Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Urban Safari

Sanjay Gandhi National Park, in North Mumbai, covers more than a hundred square kilometres, making it the biggest enclosed urban parkland in the world. It’d be churlish not to have a peep. On the way, by way of hors d’oeuvre, we see an elephant, just minding his own business, going home, blending in with all the other suburban traffic.
As soon as we’re through the park gates, I start spying out for lions. After a couple of tense minutes, concentrating on the lion-coloured undergrowth, we see children playing in the dust-track ahead, and, through the thicket of trees, houses, with lines of drying washing outside. I stop looking for lions. I do see some hens, though they’re not what you’d call Big Game. This is the foresters’ settlement.
We visit the Kanheri caves, as a sop to culture. Entrance fee – 100 rupees for non-nationals, 5 rupees for residents. Even at £1.20 per outsider, they can be barely covering the cost of maintaining the hand-rails, so we’ve got no problem with the lack of parity. The caves are two and a half thousand years old, and there are one hundred and six of them. We don’t visit them all individually – well Roland says we don’t, but it feels like we do, to me. The Buddhist monks, who chibbled them out of the bare rock, must have been nimble as mountain goats. We, who are less goat-like, keep stopping to 'admire the view' and re-establish speaking terms with our lungs. In one of the caves, a man’s lying on his back, arms wide, singing at the top of his voice. The acoustics are fabulous, it sounds as if there are seventeen of him. Our guide laughs. “Indian man. Sing when happy.” And why not?
On the way down again, I’m asked to take a photo. Or, I think that’s what they want, all bobbing and laughing. But it turns out, they want me the other side of the lens, for some reason. They give me the baby to hold, but it starts screeching instantly, and I don’t know Hindi for “There, there!” But inept or not, a foot taller than the womenfolk who crowd round me, holding a wailing baby, I’m still in their holiday album.
Back in the jungle, we pull up to admire the monkeys at the roadside. I give them a banana, or two. I like watching their tiny black hands unzip them. Roland says – and I already know this, really, I am just carried away by their monkeyness - that they will learn to associate cars with food, and get run over. I’m now bowed down with the weight of three monkey souls, and will keep my bananas to myself in future.
The bus-tour, to see the lions and tigers, costs 30 rupees each, wherever your father was born. We’re loaded on the ricketiest bus you’ve ever seen – if you sit down too quickly, it will collapse; the guide holds the folding doors together with pinched fingers. The windows are reassuringly screened with mesh, but there are thoughtful holes, for unimpeded viewing. Just big enough, to poke a camera through, from the inside out, or a paw, from the outside in. We rattle to a halt, and the guide points. After half an hour’s earnest peering, we make out two white tigers, lolling in the grass. This brings our combined lifetime white-tiger sightings to two, so we’re more than pleased, even if the tigers look a bit grubby.
Our teeth are only slightly looser, when we stop for the lion-sighting. Not until it moves, do I realise that it’s not an it, it’s a they. Unless it’s got a head at both ends, of course, but I’m sure they’d have been selling postcards of it at the ticket booth, were that the case. All those years, I played “Sleeping Lions” with the boys, and this is what they really look like. We’re all very excited, on the bus, except for the little girl in the sticky-out frock, on the seat in front of us, who clearly thinks Roland and I are more interesting than the wild-life outside. She may have a point.
Finding the lions and tigers, on our photos, is an act of faith, so they’re not for public consumption. I’ll show them to you, if you like, but you have to promise not to laugh...