I read recently that the tiger population in India is just about 1800, gone up from a paltry 1400 odd in one year or thereabouts. Back in 1948, the great Jim Corbett (my particular hero since childhood – mine, not his) had written that the tiger would be exterminated from India in about a decade. We have done a little better than that, but not much. Soon, all we will have of tigers are memories and stories.
I thought I would put down the tiger tales I remember, as I heard them related by a close friend, sitting by the fireside in lonely camps surrounded by the jungles of Kolkata and Mumbai, with only the sound of growling buses, and the chirruping of young humans interrupting the flow of the story; the silence broken from time to time by the screaming of taxi horns, and the death-screech of tormented tyres.
Poignant tales these. The storyteller is extraordinary, the stories themselves timeless. This one’s for you, Sunandan Sen, who told us these wonderful tales!
I will relate these over the next few posts.The first one goes thus:
My uncle, said the storyteller, had just retired from service in the Indian Railways. To celebrate his freedom, he decided to spend a few weeks with his cousin in the Dooars, up in North Bengal. His cousin worked in a tea plantation and had asked him to come up a number of times to enjoy the scenery, the salutary climate, and of course, the outstanding cooking of his (the cousin’s) wife.
The first few days went really well. My uncle did very little except eat, sleep, and then eat and sleep some more. After a couple of days, his cousin sent him up to the foothills to take a look at the mountains and the forests. On his return, my uncle was so enthused that he doubled his food and sleep rations.
After one marathon afternoon nap, he woke up feeling a little sluggish and thought that a walk would wake him up properly, and get him ready for the excellent dinner his cousin’s wife had described over lunch, and which she was cooking even now.
So, he put on his best walking dhoti, his socks and sneakers, put on a sweater (it was getting a touch chilly in late October) and wrapping a shawl around his upper torso, he set out from his cousin’s bungalow.
He went through the pretty tea-gardens, past the manager’s bungalow, the workers’ huts, past the little school set amidst the playing field. He walked along the winding little lane which led through the village, out into the paddy fields. The birds were singing their evensong; the wild-fowl and other denizens of the jungle were telling everybody of their desire of retiring for the night. All in all, a very peaceful and welcome set of sights and sounds to the jaded senses of my uncle, who had been a city man all his life.
The day was closing in, and he said to himself that it was time for him to turn back and go back home. His cousin’s wife had promised excellent mutton curry, with cauliflowers and baby potatos, and something special in the way of dessert, and the walk had given him just the right edge to his hunger.
He turned around…and froze. There, a few hundred yards away, strolling towards him in a purposeful manner, was a large tiger.
My uncle was never a man of quick wits – after all, as a clerk in the Railways, he was hardly ever called upon to use any of his wits, except for waking up real quick whenever the bossman came into the staff area.
But this time, he thought and moved fast. He turned around smartly, picked up his dhoti, and scrambled up the lane, away from the tiger, as fast as he could. After a while he turned his head – the damned tiger was walking fast behind him, and indeed had gained considerable distance.
My uncle wrapped his shawl tight around him, and ran. After a while, he turned his head – that horrible benighted tiger was now running full pelt after him!
My uncle ran for his life…past fields, through bushes, past villages, and clambered up a little raised ground, on top of which he found the railway line which connected the tea garden with Siliguri. He ran along the tracks, hoping that a train would come along and save his life. No such luck – he turned his head to see the tiger leap up the embankment, onto the tracks, chasing him down, gaining on him with every leap and, not to mention, bound. Another few yards, and the tiger will pounce on him.
My uncle commended his soul to Goddess Kali, and sought her intervention. As if in response to his prayers, he suddenly noticed a stick standing up straight from the ground next to the tracks and the tracks dividing into two. He paused just long enough to grab the top of the stick and pull it towards him with all his might.
After this, he ran along the main line, and the tiger ran along the chord line.