Where Forevers Begin

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I seem to have lost my words;

They left in the middle of the night-

The day I forgot to swallow my blues,

A mouthful of addiction, memories on flight.

 

I seem to have lost my blues;

They left on a train of thought

While I was willfully drowning

In a fight I had never fought:

 

The light of your caramel mornings

Seeping into a world forgot.

 

~ Sumeet Keswani

Silk

What are we
But waves abandoned
On a silken shore,
Feverish in our attempts
To find home.

What is love
But this pristine
Silence
Between vowels frothing
At the lips of nameless lands.

I found mine in you-
The belonging of a nomad
To a castle of sand.

~ Sumeet

A class in nostalgia

For starters, let me confess something. I enjoy the occasional drink of nostalgia. I indulge in the melancholy that memories bring. Perhaps that is why i sometimes seek out places that exhume moments long gone by. They may not even have been among the best times i’ve had, but if i remember them and the emotions associated strongly enough, revisiting them feels a bit like time travel.

So, to relish a slice of a long forgotten past that was bound to sting the tongue, I set out for my school, St. Xavier’s High, one of three i attended in my life. (However, this was the only one i had managed to get attached to.) It had been 12 years since i had been there, since i had walked out of Class 10 thinking i’d just passed my toughest exam. So I anticipated the bout of nostalgia, almost looked forward to it. But i hadn’t expected the stage of my childhood to have stayed almost entirely the same, thereby enshrining those days. Right from the colour of the walls where i once busted my knee while chasing a friend over a joke, to the basketball court which back then felt like the only happy spot in the school, to the notice board which once hosted my first (and atrociously lame) poem, and even the tree fences that we sat on during breaks, everything had retained its composition – as if saved for this very moment when i’d visit, my adult disguise betrayed by a pair of moist eyes.

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I often wonder why we miss it, the past. Is it because our present does not match up to it? Hardly. I’m lucky enough to say most of the things in my present are of my choosing, and hence make me very happy. Close friends who are insanely understanding, a mind that knows its thoughts from its emotions, freedom to live on my own terms – a lot has changed, for the better. So what exactly do i miss when i sit in my old classroom with a broken window that overlooks the basketball ground? Why do i miss the yearning, when, now, i am no longer bound by class rules and don’t have to wait for the tolling of the bell for a shot at the hoop?

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Maybe it’s not the yearning we miss. Maybe we don’t miss the place at all, but who we were while we inhabited it. The kid who sat gazing out of Class IX B didn’t exactly like being there; he was full of doubts and wishes, but was also full of life. He had no bad memories to recall, only an unshakable belief in a gleaming future; he had no money to call his own, but he also never worried about paychecks and bills; he never had the freedom to play at will, but when he was on the court in the ‘Games period’, he ran like the world depended on it; he had no qualms about his own existence and its purpose; he had no cynicism to rob him of his faith; he had no real nightmares, just ones of monsters that didn’t exist.

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Maybe I didn’t visit the school at all today, maybe i just visited me. The 10-year-old introvert who was equal parts excited and scared shifting to a “tough school” in Class 6 but eventually made the exams look easy, who spent every day looking forward to the basketball game at the end (and sulked on those that didn’t end in the sports period), who worried about his grades but only on the last day, who sneaked a glance at his crush in every ‘recess’ and believed love would find a way (and heartbreaks wouldn’t). Maybe for one day, i had the itch to bend the space-time continuum and inhabit that boy who believed, without a speck of doubt, that his life would be grand, and whose biggest worry was if he would grow tall enough. Maybe i wanted to find my way back to a peculiar version of happiness which was unadulterated by reality.

And I found it lying untouched, in a class cupboard that still smells of moss and childhood secrets.

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My tryst with the tiger

It started way back in November 2011: My love affair with the tiger. On my second-ever wildlife photography expedition, I had gone to Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, India. Although Corbett is rich in avian biodiversity and is blessed with a breathtaking landscape, the lure of this forest is its striped cats. The tiger is always a heart-stopping sight – so I’d heard. But I was going to make up my own mind about it. So, for five days, we searched the woods, tracked pug marks and listened to alarm calls by spotted deer, sambar deer, and monkeys. Ironically, a more elusive big cat – the leopard – showed up with its midday meal – a spotted deer- hung up on a tree. It was a memorable (and rare) sighting. But the tiger continued to evade us.

On the last safari of the tour, luck finally seemed to favour us. While tracking the big cats, we zeroed in on the location of a tigress and her cubs. They were behind behind some bushes near a path aptly named ‘thandi sadak’ (cold street).  On one side of this rugged path was the grassland abound with unsuspecting prey and on the other, the dense forest that hid our precious family of tigers. Tigers were known to cross this ‘sadak’ to get to their prime hunting grounds- the grassland. Cameras were mounted and aimed, test shots were fired to gauge the light, settings were put in place. We were locked and loaded.

The little ones’ hesitant footsteps on the dry leaf carpet, the monkeys’ frantic alarm calls and a paranoid jungle fowl’s shrieks only added to the anticipation of the big moment. We waited, and waited and waited. Meanwhile, I clicked every bird that flew by, UFO-shaped cobwebs, even the tourists waiting in anticipation.  News about a potential tiger sighting spreads like wildfire among tiger-trackers; jeep after jeep comes roaring in to the spot; and the tiger, to no one’s surprise, often takes the first route out. This protective mother tigress knew the threat too well and receded back into the forest with her kids. The wildlife expedition was over. I hadn’t spotted a single tiger, let alone click it.

