I seem to have lost my words, my rhythm. It’s day 111 of lockdown here in India. Three months never felt so long. At times the chit chit chit of the tiny Indian palm squirrel calls me to the window and I gaze mindlessly at its tail twitching and the birds flitting around the hotel garden. Further out I watch a herd of water buffalo and cows, their tails swishing behind them, grazing in a field that pre-lockdown housed a weekly vegetable market. I have fallen into a kind of vortex. Maybe we all have.
I booked a flight home for July 5, then ten days later it was cancelled. I vacillate, sometimes making peace with what is, other times yearning for the abundant freedoms I normally enjoy. Little gifts come in quiet packages – the lotus flowers on the lake, flocks of green parrots flying overhead, swimming in the Ramada Hotel pool that the owner graciously allows me to use. I have become like Judy in the Wizard of Oz chanting there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home; the clicks of my ruby slippers echoing into time-space, asking for things – a flight home, non-virtual hugs from friends and family — that the world does not want to acquiesce at this time.
Still there are signs of change. First the hotels and restaurants opened. Then last week a few foreigner friends, also in Khajuraho through lockdown, invited me to go on safari to Panna National Park and Tiger Reserve which also opened in June. The next day the five of us piled in a jeep at 5 AM and set off for the 40 minute drive to the park. As the already hot and humid air whipped through my hair, I felt excited to be doing something, something new, something different. Plus there could be tigers!
By 9 AM we had seen herds of spotted dear, peacocks, three types of raptors, monkey troops, a stork, monitor lizard, antelope, the footprint of an Asian black bear, and even a single male gazelle, but no tigers.
“It’s hot, tigers will be in the forest to stay cool,” the guide told us.
As the jeep bumped along the path and traversed through the teak forests, plains of short grass and picturesque lakes and waterways I prayed to the Tiger spirit to show us her jewels. Suddenly the guide sat up straighter and pointed.
“A tiger!” He said. “Up ahead, on the road.”
The driver hit the gas. A second later I saw it, a live, wild tiger.
“Slow down, ” I said nervously laughing, thinking, are you mad?
Because the jeep was speeding right up to the tiger, too close I thought and I knew the driver only had a long stick for protection, as if a tiger could be swatted away like a cow. Meanwhile the tiger didn’t even bother to look our way but continued walking unhurriedly away from the road. At first I just sat there, or maybe I stood, awed by the incredible beauty of the tiger padding heavily and slowly on huge paws, the black stripes slashing artistically, surreal-ly, through the deep orange fur and the long heavy tail trailing behind. By the time I started taking photos the tiger was 30 yards away and quickly disappearing into the trees and bushes, likely headed towards a cliff and gorge where there was water and caves, our guide said. A female tiger, he said.
And just like that, too fast, she was gone.
When we arrived at the gorge we looked for her scaling the rock walls but only saw a few monkeys scampering along the ridges. Still the view of beautiful and we snapped more pictures.
Two hours later we were back in Khajuraho feeling changed, refreshed, new, from our viewing of the Tigeress. I mean are tigers even real? What fantastical creations. Famished, four of us ate a hardy lunch of vegetable and legume curries on the second floor of a restaurant overlooking the lotus flower covered lake after which I gratefully retreated to my AC cooled room. Later that day I ventured to my window again. Watching the ponderous black bodies of the water buffalo grazing, their tails twitching behind them and listening to the birds chirping as the quiet hum of my air conditioner marked the seconds going by.
Covid19 times. Someday we will talk about it to young ones. What will we say? How will it end? Because there is talk of new viruses surfacing and now a second wave of the current one. Killing dreams, yearnings, lives. For those of us still standing — at windows, treading in place — something new is bound to spring up. Like the rains come each day, drenching the dry ground, watering the garden and lifting the heat. All of us in this together, like tigers slowly making our way across vast plains to cooler vistas.