The drive to Pench Tiger Reserve, in central India, is long and the air thick with dust. Throngs of cars choke the road and roadside cattle stare at me with eyes yellow and insolent. When we arrive in the mid-afternoon, it is for the first time in weeks that I am able to breathe without coughing painfully. A light rain has settled the dust, and the air here is cleaner and less polluted than in the city.
On the outskirts of the jungle is a smattering of brick and mud homes, a sobering reminder that people live here, struggling to sustain their livelihood while engaged in constant conflict with what remains of the dwindling tiger population.
We spend the remainder of the day at a small resort just outside of the park gates. As night descends, we exchange stories and crowd around a brilliant tangerine fire. The flames dance and sway in the light wind and greedily snatch at the night air.
The next morning, we are escorted in an open-air Gypsy to the reserve where a park ranger joins our party. Our driver takes us on a winding dirt road through the forest. Sal trees sway protectively overhead, and the air is filled with the chatter of langurs. Their calls betray the secrets of the forest, of the beasts that prowl the depths.
Yet, it's hard to see much today. Clouds have darkened the sky, and a light drizzle falls on the open car. After an hour of driving, we've spotted little else than a lone sambar. We exit the forest, and without the protection of the trees overhead the rain comes down ever harder. In the clearing, a tiny river sloshes through, and here we spot our first big game: a wild elephant with her baby.
Some time later, we arrive at the elephant camp. Rangers are sent out during the day to scour the forests for tigers; if a tiger is spotted, elephant-back safaris are organized and launched from here.
As we pull into the station, we hear word that a tigress and her cubs have been spotted. My heart flutters and adrenaline fizzes through my blood. We nervously await our turn. Just as we are about to climb onto an elephant, the drizzle turns into a torrential downpour. The dirt road quickly turns into a treacherous, ensnaring mire. We are turned away; all elephant trips for the rest of the day are cancelled.
Turns out, a day of built-up anticipation ends the same way it always has. Over the past six or seven years, I have made countless trips to the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, but to no avail. For me, at least, luck is as elusive as the tiger.
Whatever the outcome, I have never left this place feeling entirely disappointed. Desperation has birthed in me a passion fierce and unyielding, and hope is, if nothing else, renewable. Also, it is well to mention that I am somewhat enamored with these lands. These were forests in which tigers roamed freely, before hunting and poaching all but decimated their population. And, on some level, I feel that I am reliving the stories of Jim Corbett, the British conservationist, who hunted the man-eaters of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. I settle my feet in the shoes of Ruskin Bond's beloved characters who would tread softly but quickly through forests in fear of the man-eaters that dwelled within. I grew up with these stories, and here I am able to step into them.
I am acutely aware that my experience pales in comparison to that of others. I've heard the stories: of a tigress leaping over a jeep that had blocked her path, of males fighting over territory, of tigers killing gaur. It may seem that I have nothing to show for all the trips I have made to the reserves. But, what I do have is years worth of experience and years worth of love for these lands. I have never been disappointed and I am ever eager to return.
They say that when the mountains capture your soul, you'll return to live and die in the mountains. The wilderness and the jungles are the same; I have fallen in love with this land, so that even if I tried I could not leave it behind.