Sally and Mohan were waiting at the gate of Royal Wildlife Lodge as we pulled up in the Jeep. She was petite and elegant, with olive skin and shoulder length, dark wavy hair, cascading out from under a safari hat. She wore no make-up or jewellery other than a simple nose stud. Mohan was a short, rotund man sporting a moustache, the Indian male essential, and had a twinkle in his eye, it was impossible not to take to them immediately.
‘Hi, welcome. You must be Jo, I am Sally and this is Mohan. Puneeta has told us all about you. How brave you are coming out here to do this, but it will be great to have some company after these guys have left.’
Mohan was a keen wildlife aficionado and Sally worked with the local tribal populations of the area, the main ones, as Puneeta had told me being the Gonds and the Baigas. They had been running the lodge for six years. We entered the dining area, an open sided thatched roofed building, common in these parts and staff appeared to take our drinks order.
Puneeta and Sally ordered nimbu pannis and asked me if I would like the same but, sensing a co-conspirator Mohan said ‘Nonsense, nothing like a cold beer at the end of the day; Jo, you’ll join me won’t you?’ Who was I to decline? As we waited for the drinks, Mohan alerted me to a rustling in the trees.
‘Ah, just in time, hear that Jo? If you look up, you will see our resident flying squirrel. Same time every evening, he glides between the trees.’ I peered up into the Sal trees and saw it just as it prepared to launch itself and then flew, or more accurately, glided from its perch to the nearby Jamun tree, ‘Flying squirrels are notoriously hard to spot, being nocturnal but at dusk every evening this one does a solo performance for us.’
The drinks arrived. ‘So, what made you decide to leave London and come to Kanha?’ asked Sally.
‘I don’t know really. I mean, it wasn’t planned, I was just a bit fed up of London, and then Puneeta asked me if I knew of anyone who could help out for the season and I thought, “Why not me?” and so here I am and loving it.’
‘Just three weeks? Seriously? What did John have to say? He can’t have been happy that you were leaving Indian Experiences, and isn’t there anyone at home who would object?’
I was beginning to learn the art of Indian subtlety on a personal scale and Sally had obviously perfected it. This was where India was a paradox. On the one hand, complete strangers were happy to come up and ask you the most personal questions but, talking amongst friends, one quite often had to pick out a subtle hidden meaning in a sentence. This one was obviously, fishing to find out if I had a boyfriend.
Mohan was expertly pouring my beer and I watched the pale, golden liquid fill the glass, a crest of white bubbles forming on top, before replying. ‘Well, there is a guy I have been seeing for eighteen months or so but, well, it hasn’t been going too well recently and so this seemed like a great chance to get away and get some head space.’
‘Well, you should manage that here, there is plenty of time to think and not many opportunities to meet men either, Puneeta and I are two of the lucky ones.’
‘Oh, it’s not going as quietly as she thought, is it Jo?’ Puneeta grinned at me. I chose to remain silent, took a sip of beer and looked at her over the rim of my glass.
She continued, ‘A certain person seems to have taken a bit of a shine to Kanha’s latest arrival.’
‘Oh, who’s that?’ Mohan asked.
Puneeta was enjoying watching me squirm, I glared at her but she wasn’t about to be put off by that.
‘Oh you know, a certain camp owner from Bandhavgarh, who seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time in Kanha these days.’
‘That’s nothing, he’s not interested in me, he just wants to poach me to run his lodge.’ I tried to laugh it off.
‘I think he wants more than just to have you run his lodge,’ said Puneeta.
‘This wouldn’t be our semi-resident, infamous womaniser would it?’ asked Sally. ‘If so, you need to be careful, he has a bit of a reputation, especially with the foreign ladies.’
‘So I’ve heard, and in any case I’ve enough to sort out with Burke, I don’t need any more complications.’
‘Well,’ added Sally, ‘to be fair, you shouldn’t be too hard on him, he isn’t really the love them and leave them type, he has had his heart broken too. He was with Margot for a couple of years and seemed very happy but then she decided she couldn’t live in the jungle and just upped and left.’
I was intrigued but couldn’t afford to go there and so I decided to change the subject.
‘So, how long have you been here, and how did you two meet?’
‘I came out to do a season just like you and Mohan was the naturalist at the lodge I was working at. Fortunately his parents aren’t too traditional and so agreed to a love marriage. As we live out here, we don’t get the agro from certain circles so spending our lives living in the relative isolation of the jungle together works perfectly.’ Said Sally.
‘Yes,’ growled Mohan, good humouredly ‘Here, I can be out in the park for 10 hours a day, and then in the evenings she entertains the guests, so we only have to see each other between 10 pm and 5 am, its ideal. It’s the off season when the park is closed and I can’t get away from her nagging that the trouble starts, these foreigners have funny ideas about wanting to spend time together.’
We all laughed as Sally shook her head and rolled her eyes good naturedly.
‘So, will you be here until the end of the season?’ he asked.
‘That’s the plan, Krishnan will have to leave around the beginning of Feb at the latest so I will stay until the end and close up.’
‘And then what?’
