Entrance to the Thateekkad bird sanctuary is controlled at a sleepy sporadically manned wrought iron gate that seems exhausted less from the effort of keeping visitors out but the continual struggle to keep the jungle in. Miss Suda, proprietor of the Jungle Bird homestay, who’s diminutive size, high pitched rasp and inestimable but considerable age immediately make me think of yoda, meets us at the bus stop with vigorous handshakes and shuffles us quickly through the rusted curlicues. The narrow road inside is shaded by a towering row of bamboo each as wide as a strong man’s thigh. Monkeys follow curiously, leaping from stalk to stalk 60 feet above our heads. Miss Suda, bright orange sari and long salt and pepper braid vivid against the cool morning green, smiles and gives a phlemgy cough, “It was I who planted these. Some fifty years.”
The homestay where she lives with her rarely seen son (“a lawyer. Yes! And one daughter, a nurse in ____. My husband, he died. Some twenty-five years. Oh madam I tell you. But now very good. Everything much better now”), rarely smiling daughter-in-law, granddaughter and mother is brightly painted block concrete with space to accommodate twelve guests. Her granddaughter (four) has stubbed her toe and screams through her grandmother’s continual consolations for the first hour of our arrival. Despite my best efforts child-princess never deigns to speak to us during our visit, only staring with wide suspicious eyes, open mouthed at the audacity of our presence. Within two hours I’ve decided not to bother learning her name. Whether it’s her daughter’s poor character, her mother-in-law’s constant interruptions (“Sandra, you hear! Better mangoes than US! Sandra, you hear! 1000 rupees for this meal in US!”), her husband’s absences (or maybe reappearances) or (as Gail suspects) an early pregnancy, Sandra undertakes the majority of care taking (preparing meals, bringing tea, daily sweeping and cleaning) with an expression of resigned and weary sullenness. The closed door behind her eyes creaks ajar only in the few moments we speak with her uninterrupted (“I am fine thank you. You married? No? Not have children? You how old? And no children?”), leaving me to imagine a world of 1950’s prefeminist psychological angst behind her swiftly interrupted half smiling incredulous wonder. The great grandmother, pale and fleshy, white braided and blue eyed, is stooped with 85 years and heavy cleavage about which she shows a decidedly unIndian level of modesty. She speaks no English when she speaks at all but greets me by kissing my hand, clasping it firmly between hers while staring up at me with a watery smile. She is immediately my favourite.
Dinner is served in the dining room off the family’s living quarters (while there are five unused guest bedrooms above, the family of five share two and a common area). Dominated by two plastic clothed tables there is just enough room to squeeze into ours seats only to be unceremonious bumped by child terror in her hurried passage to the television in the corner. Grinning mischievously in our direction, she inches the volume on The Cartoon Network stealthily higher until high pitched Hindi dubbed manga rattles the windows. Sandra appears scolding sharply and baby diva lowers the volume with a scowl and takes no further notice of us. An embarrassing number of plates are laid in front of us, sitting awkwardly side by side. Only Miss Suda joins us but declines to eat, instead observing every mouthful with awkward mid-chew inquiries to how we like the meal (“Delicious!” “Yes thank you the chicken is wonderful.” “Really? You made the garlic pickle yourself? Yes, really it’s delicious.”)
The following morning after an equally delicious and excessive breakfast we followed Miss Suda into the reserve, her “better” binoculars slung around my neck “(I may see yours madam? Which are these? Bought in your country? How much you pay? These are super madam. Super!) I should say, I’ve never been a bird watcher. Within an hour I know why. After the excitement of the first few sights, an accommodating hornbill (“look madam! A beyootiful hornbill!”) quacking from a temple roof on the road outside the reserve and an enormous heron (“madam! A beyootiful heron!) standing in a marshy pond, birdwatching becomes, for me, a lot of cross-eyed craned-neck staring through slightly unfocused lenses, peering at vacant branches or dense foliage (“Where in that tree? Higher? Left?”) A few times I’m lucky and fix sights on the bird for seconds before it morphs into a blur of colour and vanishes into another tree. Miss Suda was patient, knowledgeable and did her best to direct me, (“There madam! On that branch, ruby throated bulbul.” “Madam! Giant squirrel!”) but I quickly get the impression I’m failing as a pupil (“I see a brown thing.” “Madam, a beyootiful brown thing.”)
