Perhaps we forgive beauty everything. Tigers are creatures of grace. On padded paws, they glide through the jungle with an exquisite elegance. But these greatest of cats, larger and far more powerful than lions, have another reputation – as man‑eaters, felling their victims with a single swipe of the paw.
Happy Singh was on his feet, both thrilled and horrified. “Suddenly in the lane, tiger is there,” Singh was saying. Beyond our circle of firelight, the night was dark and moonless. “I am walking, so not a laughing matter. The tiger crosses in front of me. I feel all the hairs on my body, they are standing up.” Singh’s face shone in the light of the flames. “You are never knowing when a tiger attacks,” he said, sitting down again. He made an explosive noise like a firecracker. “Phweet. Tigers are killing you in an instant. And then they eat just one thing” – he pointed to his groin – “the private parts”. A collective shudder went through the group and Singh poured everyone another couple of fingers of whisky. Somewhere, far beyond our circle of light, an elephant was trumpeting.
I had come to look for tigers in Dudhwa, a tiger reserve in the extreme north of India. And for a time, it seemed that Singh’s stories were as close as I would get. If Dudhwa is one of the least known of India’s tiger reserves, it may be partly because accommodation options have historically been limited. But that changed last December, when The Ultimate Travelling Camp opened Jaagir Lodge. Ultimate specialises in bringing comfort to some of India’s remoter corners, from Nagaland in the east to the Nubra Valley in Ladakh, in the form of high-end safari camps. Jaagir is its first fixed bricks-and-mortar offering – a gloriously retro former hunting lodge in the remote Terai, hard by the Nepal border, and now one of the finest game lodges in India.
A mysterious region of forests and river plains to the south of the Himalayan foothills, the Terai was deemed all but ungovernable by the British. Its jungles offered sanctuary to renegade princes and rebels, refugees and dacoits, and cover to a wealth of wildlife, including elephants, rhinos and tigers. After Paritition, the Indian Terai was settled by hard-working Sikhs who had fled Pakistan. As they cleared stretches of jungle and planted sugar cane, the area came on the radar of conservationists who set up an arc of preserved habitats, a collection of forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries that together form the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Here the old atmosphere of the Terai forests and wetlands lingers – remote, eerie, unsettling. In the midst of the sanctuaries, down a lonely back road not far from the village of Palia, is Jaagir Lodge.
I had driven up from Lucknow, a four-and-a-half hour run, arriving at night in the fog, so that the whole place – the curving drive, the lanterns among the trees, the stately palms at the approach to the house, the lighted windows – seemed spectral and unreal. Getting down from the car, I was ushered into an old-fashioned drawing room to be served ginger tea. Jaagir Lodge comes with an entire Downton Abbey’s worth of friendly staff. Chief among them was my butler, the inimitable Sameer Kuwar, the Jeeves of Jaagir, the kind of intelligent, efficient, upright chap who would make any guest – let alone one as shambolic as your present correspondent – feel like a bumbling Bertie Wooster. Kuwar kept me right about everything from attire to dinner choices – “I think sir might prefer the salmon” or “perhaps sir would do well today to bring a hat”.
There was something strangely familiar about Jaagir, something comforting. And then I realised: I had known houses like this as a child, gracious and almost Edwardian, with their substantial furniture, their four-poster beds and their oriental rugs on acres of waxed wooden floors, their nooks and crannies full of chests from Zanzibar and gods from India. Through my whole time at the lodge, I kept expecting my great-aunt Sophia, dead for 40 years, to show up, appearing from behind a bookcase, to reprimand me for not finishing my peas at lunch.
In the beginning, tigers belonged to the bestiaries of the imagination, drifting through legend and poetry. As late as the Renaissance, it was still believed that all tigers were female and they procreated by copulating with the wind. They came to symbolise some savage and dark force of nature. Yet often when we think of them, we weave a romance; we imagine them out there in the dark, eyes shining, padding through the moonlight, crouching by a forest pool to drink, an image in a fairy tale. In Indian parks, we listen faithfully to our guides as they warn us that it should not be just about tigers, that we shouldn’t focus on the big cat to the exclusion of all else. At Dudhwa, where there was plenty of all else, I tried to forget about tigers, though I knew they might be only metres away – so they say – watching me as I raised my binoculars to admire the grey hornbills.
Days in the Terai had a dream-like quality. The early mornings were misty. Wrapped in woollen ponchos in the safari jeep, we seemed to be afloat in clouds. Here and there, in the pre-dawn, lights swam out of the mists, and sometimes the yellow lick of a fire surrounded by huddled figures. Along the empty lanes of the wildlife sanctuaries of Kishanpur, Katarniaghat and Pilibhit, the forests were ghostly. Spotted deer materialised between the slender sal trunks. Troops of macaques suddenly arrived, noisy and inquisitive, invading the Indian blueberry trees, then just as suddenly melting away again through the high branches. A jackal trotted past without looking up, intent on jackal business. Termite mounds, crenellated like castles, rose among the trees. In a deep aisle of silk cotton trees, a huge porcupine lumbered away, its needles swaying like a ballgown.
