The short answer was that India was the most fascinating country we'd ever visited. It wasn't easy, it could be harsh and upsetting, but it was never boring. Sherrill and I didn't exactly love it, but we couldn't resist it. Our first visit was to the northwest part of India, Rajasthan, where many of the famous sites, such as the Taj Mahal, were.
Poster for Mother India.
We soon realized just how huge the city was. We drove out to the Maidan, a vast park area near the colossal white Victoria Memorial, which looked more like a palace than a monument. It was no wonder that Indians who visited it often thought that Queen Victoria was a goddess. Across town, we visited the enormous central flower market by the Hougli River, a branch of the sacred Ganges in which we saw people at their ritual prayers and baths.
A "Grey Town" sprawled between the "White Town" and the "Black Town," an area in which we found a Muslim district with several mosques, a Chinese section, synagogues that remained from when a large Jewish community had been there, booksellers, and workshops where religious statues were made. Although we were in Kolkata several days, we could have spent much more time there, once the second city of the British Empire. We could have applied to Kolkata what Dr. Johnson said about the first city of the old empire: "When you're tired of London, you're tired of life." I may never return, but I can imagine myself there again, experiencing the pulse of its life and savoring its mysteries.
"She is the grandmother of all tigers," Jai told my friend P. and me, as we gazed from the top of our elephant on the gold and black tiger reclining in the tall grass. Jai, the son of the Lodge manager, and the two of us had ridden with the mahout into the forest near one of the swamps in the Kanha National Park, one of India's foremost wildlife preserves and a sanctuary for the majestic and elusive Bengal tiger.
"Termite mounds," the handsome brown-skinned boy explained, in his rather formal Indian English. "They have rooms inside. The termites drag in leaves that rot and make soil so mushrooms will grow for them to eat." Some of the mounds were torn apart by wild boar and other animals seeking a termite dinner. "Wild boar is the tiger's favorite food," Jai added.
Termites—wild boar—tiger: the natural cycle.
Early the next morning, we drove in jeeps from our cabins much deeper into the forest.
"I hope you enjoy it" Sherrill told me.
None of our friends except P. wanted to ride the elephant, either. So the two of us and Jai climbed up a ladder to a small wood shelf on the elephant's back, behind the mahout. Sherrill and I had ridden on an elephant twice before, but in a box on the elephant's back that we entered from a platform. This felt much more precarious.
We passed clusters of monkeys, a grumpy black boar, colorful kingfishers, peacocks, and other birds. I had no doubt that all around us the forest undulated with astonishing varieties of life. Then, as the elephant's great feet crunched through the grass and bush, we spied the body of a freshly killed brown swamp deer with an impressive rack of antlers in the grass between slender crocodile-skin trees.
"Shh!" He pointed ahead.
The elephant crunched forward, my legs swinging near the rough-barked trees. Then we saw the tiger, partially camouflaged in the tall grass, recuperating from the massive effort of bringing down the deer. Raising her huge head, she glared at us, her striped white, black, and orange face a pattern of disdain and distrust. We knew that she must be the female tiger we'd spotted from the jeep the day before, communicating to her cubs. No doubt, the deer was to be a meal for them. She let out a low growl and slowly lifted her body until she was standing. Shrugging her powerful shoulders, she stretched her long body and ambled away, escaping our scrutiny, to a spot in the grass a few yards away. Our mahout gave a command to the elephant, directing it past the tiger, watching us from her new place.
Afterwards, I told Sherrill about the experience: elephant ride, deer, tiger, all of it. It felt very natural, riding the elephant with the boy and our friend and looking down so closely on the dead deer and the exhausted mother tiger, just part of the natural order of things—although a wonderful, exciting adventure
"I'm glad you did it," Sherrill told me, "and that it all worked out okay. As long as I didn't have to do it."
Our room, clean or not, was huge, the bathroom, too, with the toilet and shower on a 15 inch high platform. If a vampire didn't get us, Sherrill and I decided, we'd break our necks in the bathroom. The lounge, downstairs, was full of dilapidated, moth-eaten stuffed animals, including a pathetic tiger in danger of losing both its head and its tail. Our host, who may have been a prince down on his luck, sometimes ate with us. He always looked hung over at breakfast and drunk every other time we saw him.
Palace Hotel lounge
with old hunting trophies
"Whether we like it or not," he said. "The world is changing."
To be continued....
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