Miss Suda took pity on me, ushering us home a few hours later, with a stop at a roadside shack for a bottle of toddy (“You have tried toddy, yes madam? You would like?), a palm wine which ferments naturally in the stalk. The tappers were still harvesting the days supply, so we whiled away a quarter of an hour in the dazzling morning sun watching the ducks paddle across the sparkling lake and the cows graze on the bank. Miss Suda pointed me at a large fruit hanging above her head from a low branch (“Cocoa madam!)” and I twist it off and hand it to her. She cracks the thick skinned brown pod against the pavement and we devour the sweet vaguely lychee-like fruit inside, discarding the seeds which could have otherwise become chocolate with ceremonious regret.
Our bottle filled, we meander through the pleasant morning warmth back to our porch with its sweeping views of the forest. Toddy is dangerously drinkable and late morning becomes late afternoon without much notice being taken.
After a few disdainful invasions from child empress, we decide to to go for a walk. Unfortunately the path into the jungle is prohibited (“No madam, closed. Wild elephants there now.”) With no means of sneaking past our hostess (“I’d like to see a wild elephant!” “No madam, no. Very dangerous.”) we content ourselves with a walk around the lake, the stunning view and the promise that the next day, being Saturday, the prodigal son will be available to guide us toward greater adventure.
All smiles and gallantry, the next morning he ushers us grandly into the car (“Brand new this car! An excellent car!”) tooting the horn to his mother who waves from the porch while Sandra wrestles with miniature terror to keep her from tearing after us. Looking a bit like a comic book safari hunter in khaki shorts, matching hat, binoculars, the man of the house drives us ten minutes down the road, leaving the car in the care of an old man sitting by the roadside. Proceeding up a steep lane to a small rubber plantation and a path winding into the woods, he holds up one finger, halting our progress and whispers, “Now in this area, we must be very quiet, very careful. Here are living wild elephants.” At the top of the hill we settle on a vast rock clearing and watch a dozen varieties of brightly colored bird dart across the sky. Monkeys hoot unseen in the trees and I peer in vain through the foliage hoping to catch sight of an approaching trunk.
Sitting there on the rocky outcropping, staring into the trees, I realize I’ve never experienced wilderness like this before. I’ve never felt the domain of the natural world so tangibly over human order. In America, in Europe, I’ve been remote, deep in nature, far enough that the elements could, with lack of care or bad luck, get the better of me. But the echo of order follows, civilization still holds sway. The natural world is deigned a tenuous continuance by mankind. We measure it’s assets and (too hot, too cold, too inaccessible, too inhospitable) choose to leave it be, for now. Here the power structure is reversed. Though roads ramble through connecting the furious bursts of energy (larger towns) and quieter hums (villages), step lightly off the path and nature engulfs you. A thousand kinds of insect, a hundred kinds of bird, a wealth of flora and fauna. The threat of creatures who’ve yet to accept man’s self-appointment to the top of the food chain is both palpable and real. The rubber plantation is bordered by a flimsy looking electric fence that separates the herds of wild elephants from homes on the other side. Tiptoeing down the path we could hear the rolling thunder-like rumble of their footfalls in the distance. At night villagers light firecrackers to keep them at bay. Pythons, king cobras and leopards are less feared though all the more stealthy. Human and jungle seem to coexist under a tenuous accord, simmering with mutual distrust and occasional outbursts of violence.
The sumptuous wealth of wildlife and landscape enthralls me, but by day two the simmering domestic tensions in the Jungle Bird homestay, to which both Miss Suda and son maintain a cheerful obliviousness, has me edgy, tugged between Sandra’s palpable discontent and Miss Suda’s persistent cheerleading. We decide to abandon hopes of seeing a wild elephant in Thaatekkad and move on. Miss Suda took the news less well than expected. “You go, madams? But tomorrow I show you making jackfruit. You are not liking jungle bird homestay. Tell me madams, the price is too high? I can make good price.” Too embarrassed to admit to thrift (at $15 each a night, the homestay was three times what we were accustomed to paying), we reassured her, left a glowing report in her guestbook and waved her goodbye. But looking over the receipt (500rs extra each half days guiding, park entry fee, service fee) as the bus trundled over the bridge and back toward the city, I turned to Gail, half-smiling with sugary sincerity, “I’m so glad we could keep that sweet little girl in the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed.”