We leave Bangalore one rain-soaked morning and somehow find the stars and the traffic signals aligning in our favour. This lush, post-monsoon countryside is the world of our nostalgia, however delusional. We live in the urban crush of the city, working in tall towers without sunlight or fresh air, but when we travel for a holiday, we like the houses to be small, the trees to be massive, and the horizon to drop away past forests or fields.
About a minute after we cross the BRT Forest check post, our smooth ride comes to a halt. On the curve ahead of us is a roadblock. 12 of them, actually. It is a party of wild dogs or dholes, all alert ears and bushy tails. We cannot believe our luck. Like so many wildlife-lovers and photographers, what we yearn for on every forest trip are good “sightings”. This one has come early, and with unexpected abundance.
At K Gudi Wilderness camp, we check into the log hut at the very edge of the camp. Over the next two days and two nights, we have many safaris on our menu. We see the usual denizens of this forest—Spotted Deer, Barking Deer, Sambar, Gaur, Crested Serpent-eagles, Crested Hawk-eagles, Brown Fish Owls—but this time I wish for more exciting sights, in line with that welcoming party of dholes. I am here on my birthday and, despite my strong rational leanings, the child in me believes that this increases my chances. I wish for good light and the right amount of shade, I wish for a leopard draped on a curving branch.
However, the rain is a constant on this trip, and so is the poor light. On one evening, the forest grows dark and quiet as early as 4pm. The trees in the background start fading like old ink, and even the jeep track seems like a ribbon that unfurls just as we drive. The rain hesitates for a minute, then descends in a fine drizzle. I instinctively shield my camera with my body. “Shall I pull over the roof?”, asks Basavanna, the JLR naturalist. Me and the husband both shake our heads, not knowing exactly why. The rain begins to come down in surer drops. I put away my camera in my bag with quiet resignation.
There are times during safaris when all your senses become alert. Your eyes pick out forms and movements in the foliage. Your human ears may be primitive for the animal world, but they seem to prick up with every new sound or call. But a little excitement is a dangerous thing. You see the ears of a tiger as it crouches behind a tree, but as it comes closer, you realise that it is just orange fungi growing on a fallen log. Wild dogs sitting with their backs to you are tree stumps withered by time. Shadows in the foliage become elephants, tree vines become snakes, and every leaf that catches the wind is a new bird.
I drift in and out of this phase every day. And then once, with a soft rain falling on my face, I sit back and drift away into a daydream. I am not sure how many minutes pass—or if they are hours. The forest no longer seems composed of discrete shapes; instead, it is one large being that has consumed us—a jungle. I notice things I haven’t seen before. Somewhere, a feather falls in slow motion and stops on a flower. I see missing tiles on crocodile-bark trees, branches twisted like a schoolgirl’s plaits, a nest of orange twigs that has fallen into ruin. Near a green meadow, a single strand of spider web stretches impossibly across the trees, catching the last sliver of sunlight left in the day.
A soft cry from our driver and I see a mass of black hair anointed with raindrops, so close to the jeep we could touch it. A sloth bear. The second our wheels stop, it disappears wholly into the bushes. I rub my arms to get rid of the goosebumps. I have missed the shot completely, and I smile.
Here is a feeling, I think, that I must bottle up and store, preferably in my camera bag. It seems more important than spare batteries or lenses. The next day, I try to remember this new gift of seeing. We see sambar again, like we have every day here, but I stop because one of them steps into a shaft of light that turns its shoulder golden like a blessing. A Checkered Keelback far away in a pond makes a perfect squiggle on the landscape. I stop the jeep to take a picture of a stag whose antlers are outlined with light. I have just framed the shot when Basavanna spots a Madras Tree Shrew. “It’s here, it’s so close!”, the husband says with excitement. I am quick this time. I twist my lens back to 70mm, lock focus, and press the shutter at the same instant that the shrew turns away. I laugh at myself, feeling happy without reason.
There are more missed chances. I try and shoot a pair of Greater Flameback Woodpeckers but they keep flying away or disappearing behind the trees. A few hours later, we are finishing a fabulous lunch at the camp when there is sudden a flurry of activity. A Greater Flameback alights on a tree right in front of my eyes and strangely, it does not seem to be mocking me. We walk back to our log hut and a long rat snake crosses our path. We sit in the verandah to read and are visited by the Indian Blackbird. The Orange-headed Rock Thrush, the Spotted Deer, the Wild Boars, they are all right here, in the property.
Too often, we peg our hopes on safaris, but the experience of the forest refuses to follow an itinerary. It is here, in all the spaces between.
On our last morning, Basavanna is taking us to see Blackbucks in the plains outside the reserve. They were spotted last year, he says, grazing in farmland now left fallow. We are driving downhill today, so Basavanna turns off the engine and we hurtle down quietly. In the old fields, we find about six or seven black bucks, mostly stags. I have never seen these creatures before, and I am struck by how small and shy they are. The landscape is ringed by mountains, and there is an abundance of birds: drongos, koels, Baya Weavers, Long-tailed Shrikes and even Pied Cuckoos. A few Pipits walk across a patch of grass and cry out in thin voices.
I take photos for a while and then we just sit in the open jeep, enjoying the birdsong and the sun. I think back to the oddest of things, my performance review at work last week, with my half-yearly goals staring me in the face. In another sanctuary far away, another naturalist had told me how visitors gave him lists of birds they want to see—their “target species”. I had scoffed at this. I wasn’t that kind of birder, I thought then, I wasn’t that kind of photographer. But in this new sunlight, the truth is laid bare. As I frame yet another black buck in my viewfinder, a Red-wattled Lapwing flies over my head, singing out “Did you do it? Did you do it?”
I didn’t, I want to say. I didn’t see that big cat, I didn’t make that perfect image. We often use the word “escape” when we describe a holiday. This time, I merely escaped from everything. I slipped into the rhythms of the jungle. I saw more, I captured less. And that is enough.