The jeep stops with a jerk amid a flurry of excited whispers. Fingers point and hands scramble for cameras. I follow the gestures and there it is.
Stretched languorously across the undergrowth, the shade of the leaves above dappling its coat and hiding it from casual glances, lies a leopard. It is barely twenty feet away. Calm, majestic, serene, it acknowledges our presence with nothing more than a blink and a turn of its head. It is stunningly, perfectly beautiful.
After a few minutes one of the spotters, having identified this as a male, clocks a female hidden deeper in the trees behind him. As if realising her cover is blown she slopes off into the forest, and after posing for eager cameras a while longer the male rises, nonchalantly, to plod after her into the darkness.
We’d risen at 5am for the ride to Nagarhole Wildlife Reserve and Tiger Sanctuary, and I unwittingly dressed too lightly for the cold of early morning altitude. Besides a small huddle of vultures, a handful of gaur and a wild boar that bolted away from the approaching jeep, we’d seen nothing but spotted deer for almost two hours. All the while the Englishman in the back seat prattles endlessly about how he saw three tigers, a load of elephants and a black bear in this same area the day before. Cold, tired and frustrated, I’m weighing up whether to point out that his bragging is scaring them off today or just garotte him with my shoelace when the leopard hoves into view and saves his bacon.
Big cat fix achieved we then spot peacocks, black faced langurs, sambal and a pair of wild dogs chasing a herd of deer. It’s very nice but all the while I crave an elephant. Despite numerous occasions where a forest guide has known there’s one nearby we’re still yet to see one in the wild. Temple elephants – manacled and consigned to a monotonous life dabbing the foreheads of tourists and worshippers – are two-a-rupee, but a pretty depressing spectacle. I need the good shit: the real, wild deal. I’m increasingly awed by their ability to disappear silently into the forest, their only trace a trail of flattened plants and sporadic coconut-balls of fibrous, drying dung.
We don’t spot any but this doesn’t dampen my spirits as we disembark the jeep; the standard disclaimer is not to expect to see any animals at all, so I feel lucky to have got such a brilliant look at a leopard, so clear and close by. What does bring me down a notch is our driver Sanji solemnly announcing that we won’t be able to catch the bus to Mysore today as planned.
“Strike,” he replies. “All of Kerala. Political violence last night. Two people got killed.”
This is the first we’ve heard about last night’s murders in Kasargod and initially we’re sceptical. You get cynical after a while in India, so used to brushing off auto-drivers’ assertions that you can’t possibly walk somewhere that a phrase like “two people got killed” can fall completely flat. In one ear, out the other, acknowledged as nothing more than a pitch for the lucrative job of driving us to Mysore. It’s not on my mind at all as Sanji spots an elephant and her calf grazing on trees in a field by the road, and pulls over for us to take a look. We gasp in wonder, take pictures, chalk the morning down as an all-round success.
Sure enough, back at the homestay Eloc, who had planned to leave in the morning while we’re on safari, is stuck. No drivers will take her to the buses (which won’t be running anyway), scared the strikers will throw stones at anyone caught breaking the state-wide hartal the Congress Party has called. With a gulp I realise not only was Sanji telling the truth; it was bloody brave of him to stop for us to see those elephants.
“If anyone asks where we’re going, we say Bangalore airport, OK?”
Sanji drives Eloc, Rebecca and myself along the backroads to the Karnataka border in the hope of avoiding the strikers’ pickets, but his contingency planning is still necessary. An unmissable flight is evidently one of the only viable excuses for a driver to ignore the strike.
Beena helped us agree a price for Sanji to take the three of us to Mysore (now Mysuru, though it’s common to see and hear both written and spoken) and while it’s a lot compared to the bus, being able to split it with Eloc cushions the blow. We feel very grateful to Sanji for taking us at all; it’s a six hour round trip for him and there is clearly risk to his car (which itself is his livelihood) involved if we’re spotted. Fortunately we don’t run into any pickets, and once we’re past the border with Karnataka it’s a pleasant journey compared to the inevitable discomfort of a bus.
