The Tiger Growls Thrice

I

The Tiger in the Grove

Dusk was falling fast as I waited near the river bank waiting for Kalua to bring the small boat. Across the wide expanse of the river, I could see the outline of the mangrove forest. There was my ancestral land. There was Grandfather waiting for me. The sound of the lapping waves was suddenly disrupted by an urgent cry from Kalua.

“Little Master! Chotebabu! Quick find a clay pot and howl into it – roar like the tiger.”

“What are you talking about? How can I …?”

Kalua burst upon the scene agitated and worried. He waded into the waters and started looking for something – a clay pot I suppose.

“Chotebabu! The tiger yearling has got caught in the bamboo thicket. Those playful trees! They lie low and suddenly spring up without warning trapping anyone happening to be in their midst.”

Sensing his urgency I joined him in the search. Later there would be plenty of time for explanations. Kalua was my childhood attendant, friend and guide who had taught me the ways of the forest as had his father cared for my parents and grandfather.

Her search was not in vain. Soon a banana-stalk-raft came bobbing up with a clay pot. It was the custom in these remote parts of the Sunderbans – the deltaic region of the mighty Ganga, for snake victims who fail to respond to village doctors to be set afloat with food and water in the hope that after some the victim might return to life. Except for the pot, the raft did not tell any tale. Did the victim recover and go ashore after a drink of water or did the crocodiles …? Kalua broke into my thoughts roughly.

“Chotebabu! Quick!  Roar like the tiger into the pot. Roar like I had taught you.”

“But why don’t you do it?”

“Don’t argue. I have problems. Can’t you hear the shouting gleeful villagers closing in with their lanterns? They will pelt their enemy – this tiger – to death. Stone the young fellow to death. Roar! Chotebabu roar!”

I was swept away by the urgency in Kalua’s voice.  I roared. It matched the violence of the real tiger. I roared thrice and stopped as Kalua raised his hand.

The roar was followed by deafening silence. The humans had become statues. To the trapped animal the encouraging roar spelt new strength. The animal gathered up anew his failing powers and broke free from the bamboo tentacles. We saw a form – a streak of lightning arch our heads and plunge into the river. The tiger broke out in powerful strokes and was soon out of sight in the failing light. Kalua was overcome with joy but like the stern tutor, he did not forget to remind me again of what he had taught many years ago.

“Remember you can roar three times into the pot. No more. Three times you can do this in your life.”

“Nine roars?”

“Yes. Each time throw the pot into a water hole or bury it under a tree. But if you try it a fourth time remember – the tiger will get you.”

I shrugged. What I believed as a green youth no longer carried weight. Anyway, thank goodness the royal animal did not die a cruel death. I was eager to go ashore – eager to meet my grandfather.

We boarded a dinghy as Kalua caught the tide steering it powerfully to the opposite shore.

II

The Attack

Ashore, the first thing I saw was the gate – padlocked iron gate standing in the middle of nowhere, guarding nothing, surrounded by the slush and jumping fish of the retreating tide. The brick walls around it had crumbled to dust but the ornate strong gate stood powerful, faithful, mighty and proud.

“Kalua – look there is a lamp and flowers on the mane of one of the lions of the gate. Does grandfather continue to give thanks to this faithful iron god for saving so many lives when the floodwaters rose up the steps of the main house?”

Kalua nodded. I remembered. Every night the old man would repeat this story of how he carried me in his arms and spent the stormy rainy night atop the gate when the river rose. Not only humans – cats, the dog and even the household snake and few monkeys found a perch on the massive gate.

Leaving memories behind we trod carefully across the pathway of bricks carefully laid out from the banks of the river towards firm ground that led to the main house – an echo of a once majestic structure. Grandfather silently took me in his arms – always a man of few words; only a tear or two expressed his emotions and gladness at seeing me; I was all that was left of his once-bustling family. The river and the forest had taken everything but even then the old man refused to leave behind the land to the comfort of city life.

Grandfather was surrounded by books and manuscripts – notes on medicinal plants and herbs. My parents were also at this work with him when tragedy struck. Grandfather was always stoic –  accepting life as it came, but today he was in a bitter mood.

“Perhaps the mangrove forest and the mighty river will one day swallow even these – years of labour…”

I knew what he wanted to say. Even I had not shown any interest in his work although my subject dealt with flora and fauna. But I did not want to spend my life in this swampy land of floods, tigers, crocodiles and mosquitoes. My mind was westward bound. Beyond my study zone, all these traditional medicines and herbs held little interest for me.

