Last night’s storm was a terrible experience for Bakhtiar Singh but the drizzle which followed it gave a much desired relief to everybody in and around the wildlife tiger reserve. The downpour continued till midnight as an unexpected blessing from the rain god. Bakhtiar Singh had felt uncomfortable with the heat when he entered his house last evening. It was too hot for him inside the room as compared to the open and cool environment in the tiger reserve. But the sudden drop in temperature and the cold breeze coming from the open window was a respite for him and he slept comfortably once it started raining.
It was past midnight when the rain stopped. The temperature inside the room was cool and Bakhtiar was in deep slumber when suddenly a strong lightning with a deafening sound woke him up. He opened his eyes with a startle and looked around. A cold breeze naughtily touched his face and passed away as if reminding him about something. Suddenly all the events of the previous day flashed before his eyes!
With a deep sense of remorse he remembered that he had left the wildlife reserve without informing his supervisor. He had never taken such a hasty decision ever in his long career as a warden in the forest reserve. Never before he had behaved in such an irresponsible manner. The reason for his inappropriate behaviour was that somebody from his village had informed him about his grandson’s illness. He got so perturbed with the news that he panicked and immediately rushed to his village without a second thought. It was late evening with no public transport available at that time. So he walked down a distance of more than five kilometers on foot to see his grandson. He was relieved to see his grandson in a good condition when he reached home in his village. But the very next moment he realized that he had unnecessarily panicked and in that vulnerable state of mind he had neglected his official duty. He did handover the responsibility to his junior who was new to the job but not experienced enough to notice any unusual happening in the tiger reserve.
Bakhtiar had a sudden feeling of guilt and being a disciplined and dedicated worker, he got angry with himself for compromising his responsibility as a warden of the wildlife reserve. Even though it was for the first time in his life he had erred, a mistake was always a mistake. He was unhappy with his behaviour and decided to leave immediately after the rain stopped but trekking a distance of five kms at night time was not a sound proposition. Therefore he had no option but to wait till dawn. It was painful for him just to wait in his room and waste time particularly when his mind was burdened with a vague fear which had started bothering him.
While trying to sleep for some more time before there was enough light to walk towards the tiger reserve, Bakhtiar was overpowered by another fear, about something catastrophic, something he didn’t want to happen. He suddenly felt some kind of a vacuum in his chest and tried to figure it out. Was it due to his unauthorized absence from duty? Or was it due to his apprehension that his assistant might complain to his seniors, one of his supervisors might make a surprise visit and find him absent from duty or that poachers might do some mischief in his absence? It could be anything but he knew pretty well that it was not any of those known fears. Now that he was relieved to see that his own grandson was fine, it was perhaps something else – pertaining to Raju!
Bakhtiar Singh knew a lot about wildlife, particularly about tigers, more than he knew about himself or his fellow human beings. Right from age ten he lived with his father in this wildlife tiger reserve and at the age of sixty years when he looked back he had no doubt in his mind that this place was his home, school, place of work, temple, everything! More than a century ago his grandfather was appointed as an attendant in the tiger reserve on a regular salary during British rule. Getting a monthly salary from Angrez sarkar was a luxury in those days and his grandfather passed on this prestigious position to his son, Bakhtiar’s father who was so fascinated by the wild life in the tiger reserve that instead of admitting him in a primary school in the village he took him to the reserve and exposed him to a ‘hands on training’ under his own guidance. Like his father Bakhtiar was also fascinated by wildlife and really enjoyed working as a warden in the reserve.
Bakhtiar firmly believed that human behaviour was lot more similar to that of tigers. It was the tiger instinct which human beings expressed whenever warriors defeated their enemies. He had heard many such stories from Rajputana and elsewhere how powerful kings used to get lusty about more territory, more power and more dominance. Charged with a desire to dominate they attacked their weaker neighbours, defeated them, and married or enslaved their wives and daughters and killed the rest of the clan. In the event of losing a battle women either surrendered or committed ‘jowhar’ before invaders touched them.
Bakhtiar, in his limited world of tiger reserve, compared the power lust of Rajas and Maharajas with the tigers. He was convinced that the territorial equations in the reserve were no different from rajwadas and kingdoms. He had known several of these jungle leadership changes in the section of forest he was associated with for many years. It is always the rule of jungle that the dominant male tiger takes over the charge as soon as it succeeds in liquidating the weaker leader. As soon as the previous dominant leader is killed new leader takes over. Like human warriors the rest have to either surrender or perish. The females surrender and the male cubs are killed by the new leader. Soon after taking over, the winner tiger marks his territory with strong-smelling urine and by shedding the bark of trees.
