There were tigers everywhere, pugmarks in the dry riverbed across which the Gypsies bounced on their way to the Litfest venue, sightings in the night at 11 pm when well fed and fulfilled delegates mounted their jeeps to return to their resorts, drivers swelling with pride recounting how they had glimpsed in the shadows of the night a tiger that no one else except the moon had seen...

But I am jumping ahead. This is a story that began in a bungalow outside Nainital where two friends got together to natter about Jim Corbett’s ghost. That led to a book about a tiger that had escaped from Corbett National Park, followed four years later by an invitation to the Kumaon Litfest. Carpet Sahib, I thought, had obviously liked the book.

I took the dawn road from Delhi that led to Brajghat lined with wickerwork moras that heralded Moradabad. Not just a jumpy, dusty track as before, though the tractors whizzed around and the old familiar place signs decorated with languid monkeys were still there.

Gradually the word Corbett began intruding on my field of vision. Corbett Roar and Tusk, Corbett Tusker Trail, Corbett View Resort, Corbett … it was almost like Santiniketan where Tagore dominated every kind of signage. The roads gave way to narrow side trails and then the sprawl of a dry river bed, stark grey stone cobbled with rocks of all sizes, asking for the flare of a tiger’s russet coat. I found myself scanning the rocks, sure that someone had been attacked by a tiger in a dry riverbed.

I had booked a three-hour jeep safari that set out at 5.30 am. Quite a few of the writers at the festival had taken them and come back full of grumbles. “What tigers? No one has seen a tiger anywhere around!” In Ranthambhore someone had sighted a tiger as close as their drawing room sofa. Someone else had sat in utter horror while a tiger chomped on the tail light. Of course, said the wise ones shaking their heads amidst discussions on their future sparks of creativity, tiger sightings in Corbett were rare, but still, it was a nice drive. Well-wishers advised me to sit next to the driver when I went because it would be much safer. Tiger or otherwise, that was advice worth following.

Next morning brought one of my jeep companions with the news that the district magistrate of the region had reported a tiger on the loose. “Man-eater,” said my companion confidently. “There are shoot-at-sight orders.” The driver butted in to say that the tiger had knocked over a forest official and they were trying to trap it. He then stopped the jeep abruptly, jumped out and began hitting the bonnet. The next second something hit my head, slithered down and scuttled through the jeep. It was a lizard. A lucky omen, I thought, and said so. The driver looked sceptical but a little later he stopped to point out a fresh pugmark in the dust. It had not been there when he had driven out to collect us.

The others who joined the safari from another resort were full of the man-eater story: It had killed three people and it was three years old. It was even on Facebook. I rubbed my hair feeling cautiously for lizard droppings and pointed out with the strength of my book-acquired wisdom that three-year-old tigers didn’t normally become man-eaters, and that in Kumaon, thanks to brand power, all tigers were man-eaters. No one responded, but they looked at the open sides of the jeep uneasily.

We went into Corbett from the Dhela side which had a barrier that bristled with khaki-clad men. Contrary to expectation we were not part of a convoy. Birds twittered as the jeep drove — pied bush chats and plum-headed munias. We passed grass tussocks, floating mists and the silhouette of the hills with the early morning sun’s rays filtering through. Through the twittering a deer belled and the driver checked. “Tiger on the move,” he said. We backed a little, met another Gypsy and circled round it. Amish Tripathi was in the back of that — my companions pointed him out. Literary tiger-spotting, I thought — the deer must have been mistaken.

All at once the driver stopped the jeep. “There,” he said softly. “Tiger.” And then the dance of tiger sighting began, the backing, the slow, wide circling, the stopping ...

Time seemed to freeze. I scrabbled for the field glasses and in the golden haze of early morning saw the shadow slip across the road. Cameras clicked in the seats behind me. “Healthy,” someone said, “What a healthy tiger!”

“There’s another in the bush,” murmured the driver taking another of those circles down a narrow track. He cut the engine and pointed out pugmarks scuffing the dust, telling us to look carefully in case we spotted something. We didn’t, of course, but we heard it, the low call through the forests of the morning — aaoung, aaoung! I didn’t reach for the phone, I didn’t record, I did nothing. I just sat there listening. It was all over in a flash barely half an hour after we drove in.

After that no one saw anything except birds and deer, but I remembered the hush that followed the tiger’s call and then a voice from the back of the jeep whispering, “ Toilet hai idhar?

Anjana Basuis the author of In the Shadow of the Leaves and Leopard in the Laboratory