We are halfway through our month-long visit to Mysuru, the first phase of a Tropical Health Education Trust funded project to prevent suicide amongst survivors of deliberate self-harm in South India. Four weeks away from the office is a long time, and it was difficult to find dates that worked for both Indian and UK partners. Compromises had to be made, and this meant that our visit straddled Diwali. Visiting India during Diwali is like visiting Britain during Christmas. It is a family time, and we did not want to impose ourselves on anyone. After two weeks of travel and hard work, we were in any case ready for a break. So we paid for ourselves to stay in a lodge in Bandipur Tiger Reserve for two nights. We have just got back to Mysuru.
Bandipur is beautiful, located in a range of hills on the border between Karnataka and Kerala. It has been a tiger reserve for many years, a relatively unspoiled area dedicated to conservation. The unseasonably wet weather continues. Although we sometimes felt cold, it did not prevent us from enjoying the restfulness of the place, punctuated in the evenings by distant fireworks and music in celebration of Diwali. We sat on the veranda in the green hills with rural smells, sights and sounds that are unchanged by globalisation and international trade treaties (though our presence in India, ultimately funded by the Department for International Development, owes something to these things). Our visit was memorable for a bona fide encounter with a wild tiger in pursuit of its prey, something that is unusual in the working week of even an experienced psychiatrist.
The day started with music. I was unable to contemplate a month without a guitar, but I could not risk the destruction of one of my instruments at the hands of an airline. Instead, I bought an Indian guitar soon after we arrived. Although the shop owner assured me that it was a very good guitar, it is by far the worst instrument I have ever possessed. It is a Givson (sic). It has a truss rod cover but no truss rod, and whoever set the frets did not bother with intonation. I cannot really complain about it, as it only cost £35, but even this was a bit steep given the quality of the instrument. It is essentially unplayable using normal technique, but it sounds surprisingly good for slide guitar (it is said that cheap guitars with bad intonation was one of the things that led the early bluesmen to adopt slide playing a hundred years ago). I spent an hour or so recording a few songs on the veranda amid the ambient sounds, which included insects, motorbikes, a crow and some oxen. Meantime, Anne, who loves animals, wandered about with the binoculars and Catherine sketched. Some Bandipur blues can be heard here. Mid-afternoon a jeep arrived to take us to the ‘safari’.
The areas of the park close to the main road teem with wildlife, much of it unperturbed by the presence of large numbers of visitors. The macaques swagger about the safari reception area, bullying each other and those humans that are foolish enough to feed them in defiance of the notices. Wild boar rummage about peacefully, avoided by everyone as they are vectors for ticks that carry tick-borne encephalitis virus. We boarded an 18-seat safari vehicle and went off-road.
I have been on these safaris before. The discomfort is worth it. The vehicles are open-sided and very basic, like really big jeeps. The tracks they travel along are deeply pitted and in places very steep. The safari takes you from one watering hole to another, stopping to look at the animals, sometimes waiting for animals to appear. It was drizzling on this occasion, and everyone got a bit wet. I got very wet as a leak in the roof constantly dripped on my bald head, soaking my jacket and jumper. Catherine, ever in charge, had directed me to this seat and I gave the back of her dry head nasty and unheeded stares throughout the safari. The vehicle slewed and slid about in the mud, performing the occasional handbrake turn. We were all tossed about and it took all of my strength to avoid knocking my teeth out on the seat in front of me. The safari was like a fairground ride, but it felt more dangerous, more uncomfortable, a lot longer and a lot more fun.
The guides are highly knowledgeable, which is not surprising as they are academics from the University. They spot animals, entice them into the open with mating calls (not entirely a safe thing to do under the circumstance, you would have thought) and explain what you are seeing. We disturbed a family of elephants. We had a moderately exciting stand off with the male, who put on a display of aggression to get us to back off. We saw wild peacocks, serpent-eating eagles, kingfishers, large herds of deer and groups of Indian bison. The latter are not bison at all, they are cattle. In fact, they are the largest cattle in the world, absolutely huge but generally serene beasts.
It was almost dark, and we were close to road, when the guide spotted something in the undergrowth. “Tiger!” he said, and we all sat silent and breathless. The children had been well behaved throughout, but now showed amazing self-discipline as we sat waiting. Being a cynic, I was sceptical and suspected a bit of theatre. Then I heard a low growl, which was frankly scary. Suddenly there was a loud throaty cat cry, the noisy of smashing undergrowth and the thunder of stampeding bison. Twenty of these massive animals broke cover 10 yards from the vehicle, charging at us a full speed. It happened too quickly to be frightening, but I did expect the bus to be knocked over. They swerved, and regrouped behind the bus as the forest exploded into warning cries from monkeys and other potential tiger fodder. We sat and waited to see if the tiger would emerge for another crack at the bison, but it never appeared. So we did not actually see the tiger, but it was very close, we heard it and we saw its effect. This was very exciting. Professors Robinson and Poole showed a certain lack of breeding through a simultaneous and spontaneous vulgar expletive. Back at reception, the guide was extremely pleased. Word got round quickly, and on return to the lodge, the staff knew that we’d had an encounter with a tiger.
Of course the entire experience was a bit sanitised, but this is necessary for conservation in the twenty-first century. The tourist honeypot pays for the conservation work and it means that people do not pursue the wildlife in an ad hoc and destructive way. There are other parts of the national park that are far less accessible, where nature is more….natural.
Next morning the sun was out. Anne chatted with a lawyer from the neighbouring lodge. We had heard a lot of shouting from there, and it turned out that there was a large and very poisonous snake in their compound. Anne declined the offer to go and see it, despite her love of animals. Tomorrow, back to work. This morning, on impulse, I recorded ‘Monkey’, a song by the band Low that I’ve always liked. I had never sung it before. Here it is.