Letter from India: Tigers, Burning Bright
By Marc Kristal
We reach Bharatpur, where our magic bus is to be exchanged for an air-conditioned India Railway car. Bhowani explains that the drive to Ranthambore National Park is many hours long, while the train is relatively quick; the bus, bearing our bags, will rejoin us later that night. I am not wild about being separated from my suitcase, but Bhowani, with a look of faint amusement we all come to know well, assures us that it’s for the best.
The scene on the Bharatpur platform instantly validates his judgment. The train in the station (not ours) is packed so full that people hang out of the open doors, even as women carting multiple children and armloads of canvas bundles are stuffing themselves into the throng. The platform is no less congested, with families sprawled on the ground, naked children toddling unheeded toward the platform’s edge; a man with legs so crippled that he wears a single sneaker on one knee drags himself up and extends a hand. Cows and goats graze on the tracks. As the train starts to move, half a dozen young men leap off the platform and give chase, scrambling onto the last car and hanging off the sides: according to Bhowani, they’re only going one stop, and it’s worth the risk.
“Sixteen million people ride the trains every day,” he relates, and the mood, as it seems to be everywhere in India, is high-key; as we raise our cameras, the passengers, almost without exception, grin and wave.
Bhowani has mischievously informed us that our train will be even more crowded, but it proves similar to an older NJ Transit model and we arrive in Sawai Madhopur more or less on time. From there it is a short drive to the Oberoi Vanyavilas, a resort that, with its twenty acres of landscaped gardens threaded with water features and paths lush with bougainvillea, feels a bit like a hotel in Bel-Air or Beverly Hills. The difference is that, instead of bungalows, one finds 25 “luxury tents,” modeled on the ones that 19th-century shooting parties used to stay in, and quite irresistibly sybaritic.
Much as I would like to loll in my oversized bathtub, pretending I am Gary Cooper in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, the big attraction here is the park, which, among India’s 21 tiger preserves, has racked up the most recorded sightings. The hotel, like many of the 70 others that have materialized since the park was established in 1980, offers daily game drives, and the morning after our arrival, we set off in an open-top four-wheel-drive along Ranthambore’s rutted roads with a guide. There are seven different zones within the park, each with opportunities for game spotting; the guides search the sites where tigers typically congregate, listen for the distinctive war whoop-sound the sambar deer makes to warn other animals of a tiger’s presence, and exchange information regarding kills (a tiger will feed on a carcass for three or four days, alternating meals with trips to a nearby water source). We motor from point to point, pausing for long, still stretches to listen, scan the area with binoculars, and hope that the Royal Bengal we’ve spotted doesn’t turn out to be a tree stump.
Game drives can be a bit like longterm-relationship sex: brief moments of ecstasy interspersed with interminable interludes of waiting. But we almost immediately get lucky: with a handful of jeeps from other hotels, we converge on a promising spot – and within moments, a 14-year-old female the park stewards have named Machali steps out of the woods and, rather than avoiding the stunned, riveted humans with their snapping cameras, walks straight toward us in a wary but leisurely way, passing between the vehicles and within ten feet of us (briefly locking eyes with one of my traveling companions and giving her a memorable shock) before continuing on her way. None of us can quite believe what we’ve seen: the old lady is a star, and we have just been treated to an incomparable turn on the jungle catwalk.
Marc Kristal is an architecture, design and travel writer. Kristal, a contributing editor of Dwell and a former editor of AIA/J, and has written for The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Wallpaper, Surface, and numerous other publications. In 2003, he curated the exhibition ‘Absence Into Presence: The Art, Architecture and Design of Remembrance’ at Parsons School of Design, and in 2009 he was part of the project team that created the award-winning Greenwich South planning study for the Alliance for Downtown New York. His books include Re:Crafted: Interpretations of Craft in Contemporary Architecture and Interiors (2010) and Immaterial World: Transparency in Architecture (2011), both from The Monacelli Press. Also a screenwriter, Kristal wrote the film Torn Apart. He lives in New York.