Story: A Tiger’s Tale
By: Deepti Nalavade Mahule
“I remember that night so well,” my grandmother began the story, her wrinkled face and milky eyes focused on some point far away in her ancient memories. Her audience sitting cross-legged around her – grandchildren, grandnieces, grandnephews and their friends from the neighbourhood – watched her toothless mouth open and close, hanging on to every word that came out. In all my fifteen years, I had heard the story many times before and yet I could not help being pulled into her narration. It also helped draw attention away from worrying thoughts swirling in my head about what had occurred at the school principal’s office.
“It happened a long time ago,” Grandma continued, “we lived on the outskirts of this busy and as yet, unborn city. It was just a tiny town surrounded by a smattering of villages and thick jungle growing ferociously between every settlement. There was no electricity back then and my parents and us four children would eat supper by the wood stove over which my mother prepared every meal. That night, we talked about the tiger that was terrorizing nearby hamlets and attacking cattle, listening wide-eyed as our father warned us not to venture out alone after dark in the sugarcane fields. We finished eating and began to prepare for bed. My oldest brother, not a boy anymore but a young man, was in the habit of strolling down the path that lead away from our tiny hut to smoke a beedi* after supper. He was my favourite sibling and I was always the one he brought home the choicest sweets for after work. Undeterred by the earlier conversation, he got ready to leave, promising not to stray from his usual route that stopped before the fields and the forest. I whimpered in protest and tried to appear angrier by widening my eyes until they almost popped out. Laughing at what he considered to be mere childishness, he left the house. I decided that I was not going to give up so easily. My imagination was on fire and in it, I clearly saw him becoming the tiger’s dinner. I pretended to lie down in bed and managed to slip out soon after. As he set out, I followed him like a cat, jumping between shadows under the full moon hanging like a bright lantern in the starless sky.
He reached the end of the narrow path, past the last house with its cattle shed. All was still, most of the village occupants being fast asleep. He wandered farther on ahead and to my relief, settled down on a tree stump at the edge of a clearing beyond which spread out sugarcane crops rippling in the faint breeze. I leaned against a nearby tree and watched fireflies flitting among the branches, their lights switching on and off as if in tune with the seconds passing by.”
Grandma paused. “Have you ever seen a firefly, children?” She asked and glanced around at her listeners, most of whom were shaking their heads.
“I have, once, when I went to nature camp last year,” someone said.
“Aren’t they beautiful? When I was little I used to think that they were fairies … now that’s a story for another day. Let me finish this one.” Grandma said. “From my hiding spot, I glanced back at my brother. Flicking away the stub of his burnt-out beedi, he was about to get up, when a faint rustling at the corner of the field caught our attention.
What I saw next made my legs turn to water. The beast everyone had been talking about had emerged from a thicket and was crouching low like a coiled spring. It was a formidable animal, with dark stripes running all over its orange, muscular body that seemed to shimmer in the moonlight. ‘The tiger was huge! Six feet from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail with eyes blazing like hot coals’, my brother later told the others. By the time the story spread, the tiger’s length had increased from six feet to eight, with whiskers that almost reached the ground.
In a blink of an eye, it was upon him with its wide-open mouth revealing sharp, powerful fangs. Perhaps it had mistaken him for a domestic animal as he sat close to the ground. I froze, unable to even shout and scream for help. Forcing myself out of my fearful state, I looked around frantically and happened to notice an axe stuck in a log of wood. I glanced back at the dark and silent shapes of the huts behind us that seemed too far away. How much time would I loose running back to get help? If I tried to wield this weapon and failed, would there be one more victim? I had to think fast and choose wisely. Before I knew it, I had grabbed the axe and screaming at the top of my lungs had charged at the rolling ball of predator and prey. My brother’s blood-curdling shrieks drove me forward. Swinging the heavy axe above my head, I brought it down as hard as I could. I heard the tiger snarl in pain, as it looked up, startled. I shall never forget those eyes – those glowing orbs of green flames – searing into mine. From behind me came the shouts of villagers running towards us with weapons and fire to scare it off. They had been awakened by our screams and had rushed out to rescue us.
I heaved a sigh of relief as the beast, with a swish of its striped tail, slunk away and disappeared noiselessly behind the curtain of sugarcane. Rushing to my brother’s side, I almost fainted at the sight of his bloodied body. It took a long time to heal and he carried those scars to his deathbed. Everyone praised me for my bravery and I got an award from the government but I was more excited about something that the tiger had left behind.”
