the shoulder with massively muscled bodies and a great rack of horns, the gaur is an imposing sight. These oxen fear nothing, not even the tiger. Here, to walk in the woods is to walk in tune with the rhythms of nature – the world as it was meant to be.
Primal energies rule this place. The Gond, an ancient tribe that lives in and on the edge of the forest reveres the tiger as a God. They’ve built a temple to Bagh Baba. After all, who wouldn’t want to stay in the good books of this great force of nature, especially if it walks by your flimsy doors at night and whose jaws could be your last nightmare if this ‘God’ so desired it. Magnificent and brave, Pench’s tigers walk without fear. Unhurried and undeterred in the presence of a man, I’ve seen one walk right up to a jeep and stare right into the eyes of a tourist. Entranced, the man looked on, unable to tear his eyes away even as his wife mumbled a prayer and closed her eyes as the jeep backed away.
Don’t worry, if you hang around long enough, you’ll surely see tigers here. And when you do, don’t worry about having to give way to other tourist jeeps that crowd around you. You probably won’t come across two other vehicles on a busy day.
Hitherto unencumbered by popularity, Pench still retains its wild essence. As evening falls, you’ll hear the humming of the cicadas along the boulevards and if you pass the hamlets of the Gonds, you might hear the earthy notes of a song by the hearth. I know not of many such Edens still, for Pench as I remember it, still is a canvas that retains the brushstrokes of God, and for now you can take your time, there’s no rush… no, thank God not yet.