Eight hundred rupees in exchange for three hours on a game drive without any other tourists is a bargain I can’t miss. It’s just going to be me, Pradeep, my guide, a driver and – I am sure – at least a glimpse of one of Sariska’s twenty or so tigers. I wear my eagerness like make-up on my face as I climb into the open-topped jeep.
The afternoon is starting to think about dwindling into evening as we bounce along the road into the park. The sun hangs low enough over the trees for me to imagine I am sucking in its rays as I breathe. Everything is hot and damp. I am sitting in a pool of my own sweat, which a small cloud of tiny black flies is finding irritatingly attractive.
Strange bird sounds puncture the heavy air. Peacocks, I recognise. The rest I do not but I crane my neck as Pradeep points out birds I can scarcely see for leaves and branches.
Nilgai, with their elegant black and white socks, and stocky sambar have gathered to drink at a sandy-edged pond. Their ears flick from side-to-side, perhaps warding off flies, perhaps listening. A little further on, a herd of chital are browsing at the edge of a thicket. As I watch, some sound that I do not hear alarms them and they dive for cover, hoofed heels kicking out behind them. In an instant, their spotted bodies have melted away.
Then, the driver cuts the engine again, holds up a finger. We listen. Somewhere, quite close by, monkeys are exploding with angry fear.
“Could be tiger,” Pradeep says, “Or perhaps a leopard.”
We roll forward.
Soon, we come to rest on a sandy track, almost entirely overhung by trees.
Monkeys in the trees twitch with the hysterical hiccups that often follow a really good bout of fury. Whatever has upset them has gone because their attention is concentrated on each other.
“Look!” Pradeep gestures to the ground three feet from the jeep. There, pressed into the path, is a perfect tiger paw print.
The driver leaps from his seat and holds his hand a few inches above the print. He looks up and grins: a beautiful betel nut stained smile. “Big female,” he says. Then, he reaches down and picks up something that looks like a large knitting needle. It is a porcupine quill, unevenly banded in black and white. He hands it to me and one end is tapered to a very sharp point. At the other end, there is a hole, presumably gnawed by a rodent. Why, I cannot imagine.
I hold the porcupine quill almost reverently as we leave the park. It is my talisman.
The next morning, there are plenty of other people’s talismans around: small pieces of fluttering orange cloth and paper tied to the trees that edge the road up to the temple in the park’s centre. As we drive, we pass several people – pilgrims, Pradeep says, – who might have tied some of the scraps of cloth and paper. They walk through the park in twos or threes. Most of them are bare footed and none of them carries anything more than a stick.
The temple itself is coloured a faded pink. Steps lead up to its pillared entrance and Hindu script traces a path above the pillars. A cacophony stirs the treetops.
Hanuman langurs – holy monkeys – spill out all over the place. They hoover through piles of food laid out just for them; they dart over the temple’s roof; a baby seizes its mother’s pendulous black nipple; a slightly bigger baby tries to steal a handful of grain from an adult; and, everywhere, they bicker and joust.
Somewhere, a particularly noisy fracas rises above the sound of the crowd. One monkey, closely followed by another, breaks free from the mass of monkeys and hurtles forwards like a galloping race horse. It seems as if he is heading straight for me. I cannot imagine that he actually is but instinct turns me away anyway. For a moment, my back presents itself to him. And that is when he hits. Four heavy feet slam against my ribcage and a tail whips, briefly, around my waist. The monkey does not stop; he rebounds, using me to change direction and catapult him away from his pursuer.
He was bigger and heavier than he looked and perhaps I was lucky not to have fallen over but I don’t think about that. He may not be a tiger but he is a monkey.
I have felt the solid weight of a wild monkey. I am elated.