Grandma lifted the gold chain hanging around her neck and showed everyone the pendant that had been hiding under the folds of her sari. Capped in gold and yellow with age hung a large, curving tiger claw. The children gasped and rushed forward to examine and touch it.
I smiled to myself at how much I had enjoyed listening to her story. Withdrawing soundlessly from the roomful of children’s squeals, I tried to take a nap, lying in bed watching the ceiling fan whirl above me, yet sleep would not come. I got up and slumped down in a balcony chair still thinking about yesterday’s events.
My best friend Santosh and I had got hold of another student Kabir’s motorcycle late after school. Fooling around with it in the school parking area even when we did not have valid driving licenses yet, we had crashed it into some parked bicycles, damaging some of them and then had driven it into a fence, putting a hole through it. We ran away from the scene before anybody saw us. Kabir was brought in for questioning later by the principal after the watchman saw him picking up his motorbike. Kabir suspected us at once and we were summoned as well. On the way, Santosh had warned me not to say a single word that might give us away. Standing in the principal’s claustrophobic office under his piercing gaze and stiff moustache, with Kabir next to us seething with rage, I clasped my sweaty hands behind my back and prayed for the ordeal to get over fast.
“Sir, we were nowhere close to the parking area, Sir.” Santosh kept on saying, willing it to be the truth that had to be swallowed.
“You, Deepak,” the principal turned to me, “you are not saying much.”
“Sir, it wasn’t us,” my voice came out in a squeak.
The moustache quivered slightly. “Well, if it wasn’t you, then it must be Kabir here. After all, it was his motorcycle.”
“No Sir, it wasn’t me. These boys are lying,” Kabir said.
“It was your motorcycle,” the principal said to Kabir all the while not taking his eyes off us.
The minutes ticked by. I could not take it any more.
“Yes, it was us,” I blurted out.
A strong invisible hand that had until now been squeezing my throat suddenly relaxed its hold. The look that Santosh threw me said that his own hands were itching to take its place.
We were not immediately handed out punishments and were told to bring in our parents first. After coming out of the office Santosh had spat out an expletive at me and stormed off. I kept delaying telling my parents until I found the inevitable moment creeping closer and closer as the day ended. What punishment would be meted out tomorrow? When would Santosh start talking to me? I wondered again and again if I had made the right choice in owning up.
I was lost in thought when Grandma hobbled over and lowered herself into a chair beside me with a grunt.
“You look worried,” she said, ruffling my hair.
“Oh, just something minor that happened in school,” I said. I felt too embarrassed to tell her.
“Tell me, did your brother really have those tiger-bite scars until his death?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Yes, he did,” she said, “right till the very end.”
She paused for a moment and a shadow flitted across her face. “He also caused quite a few wounds himself – both physical as well as emotional.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Grandma sighed. “Deepak, you are old enough now to hear this. My brother was a different person after the tiger attack. The change did not happen overnight but dripped through as the years passed. At first, having escaped a sudden and horrible demise he became reckless. On one hand this helped him take enormous risks and set up a flourishing business. On the other, it made him arrogant and unable to tolerate faults in others. He also began to drink in excess. His short temper was specially directed toward his meek wife. The rest of us had all turned a deaf ear towards his dark moods until I happened to see black and blue bruises on my sister-in-law’s body. I had to gather up even more courage than when I had rushed at the tiger as I stood up for her and helped her get out of that abusive house for good.”
She looked down sadly at her bony hands. “He said that he had felt eternally grateful to me for saving him from the jaws of death but now, he would never forgive me for what he considered was my unnecessary meddling in his personal matters.”
Grandma squeezed her eyes shut momentarily at her unhappy memories. I struggled for the right words.
“You did the right thing always,” I said. “So, when are you coming back again after the operation? We’ll miss you.” She was going to travel to another city the next day for a hip replacement surgery and would be staying at my aunt’s place there.
“I’ll be back in a few months,” she said, “and that reminds me …” She removed the necklace from around her neck and taking my hand, placed it in my open palm. “Since you are the eldest grandchild, I wanted to give this to you before I left.”
“Oh! Why are you giving me such an expensive thing?” I asked.
“It’s not real gold. Yet, for me, the claw has always been priceless. I think it gave me strength when I had tough decisions to make. I don’t think I need it anymore. You keep it now.”
I held the necklace in front of me and gently touched the dangling tiger claw, admiring the iridescent colours that darted across as it caught the evening light.
I was not afraid anymore.
* * *
*beedi – a thin, Indian cigarette filled with tobacco flake and wrapped in a leaf.