By age ten, my paleontology phase mothballed by fears that all the Jurassic skeletons would be exhumed with no bones left for the adult me, zoology became the new discipline and lions were my thing. As I scoured the nature and science books studying lifespan and habitat and how the great felines did better in zoos – an acceptable line to take back then – it was a given that King Lion lorded over an African realm. But there was always that curious addendum:
There are a few hundred surviving Asian lions, in the Gir Forest of India.
This seemed bizarre to me. I came to regard these freak lions as a lesser, more milquetoast creature, like those stunted Indian elephants whose shell-like ears were no match for the great fans of their African cousins. There was also that strange habitat. What self-respecting lion, apart from Bert Lahr, lived in a forest? Cold countries had forests, hot countries had jungles, and lions lived on grassy plains in any case. If there were a few hundred left, well that was their problem. They obviously couldn’t cut it. It was only years later that I discovered their noble pedigree – celebrated in classical and biblical texts when the Asian lion roamed as far as the Middle East.
All this led me to Junagadh in India’s Gujarat State. This was a city of Jain Temples, ancient Buddhist caves and the venerable Uperkot Fort, dating back twenty-four centuries. It was a town of history and color – in other words, a place with a lot going for it. But I was dispensing with that.
I was here for cats.
The Before Lodging and After Lodging cycles are particularly acute in India and I felt them keenly this day as our bus rolled alongside the old city walls and dropped me inside Sardar Patel Darvaja – the Big Tower Gate, where I wrestled my baggage through a miasma of honking, screaming, flaming heat, exhaust fumes, cows and human traffic, all the while dodging the other traffic – the scooters and three-wheel cabs through broken streets. Narrow streets. Streets that went nowhere.
So this was Junagadh. ‘Old Fort’ it meant. Alright then. I grumbled and growled and snapped along, one old fort to another. No time to pause. No time for a cleansing ten count – I’d be knocked flat before I reached five.
An hour later I found Sardar Para Road. Here it was quiet and a small group of tent dwellers had laid out trinkets for sale on blankets. The little children pointed at me and laughed excitedly and waved hello. I waved back, exited the north gate of Manjavadi and followed Route 31, the way we’d come, flattening myself against the city walls as the drivers whizzed by. The road widened and beyond the next curve was a modern hotel, bright, shiny and metallic blue.
I was settled in, riding the tiny hotel elevators that played a sub-continental twist of the X-Files theme and returned downtown to change money, luxuriating in the After Lodging bubble. Where two hours before I had to heave and struggle against the city, I could now coolly assess it. As usual, I found the people welcoming, effusively so.