The abrupt change when crossing a state border in India is amazing. Acquaintances have confirmed that neighbouring villages either side of state boundaries will speak different languages. The sudden shift from lush, Keralan green to bright, dry Karnatakan yellow is dramatic, and happens in both the landscape and the dwellings. The building styles go from neat, colourful villas to low-slung bare-brick shanties, gaps in crumbling walls and corrugated iron rooves plugged with blue tarpaulin. Even the cows tethered outside are a different breed as soon as you cross the border.
The same rural scenes play on for hours, deep into Mysuru district, seemingly an unlikely backdrop from which a busy, modern metropolis will soon emerge. But India towns don’t “emerge” from the countryside the way British towns do: they merge. One blends imperceptibly into the other as the gap between houses and villages gets smaller and smaller. This, I reflect as we’re handed over from Sanji to an auto-driver on Mysore’s outskirts that chugs along the winding streets to our hostel, is partly because Indian towns aren’t qualitatively different from Indian villages. They are massive, condensed versions of the same way of life. We pass the same style of house we passed in the district, with the same breed of cattle tethered outside or wandering in and out of the traffic. Just orders of magnitude more homes, piled closer and closer together.
After checking in at The Mansion 1907 – a former stately home turned quirky backpacker hostel – we head to Gokulam, which in fairness feels very different to rural Karnataka. With its sleepy residential lanes beside comfy open verandas, as Rebecca points out there’s a lot of Brooklyn about the neighbourhood. It’s the spiritual home of the ashtanga school of yoga and Rebecca is keen to scope out a few venues she’s read up on.
We go into a yoga shop. I spend twenty minutes following Rebecca around its three small rooms, trying to mask my incredulity every time I absent-mindedly check a price tag. Yoga is growing on me fast but it’s laughable to think that the bulk of the movement is anything other than relentlessly commercial. The prices in here would make eyes water in Spitalfields market. Rebecca buys herself an “eye pillow” – basically a bean bag, except orders of magnitude more expensive.
The Mansion offers free rooftop yoga classes so we get involved in the morning. This being Mysore it’s ashtanga, first time I’ve tried it. I don’t take to it. It’s a lot more physically demanding than I’m used to; me and the adjacent kiwi bloke are sweating buckets and struggling to support our own weight after barely ten minutes. There’s also very little of the meditative, slow-paced aspects of yoga that I like.
From what little I know about ashtanga – and I am very definitely not the expert – its appeal seems to be a bit more superficial than hatha or yin. More about how it makes you look than how it makes you feel. Beloved of celebrities like Sting and Robert Downey Jr. there’s a culty, competitive undertone to it involving progressing through different levels, a bit like Scientology. All of this feels at odds with the response I get when I tell most yogis that I’m not very good at yoga, i.e. ‘That’s not what yoga’s about’. At the risk of having misunderstood, it feels as though that’s exactly what ashtanga is about.
Also, as we later discover through Rebecca’s further reading, the movement’s late founder K. Patthabi Jois is reported to have repeatedly sexually harassed his female students. During classes. In some instances, via digital-vaginal insertion. I’d like to say that’s a separate issue from the discipline of ashtanga itself, but I can’t help but question the authenticity of a sequence of postures and exercises whose designer exploited them to molest his students. The aura the ashtanga community bestowed on its guru made it harder than it should have been for his victims to speak out, and by and large he continues to be revered in yogic circles. It all adds up to make the entire thing feel shady and unpleasant.
The hostel comes furnished with a communal kitchen, albeit one that belongs on Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. We do a quick shop at the supermarket nearby then, having been desperate to cook since arriving in India over a month ago, get to work. I set about chopping vegetables with a knife about as clean and sharp as a freshly unearthed potato and scrub a layer of indeterminate gunk off the frying pan with a grey paste by the sink, which I assume is washing up liquid. Rebecca decides she doesn’t want any of the sauce I’m making in the pan and will settle for plain pasta, but even this modest aim dies a death when it turns out the penne I thought I’d picked out are actually mini, “ready-to-fry” pappadum tubes. Undeterred, I chuck them into the pan of boiling water to see what happens. They basically denature into chewy gelatinous mulch, and at the point at which I ditch them have the same texture I reckon Haribo acquires about half way through its manufacture.
Luckily, Rebecca also bought bread and peanut butter.
