Well, all right, it wasn’t really an encounter. It happened at the safari, at Bannerghatta National Park. And, at the risk of sounding a tad dramatic, it was a defining moment in my life.
Murali and I love the zoo. Our son too loves animals. He also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, or maybe, he is just a normal three-year old. One fine day, he declares that he wants to go to the zoo. Within forty-eight hours of his declaration, he is consumed with his obsession of visiting the zoo. Usually, he has episodes of sitting up in the middle of the night, mumbling something about tigers eating grass and squirrels. Come weekend, therefore, we drop all our plans and rush to the zoo – to prevent lasting psychological damage to him, and of course, to ourselves.
The trick to enjoying the safari is getting there early. There is a cool breeze and all the animals, their breakfast taken care of by friendly zoo-keepers, prefer to use late mornings to lounge around. Waiting for the safari buses to arrive, I would imagine. The safari route goes along a rugged road winding through beautiful forest, passing by cheetal, sambar, nilgai, blackbuck and gaur. Soon enough you reach an enclosure with double doors, reminiscent of Jurassic park, and a sign welcoming you to the black bear safari. The black bears seem to enjoy rubbing their noses against the cold metal of the bus. They have scary claws and big paws. Once, we saw a bear digging the soil frantically. He is looking for ants, my son announced, completely convinced. The next set of double doors leads to lions. They are truly social animals, and you often get to see the male with its pride. But what always takes our breath away, even after multiple trips to the safari, are the tigers. They are truly magnificent animals. With measured tread and fiery eyes, they never fail to inspire awe.
The tigers at Bannerghatta are accustomed to humans. Several trips to the zoo later, I imagine that they have developed a certain degree of showmanship. How else would you explain this tiger we saw at our last visit, laying on its back with its head tilted backward at an enticing angle, while it stared vacantly into space? Almost like those models on glossy magazines. Or this other tiger that pretended to peck at some leaves on a tree and then strutted towards us in a calculated wide arc, ensuring that everyone in the bus got a good look at him.
The encounter I spoke of earlier happened during our third visit. A handsome male stood about a meter away from our bus. As I looked at him admiringly, he stared right back at me, for what seemed like an eternity. And I knew I was in divine presence. I was now part of an elite club, whose members could boast of having made eye-contact with a tiger.
My encounter with the tiger is now part of family lore. Every time we have someone visiting us, and the idea of going to the zoo gets tossed around, the conversation invariably gravitates towards my moment with the tiger. Unfortunately, it is always Murali that tells the story. And, as you can imagine, in his version, he mercilessly mocks me, while everyone else thinks it is side-splittingly funny. I have to admit it, Murali can be hilarious sometimes, especially if it involves poking fun at me. However, in this instance, I can see his humor for what it really is – poorly veiled jealousy. And I tell him, rather patronizingly, “Don’t worry, Murali. We always spot tigers at Bannerghatta. You too will have your moment one day.”