Battielal was our naturalist guide for our game drives through the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Sawai Madhopur, a town located about 100 miles southeast of Jaipur, reached by way of a four-hour hair-raising, constantly bumpy but most interesting drive.
Until 1971, the year Indira Gandhi brought about a constitutional amendment which took away most of the rights and properties of the former kings, the 400 square kilometers of what is now the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve was the private hunting reserve of the maharajah of Jaipur.
Battielal is a good looking young man who was born around the time of the changeover in a village located within the reserve. There were 22 villages within the reserve when the government took over the property in 1972 and asked all the villagers to relocate outside the reserve, promising jobs and housing if they did so.
Ten villages, whose villagers did not initially agree to move, are still located inside the Tiger Reserve. After realizing that the government had not fulfilled its promises to those who did relocate, they have decided to take a firm stand against moving.
Battielal lived in one of those villages. He was eventually asked to come into a government office for a job interview. “What type of job do you want?” he was asked. “I’ll do anything you want” he replied. “What can you do?”, he was asked, “Can you drive?” “No? OK, then can you speak English?” “No? Hmmm.”
Battielal was sent to a two-week evaluation program, at the end of which it was decided that he would become a naturalist and a guide, which he did.
He is now married, a marriage arranged by his mother, which is fine with him because, as he says, mothers know you best and know what’s best for you. Battielal and his wife have a five-year old son, and it is because of him that Battielal rented a place in Sawai Madhopur and moved his family there from the village in the Tiger Reserve. He wanted his son to go to school and enrolled him in a private school. Private Catholic schools are best, he says, because they are very strict and you have to learn; they also teach English, which the public schools do not do.
His son has a one hour school bus ride each way to and from school. He goes to school with a lunch that his mother has prepared for him; she also has prepared one for Battielal at the same time because she will leave home for work as soon as the school bus has picked up her son and she won’t be back home until 5pm when her son gets home from school. Battielal found her work in a crafts store aimed at tourists, where they have taught her how to make handicrafts.
Battielal speaks English well now. He has never traveled anywhere and dreams of going on an airplane some day. What he knows about the rest of the world is what he has learnt from his customers over the years. He knows Ranthambore Tiger Reserve inside out, so well that other guides now rely on him for guidance.
We are doing the rides in an open air six-passenger Indian “Maturi” jeep, although we have the whole vehicle to ourselves.
The government has divided the park into zones and randomly assigns zones to vehicles each day. A maximum of 24 “gypsies” (six-passenger jeeps), and 20 buses (twelve-passenger vehicles) are allowed in the reserve at any one time.
There are 55 tigers in the park right now and Battielal is determined to make sure we get to see one of them. He also makes sure that we don’t miss any of the breathtaking views the park has to offer.
Whether we do encounter a tiger or not, we will have had the pleasure of getting to know Battielal, and through him, another fascinating facet of Indian life.
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