Back in the old days, the Indians knew they were on to a good thing when they turned a certain age and decided to renounce the world and head for the forest. So when a friend turned that golden age, she decided, in a token gesture, to at least do a jungle recce, but denial was not an option for she had that ultimate accessory — a toy-boy spouse.
But eye-candy and youth isn’t aphrodisiac enough unless you can also show it off as an accessory, so she turned her trip to the forest into a pilgrimage for friends old and new. Ordering a bunch of us into compliance, we found ourselves at Nizamuddin station, clutching on to our toothbrushes as we prepared to board the night train to tiger country, Ranthambhore.
“I’m going right to sleep,” I’d told my wife earlier that evening, for it had been a rough week at work, and I fully intended to catch up on my forty winks. If ours had been a cow-belt group, you might have expected some degree of bonhomie in the form of antakshri, but this was a bunch of paper intellectuals from the land of Rabindrasangeet, surely they’d be fast asleep before the train left the station?
But showing an innovation markedly missing from the state in which Mamata Banerjee has swung to power with her slogan of ma, maati, manush, the motley bunch added another “m” to that heady mix — madh, intoxication. An entire cabin was emptied of all but a few essential bags and cartons that contained single malt and scotch, vodka, gin, rum, barely enough water but plenty of tonic water, beer, bitters and ice. I was told that a friendly agreement and the passing of a packet between a certain official in a black coat and our host allowed the bar to operate in some excess, the consumption and commensurate revels halting only when a very drunk group found itself stumbling out in the very early morning for the start of its jungle safari.
I hadn’t managed any of the sleep I’d hoped for, and now it didn’t seem any had been planned for. Any suggestions of a post-breakfast siesta were put to rest because the bhadralok wanted their elevenses consisting chiefly of Absolut and Schweppes, which was arranged with the help of child labour for preparing and circulating the potent brew. At least, I hoped, our afternoon safari to the jungle would provide a break from the libations.
Just how out of touch scribes and urbanites are from the realities of life was brought home on that safari when a few wondered aloud about the point of going into a forest that wasn’t air-conditioned. An open-air “canter” and the absence of any tiger on our trail seemed to have enhanced their thirst, for they were soon urging the guide as well as the driver to head back for the resort and refreshments. That night, at the birthday celebrations organised by the poolside, I am happy to report that by some luck no one actually drowned in the pool — though it was a close thing.
The next day was a repeat of the first, the journey back had a sense of déjà-vu, and summing up a list of things we’d done while away, I reported to my children, “I saw one guest eat four helpings at dinner, there were 29 guests and 63 empties, which could be why one lady performed a floor show that will likely embarrass her when it appears on YouTube, and watching the men dance,” I reasoned, “is probably the reason no one wants to retire to the jungles any more.”