Early one morning, we climbed aboard elephants to track Indian rhinos, the mahout seated above the great head, urging the tusker forward with his bare feet. Blundering through undergrowth, we found a young male, hunkered in the mists. Late one afternoon we took a boat on the Girwa River, one of the headwaters of the Ganges, to see the river dolphins surfacing and to admire the extraordinary gharials, a rare crocodilian with a long snout – there are barely 200 left in the wild – basking on the sandbanks a few metres from the boat.
Once the mist had melted away, a delicate dappled sunlight filled the forests. Birds flashed between the trees, their names as glamorous as their markings: the flameback woodpecker, the racquet-tailed drongo, the paradise flycatcher, the red-whiskered bulbul, the black-hooded oriole, the emerald dove. In Kheri, we spotted a Burmese python, as thick and long as a tree trunk, sliding through the grass in serpentine slow motion. On the edge of a lake, where dozens of ducks chased one another across the silver surface, we came upon a herd of rare swamp deer, the elusive barasingha, standing in pools of mist. As one, they pivoted their heads to look at us, raising aloft magnificent 12-pointed antlers like trophies.
So it wasn’t just about tigers – but they were rarely far from our thoughts. At a forest crossroads, we stopped to examine prints in the soft earth. Probably last night, my guide said, a big male making its way towards the lake. The crossroads was named after SD Singh, a ranger who been killed here by a tiger in 1985; he had been patrolling on a motorbike. In the battle to protect the tiger in India, in which SD Singh had been on the front line, the tigers’ habit of eating people is a serious obstacle. There are no reliable numbers for tiger deaths. Government figures list 21 in 2017, but wildlife experts view this as a dramatic underestimate. Dudhwa seems to have more than its fair share of man-eaters, accounting for more than half of the government figure. The latest fatality had been only the previous month, a boy of 17 cutting grass for thatch in the forests. (At least it was the latest, until news came in during my trip of a woman who had been killed the previous day.) It’s probably as well to point out that visitors in safari jeeps are in no real danger. Some of the cats can become quite keen on stray people on foot, but tigers don’t attack vehicles.
One evening on our way back to the lodge for dinner at eight, we met the aforementioned Happy Singh, a friend of the guide. Making the rounds of his field workers, he materialised out of the evening as silently as a leopard and invited us home for cocktails. Singh’s father had been one of the Sikh pioneers to the Terai who had come to carve farms out of the jungle 70 years ago. His brother and sister had emigrated to Michigan and California – seen as great advancement by his family – but he had proudly remained here. He showed me around his barns, where I admired eight cows, two buffaloes, a motorcycle and a dairyman asleep on a rope bed. Then we sat outside next to a roaring fire while Singh plied us with ripe dates, aged whisky and amusing stories.
There was the time he and a ranger had been chased by an enormous tusker; the time they needed to frighten off two invading elephants with firecrackers; the time a tiger took a buffalo tethered in his yard and dragged it off into the jungle. Happy Singh was well named – he treated everything as an elaborate joke. The foibles of the staff who run the park and the forest sanctuaries were a particular source of hilarity.
“Listen,” he said suddenly, putting his fingers to his lips. “Do you hear that? Silence. You will not hear that in Michigan.” A moment later, in that great void of silence, there was a distant sound like faint snoring. “And that… leopard.” Then he laughed. “Have another whisky.”
Eventually we managed to escape Happy’s happy hospitality, poured ourselves back in the jeep and set off down the back roads for Jaagir through a thick night fog. We seemed to be feeling our way through clouds. The ghosts of trees loomed over the road.
And then, when least expected, when we had long since ceased to look, when it seemed an absurdly impossible moment, a tiger appeared. Not so much appeared as materialised, standing in the middle of the lane, swathed in fog, as substantial as a mirage. The guide stopped the jeep. The tiger gazed at us, eyes burning bright. And then, almost with a deliberate show of insouciance, he turned his head slowly away and strolled into the long grass beside the road, disappearing from view. It was only then I realised I was holding my breath, and my heart was pounding.
Back at the lodge, “Jeeves” was waiting. “Something of a delay on the way home, sir?” he asked. Even I noticed his slightly arched left eyebrow. “Tiger,” I sputtered, as he helped me down from the jeep. “Yes, sir. Of course,” he said. “Tiger indeed. Shall I have dinner sent up to the room, sir? That might be easier. Not so many staircases to negotiate.” He smiled his butler smile. “I am sure we will be right as rain in the morning, sir.”