Burning Bright: Gap Year Week 24

For the last eight years now, my family and I have rung in every new rotation of the sun in Bangalore. New Year’s Eve there is not just a tradition—it’s a certainty, and to suggest anywhere else for the celebration feels vaguely blasphemous. The parties on December 31 have varied in size and shape. One year involved elaborately coordinated Olympics-themed game night, which involved racing remote control cars around a track made of duct tape. Another year devoted itself to using up every single one of the leftover fireworks from Diwali, and also destroying the decking my mother hated so fiercely. (We succeeded in the former but not the latter. The decking would endure her fiery rage for another two years.) All revolve around a lot of food, laughter, and as many family and friends as we can logically and practically fit in the house.

This year was our smallest New Year’s in a while, with only my family and my uncle, aunt, and cousins after everyone else summarily ditched us for bigger, ostensibly better parties. (As if those existed.) But it was okay, because as the evening wore on towards midnight with dumb charades, bad salami, and fantastic cheese dip, it sunk on us that this might be one of the last times we celebrated together, and that in years to come more and more excuses would arise to split paths when the proverbial ball dropped. In the living room, I danced (horrifically badly) for hours to old 80’s music with my father and uncle, spinning and jumping till I was dizzy, breathless, till nowhere existed but the warm home around.

2019 would bring so much change: my older cousin would finally leave Bangalore to do her master’s degree in the US, my aunt would start a new job, I would begin my undergraduate studies. My uncle and aunt, in a new apartment, would live half a city away; my less-older cousin, in his sophomore year of college, would be two cities away. Distance was cracking paths between our family members.

We rung in the year on the lawn, as always, arguing over whose watch was the most accurate until the last possible ten seconds, shouting every number as loud as we possible could before screaming a New Year’s wish to the sky and hugging each other in turn, partly against the cold, but mostly because it was 2019 now, and we all stood here together, and maybe if we clung tightly enough we’d carry the feeling of these arms supporting us even as we scattered.

 

***

The only time I feel close to understanding India, as a country, as a culture, as a people, is on the road. This, admittedly, might say more about the transience of how I—a privileged brat living in an overseas hyper-developed bubble—relate to India, rather than India itself. But the upshot of it is that I love road trips here. And of course the land by the side of a highway is in no ways representative of the whole, but there’s something about the overwhelming vibrancy of what you see there that feels so fundamentally Indian. (And it is India, yes, but more Indian than the cities are, or Bangalore is.)

I love every small world blurring past the window: the raggedy little shops with a front striped by plastic packets and an old man leaning over the counter, unconcerned about hawking customers; roadside dhabas circled by solemn arrangements of chairs and people, rolling gossip around till worn into steam off their chai; paddyfields stained white with egrets and a lone worker in the hot afternoon, dragging two bone-thin oxen laboriously through; the small warm houses—or shacks—where you can make out the great iron pot of daal over the stove and a woman squatting to make chapatis over a pan for dinner, maybe a TV blinking behind. The fields filled with trash; the tiny hotels with neon signs; the cows contentedly blocking the roads; the disintegrating bus stands, and the people waiting in them.

It’s when driving (or, more accurately, being driven) I get a sense of the scale of my country—of what it means, really, to be one of one and some billion. For every town you see there are five more nearly like it, but not quite—and every town is fiercely complicated and expanding and important, and the geography of it brims over the map, it feels at times.

There’s so much everywhere the window bulges with, strains at the seams to contain the life passing by. The unstoppable, exuberant, living chaos of it all, and you get a sense of a country sprawling like a fungus. And India can be filthy and horrible, yes, but at the risk of too pat a metaphor, fungi come in heart-stopping diversity, too, in a phantasmagoria of burgeoning colors and beauty.

***

Which is to say, I was on the road with my mother and father a few days after New Year’s. We drove through Kerala and afterwards headed to Nagarhole Tiger Reserve on the banks of the Kabini River. Kabini was my first Indian jungle, back when I first started getting into nature stuff and my mother packed my brother and I off for a two-day photography course there. Over four safaris, we saw gaur, elephant, and a leopard, sleeping on a tree. At one point we met with another jeep, which turned left while we turned right. Later we heard they saw a tiger immediately after that junction.

In years to come, this would become a pattern. In Ranthambore a few years later, a jeep that turned back two minutes before us saw a tigress on the road that walked away just as we followed them back. Two years after that, back at Ranthambore, we found pugmarks, heard an alarm call, at one point even heard the low grumble of a tiger’s roar. We went back to Kabini, had full rein to go where we wanted, and managed only (gorgeously, to be fair) a male leopard crossing the road behind us for a brief moment. This time, two weeks ago in Corbett, twice our jeep arrived at the spot thirty seconds after the tiger vanished into the dense undergrowth.

On our way to Kabini, I calculated: I had done 12 safaris in some of the most heavily populated tiger reserves in India without sighting a single orange stripe. Somewhere along the way, I made up my mind that I didn’t really want to see a tiger—they were overhyped, probably, and the single-minded focus on them every safari distracted from the more interesting wildlife, and, I mean, it’s not like anything had fundamentally changed about me as a person for not seeing a tiger. Plus, I thought (rummaging deep in the rubbish pile of excuses to prepare to rationalize the inevitable disappointment of the next morning), wasn’t not seeing a tiger after 12 safaris a much more interesting story than seeing a tiger, say, 12 times?

So we thought the driver was joking when he shouted tiger the next morning, but how very much not a joke it was became obvious as we careened impossibly close. She was a lactating female, with young cubs hidden inside the bushes, and she was powerful and massive and god, she didn’t care about us. That indifference was intoxicating, every measured footstep of her huge feet without a glance in our direction.

Later, we waited for her to come out from the bushes, because her path was arrow-straight, unswerving. This is what it means to be at the top of the food chain: the world moves around you, not the other way around, which is such an unspeakably human thing, but this was not human. This was the forest in sudden symphony as the langurs and the deer sang predator, predator, watch out. That is an old song, and the sound of it rang in our bones as we held our breaths for the first glimpse of her face, her leg, her sleek shining side.

When she came out the sun was behind her. She glowed.

You drop the article when referring to tigers most of the time—in casual conversation, it’s always I saw tiger, or tiger was sighted there—never a tiger, or the tiger. And I understood why then: it’s because tiger isn’t a thing, or a creature, or rather it is, but it’s also an emotion, an experience, that encounter with this deep majesty of being that does something to remind us we’re nothing but overeager monkeys. And, unlike humans, the world may move around tiger, but she doesn’t try to change it. Where she lives—in the protected areas, what we’ve tried to keep original—the world is how it is. How it should be. How it will be.

After she crossed the road, she stopped at a tree, raised her tail, sprayed a fine mist of urine on the bark. A statement in scent: this is my ground. This is my land. And for a moment the forest stilled, and nothing moved but her.

***

(Note for those not in the know: none of these blog posts are chronologically accurate. Just—deal with it. Also, holy heck: six months already?)

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