My driver's name is Gajanan. This alone is enough to know that he is Marathi, from Maharashtra where the elephant god's many names - Vighneshwar, Ganpati, Ganesh - are sacred. As we drive from Nagpur he tells me of his village, his cattle and his buffaloes. Soon though our conversation, in my stumbling Hindi and his, in his stumbling English, and sometimes rapidly in his mother Marathi, must die and we are happy to smile silently in one another's company.
I am waking as we drive, not just from my five o'clock start and my two hours' fog delay on the airstrip in Delhi, but waking to central India, remembering as we go: the fresh glossy leaves of neem, washed by a great rain two days ago; the purplish terracotta breast of a laughing dove puffed in song; the silk cottons heavy with today's fresh scarlet flower.
In a ripe field of cotton a cotton-clad woman stoops ghostly in white; by her are the ghost nests of last year's baya weavers. Beanpole boys pass with bundled burdens on their heads, as strong and slender as the tall teaks in whose little shade they tread. The scytheblade horns of sagging buffaloes sway past fields of fat, whiskered wheat and happy golden sunflowers.
For twenty minutes we pass a great train of Rajasthani gypsies. (I try to discern a more appropriate name for their culture but all Gajanan can muster is 'gypsy'.) The women blaze in red, magenta and gold; their hundreds of lop-eared cattle, all are dark tan and handsome.
By the road I hear and see the buoyant, dreaming flight of black-winged kites, the hunched shoulders of long-tailed shrikes, the chipper trill of purple sunbird males.
Gajanan stops the car. 'Wild cat,' he says, 'Rat is coming.' In the shade of an acacia on the bank of a rice-paddy ditch crouches a jungle cat, relaxed but purposeful. 'Very difficult to see,' he tells me in our stammering Hindi. 'Tiger you see, but not jungli billi.'
I beam. I am nervous, yes. The excitement of seeking tigers always makes me nervous. But I beam at the sight of my first jungle cat of the year, my second Indian cat in 2015. I beam to be here, happy to be embraced again by central India, her birds, her mammals, her flowers and her people.
Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii 3
serval Leptailurus serval serval 3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus 2
lion Panthera leo nubica 78
snow leopard Panthera uncia 3
jungle cat Felis chaus 1
jungle cat Felis chaus 1