Having spent time critiquing films and being an avid reader of thrillers, I have often wondered — not without apprehension — why Bollywood has not picked up the formula of “tiger-poaching-dashing, forest officer-dazzling-reporter”. To my mind, this combination makes for a perfect or imperfect potboiler, depending on which way you look at it. So it is surprising that when this masala formula finally makes it to the popular media, albeit in print rather than screen, it is via a bureaucrat. The author, an Indian Administrative Services officer, pens a fast-paced thriller based in Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha Tiger Reserve, though it travels on to assorted exotic locales — from ancient Amarkantak, source of the holy Narmada, to fast-paced Mumbai, Myanmar, Kalimantan and China and the US. But I hasten to add that the book comes as a pleasant surprise, for not only is it a good, racy read, but it also quelled my apprehensions, given the potential for such a plot to go awry or lack the finesse and sensitivity that the subject requires. The author, a first-time novelist, credibly weaves fiction out of what unfortunately is a fact: the poaching of tigers, the booming market for their skin and bones, the international wildlife crime cartel, the sorry fate of committed bureaucracy and so on. Chandra was based in Jabalpur in the vicinity of Kanha in Madhya Pradesh around 2006, which was also the time when poaching — indeed, the local extinction of tigers — was very much in the news.
Piqued and concerned about what was happening, Chandra took the unusual route of writing a fictional story based on fact. There are several excellent non-fiction books on the tiger, but few works of fiction come to mind, though I must mention the outstanding The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival based in the Russian Far East by John Vaillant. Just as some Homo sapiens are more famous than others, so are some tigers, and those of us who follow tigers know the turmoil the loss of such a cat entails. Chandra picks up on the disappearance of the famous (and fictional) tigress, Burree Mada, as his trigger for Scent of a Game, with the plot drawing in a high-flying NRI from Silicon Valley, his ageing, principled father in Amarkantak, a glamorous reporter, an expert trapper, a headstrong, committed forest officer and a local maharaja who is also a wildlife filmmaker.