Resolutions and toasts took a backseat when it came to the New Year Eve which was a weekend in the dense jungles of Bandipur, Karnataka  – time came to a standstill like it always does in the land where every turn held a jungle lore. The cold and misty morning chilled my core whilst I loaded my gear into the 4 x 4. And as always, there was an infectious buzz in the vehicle which was crammed with expectant faces in thick sweaters and jackets to ward off the chill; cameras and binoculars to capture moments – which mirrored my feeling.

Pradeep, veteran guide/driver/friend/ – (a bit of a heavy duty package for one so young) –  of our vehicle patiently answered curious questions…mostly centred on the predators  and like always, I could hear the single question which was creeping into every mind which stepped into the 4 x 4 – will we be the lucky ones to spot the Living Legends? The tales wove around the sighting which the group had the earlier evening – a pair of fighting Leopards; Gowri, the tigress and her cubs; a herd of elephants protecting their young ones; dance of the snakes..

But, as the vehicle slid into the first gear and the thin fingers of dawn crept in through the misty morning, conversation stilled as we held our breath whilst we glimpsed at the canvas which unfurled like a song for us –  like a slow moving sensual river into the dark sky, the golden rays fought to break through into the last of the night sky.  Our breath came out in puffs of silver smoke as we drank in the beauty of the breaking dawn – a sight to behold… dollops of golden rays casting a halo around the towering trees;  dew drops twinkling like diamonds; the glades of soft brown grass touched with nature’s kiss.

I felt like a trespasser…who had walked into god’s own paradise and walked away with a  slice of it.

With a decade plus into the un – polluted terrain and numerous safaris and countless sightings, I’ve been lucky to come across exotic and common species in their element –  but as the jeep sped down the virgin territories in the dense forest, it seemed like the first time. The jungle awaited me…with her arms open.

The butterflies had begun their dance in my stomach as the jeep entered the forest gate. The tiny wooden gate opened into a world which defied all laws. Nothing seemed familiar…though this has been my home away from home.

The deer herds wandered and looked us in the eye. Squeals of delight followed as the graceful beauties preened for the shutterbugs. A majestic peacock proudly posed for us whilst he basked in the adulation of peahens; a stop at the water body where the aerial panorama captivated us – eagles, hornbills, woodpeckers, mynahs, parakeets, orioles found now and then amongst the stands of teak and bamboo thickets; a lone Tusker ambled through to quench his thirst; jungle fowl making a dash across the road; wild boars and the Great Indian Gaur stood like silent sentinels watching us with hooded eyes. Our eyes drank in the beauty but, they also searched through thick vegetation for the ‘Stripes’ which see you, even when you don’t see them.

This cold wintery morning, as we moved deeper into the heart of the jungle, I could sense stillness in the air.  Like a frozen river, it seemed as if the land had stopped breathing. The mist rolled as the jeep hurtled down the bumpy road. I held on to the edge of my seat, my camera close to me. No one spoke. Not a blade moved. Not a bird chirped. The wild stood motionless…their keen sense attuned.  The silence was deafening.  Pradeep felt it. The naturalist in him sensed the presence of a predator. He looked me in the eye, sans words…we communicated. I felt it creep into my bones.  A stillness that numbed my senses…

And in a blink of an eye, suddenly the air was rant with alarm calls. Like Houdini’s vanishing act, everything hidden and in plain sight took flight and vanished.  The scent of the predator was thick in the air.

The trick of the “jungle sense” is to look at all possible pieces of the information and tie them together. My ears were attuned to the alarm calls…my eyes peeled into the thick vegetation.  I could sense the gaze, but couldn’t see.  I could feel the beat, but couldn’t judge from where it originated. Our eyes darted into the thick vegetation willing it to part…Did we hear a rustle…was that a low roar…hushed whispers spoke the told and the untold. Clammy hands, heart beats and a hush descended in the 4 x 4.  It was like everyone had forgotten how to breathe. Cameras were raised; lenses focussed….excitement and adrenaline kicked in. In the open 4 x 4, we let the jungle swallow us.

Time ticked by … mocking us. Eternity passed in a blink of an eye.  The alarm calls… louder and closer. And before I could let the feeling drown me, out walked from the bushes, the living legend – fluid as a poem, majestic and wild – in his full glory, Agastya, the full grown tiger.  Pradeep left out a soft whoosh…for me, everything else slipped into oblivion.  The lazy gait held such a power that I forgot to blink.  So close was he that his scent made me forget about everything else… I could read his eyes. The urge to touch overpowered everything else. Hackles rose, but the beauty numbed the senses.  Was it a mirage? For a moment, science took over whilst I questioned if human mind was capable of  projecting images that we so desperately wanted to see? But the roar that followed that thought brought all my questions to a void. A well fed cat, he was on the prowl for the female whose scent was thick in the air.

The predator was lurking for food of a different kind.

A few feet away from him, in our open 4 x 4, everyone turned into a statue.

Agastya was in a mood to ensure that our New Year chapter started off on a whole new note.  On a jungle trail, spottings are rare and usually last for a couple of minutes. But today, it seemed like the wheels of time had stopped. Seconds ticked into minutes…minutes into eons. 40 minutes, yes, 40 minutes of being in close encounter of the big male is what jungle lore is all about. And my lore was about to commence.  My camera was on a roll…900 pictures and still clicking, the moment etched itself into my wanderlust soul. Like a drug, the sighting had taken me on a whole new high. As I slowly inched up the jeep, to get closer to my nirvana – I knew all my earlier experiences had paled in front of this one.  What I was about to witness wasn’t a dance between the prey and the predator…Agastya was giving me a glimpse into the male that he was…

I inched closer on top of the jeep….so did he on the path…all the while keeping me in his radar. Curious at first, he looked me in the eye.  We stared…his tawny eyes locked into my soulful brown ones. But in the blink of an eye, I could see his expression change. Angry.  Little beads of sweat formed at my nape.  I blinked first. He continued to arrest me with his look. I wanted to move, but I was frozen. I wanted to breathe, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell the tale through my lens but, at some point, I stopped clicking. I couldn’t. My senses clammed up on me. I was hypnotised.

He roared…the jungle froze and the sound turned my nerves into jelly. Fear found a whole new meaning…a few feet away, his scorching gaze at our jeep had us on tenterhooks. He wasn’t in a mood to pander to the camera. His searing tawny gaze spoke the same.  Hands  stilled. Invisible threads wove us together. We couldn’t budge. Something held us locked down

Angry and seemingly helpless, the scent of the female was driving him on. His roar …calling out to her. Beckoning her to come to him. A call she chose to disobey. On the prowl…the roar grew louder. His mood grew worse. The air was thick with emotions.  At that moment, we knew we had to give the dominant male…the space he needed.   Pradeep put the vehicle in gear and built a bit of a distance – which I knew, would not be enough if the wild was unleashed.

The ancient jungle lore says, “You have two lives …one before you see the Living Legend and then, the other after you’ve seen one.” My second life started on the eve of the New Year – as the drama unfolded, I was a spectator to a volatile emotions. As I captured Agastya’s various moods, searing through my soul…mocking me…challenging me – during his quest for the female who played hide and seek with him, I realised that I had barely let out a breath. I drew in my first gulp only when the cat ambled back into the wild bush…

I breathed…I breathed…I breathed.