It was almost dawn as Basha was woken up by a loud and rude knock on his door. He was staying in a hut near a rice field deep in the forest area. There was a village near the area called Kala but it was a 10-minute walk from his hut. He was woken up by one of the villagers who had bicycled all the way from the village of Kala to serve Basha his bed tea and remind him that it was his duty to watch the jungle today. “Sahib, chai! Please be ready, the first jungle safari leaves at 6:00 am. All the jeeps will be waiting for you. They have been given permission by the forest department yesterday.” He handed Basha his tea. Our man rubbed his eyes and wrapped a towel around his waist. He was all bare-chested as he picked up his morning tea and biscuits. Basha was a short man with big shoulders and had a potbelly. With his black thick moustache, he looked apart. He sipped his tea and looked at his watch. His motorcycle was parked outside. He knew he was going to be late.
The forest was moist today. A thick early morning mist had engulfed the trees and could barely be seen. However, Basha had more urgent things to attend to. He could admire Mother Nature when he entered the forest and then made sure the track was safe for the safari jeeps to come in with the tourists. He carried a stick with him, the famous cane of Basha, which he used to scare away deer and sambar. According to his own told legend, Basha had also chased away wild tigers with his stick. He had been with the forest guard for over five years and was an expert in identifying animal calls, tracking pugmarks and looking for fresh tiger trails. He was also good with elephants and they responded to him. Basha was the freewheeling king of the Jungle. “I have fought many forest tigers and even the ferocious Charger. I chased him away with my stick and stones. He never crossed my path again.” These tales of great valour were told by him to his fellow rangers during morning cups of tea as they stood near the jeeps to open the gate of the forest. After the usual checking of the tourist IDs, he would drive away on his Enfield Bullet motorbike and lead the jeep caravan thick into the forest navigating the many watering holes and streams. His bike was an Enfield Bullet used by most rangers in the area. To communicate with others, he also carried a walkie-talkie. This was also a way for others to inform the pack if there was a tiger spotting in the vicinity.
This was his trial as he looked deeply into the mud road for pugmarks in the sand or tiger poo. He was looking for any clue that would give away the tigers whereabouts. He would stop the jeeps from time to time and wait for the tiger growl. He would ask the elephant mahouts for clues and trails. He had been doing this route for years and knew every corner of the forest including the burial ground of the great Charger, the king of Bandhavgarh. He would ride his motorbike until the Vishnu’s statue and then back again to the picnic ground or the halfway ground to have breakfast with the local villagers and tourists. Always dressed in an immaculate crisp khaki uniform, he looked at ease and in control. That was Basha, the forest guard of Bandhavgarh.
Today, he sat under the tea hut on a wooden bench. There had been no tiger sightings for months. It looked like the tigers were resting or just tending to their cubs. Even the watering holes were empty, just a few deer and jackals but no tiger. “Sala kai dino se nahi deekha, tourist bhi pareshaan sala Bandhavgarh ka tiger kahan gaya?” The teashop owner tried to explain as he handed an aloo bonda and a cup of tea to Basha. “Sala jungle ka raja wohi nahi deekha tho safari ka kya karna?” Basha took a sip from his hot stainless steel glass as he whipped clean his moustache. There were langurs with huge pointed tails and black faces loitering around for scraps of food and some even played with broken water bottles. Families gathered around to have their hot breakfast on the bonnets of their safari jeeps as drivers took time out to take a leak. The sun had come up now and it was getting dry and hot. It was the right time for flies, bees and insects to whizz in the air. Yes, this was truly forestland as one could hear the rustling of trees and barks of deer roaming in the area trying to pry into the world of man. Basha preferred to be a loner. He had left his wife with his mother near a village in Jabalpur and preferred to stay alone in his hut like a hermit. His only entertainment was the jungle and his mission to find the tiger every time he went out. Thus, he was deeply disappointed due to the lack of tiger sightings recently. “Who ma apney bacche ko doodh pila rahi hogi, Osaka Naam hei potty, bahut time se nahi dikhi.” It felt like something was amiss in the forest. “Gora tourist bhi ab kam ata hei yahan!” The boy of the shop said as he sat down to boil eggs. Suddenly a jeep started. Breakfast time was up and it was time to move on for the second leg of the safari. Basha started off on his bike again but stopped over to chat