Table of contents for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
The sun rose from our right. Suddenly, we heard a langur call incessantly followed by a cheetal. Corbett didn’t say a word he just gave me directions and I followed them. We went past the Dhikala FRH towards east took the Ramsingh road and then we heard an unmistakable cheetal call at regular intervals moving further east towards Champion road beyond and north of Khinnanauli FRH. Just before the FRH and on the left where the Ramganga flows, we spied a herd of Cheetal. Tense and necks strained towards the other bank lined by thick elephant grass. Stilled by fear and their snouts sniffing the wind for something close by. We stopped and waited — our cameras ready…
…we left on the 7th of November and Corbett received news through the DFO Haldwani that the tigress had killed another man in Thak on the 12th. Leaving on the 22nd from Corbett’s winter home in Choti Haldwani we did a double quick march and were able to reach, in the early hours of 24th, the village of Chuka. Corbett’s plan was to tie buffaloes again and had intimated this in advance. Upon reaching we inspected the place where the man had been taken and the headman of Thak, apart from informing us that all inhabitants of Thak had left the village in fear, gave us a detailed account of the killing and subsequent sightings of the tigress by other villagers. The first buffalo we tied up where the man had been killed on the 12th, the second, at a place bordering a lush green meadow and where her pugmarks were found near a mango tree. The third was tied behind village Sem, in a ravine where the tigress had made a killing much earlier. Having done this we had time to think. We all knew of Corbett’s resolution. He had given himself ten days to get the tigress, failing which he would retire, this being his last hunt, leaving other hunters to accomplish the job. The situation was both tense and emotional for all of us who had been with Corbett on his numerous hunts. By his own resolve we knew 30th November was the date Corbett would quit on the Thak man eater tigress. As it turned out, more disappointment was on our way.
We checked on the morning of 26th and it was clear that that the tigress had found no use for the buffaloes that we had tied. When the sun set on the 26th we wore a gloomy look and the weather didnt help. A strong cold wind blew as we tried out sitting on a machan overlooking a path that she frequented and we tied a goat with a bell around its neck to warn us of the tigress’s approach. It rained heavily that night and nothing else was heard while we got ourselves drenched in the bitter cold of the black stormy night…
We are hunters. Once again. A light wind rose from the north, blew through the tall dry grass that fringed the Ramganga, crossed the river and pulled at our shirts. There was the wind, there was the river and the sounds of these. Nothing else. No other sound, a gentle draw of breath from one of us or the sounds of our heart beats. The herd of cheetal, not a single member moved. The only movment at times would be their ear flaps turning and returning like a radar dish scanning and swapping the wide through the northern bank. From the makings of it, I believed that somewhere in the tall grass bordering the Ramganga’s north bank, was a tiger stalking this herd of deer. There seemed to be a bit of mistake though. If my assessment were true, then the tiger stood upwind in relation to the prey. And that was a mistake for a hunter to make. Jim read my mind and shook his head and close to my ear he whispered, “ It isn’t hunting, its just there.”
We kept still and waited as the sun rose and shone brightly now. Corbett patted me on the shoulder and his hand rose and fingers pointed to a place on the other bank in the tall thick grasses. Nothing was to be seen except the swaying of the grass in the strong breeze.
” There it is” he whispered softly.
I took my binoculars and strained my eyes to catch a glimpse. Nothing. Then I caught sight of something else. Something dove into the waters and rose swiftly. A common kingfisher! And it had a little fish in its long beak to show for its diving prowess. Lavishly colored and bright in the now approaching noon sunlight I feasted my
eyes on it as it sat on a branch. Then I let my camera do the work.
Ten minutes went by. No more alarm calls and the cheetal stood as still as a rock. I looked at Corbett and he smiled back at me. I knew it meant we would have to wait longer.
A bit, probably, 50 meters ahead and to the right of the road is the Khinnanauli FRH. The Khinnanauli FRH is a sort of VIP guest house. It has its own generator for electricity which is worked for a short interval in the evenings. People often wonder why is it a VIP FRH. The reason is not hard to find. Most mammal movement occurs in the vicinity and in direct view of this FRH. Its watch tower or machan is also most strategically located. Around here, it is most convenient to ford the river, have a drink or laze around in the sun or graze in the grasslands.
…we worked the slopes and the hills through dense bushes and sparse foliage, through little streams, nullahs and ridges that dotted the Ladhya valley for the next two days and found her marks almost everywhere. Sometimes, we would spot her at a distance fording a stream or simply crossing the valley. On no occassion did she present an opportunity for a shot. On the night of the 29th we all slept in Sem and lit a few camp fires to keep us warm. I was particularly restless. The Thak man-eater had terrorized the area too long and it was my firm belief that people of these villages –Thak, Sem and other villages in a radius of 15 kms would never return to their villages if she were to remain alive after tomorrow night.
29th, was a clear night with no mist and we were tired and worn out. Totally and thoroughly. Before we slept one of the hillmen, Banwari told us a few stories to shake our despondency and keep our spirits high. I doubt if he succeeded at all. He told us of the demons that roam about the hillsides at night. One of these–the Agiya Betal–or the fire spirit, should not even be seen by an ordinary mortal for it means certain madness and insanity curable only by death. I dreamt dreadfully that night and woke up several times. Finally, I dreamt of an Arihant or an enlightened one walking through the man-eater infested hillside helped by a feeble moon and its oft obscured light by misty low lying clouds. He walked with an unknown, unseen calm and occasionally, he sang a little tune to himself. Unmindful yet aware, with both caution and abandon, displaying a rare quiet and a restrained joy — he moved. Then I saw his face — warm and serene, comforting. Reassuring and wise. A soft smile stayed on his lips and that is the last thing I remember. When I woke up, it was already daylight and the camp was well and stirring.
