Awakening the Tiger
Some time, and who knows or really cares when ensnared in a metal-clad container moving at 760 kph through the night sky, I was roused from semi sleep by Captain Stephen Young instructing us to return to our seats and buckle up for a rough ride ahead. ‘…to be expected’ his disembodied voice informed us ‘at this time of year over the Bay of Bengal’. Visions of the thunder and lightning, foul winds and sheeting rain of late monsoon playing out underneath us were nothing compared to the turbulent vision of the Bengali tiger lurking in the Sundarbans far below.
I can so easily conjour up the beast, imagine it stalking the unwary in murky mangrove labyrinths and swimming brackish streams in search of further prey. I too easily conjour up the Bengali tiger of my childhood. The great cat that escaped from the circus and had my brother and I scared witless as we listened at the door separating us from the grown ups listening to the Sunday night serial on the wireless. Our mother scared us even further when she opened the door suddenly and my brother fell forward into the dining room. Her roar was louder at that instant than any man eating tiger in the jungle of nightmares; it chased us all the way into our darkened room; it howled us into our beds and echoed as we scrunched down under the blankets. Some time later my brother whispered loudly ‘What if the Bengali tiger is hiding under the bed?’ Since that moment, even on the hottest of nights, I am never able to drop my arm over the side of the bed without imagining the predatory tiger lying in wait.
I have never seen a Bengali (or any other) tiger in the wild and while I imagine I’d like to, I don’t really expect to. The closest I have come to one was at the circus where a beast far, far larger than life performed under the whip of its trainer, allowed him to place his head in its mouth and playfully swiped its great paws in a mock fight. We were enthralled. Later Dad told us that the tiger was both toothless and clawless and even at my tender age I thought it utterly cruel. But zoos are somehow worse. I could not bear to gaze for too long on the cages that held animal captive and human captivated. The restless pacing back and forth, the glazed eyes yearning for worlds unknown to me and the power rippling just beneath the surface made me sad and terrified all at once. My last encounter was in an erstwhile Maharajah’s palace on the edge of the Arabian Sea. Bengali or not, the sight of this huge stuffed relic with its glassy stare and silenced roar made my heart heavy. To the puzzled concern of my guide, I cried as I walked around its dusty case and studied it closely; its sheer size impossible to imagine as a moving mass – a striped body silently stealing through dappled forests – now you see me now you don’t! And now don’t is almost the operative word. At last count as few as 270 Royal Bengali tigers remain in the Sundarbans where they continue to swim between the islands and hunt for diminishing prey. They are also reported to kill as many as 100 villagers per year. My childhood fears were not totally unfounded.
But fears aside, tigers still figure in my life in curious ways. My Jungle Book sits on dusty shelves where my sympathy for Shere Khan in the face of Mowgli’s guile remains. My son has a tiger’s head tattooed on his right bicep. Faithfully copied from his favourite book of childhood, 'Paper Tiger', Simon says it keeps him safe. I wear a tiger’s eye bracelet for protection when traveling and a pot of talismanic Tiger Balm is never far from reach. And I am married to a tiger – that most auspicious year of birth in the Chinese calendar. But it is my friend Shweta, in Mumbai, who is passionate about saving India’s dwindling population of fewer than 1,500 tigers. She keeps them alive for me in her news of their fate and their survival rates in the wild.
But then, we are all caught in a race for survival. No longer wild, we have chosen instead to tame the jungle, claim top place in the food chain and imagine that we are the centre of the universe. Alas, poor Tiger.
The next time I awoke we were somewhere over Iran, India and turbulence and tigers left far behind. We were on a smooth trajectory to Barcelona. I lifted my window shade and there, on the wing tip, rode the blue moon of September.
I’ll be in Bengal in November. I dream of a boat trip into the Sundarbans. Perhaps like Pi I'll have a striped companion but am I yet brave enough to confront the waiting beast?
Tiger Tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?