While Rebecca yogas in the afternoon I take myself for a potter around Mysore Palace, probably the city’s most famous landmark. Its architecture and grounds are stunning from the outside, and the interior is a charming journey through the stately halls and artistic collections of the Wadiyar dynasty Maharajahs. It’s arrestingly Anglophile; in amongst a collection of paintings of the royal family’s turbaned children are portraits of them with King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and a many-arched atrium is walled with murals with captions like “Royal Elephant and Brigadier Guards”.
Ambling through the rooms open to the public takes about half an hour, after which I stroll through the gardens. It’s very hot at this point so “strolling” in fact consists of short, infrequent bursts between scarce patches of shade. Most other visitors turn left at a particular fork that leads them towards the leafy plaza, but with nothing obviously preventing me I decide to go right and take a look at the less public-facing side of the palace.
It feels a little like lifting the hood of a glimmering sports car to find a greasy, untidy engine underneath. The walls on this side are greying with mould in stark contrast to their gleaming counterparts, and many of them have been painted over with ice cream adverts – who these are aimed at I have no idea, since this area has the definite feel of not receiving many visitors. The staff who sit and natter on steps or tend the bored-looking palace camels cast me surprised but unsuspicious looks.
I start towards the elephant stables, then overhear a tourist, emerging from a side gate, tell her friends that the way they’re swinging their trunks indicates they’re depressed. So I decide against it and start back towards the fork to the main gardens. Completely alone now, I spot a twenty rupee note on the floor ahead and without thinking stoop to pick it up. I feel instantly ashamed and embarrassed. In a country where nearly a quarter of the population live below the poverty line I’ve just grabbed the equivalent of pocket change, about 22p in British money. I resolve to give it to the next genuinely needy person I see.
Mysore Zoo seems to have a decent rep and in principle I’m OK with responsible, well-run zoos, imperfect but necessary tools in the effort of conserving endangered species, so I ask an auto driver outside the palace to take me. I know it’s nearby, I just can’t get Google maps to work so I don’t know the way. Plus Mysuru is a very difficult city to navigate on foot, pitted with huge, chaotic roundabouts devoid of any control systems like traffic lights or even lane markings.
The driver doesn’t seem to know the word “zoo” (which I find a bit odd) and waves a friend over to help translate. The friend’s left arm ends in a stump at his shoulder. He speaks a bit of English so after he helps me agree a price with the driver I give him the twenty rupees, which I think is a pretty generous tip on a fifty rupee fare (suggested baksheesh is normally five – ten rupees), but he looks unimpressed and tries to sell me a necklace before we set off.
Mysore Zoo is one of India’s oldest, having been running since the late nineteenth century, and for the most part it’s about as good as a zoo can be. The enclosures are on the larger end of the scale, containing shelters and plenty of other ways of affording the animals privacy, and there’s consistent information on the conservation status of the animals. Most species are native to India, which I like. Particularly striking is a colony of large bats that roost in the trees in the “Bat” area without anything obviously preventing them flying off somewhere else. Stranger still, they’re flying around even in the early afternoon. I assume there may be something keeping them there and active in the daytime that might not qualify as exemplary bat welfare, but give the zoo the benefit of the doubt for now.
The chimpanzee enclosures are a different story. As far as I can tell they contain solitary individuals. Chimps are our closest living relatives, and are themselves closer to humans than they are to gorillas. They are intensely sociable and the effect of solitary confinement on chimpanzee psychology has been shown to be as damaging as it is to humans.
Beyond this, there’s something unavoidably dissatisfying about the zoo. I love animals and until recently zoos have effectively been my only way of seeing the more exotic species up close. But having spent so much of the last month or so in wildlife reserves big and thick enough to conceal whole herds of elephants it dawns on me that no matter how ethical the zoo, no matter the resources and space set aside to make the animals as comfortable as possible, they are painfully inadequate compared to the vast stretches through which their wild cousins roam. Zoos are also boring compared to seeing animals in the wild. There are signposts to the next enclosure telling you what you’re about to see before you see it. There is none of the suspense or uncertainty that even an hour or two’s gentle birdwatching affords.
I head back to the hostel and take a few pictures of its decorative graffiti and the iconic Hindustan Ambassador parked in the entrance, both symbolically reaffirming that we’ve left the countryside and are now firmly in the city.