Bakhtiar, like his father, devoted most of his time working in the reserve with infrequent visits to his family in the village. And this routine continued till he became a grandfather. Since getting any transport from the reserve to his village was usually not easy and trekking five miles became increasingly difficult for a sixty year old man, he preferred to visit his family once a month only, except for this unplanned emergency visit because of his deep concern for his grandson.
Bakhtiar was not always like this. Having lived and worked around wildlife reserve all his life he was fairly strong emotionally. He was known for his firm approach to things without getting emotionally disturbed. But after the death of his ten year old grandson a few years ago he lost his inner strength and was vulnerable to panic and unknown fear even over small incidents. He had almost given up any hope of his progeny to continue when a ray of hope appeared with the birth of his second grandson after a gap of five long years. That was why when he heard that his one year old grandson was sick, he got unnerved and rushed to see him on foot without caring for his job. But as soon as he was relieved of his anxiety he started worrying about his responsibility as a warden.
It was Shera’s death in the tiger reserve which was the root cause of Bakhtiar’s worry. Shera was the king tiger in the south zone of the tiger reserve which Bakhtiar had been looking after for almost fifty years. Shera was the dominant tiger in the area for over four years. Padma, a year older than Shera, surrendered soon after Shera took over the territory. Padma delivered a male cub, Raju, a few months ago.
Shera fell to the bullet of a poacher barely two weeks back and with that tragedy the territorial equations in the reserve were bound to change. Shera was the strongest tiger in the area and even the ambitious tigers around the territory never dared to take a chance to take over from him. But Shera’s death was certainly bound to lead to territorial fights in the reserve and it was a foregone conclusion that the male tiger that would take over would definitely kill Raju. After the death of his elder grandchild, Bakhtiar had become too sensitive about kids. He had the same tender feelings for the baby cub as he always had for his own grandson. Therefore his worst apprehension was that Raju’s life was in danger and this worry started the day Shera died. But his fears intensified soon after the area had a strong storm last night followed by incessant rain for several hours. Bakhtiar had a reason for this sudden escalation of his fears!
The reason for Bakhtiar’s worry was that as soon as the scent of Shera’s urine disappeared from its territory, the most dominant male in the reserve's hierarchy would try to take over. Last night’s strong storm and rain hastened to wipe out scent-markings of Shera’s territory thereby exposing Padma and Raju to wrath of the invader. As is the rule of jungle, he anticipated that Padma would surrender before the new leader but Raju would be killed. And that was the worry!
It was already nine in the morning when Bakhtiar entered the premises of the tiger reserve. Everything was quiet but a strange odour entered his nostrils the moment he walked towards the interior of the reserve. An unknown fear overpowered him and he started walking faster to reach his hut. His long experience of dealing with tigers further deepened his apprehensions and this strange odour got him on his feet. He was now almost sure that something ominous had happened and that a tiger from outside had breached into Shera’s territory. The moment he entered his hut he heard a loud roar coming from a corner of the reserve confirming his apprehension, and he prepared himself to face the worst.
His junior attendant was still sleeping comfortably and smelling of local booze when Bakhtiar pounced on the walkie-talkie to inform his supervisor.
After a spell of several roaring sounds echoing all around the reserve, a deadly silence followed which sounded an alarm of doom to Bakhtiar. He could visualise the mutilated body parts of Raju dispersed all over and Padma silently watching this massacre with pain in her eyes.
While sitting on the rear of the rescue jeep, Bakhtiar was preparing himself to mourn the death of the four month old Raju, his heart deeply immersed in sorrow exactly like when he saw his elder grandson’s dead body. His mind froze with horror when he saw blood stains on the grass and other vegetation of the reserve while the driver took them towards Shera’s den. Bakhtiar felt sick looking at the trail of blood stains which could be Raju’s. But he didn’t see any trace of Raju’s body anywhere near those stains which made him even more apprehensive about the cub’s fate.
When the rescue team came closer to Shera’s cave, they noticed a big tree had fallen on the cave’s mouth as a result of last night’s storm, almost blocking the entry to the cave. On coming closer they saw Padma’s badly hurt body under the tree blocking the rest of the mouth of the cave. One could guess that Padma had struggled and fought the invader and prevented his entry into the cave.
When Padma was lifted onto the ambulance after injecting her with a dose of tranquilizer, Bakhtiar was relieved to see Raju peeping from inside the cave, safe and sound!
Bakhtiar looked up to the sky and bowed his head in front of Padma’s body who neither surrendered nor committed jowhar. She had battled till the invader was repulsed. She had fought with the courage and strength of a mother… at the cost of her life!