Fifteen years had passed since I had visited the place. Now that I think about it, it was probably like following a tradition of sorts. Since its establishment, my grandfather had always visited Corbett at an interval of fifteen years. It had started when he visited the place as a small child. Corbett National Park was set up in British India in 1936 and my grandfather was lucky enough to be able to visit the park then. He was merely a child of ten then but I remember him telling me how everything seemed so vivid and enthralling even back then.
Fifteen years later when he got the time he came to visit again and fifteen years after that he came again, this time with my father, who had turned nineteen. It had been a mere coincidence the first couple of times but then my grandfather decided to make it a habit of his to visit every fifteen years after that. Even toward the end of his life, after having been repeatedly asked by the doctors not to leave his bed, he came back again fifteen years ago, in 1996, with my father and me, to have a look at the place for one last time.
There was no way I could destroy the tradition now that he was gone. There was definitely no harm in following it either. And in a way, it felt like I would be visiting my grandfather again because I am sure that after he died, there is no other place else his spirit would have gone to rest.
I checked in at the front desk of a hotel and smiled at the memories of Corbett that I held within me.
It had been thirty years since I had been on my first safari. At my meager age of 9, I was in awe to be able to be so close to real animals, most of all when I was witnessed two tigers right before my eyes.
‘If you had been really lucky, you could have seen a full herd but seeing two is also good enough,’ I could clearly remember the accompanying tour guide’s words toward the end of our safari. This time I was really hoping I would be luckier.
I reached my room and decided to lie down on the bed for a while before I ordered some food.
Next thing I knew, five hours had passed and I completed a full-fledged nap without even realising. It was not a surprise that it happened. I had been travelling continuously for quite a while. I had landed in Nainital two days prior, where I had had a meeting to attend, which was conveniently followed by another meeting in Dehra Dun. Three days later there was to be a follow up regarding those meetings in Delhi and instead of taking a break between those affairs, I decided to visit the Park.
I quickly freshened up and rushed downstairs to check if the lavish dinner buffet which the hotel offered was still accessible. I, fortunately, reached in the nick of time.
After dinner I casually walked over to the reception desk to inquire about any safari that might be available the next day. The receptionist gladly directed me to a man who apparently ran “the best safari that one could find in Corbett”. I always wondered what the basis for deciding the best safari would be since the animals encountered in any safari were clearly based on luck and chance.
‘It will be done, sir,’ the man replied to my query of whether he could book me in for the first safari he ran in the morning. ‘Actually, you are lucky that you have come in the off season and that too alone. Not many tourists come around this time of the year, so you can easily get a seat.’
‘I can still see lots of people here,’ I casually observed.
‘This is Corbett, sir,’ the man explained in a tone that was normally reserved for when one teaches kindergarten students the alphabet. ‘These many people can be found here at any time but wait till the vacation period starts. This place is full of tourists; you might not even have gotten a place to stay in.’
I nodded and quickly switched the conversation to the next day’s safari. The last thing I needed was the tour guide mocking me.
The guide presented the safari rates and asked for an advance up front. As is the custom, we never let the service provider have exactly what he wants, so I bargained for a little while and brought the price down. Since it was an “off season”, I could easily haggle to my benefit. After I handed the stipulated advance over to him, he told me when and where I could find him the next day. We exchanged numbers, so that he could inform me if there happened to be any change in plans and I went off to my room.
The nap earlier had drained most of the sleep out of me, so I decided to watch the unintentionally funny Tele-Brands home shopping adverts until I finally began feeling drowsy again.
I woke up early the next morning, got ready, ordered some chai from the room service menu and went onward to meet my guide. I reached to find the guide standing by a jeep. He sat down in the driver’s seat and beckoned me to sit next to him. The back of the jeep was occupied by a group of foreigners, possibly French but I could not be sure, so I sat down on the seat next to the driver’s without much thought. The guide started the jeep and also some small talk.
He told me his name was Bhagat and that he had followed his father’s footsteps into the business. I in turn told him how I had been to Corbett before, with my grandfather, and that it had become a tradition in my family to come to Corbett every fifteen years or so. The guide seemed highly impressed claiming that his father would definitely know my grandfather. Knowing pretty well what the odds of that would be I nodded just to be polite.
We talked about other things in our lives, like how I had come to Corbett, or how much time Bhagat had been in his job, and some random talks about family. Soon we reached a place where he stopped to show us a herd of Spotted Deer. The foreigners all became very excited and began taking pictures. After that point, there was always some or the other animal popping up somewhere and Bhagat explained what the animals were called while the foreigners frantically took photographs.
I watched as we came across lots of interesting animals. We saw three varieties of deer, quite a number of rare birds and even managed to see a Himalayan Black Bear in the distance scratching its back on a tree, but what I desperately wanted to see was a tiger.
I knew that seeing a herd might not be possible but I still did want to see at least two tigers just like I had with my grandfather.
As we traveled a little more the guide stopped.
‘Look there,’ he said pointing at some tracks. ‘Those are tiger tracks.’
The foreigners, again, frantically began taking their photographs. I was not very impressed by the tracks. After all, I had seen two live ones when I was little.
The safari did not last much long after that. I was really dejected. I was not able to see the ferocious animal I was hoping to.
‘I am disappointed,’ I relayed my feelings to Bhagat later as we sorted out his remaining pay. ‘I was hoping to see a tiger.’
‘Sir, the tigers do not exist in huge numbers as they used to exist before,’ the guide sighed. ‘I have been in this business long and I have noticed.’
I had read about the decline of tiger population a lot, so this was not new to me. Accepting the fact that I was just not lucky enough to see a tiger that day, I was about to leave when the guide said something that somehow rang a bell and made me realize how much exactly things had changed.
‘If you had been really lucky, you could have seen a tiger but seeing their tracks is also good enough,’ he said.
Genre: Short Story