With Love, from Jim Corbett
Dear 28-year-old me,
We haven’t hung out in a while. At 68, I could blame the knees, but really it’s the foggy brain that seems to be always leaking out of things to remember. And by that I don’t mean bulbs that need fixing or the names of people in pop videos (Did Robbie Williams complain about rogue feelings while riding a horse, or was that Rob Thomas?); you were always terrible with those. The things I resent not being able to recall are far more important—the shine and scruff on that golden eagle you’d spotted in the Himalayas; the clean smell of that men’s perfume you were always nicking from Baba. So consider me surprised, when I settled in for a nap this afternoon and dreamt of Corbett, circa 2018. It was so vivid, so glowing down to the last detail, I thought I’d write it down.
Even in the dream I could tell, it was winter. I don’t recall if it was late November or early December that you’d made the trip to Uttarakhand, just that you’d been in some sort of a mind funk. Must have been one of your incorrigible half-heartbreaks. But you didn’t know how much you needed that trip till you found yourself standing in the reception of that marigold-rinked resort by the Kosi river. The Riverview Retreat, wasn’t it? You, traipsing around, ready to call the tan-roofed rooms, the columns and walls in ivory, sap green and powder blues your home for the weekend. Mouthfuls of hot gahath ke daal and a pure night’s sleep away from your maiden safari in the Jim Corbett National Park, the twitter of flycatchers had already launched you into the heart of wild. It’s strange that I remember the exact moment you let the downy bed capsize your body, dulled by the day’s travel—the ball in your throat from silly boy-tears dissolving like the sun would over the Ramganga river the next morning. “Kosi and Ramganga are the two rivers that water Corbett; Corbett has four zones, 500 species of migratory birds and the largest number of royal Bengal tigers in India”—your brain regurgitated the facts and figures it’d picked up from the resort manager earlier that night. Until the ibisbill, a winter guest of the sanctuary that you’d been picturing with eyes closed, cast you asleep with one large swoop of its ash wings.
Turns out, the next part is what stands out the clearest after all these years. Who’d have thought at the time, what sparkling clarity of head and heart the chaos of the forest can bring. But like so many other things (how to keep your plants alive; how to dye a t-shirt rainbow), you’d learn this too. Under the sleeves of your jacket, the watch hands rested at 6-something a.m. The wild reaches of the Bijrani zone were bathed in clean, cold rays. Inside the safari jeep, the same dirty green as the sal and khair trees hurrying past, your nerves had synced themselves to every rustle and crunch on the forest floor.
Then a low, rumbling growl. Then, a stripy ochre silhouette. Then, bolting through clumps of jacarandas, the first sighting of the day—a Bengal tiger. Oh, how your stomach had frog-leaped to your mouth, how you’d clutched onto your camera. Of course, the big cat was too nimble for your lens, but that did nothing to stop you from clicking away madly.
The amateur shots that failed to seize the beautiful beast, froze other frames of the forest just fine. Spotted deer that gazed deeper into the soul than Christ; the yellow-throated marten that reminded you of your cat with its banner-straight tail; peacocks roaming riverbeds in their shiny plume costume; scratching monkeys on chir pines, kissing monkeys on boughs of the hardy Indian rosewood; bulbuls, thrushes and jungle warblers flitting in and out of jamun trees. I wonder what you did with the photos, if you ever bothered to get backups, you tech-disaster. Also, what do you think Deepika Padukone is doing these days? Do you remember looking at the swaying, sunlit grasses in between coniferous groves, thinking they must be as tall as her? Driving out of the forest, with the last two hours of your life chasing you like wind in your hair (not one of them silver, imagine), you’d felt the fullest of full, and at once, weightless.
Even in that moment, you knew that the artlessness of the everyday would close in soon. May be in 10 weeks, or years, you would forget about the family of Asian elephants that had stopped your car on the way down to the plains; the river otters that hid from you all day long; the winter-lazy bears you’d promised yourself you’d be back to meet. May be you’d forget to keep some promises (involving bears. And humans). But there’s so much you would remember. I’ll vouch for that now. And like the fire from the resort grill, spitting orange commas into the December night, the driftwood treasures would swim up to you in your sleep some 40 years later. Telling you it’s all right that you didn’t see the bears. And it’s all right that you couldn’t hold on to the photos. They’ll be all right here, in letters you’ll never stop writing to yourself.
–Love and (only a little) wisdom,