with Seema, the elephant rider who was coming down the track with his elephant Bhola. “Kya bhai! Tiger deekha kya, Bhola se poncho.” Basha asked inquisitively to Seema. “Nahi re, tiger sota kanhi pani ke paas, bahut try kiya nahi dikha.” Basha knew that something was amiss. He trudged on a bit further across the bamboo groves of the forest, and then he stopped near the thin flowing water stream. The water had almost dried up. Only slush and red mud could be seen. In fact, the sand had turned red almost a quaint wine-like in colour. As if on cue, he got off his bike to investigate if a tiger had been around but he saw no paws. The colour of wine became thicker as he walked on the thin stream of flowing water. It was quiet. Not a sound, the animals and even the birds had fallen silent. Basha stopped and turned around. He had left his bamboo staff on the bike. He returned to retrieve it. He needed protection. What if a jackal attacked him? Now armed with his stick, he walked swiftly towards the trail of burgundy red. His sandals were now covered with red mud and clay. He got a glimpse of a green kurta and then another orange piece of cloth lying on the grass torn and in tatters. There had been a kill here last night and no, it was not another deer or wild boar, it was a human. As he gazed further down, a four feet long naked body of a girl lay head first in the grass. There was blood all over the ground and bushes. Basha could hear the buzz of flies, bees and mosquitos as he approached the frail and small body of a naked Adivasi girl lying head first in the ground. The body was still and cold. Basha shook it with his stick but no response. She had been dead for some time. There were claw marks on her back and neck and her shoulder was half eaten. The wound was not raw now. She had been dead for some time. It was too late. She was hunted down as she came to fetch water for her family. Near her legs lay a steel pot to fetch water, now empty and abandoned. Her amulet had come off and lay beside her, along with a mala of goddess Durga. The girl was dead all right. Not only had she been hunted down, but she had also been preyed upon by a tiger. The very tiger Basha had been trailing trying desperately to get a sighting for his tourists. He had already seen tiger paws on the edges of the stream. He had been here presumably to have a drink and spotted the girl fetching water from the same stream. Unaware of the tiger’s presence, the girl persisted and then from nowhere, the beast attacked her and ripped her apart. That could be the only logical explanation he could find in his mind. Basha loosened his belt for a while as his forehead went giddy and began to perspire. He was now standing near a dead body of a 12-year-old Adivasi girl. He needed time to absorb all this. The scene was too grotesque, frightening and gory. The air was dry and the body had gone stone cold, almost grey. The colour of the stream had turned red. There was a peculiar stench in the air. Basha looked heavenwards towards the trees and then slowly sank down on his knees. He was in a state of shock and panic now. In all his time as a forest guard, this was the first time he saw a human dead body. He had seen dead bodies of sambar, deer and even birds in the forest but a live kill of a human being, that too, by a tiger. That was new to him.
What did it all mean? Had the tigers of Bandhavgarh become man-eaters? There was no sign of that ever before and no history of tigers eating or even hunting down humans. They did attack the village cows and goats, as they were easy kills. The tigers never killed any villagers and were generally chased away by sticks and stones. This was different. Here, the girl was small, frail and inexperienced. She was an easy prey and defenceless to the charge of a tiger. She was dead meat as soon as the beast saw her. But wait, it was not a male but a female tiger. A tigress had done the deed. Basha got hold of himself as he sprinkled the stream water into his eyes. With this thought buzzing in his head, he got up with a jolt and started walking back to see the tiger’s trail. On closer investigation, he realised that the paws were smaller, more slender and tapered at the end. Yes! He was sure it was a tigress that had done the human kill. They were a female’s pugmarks. A sudden panic took over him as he dropped his bamboo staff and ran towards his bike. He quickly retrieved his walkie-talkie and got in touch with the Forest Guards office outside the forest enclosure. “Sir, me, sir, Basha, sir. I am in the forest. Today my duty, mein forest mein patrol kar raha tha jab ek ladki ki dead body mili. Kya gaya usey, oh no, sir, ek sherni hei, please come with help and support.” Basha tried to explain the scene as much as he could. His voice was shaking and choking with mortal fear. “We are coming, forest guard, aap wahin rahoo hum backup bhej rahein hein.” A prompt reply came from the head office. Basha stopped to take a breath and then opened his thermos flask to have a sip of water.
