It is like any other evening. The brown sahib sits on the porch of his mansion overlooking the street outside. From where I stand in the living room, I can only see his shining boots and his grey trousers. Though the rest of him is hidden from me, I know he is wearing his usual white shirt, starched stiff and ironed. His slim body belies his age, and though he has no paunch he wears suspenders with his trousers. He is expecting visitors, visitors unknown to him, yet, who come here every evening and ask him, “Where’s the tiger?”
Today the visitors are all in their twenties and all wearing T shirts with my picture on it – possibly another group that calls itself conservationists. There is one odd looking face among them. She introduces herself as Hua from China.
The sahib twirls his carefully groomed moustache as he leads his visitors into the living room, and, with an air of pride, he points in my direction. “Look at him,” he says. “What large teeth, the burning eyes, and what a shining coat!” People look at me with awe and at my owner with admiration.
“Wuh de ma, what a big tiger!” says the slit-eyed Hua in a strange accent. I see a kind of fear in her eyes as she shuffles some distance away from me.
“He won’t bite, Hua,” assures my sahib as he runs his hand over my smooth skin and tries to dispel the fear of the girl. Soon the group is convinced I am not that fearsome, at least not any longer, and sits around me. Even Hua, after some coaxing, snuggles into the couch next to me, though a measure of unease is still evident on her, and she rarely takes her eyes off me.
“Where did you get this one from?” asks a young man named Virendra.
The sahib always ignores that question. “Annie, bring us some coffee, will you?” He quickly diverts the talk. Then the memsahib makes her gracious appearance. She is tall like our sahib, but unlike him she is very fair. Her name is Anita, but the sahib loves to call her Annie.
It is not always possible to avoid such a question, not if it comes from a conservationist. “I am keen to know where you got this tiger from. You know it’s against the rules.” Virendra presses the sahib for an answer.
“A friend gave me, before he left for Australia,” retorts the sahib with a straight face. “And I too am a conservationist, a senior member of ‘save our tigers’ movement.”
It was Annie Memsahib and her tray loaded with coffee and snacks that come to the rescue. Not all have come here with the intention of seeing me. Some, like the plump boy sitting to the right, have come to feast on the delicacies offered by the memsahib. For now, they get busy indulging themselves with scones and muffins.
“In the good old days it was so different. Maharajas went hunting on elephant back. A royal sport it used to be,” memsahib says as she pours some coffee for Virendra.
“Thanks Ma’m,” says Virendra and takes his coffee. “Wasn’t that awful? I mean the indiscriminate hunting. All those people who killed tigers for fun or for personal gains must be put behind bars.” He turns towards the sahib and adds, “Don’t you agree with me, Sir?”
At this, the sahib winces somewhat, though very imperceptibly, but I do notice the momentary wrinkle that comes on his brow. He looks the other way. “What a glorious animal the tiger is!” he declares. “But what a pity, people hunted it down for sport!”
You brute! It’s because of you, human beings, I am in such a state here. I wish these people could hear me. But it was no good, such wishes! These humans never ever heard another animal, much less they would hear me now.
“I too have signed in for the campaign,” adds Roma. She was so frail and so small – just a skeleton, no meat – I wondered what she could have done to save me. “We distributed posters with pictures of the tiger, and we blogged a great deal on the Net and placed a lot of ads.”
Oh, so you blogged and turned my saviour! I pity myself. Such hogwash! This speaking up for me on the TV, placing ads, writing articles in papers, blogging, educating people, posters, T shirts; a hogwash! I continue with my monologue, knowing well these people aren’t listening one bit.
If you truly wished to conserve the tiger, all you needed to do was leave us alone. First you encroach into our jungle, cut down all trees and then make your houses, roads and factories right in the middle of our habitat. Finally, the biggest sham – you create the reserves, which happen to be the most dangerous place for a tiger. Your forest officials connive with the poachers and slaughter us right inside those protected areas.
“At the turn of the twentieth century there were 40000 tigers in India; within just a hundred years, this number had dwindled to 1411,” adds Virendra woefully. “And today, how many tigers are left in the wild? I wonder if there are any! The last count was a disaster; no one ever sighted a single tiger.”
“In the last Chinese year of the Tiger, that is to say, in 2010, the WWF counted only 45 tigers in our country,” speaks up Hua. “The year of the tiger has come around once again, but the big cat is no more found in China.”
They seem genuinely concerned but what use is it counting now? I know for sure I was the last tiger roaming free in the wild.
At this point, the plump boy finishes his repast, wipes his mouth and joins in the discussion. “My grandfather once told me, there was this man-eater that used to slink into our village at night and carry away our folks and sometimes our cattle. The news reached the king. He came with his rifle and bellowed, ‘Where’s the tiger?’ With a band of hunters he followed the trail of the animal into the jungle, waited the entire night and finally shot the beast.” He looks towards Memsahib expecting some more of her muffins.
There seems certain heroism attached to killing a tiger. Tales are woven with rancour towards us and valour towards our killers. There are people who take it upon themselves to avenge the death of some gazelle. I am portrayed as a tyrannous creature that kills and devours humans as well as other docile animals. As for the first part, it is more a fantasy of the human mind. We never cross a man’s path. If ever there was a scuffle, it was in the interest of self preservation. And for the second part– our role in preying on other animals– that’s our food, and that is exactly how nature ordained us to keep its balance.
“That’s precisely what has led the world to such a situation. After all, the tiger needs to prey for a living,” adds the sahib, after deliberating for a while on the plump boy’s account.
Well said, well said, Sahib. Go on, I am listening.
“Yes, we humans also kill for food. What’s wrong? The tiger is carnivorous,” says Roma, our frail saviour.
So long as you people limit your slaughters to your need for food, there would be no cause for us to lament. You say you do it in the most humane manner; we too do it in our ‘tigerliest’ manner. But you also display a wanton desire to kill for pleasure, for sports, for keeping trophies and for showing off.
I know what is coming next – a photo shoot. They crowd around me as I stand among them in my usual majestic pose, powerlessly. Flashes and clicks go off everywhere. Then, each, in turn, get themselves snapped standing next to me. Even Hua picks up courage, edges up to a whisker length and places a hand on my head. More flashes and clicks go off this time and I am reminded of another kind of shoot.
Just then a little girl comes running into the room with her mother scrambling behind her. All heads turn towards the newly arrived pair.
“Where’s the tiger?” cries the little girl.
“My girl wants to see a tiger,” says the mother. “We went to the zoo. The keeper says the last tiger there died yesterday.”
“Oh!” says the memsahib. “Gauri is gone. She was so lonely in there.”
“The keeper says you have a tiger in here. Where is it?”
“It’s right here.” The group disperses a bit and I come face to face with the new visitors.
“No! It’s dead. It’s a stuffed tiger!” the little girl screams.
Yes, I am dead. I stand in this majestic gait here, but only as a centrepiece, a trophy, a mute artefact of a cruel game. I am dead, because the brute of this sahib shot me in my reserve, some years ago. You’re right, little girl, I am dead. Not merely dead, but perhaps extinct!