The next day Jaya and I were up at 5 am. These early morning shoots were something we were quite used to when out of Delhi, and we were both very efficient about it. We could get ready in record time. Having a hot water kettle and coffee in the tent definitely helped! Jaya would get ready first and I’d get an extra ten minutes to lie about in bed.
It was still dark as we trudged to the machan. We set up the camera on the tripod and were recording a time lapse shot as the sun began to rise a little before 6 am. This meant fixing a still frame and then letting it record for a long duration. Later, during the editing, we would compress the half-hour shot of the sun gradually rising into a few seconds. It was always a nice shot to use in the final edit.
Being in a forest early in the morning is one of the most serene and meditative experiences. The first rays of the sun hit the trees, and birds begin their chirping, signalling the start of a new day. The chill of the night slowly dissipates as the warmth of the sun envelops the forest. For a few minutes, everything looks golden, almost ethereal. It’s a bonus when there are some fat clouds in the sky and the rays burst out from the sides. It’s good for the soul to catch a sunrise in the forest once in a while.
We got a great time lapse video of the sun rising over the hills with the grassland in the foreground. Jaya kept adjusting the exposure on the camera as it got brighter. There was a small herd of cheetals, or spotted deer, to one side of the grassland, and two sambars as well. Once the sun was up and our sunrise shot done, we began filming them. We heard footsteps coming up the steps of the machan and turned to see Devraj’s head appear. “Oh, good morning. I didn’t expect to find anyone here,” he said, as he climbed up the steps to the platform, camera in one hand and tripod in the other. We returned his “good morning” as he proceeded to set up. I was a little irritated at the interruption, though Jaya didn’t seem to mind.
“Any sightings of the young stag yet?” he asked, referring to the sambar we’d seen the previous day.
“No, he didn’t emerge,” replied Jaya. “But there are some cheetal and sambar females.”
“I see your friend from yesterday isn’t here,” he remarked, looking through his lens as he started clicking pictures. An unwarranted comment. I rolled my eyes at Jaya who just shrugged. We remained on the machan for another half hour or so, taking shots till it was much brighter. The herd of cheetal had moved on. Devraj ordered coffee for all of us from the kitchen as we waited around some more.
“Look there,” he said, pointing to the sky as he peered through his camera lens. I followed his gaze and could make out a bird flying in the distance, its silhouette against the bright blue sky. “It’s a crested serpent eagle,” he said as Jaya also fixed her lens on the bird. The bird cruised for a while above the grassland, surveying the ground below. Suddenly, it dove down, its wings folded back as it stooped towards its target. But whatever it had wanted to catch managed to escape and it took to the sky again, its wings spread wide as it soared away. We watched as the bird became a small dot on the horizon before disappearing from sight.
“It was probably after a snake or a rodent,” said Devraj, as he locked his tripod and sat back on a chair. “That was a nice dive. I managed to film it,” said Jaya, looking pleased. The attendant arrived just then with a tray of steaming coffee, the aroma wafting through the air as he carefully laid it out on the table. Jaya and I took a break as well. It was a nice morning, the warm sun, a gentle breeze carrying the smells of the moonjh grass, making the moment all the more pleasant. Alongside the coffee, there was a spread of three different types of cookies and vanilla muffins, all arranged on a platter. The cookies were clearly home-made, and the vanilla muffins looked fluffy and moist. As I eyed them, my stomach grumbled, and I realised I was feeling quite hungry. The freshly brewed coffee smelled divine as it was poured out, the rich aroma of the beans filling the machan.
“What’s the best sighting you’ve had from here?” asked Jaya as we took our first sips. He looked thoughtful for a moment and then replied. “I’ve actually seen a tiger chase a wild boar right here. And he managed to get him as well. Then dragged off the body into those trees on the left.”
“Oh, amazing!” said Jaya in awe, looking towards the grassland, almost willing a tiger to appear. “Did you manage to capture it on camera?” For us television people, seeing something spectacular was great, but if you didn’t manage to capture it on camera, well then, what was the point? We were a visual medium, after all. “Sadly I was having coffee just like this when it happened. I did film the boar being dragged off later, but I missed the chase,” he said with a laugh as Jaya choked on her coffee, quickly looking back out at the grassland.
“Damn. That must have been painful. That would have been a spectacular shot to get! What I wouldn’t give to see that,” I said wistfully. I genuinely felt sad that someone had missed filming a scene like that! “Yes it was.” He smiled back at me. “But what made it even worse was I had another photographer from Kenya visiting at the time. He was at his camera but didn’t film it. When I asked him why, he said he’d get it the ‘next time’. This time he just wanted to watch, and I’m quoting him here, ‘the drama and the beauty’ of the Indian jungle.”
“Oh my God. Why?” said Jaya, sounding pained at the thought.
“He was used to filming in the Maasai Mara, where something or the other is happening every other moment. A lion is hunting the wildebeest here or a cheetah chasing a gazelle there. I then had to explain to him that in Indian forests these sightings are not so common. And especially for it to happen right on our property was very rare.” Devraj shook his head wistfully at the memory. We were silent for some time. Jaya was probably thinking of the Kenyan photographer and the missed opportunity. I was thinking of Maasai Mara. On my bucket list. One day.
Excerpted with permission from Tiger Season: A Season of Stripes, Safaris, and Sparks, Gargi Rawat, Penguin India.