My reservations were growing by the minute, ‘Do you actually know where you are going?’ I asked the driver for the umpteenth time. ‘Yes, yes ma’am, no problem, this way, not long.’
Which would have sounded more convincing if this hadn’t been around the twentieth time that he had said it. For hours he had been crawling along at 15kms per hour, vacantly peering out of the windscreen, into the pitch black. I was utterly exhausted, the overnight flight followed by the constant disturbances on the overnight train hadn’t allowed for much sleep. In order to appease John, who had only very begrudgingly allowed this sabbatical, I had agreed to visit some of the other lodges around the park on my arrival, and send back a report. This had taken several hours and involved many polite conversations. To top it all I was coming down with man flu and it appeared that we were hopelessly lost, in the jungle, with the discovery that men, are men the world over, and simply won’t ask for directions. Not, to be fair, that there was anyone around to ask.
‘Look, we’re lost, can’t you at least call somebody?’ I implored.
‘No ma’am, no reception.’ The driver looked at me in the rear view mirror, held up the useless phone and shrugged, ‘No problem, just five minutes more.’ Of course, no reception, it was one of the reasons I was here wasn’t it, to be out of contact from the outside world? Only now, it didn’t seem like such a good idea.
I was feeling increasingly hopeless and wondered just what the hell I had been thinking. England hadn’t been that bad had it? Surely Yank would have divorced eventually? Maybe I had been a bit hasty, I mean, I did have a great job and a great house and I wasn’t getting any younger. A lot of people call me brave, I think bravery and stupidity are very closely linked and this was seeming a lot more like stupidity to me with every passing minute.
Just then, I saw a faint light up ahead. ‘Right, pull in there, by the light, there will be someone to ask,’ I insisted.
‘No ma’am, not right place, no problem ma’am, soon.’
‘There won’t be a ‘‘soon’’ if you don’t pull in by that light, pull in now!’’ I shouted, sounding increasingly like my mother, before succumbing to a fit of coughing.
The tone in my voice, fiercer than any tiger growl, made him comply and he drove through the make-shift gate. I got out of the car and a bemused looking night watchman took one look at me and went running off into the dark.
‘Great,’ I thought, ‘nothing like a friendly, helpful local when you need one.’ I was just considering whether to try and follow him when a booming voice come out of nowhere, ‘What all is this, who is here at this time?’
‘Err hi,’ I stammered, as a tall, swarthy looking gentleman, who looked to be in his late-fifties approached, eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. He had a cigarette in one hand and a glass of something or other in the other and despite gesticulating wildly as he spoke, he remarkably didn’t spill a drop. I took a step back. ‘Yes, I’m looking for Tiger Lodge but we’ve been….’
‘Ahhh, you must be Joanna,’ he cut in without waiting for me to finish my sentence, ‘I am Rajeev, you must have heard of me. Yes you are lost, Tiger Lodge is at the other side of the park, what has this idiot driver been doing? Anyway, not to worry, it’s late; stay here tonight and I will take you there in the morning.’
He turned to the night watchman. ‘Take her bags and put them in room one,’ and then to the driver, ‘You, go.’
I just stood there, frozen to the spot, utterly bamboozled. What? How did this guy know who I was? However, before I had time to consider it any further, in what seemed to be one swift movement, the car was unloaded, the driver disappeared and a third man appeared with a white towel on a tray with a large, full glass next to it. Rajeev made things happen, and quickly. I am not sure if it was the shock, but I meakly gave in, in anycase, to resist seemed futile, even if things hadn’t just happened so quickly and what other options did I have?
‘Right,’ he ordered, as I wiped the hours of grime and dust from my face with the towel, ‘Follow Uttam,’ and with that, a fourth man appeared from the shadows; where did they keep coming from?
‘He will take you to your room. Freshen up, and then come down to the camp fire and we’ll have dinner.’