‘Honestly? I have no idea, I haven’t thought that far ahead. I am meant to go back to London, I only took a six month sabbatical, but I can already see that I won’t really want to do that. So, I guess I’ll see what happens nearer the time. There is too much to take in here first, no point in wishing time away!’
‘True, true.’ Nodded Mohan. ‘Now then, a top up Jo?’
I glanced at Puneeta and raised my eyebrows, giving an unspoken, message that hopefully this wasn’t going to be another Rajeev style encounter.
Picking up on it immediately she said, ‘Oh no, you’re fine, have another.’ And with that she regaled them with my arrival story. I could already see that this was going to become a familiar tale told in these parts.
Mohan guffawed and banged the table, causing all the drinks to jump. ‘Excellent, excellent! Forewarned is forearmed and you weren’t, talk about being thrown right in at the deep end!’
I nodded. ‘You can say that again.’
Mohan continued ‘He really is a great guy, but yes, get caught unawares and you can end up with quite a sore head. I usually only go and visit if I know we have no clients to take on safari the next day.’
‘That sounds sensible.’ I agreed, and lifted my glass to cheers Mohan.
‘His wife, Joylet, is charming, really lovely but she doesn’t spend much time here as she has her own conservation projects and charities to run based out of Delhi and so I think he gets a bit lonely,’ added Sally. ‘We should make an effort to invite them both over or go and visit when she is here, she is an amazing lady and she can tell you about the work she does with the railway children, its commendable, and somehow she manages to keep him in check, so it’s easier to visit when she is around.’
‘Pah,’ said Mohan, ‘He is more fun when she isn’t around, I’ll take you up one night Jo, there’s not much that can compare with London nightlife here and it’s fun to let loose once in a while.’
Puneeta and Sally raised their eyebrows, ‘Good luck with that,’ they said in unison.
Thanks, but once bitten, twice shy, I would like to meet Joylet though.’
‘Done!’ Exclaimed Mohan, ‘Sally will coordinate, won’t you dear?’
‘Yes dear, of course dear’ she replied, winking at me. ‘Oh and speaking of heading in that direction, I picked up some emails for you earlier Puneeta.’ And with that she asked one of the boys to bring her a set of papers. ‘I wrote down most of the bookings but there were a couple I printed, actually there is one for you Jo.’ They often checked each other’s emails if someone was going to town. She handed over a sheet of paper. They were all so conscious about recycling that printing a whole set of emails wasn’t their style.
‘Oh, thanks.’ I glanced down at it, it was an email from Burke sent a couple of days earlier.
How’s it going? I got your mail and would love come and see for myself what havoc you are causing in the jungle, you crazy chick. I can’t take much time out as I have to go with Sandy to America but I should have a couple of weeks before I do so. Will let you know dates as soon as I have them. Love you.
The bloody audacity! So typical of him not to apologise and what part of we had split up didn’t he get? A. He wasn’t invited and b. Throwing his wife into the mix as if I had accepted the situation and not buggered off to the jungle to get away from it!
Puneeta caught my expression. ‘Is everything okay?’
‘I don’t know really. It’s an E-mail from Burke, saying he may come and visit. I’m not sure how I feel about that.’
Sally looked puzzled, ‘Oh, why not?’
I sighed and shrugged.
Sally looked concerned, ‘Sorry, I didn’t meant to pry, you, don’t have to tell us.’
‘No, that’s ok, it’s just, well, I recently found out he is married, not divorced which is what he had originally told me and so technically, we have split up, on my instigation. They have been separated, I mean all the time we were together but now she has come back he says it’s not to get back together but who knows? That was all going on when I got the email from Puneeta and figured being out here would give me the chance to sort my head out.’
‘Absolutely, what a toad! You poor thing.’
I shrugged. ‘Yes, that seems to be the general consensus. We actually get on brilliantly, and he is great, but to be honest, I never thought I was completely in love with him but, what is love really, isn’t a great companion better than the thunderbolt? I have been there and done that, which was also a disaster.’
Sally nodded sympathetically. ‘Right, I see, tricky.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed reaching for my glass, ‘tricky is a good word for it. Anyway, that’s enough of that.’
Over dinner Sally told me a little about the tribes of the area and the work she does with them.
‘There are two main tribes in Madhya Pradesh. The Baigas are traditionally subsistence dwellers who live off the land but won’t even dig it. They are hunter gatherers and now, with much of the forests being designated national parks, they are struggling to exist in their traditional ways. It is such a shame as we can learn so much from them, they understand the land and the animals, the benefits of the plants and traditional herbal recipes and remedies.’
Puneeta looked at me, ‘Mahsingh is a Baiga,’ and I nodded in understanding. A couple of weeks earlier, not watching what I was doing, I had caught my arm on nail sticking out of a piece of wood in the wall of the office and gouged a deep and nasty cut on my forearm. I was cleaning it in the sink outside the kitchen when Mahsingh had strolled over, stopped to look at what I was doing, nodded at me and walked off. I had just shrugged and carried on with what I was doing.
