“Okay, kids listen up!” Mr Dambookwalla told us. “They say we should trek to the top of the hill as you get a panoramic view from there, and if there’s a tiger roaming around in the grasslands, it’ll be relatively easy to spot.”

I took one look at the hillock and my heart sank. There was no way I would be able to get up that with the class. On my own perhaps, given a whole day, but not now, I was already red and my heart was doing its rumble strip act. Mr Dambookwalla too realised that I might have a problem.

“Sodhi, do you think you could climb up the hill?” he asked.

“Given time, yes sir!”

“Hmm! Okay wait...” He went and spoke to the guard and the naturalist. Already I was feeling awful and very guilty. If they went up, he, the guard and the naturalist would have to go too. The guard for obvious reasons, the naturalist because he was the best spotter and of course Mr Dambookwalla, himself.

I raised my hand. “Sir, it’s okay, you go on ahead. I’ll just stay here in the machan and birdwatch.”

He looked at me doubtfully and the group too had started looking at me accusingly. I was screwing their chances of seeing a tiger...

“Sir, he shouldn’t have been allowed to come!” Mohit, a burly fellow in my class and bit of a bully, complained. “The jungle is no place for weaklings.”

“Yeah, it’s survival of the fittest.”

“Not deadbeats like him,” a foxy-looking girl called Tania said cattily and the group laughed.

Mr Dambookwalla fixed them with a look and had another discussion with the other two. At last, the naturalist, Mr Dutta, came up to me.

“Son, listen very carefully. We have decided to go ahead and I’m told you can’t do the climb. I want you to promise that you will stay here in the machan while we are gone. On no account are you to come down, for any reason whatsoever. Understood? We should take about an hour.”

“Yes, sir it’s okay. I’ve been on my own many times,” I said reassuringly. He still looked doubtful. Then one of the girls in the group, Shivya, raised her hand. She was in another section and I think a year senior. She was pretty hefty and her face was very pink.

“Sir, if you like I could stay behind with him,” she offered, as I stared at her, surprised. Her brown hair was sticking to her forehead, but she had a kind face and grey eyes. There were beads of perspiration on her upper lip. She seemed about as exhausted as I.

“Are you sure, my dear?” Mr Dambookwalla asked her. “This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spot a tiger. Mr Dutta says we have a very good chance.”

“I’m sure, sir,” Shivya said, looking at me. “It’s no problem.”

“Okay, then. Both of you stay put here. Do NOT come down. We should be back in an hour’s time.”

We had not been allowed to bring our mobiles with us because invariably some kid would leave it on and it would ring and spook the wildlife at a crucial juncture.

The group straggled away, up the hillock, being repeatedly told by Mr Dutta to keep silent. At last they disappeared from view and down at the machan a silence descended, punctuated only by the shrill song of the cicadas. I had my binoculars with me as well as a 10X magnifying Lupe. Shivya had a small point and shoot camera in her knapsack.

“Um...thanks, you didn’t have to stay, but thanks. What if they see the tiger?”

She grinned. “With the amount of noise they make, the tiger’s probably far away by now. But no problem, I know what it feels like to be left out – it’s not nice.”

“Oh,” I said surprised. “You mean even you are left by yourself?”

“Not me but my younger sister. You see, she can’t walk and most places are not wheelchair friendly. So usually I keep her company and wait with her.”

“You know,” I said, taking up my Thinker’s pose, “sometimes staying in one place is better than gallivanting all over the place...” A faint movement at the edge of the machan caught my eye, like a leaf moving back and forth in the breeze, only there was no breeze.

“Look, there’s a praying mantis on the creeper. It’s probably waiting for a bee or fly to go past.”

“Wow!” Shivya said, peering closely at it. “I would have never spotted it. Just look at its eyes, like huge bulbous peas made of glass.”

“It’s a chinless monster,” I said. “Do you know, a lady mantis eats her husband during their honeymoon!”

“What? You’re kidding me!”

I grinned. “It’s true; she tells him in a soppy voice, ‘I love you so much I could eat you’, and she does! I’ve seen it happen! She chomps off his head and then finishes off the rest of him.” For good measure I waggled my ears interrogatively.

Shivya giggled. “You’re so funny,” she said.

“Look at her,” I went on, “she’s like a beggar-woman sent by the devil; so humble and beseeching. But have you seen the barbs on her arms?”

“She is scary!”

A bee whirred past, perilously close. The mantis reached out and grabbed it, embracing it in her gin-trap arms. Shivya’s eyes widened with horror.

“Oh my god, she’s eating the poor thing alive!”

“Well,” I said, “we may not see a tiger hunt but we’ve seen a praying mantis do so.”

We turned our attention to the waterhole. A host of bulbuls and collared doves had come down to drink kept company by a party of lovely plum-headed parakeets. Then to our sheer delight, a couple of snowy-white paradise flycatchers with gorgeous tails did a brief dalliance over the water, snapping up flies and then vanishing.

“You know, I’m so glad I stayed behind with you,” Shivya said. She eyed me. “You seem to know a lot about nature and things.”

I shrugged modestly. “It’s funny! People who give birds their names are crazy. I mean, take the paradise flycatcher for example. Surely in paradise there ought to be no flies, so where’s the need for a flycatcher there?”

A peacock honked suddenly and the birds flew off en masse from the waterhole. I looked around warily, sweeping my binoculars along the edges of the waterhole. Then I froze: a face was peering out of the tangled high grass at the far end – a striped face with a pair of golden eyes. I tapped Shivya’s arm.

“Shivya, look,” I whispered, my mouth almost right in her ear. “At the far end...where the grasses are parting...” She gasped. The tiger had emerged from the foliage and was looking around balefully. Satisfied that the coast was clear it stepped out. To be followed by three tumbling cubs! I watched them through the binoculars, mesmerised.

The tigress had stepped into the water, though her cubs had stopped at the bank and were tentatively sticking their paws into it and then drawing them back and shaking them vigorously. Then I remembered Shivya again.

“Here, you take a look.” Without removing the strap from around my neck I offered her the bins. Our heads bumped as she took them from me.

“Oh my god, they’re so sweet,” she whispered enthralled, “I want to take them home!” I felt a surge of pride, as though I had been solely responsible for their presence here.

Jammed together, hot sweaty cheek against hot sweaty cheek, we took turns to watch the tiger family through the bins. I could feel a gentle damp breeze fanning my face which was good.

“We’re downwind of her,” I whispered, “that’s good, she won’t smell us!”

“Damn,” she whispered back, “I can’t take any pictures, my camera is in my rucksack at the other end of the machan. She’ll see me if I move and will hear the zipper.”

The tigress and her cubs frolicked around for fifteen or twenty minutes. The cubs had gathered up the courage to enter the shallows and were clambering all over their mom, yarring and playing king of the castle. Then suddenly the tigress raised her head and cocked her ears interrogatively. Unhesitatingly she got up and stalked back into the jungle, followed by her babies.

“Well, what do you know?” Shivya exclaimed exultantly. “I’m so, so glad I stayed back!” We exchanged high fives and suddenly she leaned forward and kissed my cheek! I must have gone scarlet: no girl had ever kissed me before.

“Thanks,” she said, “thanks so much!”

What Lies Between Two Hearts?

Excerpted with permission from What Lies Between Two Hearts?, Ranjit Lal, Speaking Tiger YA.