Fast forward 16 months, it was March 28, 2013. I was finally in the jungle again. This time in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India. The national park flaunts the highest density of tigers in India. The tour promised a lot of tiger action and the subject in each safari was the striped cats, not landscapes or birds.

The first safari had me beaming, like a kid opening his long-awaited Christmas gift. By the end of it, i felt like one who hadn’t been in Santa’s good books that year. While most jeeps came back empty-handed, one had spotted a new bunch of cubs with their mom, and one had captured five different tigers. Five! Still optimistic, I pinned my hopes on the evening safari, trying to believe that i was perhaps destined for a ‘special’ first sighting.

The second safari of the day soon stripped me of all the excitement. None of the jeeps had seen anything remotely striped, the light was fast fading and it was almost time to exit the jungle. My optimism had turned sore. “There’s a nightjar sitting out in the open on a curve up ahead,” one of our mentors travelling in a different jeep told our driver when our vehicles crossed paths. He gave us directions and hence, a heading. Since we had already given up all hopes of seeing a tiger, we decided to take his word and make a frame of the nocturnal bird. Nightjars are beautiful creatures and i’ve captured them before, but i had been too excited about tigers to be craving nightjars.

As we swerved around a corner on a dusty path in the woods, the guide riding shotgun asked the driver to stop and reverse, in what i can only describe as a hushed scream. On the morning safari, i would have taken this as a clear tiger sign. But the cloud of pessimism loomed large over my head. “What? You saw the nightjar?” I asked him. He looked at me with disbelief and said the one word i had been dying to hear since the Corbett failure: “Tiger”.

I jumped up in the moving jeep, holding on to two cameras as the driver reversed. I do not remember longer seconds in my life. As we came to a screeching stop, the guide pointed. But I did not need directions. I could already see it: A magnificent tiger resting on a rock in a pool of fallen leaves.

My first instinct was to point the camera and click. I had just got through a frame-burst when i realized i hadn’t even clocked the settings into my DSLR for the low light in the frame. The pictures came out very,very dark. I set the numbers in as quickly as i could and went through another burst, with an average telephoto lens, then the bigger prime lens, attached to two different camera bodies. At some point, in the middle of all this, I heard someone say our creature of interest was a He – a 2.5-years-old male cub of a tigress called Banbahi.  I asked for a name later in the day, but apparently, he didn’t have a territory yet, and hence hadn’t been named.

After the initial reflex had subsided and the first few mindless bursts of pictures fired, i really saw him. He wasn’t totally unobstructed; I could see his eyes pierce the foliage between us, and he stared right into my lens. It was at this moment that something held my finger back from pressing the shutter again, something that lowered my camera, something that made me look into the eyes of this innocuous yet intimidating and grossly misunderstood creature.  I found myself in a dilemma i hadn’t been prepared for: to live the moment, or to capture it.

He did not stay there for long, just over a minute, during most of which he looked away, distracted by the sound of rustling leaves in the distance. But he looked our way just long enough for me to make one decent picture: a souvenir that will always remind me of my first tiger. For it was in this moment that i realized – any sighting of a tiger is special.

The first. Banbahi's male cub: Over 2.5 yrs old now, he looks set to be a contender for the throne of Bandhavgarh

The first.
Banbahi’s male cub: Over 2.5 yrs old now, he looks set to be a future contender for the throne of Bandhavgarh

In the course of the next three days, we saw six more tigers- crossing our path in the golden light of dawn, stalking a prey, lazying around in the open and even leaping over a boundary wall! Bandhavgarh delivered all that it had promised, and more.

Some parting pictures from the land of the tiger:

Green bee-eater

Could i be any cuter?
(Green bee-eater)

Long-billed vultures

A family portrait
(Long-billed vultures)

Spotted deer

Run
(Spotted deer)

Against all odds.  Vijaya aka Kankati. This one-eyed tigress has defied all rules of the jungle, ruling over prime grassland territory and raising three cubs all on her own

Against all odds.
Vijaya aka Kankati. This one-eyed tigress has defied all rules of the jungle, ruling over prime grassland territory and raising three cubs all on her own

White-eyed buzzard

This tree is taken
(White-eyed buzzard)

One of Kankati's cubs (over 1.5 yrs old). This one was waiting right by our safari route, hidden from view by a bush. She was perhaps thinking of crossing the road when we almost drove past her. As we skidded to a stop, her first instinct was fear - took a few steps back, hid behind the bush, only to sneak a peek later, perhaps to see if we meant any harm

Innocuous
One of Kankati’s cubs (over 1.5 yrs old). This one was waiting right by our safari route, hidden from view by a bush. She was perhaps thinking of crossing the road when we almost drove past her. As we skidded to a stop, her first instinct was fear – took a few steps back, hid behind the bush, only to sneak a peek later, perhaps to see if we meant any harm

Langurs on a palash tree

Baby’s day out
(Langurs on a palash tree)

A lesser adjutant stork takes a walk

The evening stroll
(Lesser adjutant stork)

Kankati's female cub (over 1.5 yrs old now) graced us with the perfect timing for this walk. The golden light of early morning lights up this magnificent creature

Golden Stripes
Kankati’s female cub (over 1.5 yrs old now) graced us with the perfect timing for this walk. The golden light of early morning lights up this magnificent creature