A couple of hours later, Puneeta and I were sitting on the balcony, my arm had just about stopped bleeding and we were discussing how severe the scar would be, when he reappeared with a bowl containing a yellow paste. He indicated that I apply this to the cut, which I did. Ten days later, the wound had healed completely with barely a scar. The magic treatment had been what he called ‘haldi’ root or turmeric which has been known for centuries by these tribes to be a natural antiseptic and to speed up the healing of wounds.
Sally continued, ‘They are also animists and instead of worshipping gods and goddesses like most people of India, they worship elements such as fire, earth, water, air and the hills, and a lot of their worship and sacrifices come in the form of alcohol and domestic animals. They are struggling now with having to remain in one place and with modern inventions such as plastic and littering which causes huge problem so we are working to educate them against it. Plastic is such a curse, clogging up the countryside, creating pools of stagnant water which are breeding grounds for mosquitos, the incidences of malaria have increased considerably since it was introduced.’
The sound of a vehicle’s wheels crunching on the driveway followed by the slamming of a car door distracted us. A few seconds later Abishek walked into the dining area. I felt my face heat up and thanked the lord and all the 300,000 Indian gods, and threw in the hills and trees too, that the evenings were spent in semi darkness with only dim and flickering light from the campfire or kerosene lamps to illuminate obvious embarrassment.
Sally nudged me and then stood to greet him, ‘Abishek, this is a surprise.’ She said whilst Puneeta looked sideways at me, ‘What brings you here?’
‘I’ve been trying to tie up my land negotiations, I’m looking at a plot here and it finished quite late and so I thought I would call in and say hello on the way back to Uncle’s.’
‘How lovely. Have you eaten?’
‘No, but please don’t worry, I can eat when I get back.’
‘Nonsense, nonsense, we were just about to order some snacks, now where is Ravi?’
‘Great, great, it’s turning into quite a party’ grinned Mohan, ‘what’ll you have, beer or whiskey?’
‘Beer, thanks. Jo, Puneeta, now the surprise is all mine, a pleasant one of course.’
‘Puneeta just brought Jo across to meet us, well I know she has seen Mohan in the park but to meet us properly.’
‘Well, it’s good to get to know the neighbours.’ He smiled at me for a little longer than was strictly necessary, a fact which the others noted.
‘I was just telling Jo about the Baigas and Gonds when you arrived.’
Puneeta interjected. ‘Yes, we also try to encourage our guests to visit the tribal market at Surekha rather than go on safari. It’s quite a tough sell, but it’s good to encourage all round activities in the area rather than just focus on the tiger. I know that is why the majority of people come here, but the poor animals do get hounded and we try and teach our clients a little about the impact of tourism to the national parks and the locals and the environment too, without being too preachy of course.’
‘That’s a really good idea,’ said Abishek, ‘What day is that?’
‘Every Friday; we usually send the guests after lunch and then they have a picnic on the way back at the river crossing. The ones who go, really enjoy it.’
‘Friday? That’s the day after, right?’ This was a classic Indianism, the day after meaning the day after tomorrow. ‘I am still here then, I don’t go back to Bandhavgarh until Saturday. I might go and check it out. If you haven’t been, Jo, why don’t you come with me?’ And then without waiting for my answer, which was handy as I seemed to have lost my power of speech, he turned to Puneeta, ‘Is she free on Friday?’
I ventured a glance beyond the rim of my glass, where my eyes had been focused for several seconds. Never before had eyebrows had such an intense work out and not so covert glances were flying around the table faster than lasers in a London night club.
Sally nudged her and nodded, ‘Yes, yes, of course,’ Puneeta was delighted, ‘There’s nothing pressing at camp and we’ve been saying for a couple of weeks now that she should go. What a good idea.’
‘Great, great.’ Nodded Mohan, ‘The market, good idea. Now, what’s this about land?’
I looked from Sally to Puneeta, ‘Why don’t you come too, if you guys know your way around?’ I almost implored, feeling a mild sense of panic and not wanting to be involved in the kind of set up I had just left London to escape.
‘Not at all,’ replied Sally, ‘I have friends coming from Nagpur on Friday, and Puneeta, didn’t you say you wanted to catch up with them?’
‘Yes, absolutely, it’s been ages since I have seen them.’
I looked at them through narrowed eyes and wanted to ask just who were these mystery, nameless people who I was sure had just been conveniently conjured up.
‘So, Friday it is then’, confirmed Puneeta, looking terribly pleased with herself.
‘Excellent’ said Abishek, trying but failing to catch my gaze. ‘I’ll pick you up around two o’clock.’ And with that, he turned to Mohan to discuss the trials of his land purchase.
I glared at Puneeta who was sharing a conspiratorial smile with Sally.
‘Now now, don’t be like that, you could do with cheering up, and what better way than an afternoon in the afternoon of a handsome man?’ She whispered.
‘Not a ladies man, please!’ I implored.
Sally looked at me, ‘Seriously, he’s not as bad as I am sure Puneeta made him sound, like I said, he’s also had some bad luck, anyway, it’s a market visit, where’s the harm?’
I nodded and forced a smile, it seemed that there was to be no getting out of it and let’s face it, they were right, there were worse people to spend the afternoon with.
If you would like to read on: https://memsahibinindia.com/2020/02/02/the-book-chapter-10/