Was this how hospitality worked here? Some rule of the jungle that you took in waifs and strays without question? Where had my car and driver gone? Rajeev? I must have heard of him? I racked my brain. He seemed genuine enough, in an overpowering, ‘Do as I say’ kind of way and then I remembered, of course. He was one of the local wildlife legends I had heard about; there are a few in the jungles of India but none quite on the same scale as Rajeev. It was starting to come back to me, a colleague had stayed at his lodge in Bandhavgarh. Rajeev has spent most of his adult life in one central Indian national park or another and was responsible for most of the wildlife documentaries that had been made here. I then also remembered that he was as notorious as he was renowned and his hospitality, by all accounts, legendary. I’m not sure my colleague ever fully recovered from his evening with him. At that moment, I knew I was in trouble.
But I didn’t have much choice, I was stuck here now, and so I followed Uttam through the detritus of the building site, with just the pale light from a kerosene lamp to guide me.
I was shown to a room which was a simply-furnished, temporary construction, with a mud floor, a camp bed and bedside table. Somehow a bucket of hot water, placed where it appeared the shower would eventually be, had made it ahead of me. I sighed, resigned, put down my drink, balanced the kerosene lamp that had been handed to me where it would have maximum effect, without burning the place down, and quickly had my first ever bucket bath. It was freezing. Well, the water was hot, but pouring it over your body yourself, from a small jug, whilst being exposed to the freezing air, isn’t conducive to keeping the rest of your body warm. I decided, as it was dark, and there was no one around that I had to impress, to skip washing my hair. Jess had been right, this was so SO not the luxury travel I had been used to.
Shivering uncontrollably, I dressed quickly in as many layers as I could find. I hadn’t realised just how cold the nights in the jungles would be. I still felt that I needed five minutes to warm up and to gather myself and so, rubbing my arms and legs to generate some warmth, I sat down on the camp bed. Just as I allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief, I started another bout of coughing and reached for the glass that had been delivered on the tray by the silent man who had followed Uttam and me to the room. I took a large gulp. OH MY GOD! The liquid hit the back of my throat and I swallowed on reflex only to experience what seemed to be third degree burns making their way down my throat and into my stomach. I felt my eyes bulging perilously as I fought to keep them in my head. Coughing and spluttering with such force that I fell off the bed and collapsed onto the mud floor I spent the next few seconds drawing agonised breath. What the hell had he served me, vodka and kerosene?
It took a few moments for me to regain my composure. With the realisation that the rumours regarding his hospitality were not unfounded, I picked myself up, dusted myself down and ventured warily outside. Uttam, was waiting to escort me to the dining hut. I peered at him through the dark, was my imagination or the shadows thrown by the lamp but was that a sly grin etched into his features? I tried to focus on clambering over and through the debris, unsuccessfully as it happened. I went flying over some unseen obstacle and as Uttam turned to help me, I realised that he definitely had a grin firmly in place, ‘’Mr Rajeev Sahib, big drinks no?’’
I didn’t trust my scorched vocal chords to strike anything other than a high pitched squeal, and so, keeping my breath a safe distance from the kerosene lamp, merely nodded, smiled politely and refrained from comment.
We reached the dining hut which was a circular structure, constructed of mud. The walls were just three feet high, the surrounding pillars held up the thatched roof and there was a very welcome fire crackling and blazing in the centre. Three chairs surrounded the fire, one occupied by Rajeev the other two empty, was someone else here? A bar was set up by the entrance, complete with ice bucket, sliced lemons and bottles of vodka and whiskey. Not bad for a building site in the middle of nowhere.
‘Ahh, there you are,’ bellowed Rajeev as I approached, ‘I was beginning to think you must have fallen asleep, feeling better? Good good, right then, another drink, what will you have, another vodka, whiskey perhaps? Food will be served in an hour or so, I hope you like non veg, we don’t do veg here. Right, vodka was it? UTTAM, ek aur vodka memsahib ki liye.’ (One more vodka for the lady)
It hadn’t been my imagination, and the rumours were not unfounded. This guy literally didn’t let you get a word in edgeways and I certainly couldn’t cope with another one of his vodkas. I started to panic. On my third attempt I finally made an inroad into his monologue, ‘’No really, Rajeev, thank you but I still have plenty left,’ my savaged vocals came out as a mere croak.
‘Drink up, drink up,’ he insisted, ‘you’re in the jungle now, UTTAM! Where is that boy?’