Meanwhile, the jeep caravan that Basha had been escorting was almost in a panic. It had been over half an hour and our forest guard was nowhere in sight. He had ventured into the jungle looking for tiger marks but still no news of the fella. “Where has that man on the motorbike wandered off too? Man, Indians, they cannot get anything right. We have been here months and still have not seen a tiger. I should ask these guys for a refund.” A tourist from the UK expressed his dismay as to how the safari was progressing. The elephants had also decided to join in the show as one of the elephant drivers shouted “Basha, Basha, tum kahan ho?” The elephant slowly trudged past the caravan and walked right through into the dense forest. Langurs could be seen hanging on trees and jumping from branch to branch, but there was apprehension in the air. Something was going on as the langurs started to growl.
Suddenly, dust began to rise and two Scorpio jeeps approached the caravan. Six men from the forest guards, two with guns in hand jumped out and started walking briskly on the dirt track. They moved swiftly into the dense forest and then started walking towards the thin water stream as Basha waited for them near his bike. “Sir, bad, sir. Tiger killed the girl, pura kha gaya only body left.” Basha pointed towards the other end of the stream. Soon the men were near the eaten body of the little girl. To them, the kill was made before sunrise as some of the blood was still thin and a bit warm but the body was stone cold as one of the guards turned the dead body around. As if in repulsion, everyone took their eyes away from the face of the girl. Her cheeks were torn. Her neck cut open. It was a gruesome sight, not to mention the flies who had gathered around. They started making all sorts of buzzing noises. “Right, Basha, call for the village ambulance. The body is to be taken for post-mortem and we need to register the case in the Thana. The girl is dead. Identify her and inform the villagers about the man-eater. Also, inform the girl’s family. They can come and take the body for cremation later.” The chief told his men. “Arrey, someone cover the girl with a bed sheet and wrap the up the body.” He barked his last order before heading back towards the jeep.
Basha knew that the news would spread soon into the village through the elephant mahouts and other forest guards. There would be fear all around. After all now, anyone was open to an attack. “Sir ji, one more thing, it is not a male, it is a female tigress. I have seen the pugmarks.” Basha shouted out at the chief. “Well, that is even more dangerous. The female is a better shikari and an even deadly poacher than the male. This tigress could spell doom for the villagers.” Said the chief.
He was buried deep in his desk trying to make sense of the patterns of Gond art that was scattered all over the desk. Next to him was his white Dalmatian called Spotty sat wagging his tale. The morning tea lay on the desk still piping hot with tea biscuits on the plate. Jagan had been running a forest resort called Sherghar for over a decade. Slowly, his client base grew over time and the tiger population flourished in the area as more foreign tourists arrived. More tourists meant more money. These tourists started buying Adivasi and local art and crafts. A new line of business opened up for resort owners. Soon Jagan opened his own NGO and started selling and exporting Gond art and craft. He had well and truly made his passion his life and business. This was a forest love in the true sense. He too had abandoned his family, wife and two sons for a hermit’s life in the forest. This is something he always wanted to do, but due to family and society constraints, he could not do it at an early age. Now he was a true tiger lover and his keen knowledge of the forest and its history made him an excellent resort owner who always kept his customers engaged and happy. If he were not serving jungle breakfast for them, he would be taking them on wild elephant safaris or giving them a peek into the temples and village life of the local villagers.
The locals knew him as Jagan Thakur. Yes, Thakur was the title given to him, as he was always dressed regally with a silk scarf, jungle shirt and loose khaki trousers. Indeed, Jagan looked like a Thakur when he jumped out of his Gypsy on the dusty track trying to look for tiger paws, his favourite pass time. His time was spent on packing Gond art, giving instructions to the staff for meals and booking the morning safari for his guests. His pet Spotty was always in toe. However, what Jagan liked the most was to admire the sunset of the jungle. To him, the orange blob of light was what gave him his energy and it was the dance of nature around him that gave him his purpose. He would teach in the local Kala school in his free time and read books about the ancient Indian mystics at night. This was his world and he was the king here.
