On Seeing a Tiger in the Wild

Despite being condemned to mediocrity, there is at least one percentile ranking out there in which I do really well. Among the many billion human beings that have lived on this planet, only a vanishingly small fraction has seen a tiger in the wild. I’m one of those lucky ones. It’s only happened once, and I’ m not sure if it will ever happen again. But that event’s occurrence has ensured I occupy the 99.999th percentile of what seems to be a particularly interesting scale.

In 1981, I set off to observe spring vacation at a friend’s tea-estate in the Dooars region of North-Eastern India. I was not alone; I was accompanied by several classmates from my boarding school. Our host, a fellow student, had enticed us with tales of the dense forests that surrounded his estate, which promised to provide many opportunities for as-yet-undreamed-of adventures. It didn’t hurt that these verdant forests were home to rivers that featured limpid pools by the dozen for swimming hijinks in the spring heat.

The tea-estate was everything it was made out to be. Its manager was a mustachioed, larger-than-life adventurer with a booming voice and an insatiable appetite for big meals, large Scotches and driving his jeep rather recklessly through the narrow, rutted, and often spectacularly pot-holed roads that ran through the surrounding region. His sole concern during our visit seemed to be the arranging of one foray after another into the wilderness–each more delightful than the last–for his city-slicker wards. (These included a night-time high-speed drive through an abandoned WWII airfield; I hope to blog on that someday).

One fine warm evening, our plans called for a dip in a particularly salubrious riverine bathing establishment that lay some ten miles away. We drove there in two jeeps, one pulling an open-bed trailer behind it, on which some of us parked ourselves, frolicked in the river for an hour or so, and then headed back at sundown. As we drove on a narrow metalled road winding its way through forested landscapes rapidly being enveloped in the gathering darkness, the jeep in front stopped. Back in the rear vehicle, sitting on its open-bed trailer, we looked ahead, wondering what had caused the sudden halt.

The driver of the jeep raised his hand to call for silence, and then pointed to the right side of the road. Standing there, eyes wide open, with what can only be described as a calm, collected, and perhaps curious expression, was a Royal Bengal Tiger. (It looked pretty damn regal, and we were in Bengal.) We stared back; none of us carried cameras–or smartphones with cameras. There was no photo-opportunity here; there was no question of anyone alighting to take a closer look; someone would have to blink to bring this encounter to an end.

The tiger did; its inquiry into our affairs over, it turned and was gone. We stared into the undergrowth but all was dark.

I’ve often wondered, how that brief encounter could best be described. Nothing much happened in it: a little staring back and forth; no spectacular displays of tigerish speed or power; no dramatic visions of a lithe, brown blur; even its eyes were not “burning bright” enough. But all of that didn’t seem to matter; for those seconds as I stared at the tiger, it seemed to me that I wasn’t even staring at some concrete, flesh-and-blood entity, as much as I was staring at the product of a set of imaginations, the collective one of all those that had described the mythical tiger to me in print, image and story, and the resultant imaginative response that their efforts had triggered in me. Something tells me that it was just as well that I saw that tiger when I did, possessed as I was of that mix of naiveté and receptiveness to mythology that is distinctive of adolescence.

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