‘Leave her alone uncle,’ a smooth voice cut into our conversation. I turned to see a taller, younger and most definitely more handsome version of Rajeev smiling at me as he stepped into the dining hut, the reason for the extra chair. I couldn’t make out his features clearly in the dark but I was instantly captivated. My immediate thought was ‘Oh God, why hadn’t I washed my hair?’ Followed by, ‘Where did that come from? I don’t fancy Indians.’ This was crazy, but there was an inexplicable but very sexy aura about him and I immediately tried to ruffle up my grease laden mop so that it wasn’t stuck to my head. He, like his uncle, was also wearing a safari hat. This was obviously the way forward around here and I made a note to self.
‘Hi, I’m Abhishek,’ he introduced himself and held his hand out, ‘you must be Joanna.’
I accepted his hand shake, aware of its warmth in the cool night air and was just about to reply in the affirmative when Rajeev cut in, ‘Jo, this is my nephew, he has a lodge over in Bandhavgarh, you probably use it, Bandhavgarh Bagh.’ Turning to Abhishek, he asked, ‘Beer or whiskey?’
I used the distraction to extricate my hand, ‘A beer, thank you uncle,’ then turning back to me asked, ‘So, what are you drinking?’
‘I am not sure,’ I replied, aware that my voice was rasping, and hoping it sounded sexier that I felt, ‘I was just about to ask.’
‘’Vodka and tonic,’’ Rajeev responded, ‘bloody difficult to get tonic in these parts, we have to bring it in from Delhi, a three day round trip. We have to be quite frugal with it.’
No shit. Virtually neat vodka at the best of times is never a good idea, but the local brand vodka with virtually no tonic, was literally firewater.
Over the next two hours, I had a crash course in why Rajeev’s notoriety preceded him, as I sat and drank and listened and drank and listened and then listened some more. Doubtless he had fascinating stories to tell, a wealth of knowledge to impart and a generous pour on his vodka, if not his tonic, but I was beginning to realise that he really was not one to listen. The only lull in his monologue was when he was dragging on his cigarette, which was invariably lit from the previous one, or sipping on his neat whisky with ice. Thank goodness Abhishek was there. He was obviously used to his uncle and would grin at me periodically from under the brim of his hat during some of the many rants about the forest officials, park authorities, other lodge owners, you name it. His dark brown eyes twinkled in the firelight as he surreptitiously cast me the occasional wink.
To be fair, not having to think of conversation was a bonus, the combination of sleep deprivation, my advancing ‘flu, and three large drinks and my head was throbbing. I was also hot, really hot and I didn’t know whether it was a fever, the campfire or the proximity of Abhishek that was making me sweat.
Edging away from the fire, and Abhishek, who seemed to be edging towards me, I was beginning to despair that the evening would ever be over when the food was eventually served. Relief flooded through me. I knew enough about Indian culture, having learnt the hard way, to know that when the food was served, the end was in sight. It was delicious, I hadn’t realised how hungry I was and I managed the customary second helping proffered to me, in a futile attempt to soak up some of the alcohol and then sank back into the chair, barely able to keep my eyes open. Through my blurred, smoke fogged vision, I peeked at Abishek hoping that, despite the fact that I had barely managed to utter a word all evening, he would pick up on my cue and help me to escape to my room.
He did. ‘Now, now uncle,’ he cut into the conversation, ‘I think it’s time we let Jo go to bed, she looks exhausted.’
I shot to my feet, ‘Yes, thank you, it’s been a lovely evening, thank you, very kind, thank you so much.’ I was gushing in my eagerness to escape them both, though each for different reasons. Abhishek stood up, moved over to me and took my hand, rubbing his thumb lightly over the back of it. Shivers of pleasure ran up my spine.
‘The pleasure was all ours,’ he virtually crooned. ‘Uncle, have you arranged a hot water bag?’
‘No. Uttam, get a hot water bag for the madam,’ and then turning to me added, ‘he’ll just be a couple of minutes and then he will show you to your room.’
‘A hot water bag?’ I queried as, attempting to break the hold Abhishek had on my hand, I stumbled back against the wall.
Abhishek put a hand out to steady me, ‘Yes, what do you call them? Hot water bottles I think,’ and then, keeping his hand on my arm and looking directly into my eyes, ‘Are you sure you are ok?’
