A collection of articles from this column will be released as a book in September. In preparation for that event, I asked a friend for marketing advice. Her first question was, “Have you written about tigers?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Although the friend moved on to other questions, I imagine others will ask me the same question.
A shiver of excitement runs through friends when they describe their encounters with tigers. For many, the sight of a large cat striding regally down a forest path sparked their life-long interest in wildlife. My interest in animals was, however, ignited in the backyard of my parents’ home in the city.
When I met Rom, he showed me cobras in neighbouring rice fields, monitor lizards in rock piles, and chameleons on trees near pump houses. During the monsoon, we visited seasonal ponds in casuarina plantations along the coast near the Madras Crocodile Bank to see frogs and toads. If the season was right, we spent hours on the beach watching the waves glow with the eerie blue-green luminescence of plankton. On winter nights, trees flashed with the courtship displays of thousands of fireflies. After experiences such as these, questions such as, what is Nature, where is “the wild”, confuse me.
Rom took me to forests too, but to the wettest ones where rare snakes, lizards and frogs live. The chances of seeing a tiger there were very low. We also spent a lot of time in the Andaman Islands where there are no tigers. We were not interested in the forests of Central India for a simple reason: they may be great for tigers but not for the creatures we sought.
I finally “saw” my first tiger in Bandipur in 2005 on a family holiday. We didn’t see enough of it to say we saw a tiger, but neither could we say we saw nothing. The news reached the hotel ahead of us, and everyone greeted us as if we had seen Brad Pitt and Salman Khan, hand in hand. I don’t remember anyone expressing as much excitement when Rom and I watched the glorious spectacle of a pair of big male king cobras wrestling for a full two hours.
A few years after the visit to Bandipur, we travelled to Bandhavgarh. Rom was to present a short movie showcasing India’s chief wildlife tourism asset — the tiger. When someone spotted the striped cat, word went out, and safari jeeps raced down dirt roads, eager to get their clients there before the animal moved. Not unlike how poachers operate, I imagine.
The Forest Department conducted ‘tiger shows’. Tame elephants cornered a tiger in an inaccessible spot, and for a price, tourists were taken on elephant-back to see the obviously bored cat. It wasn’t a wildlife park so much as an open-air zoo experience. Unlike many of the other creatures for which we waited hours and hours and made numerous journeys into the forest before being blessed with a sight, here tigers materialised as instantly as they do on television. It didn’t have the quality of a wildlife documentary as much as ‘Big Brother’.
Outside the park, we saw sarus cranes fling their heads up in the air and call raucously as they danced in fallow wheat fields. The birds seemed freer than those poor tigers imprisoned in “the wild”.
I don’t deny the tiger is a magnificent animal, but it has also been a commodity — for hunters, conservationists, poachers, tourists, entrepreneurs, photographers, researchers, rheumatic Chinese, and for countless writers — for a long time.
When you read the adventures of big game hunters in Africa or Asia, invariably there is a “menacing” mamba or an “aggressive” cobra they dispatch to prove their machismo. In my writing career, I naturally correct this imbalance by giving snakes and other less charismatic animals their rightful place in the galaxy of wildlife stars. Now you see why I don’t write about tigers, and I hope readers will forgive my bloody-mindedness.