My holiday initially started as planned – long treks into the forests walking or boating through the zigzag canals. Kalua was my guide and unknowingly I became once more absorbed in his recounting of strange tales and introducing not only new plants and animals but happenings and changes in the village settlements.

My visit was suddenly cut short by a phone call. It was for grandfather. He called me.

“Son, my friend just now rang up from Varanasi. It’s urgent. He wants a manuscript of mine dealing with snake venom and tiger scratches. Can you take it? You still have a few days left of your holiday.”

“Of course”

Together with the documents grandfather packed some herbs in a clay pot. Without delay, I returned to the big city and took the next flight to the holy city. I arrived at Varanasi airport and tried to hire a car to reach my destination – the house of Grandpa’s friend Jnanashankar Misra. It was few miles distant from the city centre and the cab drivers were reluctant. They grumbled. Times were very bad; there were robbers roaming around. However, I managed to make one agree but on condition I share it with a very fat person clutching on to a heavy suitcase for dear life. Fatty sat in front with the driver. I lay back in the rear seat enjoying the scenery dotted with peacocks and passing camel carts.

An hour later as we passed a huge well under a banyan tree in the midst of nowhere, things happened. In front of us, bamboo poles had been set up to block the unpaved road. Dozing I sat up. Misra had given directions but nowhere had he mentioned this thick grove – almost a jungle skirting a hill. It was dusk.  By now we should have reached his house. Somewhere an owl hooted. A fox howled. Rapidly the sun began to set. The action started suddenly. Two men, their faces covered by the loose end of their pagris (headgear) surrounded our car and the driver suddenly lunged at fatty.

“Hand over the suitcase. Get out of the car.”

Fatty refused. But the robbers were insistent.

“If you care for your life – leave the suitcase and get out.”

The argument heated up. A scuffle followed. In the melee, the driver had forgotten me and the others had not noticed me. Their focus was the suitcase.

I quickly thought up a plan. Crouching low I emptied the clay pot of its contents on to the car seat and made good use of the jar. I put my mouth into it and gave out the roar of the tiger. I did not have to complete the third roar before everybody ran helter-skelter. Fatty, however, was a brave fellow. He had fallen on to the road but although bleeding he did not let go of his precious suitcase. Without waiting for the echo of the third roar to end I jumped into the front seat and pulled up Fatty beside me. Immediately started the engine. We zoomed off. Soon the tale was told and retold in the warmth of Misra’s living room and finally reached the ears of the authorities.

III

The Last Roar

Twice! I had mimed the roar of the tiger twice. Kalua kept reminding of the fact over and over again as I bid him goodbye before returning to the city to take off for the West to complete my studies.

“Chotebabu if you do it the third time then the tiger will surely get you; the animal will see through your trick …”

All that was three years ago. I completed my course and was returning once again to Grandpa but this time my wife Sheela was with me. The old man was the same – tall and straight defying time and age. He tried his best not to show how thrilled he was that now I had returned with a life partner. He hoped that our work would keep us here in this region.

“No! Grandpa –our research will take us to the hills – the source of the Ganga and not this region where it plunges into the sea.”

Kalua who was much the same except slightly bent came with a tray of goodies. Grandfather did not argue further and went on to another subject.

“I am happy both of you share the same passion in your studies; let us hope in future you will be posted in the same work zone.”

Before dinner, I took Sheela to see the massive gate standing sentinel – alone and brave. It was dusk. I wanted to show off to her my skill as a ventriloquist. At first, she did not take my boasting seriously.

“You mean you can roar like a tiger and the animal …’

“Oh no – the animal does not respond; that would be scary! But those who hear it get frightened … do you want to hear me try?

The background was perfect Kalua spoilt the effect. He was coming with a second round of hot tea but as soon as he heard me he went off in a huff dumping the tray. Sheela was puzzled. These superstitions are so woven into the fabric of the locals that I could do nothing to remove them from the core of their beliefs. However, I roared thrice. It had the desired effect on Sheela!

At night I joined Kalua as he was massaging Grandpa’s feet.

“See Kalua – I have roared thrice but nothing has happened. The tiger has not got me .”

Kalua did not reply.

Two days later just as we were packing to return a letter arrived from the department. It expressed their regret that we could not be posted in the hills but since the government does not want to break up family life and since there is a dearth of researchers in the Sunderban, they have posts for both of us here; in fact, funds are pouring in for the project. Grandfather chipped in.

“What is the project on?”

“It’s Operation Tiger!”

Grandfather did a rare thing – he burst into laughter.

“Son! So you see the tiger has got you! Kalua come here. Bring me the red thread. I must tie it around their wrist. It will keep them tied to tiger-land.”