I nodded and gulped. My heart was palpitating and I knew there was nothing to blame it on but this man. This wasn’t right, I was meant to be heartbroken. Pulling away from him I turned towards Rajeev,
‘Right, yes, thanks once again, good night. Oh, erm, what is the plan for the morning?’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ boomed Rajeev, ‘we’ll leave you to sleep, have breakfast when you are up and about, no rush, and then I will run you up to Tiger Lodge.’
Nodding I said, ‘Great, thanks,’ and then, despite the fact that Abhishek was still too close for comfort I couldn’t resist asking, ‘Will you still be here?’
‘Probably not,’ he replied, ‘I have to head back to Bandhavgarh early, the lodge is full tomorrow so I need to be there for the arrivals.’
Was that a pang of disappointment I felt?
I nodded and tried to stifle my disappointment with a yawn, ‘Well, nice to meet you anyway.’
‘Listen, you’re exhausted, let me take you back to your room, Uttam will be a few minutes.’ I nodded and as we set off through the camp I was inordinately aware of his hand on my elbow, guiding me along.
‘So, how long will you be staying?’
‘I’m here for six months.’
‘Wow, that’s a long time, how come?’
‘Well, I got an email from Puneeta asking if I knew of anyone who would be interested and I had just split up with my boyfriend and it seemed like too good an opportunity to let slip by. I took a sabbatical and here I am.’
‘That’s brave. Didn’t your ex mind?’
Not wanting to get into the whole Yank saga I tried to brushed it off, ‘It’s not up to him, its over.’ We arrived at the room and I shot ahead to open the door, trying to make my escape. It was locked.
‘Here, allow me,’ and brandishing the key, Abishek brushed past me and unlocked the door.
‘There you go and good luck tomorrow, not that you’ll need it. Puneeta and Krishnan are lovely. You’re going to have a great time, Kanha’s an enchanting place and it can’t help but weave its magic on you,’
With that he leaned in towards me, brushed my hair back with his finger tips and gently kissed me on the cheek. Shocked, I stumbled back and he reached out to steady me again. I tried to move away but then remembered, the key and turned towards him. Moving forward to say goodnight, we misjudged our farewell and he ended up kissing me on the lips.
I melted for a couple of very pleasurable nano seconds and then came to my senses. Like a startled rabbit I shot into the room, barely managing to shout, ‘Goodnight!’ as I slammed the door behind me. I stood with my back against the inside of the door, heart racing, my hands were trembling as I fought to catch my breath. Oh My God! Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God. No, no, no, no, NO!
A knock caused me to jump and squeal, ‘Hello?’
‘Memsahib, hot water bag.’
It was Uttam, my relief was palpable. Gingerly I opened the door and peered around it, checking that he was alone. I grabbed the hot water bottle and the lamp which Abhishek must have left outside and slammed the door shut and bolted it.
Collapsing fully dressed onto the camp bed, I somehow managed to work the blankets out from under me and huddled into their meagre warmth. Oh God, no, that can’t have just happened. He can’t have just kissed me. Did he? It was so fleeting I could easily have imagined it. This was the last thing I needed, I was here to avoid men. It was obviously a mistake, it was meant to be a kiss on the cheek, I mean, that had to be it. I had chip-pan hair stuck to my head and talk about how to look like an idiot, barely said a word all night and then just kept on blurting out thanks like somebody half deranged. And yet I let him kiss me, well didn’t ‘let him’ but we somehow did. Did I really think he was good looking? Oh Goooood.’ I slunk down further under the blankets and groaned. This was turning into a nightmare! How could I have thought leaving London was a good idea?
I tortured myself, replaying the last part of the evening over and over again, until I finally found a way to apply logic to the situation, ‘It’s ok,’ I said to myself, ‘Tomorrow is a whole new day Abhishek works in Bandhavgarh which is a good six hour drive away, so I won’t see him again. Rajeev will take me to Tiger Lodge and I will finally be where I am meant to be.’ With that, I promptly passed out, not realising that I still had to encounter one last sample of how Rajeev had earned his notoriety.
To find out how: https://memsahibinindia.com/2019/11/17/the-book-girl-india-ch-5/