That day we set out in small bands on the look out for her signs. We found that during the night she had come close to our camp and had waited by a small raised portion of the ground overlooking our camp no more than 150 meters away. She had rested there some time and then moved away, crossing the Ladhya once again. We regrouped in the afternoon with the news that the tigress had started calling near Thak and her movements were traced along a line parallel to the river. She had been calling in regular intervals. November is the mating season of tigers and it could mean that she was sounding out possible mates. Late November is also the time of short daylight and we knew that by five it would be quite dark. It was then that Corbett revealed his plans. He had decided to call on reaching Thak. We would, by our best march, reach Thak by 4:45 and it was decided that the calls would be given then. Our walk was urgent and hopeful and heavy with anxiety. As we neared Thak we could hear her unmistakable calls echoing in the valley. We reached by 4:40 and Jim detected a huge boulder on the path that lead to Thak from the river and decided to sit behind it and give his answering calls while the rest of the men would hide in a bush behind him. At 5:00 Jim filled his lungs and cheeks and gave a full answering call to the tigress. It was immediately answered. We felt she was a mile away and it would take her about 40-45 minutes to reach. Thereupon she made calls at regular intervals to detect our position and Corbett answered her each time hoping there was enough light to shoot her by when she finally appeared. He took careful position, resting his rifle on the boulder and leaning with his left shoulder against it. He took off his hat and waited as the sun started a fast movement towards the horizon slightly south of west.
For some twenty minutes we stayed and savoured the wind and the warmth of the sun. Then I saw something, a faint movement of a grass strand springing up erect as if it had been pressed earlier. And in a moment there it was. The most majestic sight ever. For a few moments we stopped breathing. I saw its right front leg and parts of its huge shoulders as it contemplated coming into view. Shortly it came forward and surveyed the sight in front. That was the signal and herd of cheetal bolted, crossed the river and ran up the hillside towards us, crossed the road and went beyond the rest house.
It was just as the master had told us. It was a tigress with two cubs, who shortly came into view. They were less cautious and cavorting joyfully. Their coats stood royally in the sunlight as they stepped forward towards the Ramganga and took a few sips. We clicked ferociously our patience having been rewarded.
They weren’t hunting. Suddenly, from nowhere a few more Gypsies turned up and there was total madness for a short while, as each wanted a vantage point for its tourists. I hope each ones wish was fulfilled. They stayed with us for about ten minutes. And then retired into the bushes again. That’s when we realised what we had witnessed. It was only then that I looked at Corbett. A satisfied smile on his lips.
” A large hearted gentleman he is” he said. Only this time it was a gentle woman.
…it was in this failing light that we waited by and most of us trembled in fear and anticipation. A man-eater tigress in heat was too fearsome a reality to confront at close quarters. While we trusted Corbett’s abilities, we knew he had no powers if light failed him. We prayed that the tigress showed up before our death surety was executed by the impending darkness. Suddenly, we heard a langur call not more than 50 meters away and we heard its rapid leap on the trees as it sounded off and scurried. The tigress called again and its sound was very close and somehow it seemed to hasten a darkening sky for the sun had now set. Minutes ticked by but the tigress didn’t appear on the path under the boulder. Corbett filled his lungs again and waited and then just as the rumble of the tigress’s call started, he let off a final call simultaneously, to the searching mate for final directions. And then, immediately from the left and barely 10 meters ahead she emerged from the bushes and looked at the boulder. We didn’t move. Then we heard the shot. One shot and then another. After the second shot I saw Corbett being thrown off the boulder towards us. He came to rest on his elbow and I was relieved to see him move, get up and reload his rifle. Meanwhile, the tigress’s huge head appeared over the boulder and from there she looked at all of us. Her eyes glazed and faith deceived, she let go and slipped off. We ran behind the boulder and Corbett was already there taking a final shot at her head. Then he reloaded and let go two shots in quick succession to the sky. That was a signal to the people of the whole valley. The man eater tigress of Thak was down!
We drove back to Dhikala FRH in silence. We packed our belongings from the Old Rangers Quarters and had a quick bite at Kalajis canteen where we got surrounded by eager tourists to check our photographs. A thin man of about 40 served us tea and toast and stood over our cameras as we showed our photographs.
He had his sleeves rolled up and displayed a trishul tatoo –mark of Shiva– on his left forearm. Before we left the canteen, the man very strangely touched Corbett’s feet and sought his blessings. Corbett looked at him closely and whispered, “God Bless you man”
i thought it strange but, soon put it aside. Having taken our clearance and bidding adieu to a general bonhomie that follows a sighting, we departed and I drove Jim to Kaladunghi and his winter home. He got down there and lovingly put his arm around my shoulders. Then with a far away look in his eyes that older people have when about to leave, he told me,
“That man in the canteen with a Trishul tatoo, was Bala Singh. I never told you this,” he continued, “Bala Singh had that exact mark on his forearm after he complained of being possessed.”
So saying, Corbett turned and walked into his house.