“Sir, the tourists are ready. One family from Bengal and two gentlemen from the UK. They are all very keen to see the tiger today.” A servant boy entered Jagan’s writing room and asked him to hurry. In a flurry, Jagan got into action, picked up his zoom lenses and his Nikon camera. He almost forgot his mobile phone in haste. “Six months chey mahiney ho gaye no tiger. Sala Kanwar extinct ho gaya, lag ta hei Kenya se Lion export karna hoga then only we will get some sightings.” Jagan said feeling a bit amused. Yes, it had been a long spell of dry sightings in the jungle. No one had seen a tiger for some time. Some said it was time for the tigress to give birth. Some said poachers had killed the tigers, but no proof to that had been found. No one had reported a natural tiger death. The temperature of the village and the forest region had gone up during the years and the heat had effects on the farms and the jungle flora and fauna. The streams had dried up and even the ponds were at a low water level. Had the tiger disappeared due to lack of water or forest cover? Was there some kind of a mass tiger migration that had taken place? Why else would the sightings be reduced to almost zero?
Jagan started his jeep and drove his guests towards the forest compound. There was a lot of activity happening down there. The jeeps had been stopped and tourists wandered around the road looking lost and exasperated. Forest guards had invaded the area and there was an ambulance waiting nearby. Jagan stopped his jeep in the middle of this morning pandemonium. “Sir, Jagan, sir, you have to stop here. No safari today. There has been a kill. Yes, little girl from the village. Name, Hemlata. She was killed by a tigress in the morning near the stream. So whole area had been shut down for further investigation.” A forest guard said as he stopped his jeep. “What?! There has never been a human kill ever in this forest, not that I can remember. A man-eater in our forest? No chance. How are you sure she was killed by the tiger?” Jagan wanted to know. “Sir, I am doing my naukari. Ap Basha se poncho, he was the one who saw the body first.”
Jagan walked down to the motorbike parked on the side of the dusty road. “Basha ji, kya ho gaya? salla tiger khoon kar ne Laga ab.” He wanted to know the entire story. “Sir, very bad, little girl tuk de tut de kar die uskeey.” Basha painted a graphic picture of the killing. The tourists were advised to head back to their resorts as the crowd was asked to disperse by the local police so that the ambulance could carry the dead body to the local hospital for post-mortem. “Naam kya tha ladki ka?” Jagan asked Basha. “Wo koi Hemlata thee baar painter hei, Kala mein family hei farming wale log hein.” Basha gave out the details of the dead girl. Jagan heard the name and his eyes popped out. His face became stiff and his lips grew red. “Hemlata?” He asked aloud again. “Kyon aap jantein hei uske parivar ko?” Basha quizzed Jagan. Meanwhile, our man had found a stone bench to sit on. He was in a daze and looked lost. Jagan was seeing visions from his past.
“B for ball, C for Cat, E for egg.” Jagan was taking the afternoon class at the village school in Kala. “Hemlata, aaj aap sabko apni drawing dikhayein ge.” He handed over the paints and the drawing paper to the girl as she went about from desk to desk showing her Saraswati painting to the other kids in the class. The classroom was small with scabby and worn out walls. There were barely 20 kids in the room as the headmaster wandered in the playing field tending to the stray cattle. Hemlata was Jagan’s favourite. She was the best dressed wearing an immaculate bindi and amulets and had boundless energy. She did all the household chores and still had the energy to attend school and fly kites with the boys in the evening. She is also good at riding a bicycle. Even at her height, she could ride a full-size Hero bicycle. Jagan somehow saw in her a daughter he never had. She was his pet and he would get her the best fruits from his orchards to eat and enjoy. He used to take a lot of his guests to see the house of Hemlata’s folks just to give them a feel of the tribal life. Her hut was strong, made of tree trunks, baked clay and tree branches. The floor was flat and made of clay. The walls were made of mud, cow dung and stone. The hut had a pump but it hardly gave any water especially in the summer months. The family worked on a paddy field for its survival. They also had chickens, goats and cattle kept in a yard adjacent to their hut. An entire family of ten lived in the hut and lived for generations doing farming and making Gond art. Hemlata’s father Ramu was a painter and made exquisite Gond art. Jagan used to buy everything he made and then sold them at a premium to his foreign guests who were happy to pay the extra buck.
In fact, he had just taken a few guests for a jungle walk to show them Hemlata’s hut. She was not at home then, but while taking to Ramu, he was told of a bad omen by which the forest was hit. “Sir, all my parrots have stopped speaking. They used to speak first but now they have all gone silent. We have a Shiva temple in the village with a cobra snake down on its wall, because a cobra would come there every morning. My wife would leave milk for him to have, but for some time now, the snake has stopped coming for his drink of milk. Something is not right.” Ramu had said as if he was reciting a prophecy. Jagan had taken his words lightly. His only concern was to make sure that his guests go happy after a tiger spotting, which had not happened for a while. For him, that was his bad omen.
