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Befriending the Dangerous
by Manoj Das

Reminiscence

Whenever the river was in spate – and that occurred every other year – village Kulida, the home of my second elder sister Snehelata, turned into an island, though the menacing water did not invade the habitation because of its altitude.

The easy means of crossing the submerged paddy fields around the isolated village were canoes carved out of single palm trunks. Such a canoe could carry up to three passengers if they were not bulky.

A chunk of the elevation on which the village had cropped up some three generations ago had a thick wood – almost a small forest, jackals and mongooses constituting the major part of its population, a fox or two making an occasional guest appearance. The forest was the perennial source of fuel for the kitchens in the village.

One evening, during a flood, a villager who was collecting dry twigs from the brink of the forest, saw a pair of bluish eyes surveying him. They must have been a jackal’s, he concluded and, without a second thought, went over to a bush closer to the creature. But when he hurled a clod of earth towards it, his ego piqued because it did not care to move away as a mark of deference to a superior being like him. The creature gave out a mild roar.

The villager ran for dear life and reported his find to the village elders who directed all the households to shut their doors immediately. Many led their cattle and goats into their inner courtyards. Those with unsafe huts took shelter in the houses of their neighbors. Needless to say, there was no question of anybody enjoying normal sleep. How could anyone, with a tiger camping a few yards away – or perhaps roaming the village streets?

A quick census in the morning of the folks and their domestic animals established that all had survived the wild intruder.

But to put up with a tiger indefinitely was out of the question. The villagers bravely surrounded the forest, armed with lathis, shovels, sickles, crowbars, axes and bows, the owner of the sole muzzle-loader in the village leading the unprecedented operation. They beat drums and empty tin boxes and slowly tightened their ring.

The beast was soon detected hiding in a bush. Strangely, it seems to have resolved neither to fight nor to make any effort to escape. The muzzle-loader's bullet struck it. It stayed put, immobile. Arrows continued to be shot at it till the gunman loaded his weapon – a time-consuming job - and fired for a second time.

In the role of hunters for the first time in their life, the villagers waited for a full hour before approaching their prey. It was a tigress, killed, leaving behind one dead cub and two in dazed state.

When news of the extraordinary operation reached the nearest police station, the officer-in-charge rushed to the spot, accompanied by his whole battalion of constables, and took charge of the dead tigress and one of her living cubs. Forthwith he proceeded to the district headquarters, to make a gift of the cub to the English Collector, and, as the villagers later learnt, to claim credit for having come to their rescue against the menacing tigress.
The other cub fell to the share of the leading family in the village – my sister's. She sent a message to me, inviting me to see her charge. I set out immediately, covering the four hours of walking distance in three hours, ignoring my gasping and sweating fat escort’s pleas to slow down.

We reached the embankment on the Coast Canal a little before mid-day. A canoe captained by Ajoy, a younger brother of my sister’s husband, awaited us on the other side of the canal. Their village, some two miles away, looked like an exotic island.
Our canoe pushed forward, my companion succeeding in catching two fish with a clever maneuver of his palms while I took charge of the pole. It took us an hour to reach the village. The canoe entered a pond, which had then become an unidentifiable part of the vast expanse of water, and touched the high verandah of my sister's house. As I leaped out of it, I was greeted by a soft growl from the silky little wonder held by my smiling sister to her bosom.

It was a love at first sight. The tiger cub came into my arms after feigning some reluctance and then refused to leave me even when I wanted it to do so. It ate its lunch with me and when I lay down for a nap, it slept on my chest and scratched me if I kept my eyes shut for more than a minute.

Our friendship deepened during the week that followed. Once in a while the cub would slip into a depressed mood and refuse to recognize me or my sister and run to darker nooks and crannies of the house with a bewildered look. Was that because it remembered its mother and the forest? That was the conclusion I reached. I was very annoyed with those who had killed the tigress, the gunman in particular.

One afternoon I found the gunman alone on the verandah of his house. ‘How could you shoot a lonely tigress nursing her cubs?’ I charged him, almost sure that he would look daggers at me and rebuff me. What happened left me perplexed. Tears filled his eyes. It was as if he was waiting to blurt out his anguish to someone. He pulled me onto his verandah and made me sit on a stool. He crouched before me and dashed his forehead on the ground several times. ‘I'm a sinner – a perfect one. How I wish the tigress had torn my breast asunder! Instead, she calmly suffered our cowardly assault. Has a night passed without my dreaming of her? Oh those eye of hers! Woe to me! Woe to me a hundred times!’

The hunter wailed in a subdued voice.

‘I’m sure, she had decided to die – and she let it happen at the earliest opportunity,’ I said, feeling guilty.

‘This is what I call wisdom,’ he said gravely, trying to smile, as I left him.

My Dusserah holidays were coming to an end. It was time for me to return home. The thought of separation from the cub must have reduced me to a pathetic sight. How to suppress my tears at the time of departure was my private worry.

At last the time came and I shed tears, but for a different reason and without any embarrassment – when my beaming sister suddenly thrust the cub into my arms and disclosed that she bad persuaded her father-in-law and the others who mattered, to let me have it.

I smiled through my tears. How many sisters on earth could make gifts of tiger cubs to their little brothers?

The cub, put in a basket, cushioned and loosely covered, was carried on head by a beaming servant who followed me. The flood had receded and we plodded through mud and swamp up to the Canal embankment. Thereafter I enjoyed every moment of my walk through a dozen or so villages – as the dogs barked at the smell from the basket and students and teachers of a couple of primary schools surrounded us with the request to take the lid off the basket for a moment, as the news of the trophy we carried had somehow spread ahead of us.

This proudest travel in my life culminated with a hundred men and women of our village receiving us. The cub clung to me, making me feel absolutely special.

By sundown our neighborhood carpenter had made a wooden cage. Everybody was so eager to serve the guest that a little girl brought a tiny cotton pillow – something she had made for her doll, to be placed inside the cage. A yard of old carpet had been used to make a bed for it.

The cub resented being caged. But there was no question of our leaving him at large at night. Its resentment grew fiercer on the second night and it scratched my hands when I closed the cage; on the third night it had to be forced in. On the fourth night it had escaped into our garden before we would cage it. It was a moonless night and we kept searching till an hour past midnight, but in vain.

I could hardly sleep for the rest of the night. Our search resumed at dawn. We found the cub lying dead under a bush, its body bruised and a clot of blood on its neck. Nearby was a hole. It must have fought the dweller of the hole – the cobra, was the elders opined.

We buried it. I shied away from everybody the whole day.

‘Look here, my boy,’ said a wise man desiring to console me, ‘it would have grown up day by day like the waxing moon and think of a day when we would have been obliged to live with a fully grown tiger. The Government would have compelled you to deport it to the forest anyway!’

‘And I too would have gone into the forest with it. Do you understand, Uncle?’ I shouted, to the gentleman's great embarrassment.  

(From Chasing the Rainbow: Growing Up In An Indian Village by Manoj Das,
Oxford University Press, New Delhi)

21-May-2006
 
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