“Sahib, we have to return. No safari today. That little girl, she was killed by the tiger.” Jagan was shaken up by his servant boy as he sat on the stone bench almost frozen. He was yet to recover from the news that the victim was known to him. “Chal, let us go to the police station and find out any news, I want to know the cause of death. Damn, I knew her she was my student.” Jagan was almost choking as he said this.
The village near the forest with the largest number of tribal population was Kala. More than a 100 families lived in this small village. Most of the villagers had encroached neighbouring forest land area and had started doing agricultural farming there. The watering holes were used and water diverted to the farms. Kala was a village at the heart of man and nature conflict. It is as if man was learning how to live with the forest. The local government had provided a school and given money to the local panchayat to build toilets and water wells. There were shops selling knick-knacks and FMCG products and even a post office. The cluster of villages near Kala survived on what they produced and what they sold to the local Mandi, which was always full of fresh vegetables. One highway from the neighbouring town was the only connect Kala had to a city.
It was hot in the afternoon but the sunset and sunrise were colourful, bright and very soothing to the eyes. Water came through wells and hand pumps with many ponds and watering holes around. There were a few streams that would flow from the forest to the village farmland that could help in irrigation as the farmers mostly grew paddy, which requires a lot of water. The local tribals worked as help in the jungle resorts. Now many had cropped up in the area. There were also semi-skilled artists who drew Gond art or made pottery with clay and terracotta. Some women specialised in making papad and pickle for local brands. Many NGO had opened up here and were working for the uplifting of the villagers who were still the poorest of the poor. The place was riddled with strict caste structure. Untouchability still existed in the remote villages, where the Sudras stayed separated away from the rest of the villagers and had the worst houses and poor hygiene. They were allowed to grow and farm pigs and eat pork. The village had small shops selling local brew called Mahhua, a vodka-like drink made out of the flowers that grew on the Mahhua tree. The forest was dense with bamboo trees and Sal tree being dominant.
Typical village family had at least eight or nine members in them. The women folks stayed indoors and the kids went to the school ferried by a bus, at times, that would be late on most days. The rest of the villagers went farming or doing odd jobs at the jungle like riding and taming elephants or working on the teashop at the middle point deep inside the forest made to feed the tourists. There were attacks by tigers before as they preferred to hunt and eat the local cows. Their favourite pet was the village dog. Most families in the village had a dog or two to guard the cattle and the house. Also, most of them kept parrots in cages hung near the entrance of the hut. This was some positive omen or charm for the villagers who were worshippers of Durga and Lord Shiva. Both of these Gods are associated with the Jungle. Shiva for the Serpent and the Goddess Durga for the Tiger. The villagers also slept on the farmland at night on lofts made out of tree branches and wooden staffs. They would be on the watch for tigers. Many had also fought tiger attacks in the past with fire torches, sticks and stones just like in the tale Basha used to tell.
Here, man lived in peace with nature and the equilibrium of the forest. But today, something had gone wrong for the first time. A tigress had become a man-eater and that spelt doom for that equilibrium.
The local hospital also acted as a dispensary handing out medicine and health aid to the villagers with its own ambulance. Doctors and a few active nurses – it was all the villagers had. The best medical aid apart from this was only available in a town three hours from the forest area.
A man-eater was about in the forest and a girl was dead half eaten with her mangled remain being taken for an autopsy. “Yes, it was a tiger attack, but the doctor has found something strange. The organs of the girls are missing – her hair, kidney, lungs, eyes etc. Now how is that possible?” The nurse informed Jagan after the post-mortem was done. Jagan went quiet, his mind spinning at the agony the girl must have gone through. Come to think of it, he knew her. He had taught her a few times. “I knew her, I had bought her at the local school, I must meet the family and express my grief.” He replied back to the nurse.
He started his jeep and headed for the resort. On the way, there were local men chatting away about the incident. People had gathered around trees and old Puja Pandals to discuss their fate and the fate of the forest. Some talked about a curse given to the village by the Goddess. She is displeased with them, it seems. “Nahi nahi ho salta hei ki she ne mara ho, par dil, grade phi gayaab hei ladki ka.” A voice said after some thought.