Letter to a tiger

O tiger,

Black stripes on yellow, blazing, red eyes and canines that drip with death are, as a combination, one of nature’s aesthetic coups. The same black stripes on yellow, combined with wide, mellow eyes, innocent fierceness and tiny, pin-like canines are, I suppose, another of nature’s aesthetic coups. For rare is the species which fascinates man, both as innocuous cub and deadly adult. You, tiger, are the most fascinating of all.

Who are you, O tiger? Certainly not just a beast. We humans, who live outside your perimeter, call you the king of the jungle, the pinnacle of the food chain. The primordial being, for whom the jungle was made. Around whom the vines, the butterflies, the rabbits, the swine, the leopards organise their lives. Whose arbiter of destinies you are. Where a flash of yellow means not just danger, but death personified. You aren’t just the symbol of the jungle. You are the jungle.

And between you and us, exists a tenuous peace. We are the overlord of everything beyond your realm. There is fear and probable death, were we to enter your realm, unannounced. But we do cross the Rubicon, driven by hunger, by destitution, by poverty. For we have not the laws of fairness that you have – that hoary law of the jungle, that our Kipling sang so highly of. What we have is desire - for a few wild berries, a trapped rabbit, edible roots.

They say you are generous, that you are kind. That as long as we know and obey your law, we may tread in your land. That is the law, the law of harmony. The harmony of fear. The law that says fear the tiger; the law that says do not cross its path. Cut your grass, collect your berries, gather your firewood, and be on your way out of the jungle. Make not a sound, crack no twigs. Above all, recognise your presence, dare never to think that you are far.

For you are always present, but never seen, never heard, never smelled. We may see your signs – a fading pugmark, some fresh scat – but we may never see you. We may never dare to see you. Perhaps there will be a flash of yellow, as you reinforce that you are there in the shadows. And we must fear. And tread in fearful silence. For that is your politeness, your adat, as they say in Sumatra. The politeness of the retracted claw.

The claw that when extended, must draw blood. The claw that is the sceptre and orb of the ruler of the jungle. The master of the food chain. In some of our drawings, we place even ourselves below you. Diagrams that often portray us, frail, old, unarmed. Because when we are inside your realm, we admit that we are just another species of ‘prey’, taking our deserved place among the antelopes, nilgai and wild pigs.

But are you truly that fabulous beast that walks the jungle, deserving completely of that awe-stricken worship you get? The being that only a goddess may mount, the mighty being that is the slayer of demons? The being who bears virtue and virility in his every bone?

Or are you yet one more of nature’s miserable beasts, making your journey of life just as any other does. The beast, and not mythical being, that must struggle for everyday life? The beast that kills, eats, wastes? The beast that scavenges carcasses when hungry? The beast that starves when there is no prey? The beast that is mortal, that must fornicate, and bear labour pains, and struggle in anxiety to raise its cubs? The beast that can run no faster, spring no ambushes? The beast that is tempted by the shikari’s bleating goat?

Perhaps you truly are as frail as we are. You not have a mother’s tender affection for her children, her anger when threatened. You have man’s rapaciousness, driven mad by sexual urges. The need to fight, to lay waste. But above all, you know, you are master, only in the realm we let you have. Beyond your jungle, in the fields where we cut down the ancient vines and trunks to make way for our crops, you have no honour.

There is death and degradation, were you to stray from our realm. And we know you stray, for when you are old and mangy, you come for our dogs, our goats, our cows. And then we hunt you. We corner you into thickets with drums; the shikari on his elephant raises his gun to fire. We drag your carcass out, we roast your flesh, and we strip your skin for an ornament. An ornament of bravery, that a hundred strong men slaughtered a weak tiger.

But you are not that tiger. For that is a mere jungle beast, Panthera tigris to the zoologists, that only appears to be a tiger. You are no beast, you are a being. The being that is the spirit of the jungle. Not an image or an icon, you are the awe-striking silence, the many-layered textured that the jungle is. That primeval fear, that we knew as fire-less, iron-less cavemen many thousands of years ago. The fear that the monkeys know, the antelopes know, the birds know.

When you will be there no more, when your presence will not haunt the jungle anymore, the jungle will die. There shall be no more law, no more adat. The realm will fall away, burned, hacked, chapped, stabbed, trapped, speared, shot, dynamited by us, the perpetual invaders at your gates. Our bulldozers will move in, there we shall build premium resorts. The poor and the hungry of ours shall go elsewhere, the rich and overfed shall seize your land. We would have seized it a long time ago, but fear. Because you are there, you are present. That primeval fear we have for you, that is still law in your jungle.

But are you really the jungle itself? The vines were there, millions of years before your presence. The insects were there – the butterflies, the dragonflies, the maggots, the cockroaches. The worms were there, turning the soil. The banyan was there, the peepul, the mango, the silk-cotton, the flame of the forest. The rotting wood on the jungle floor, the myriads of tiny leaves on the jungle canopy. There were there before you. The law of the jungle was there.

Long before you, there were the sabre-tooths and the mammoths. They had a presence, and our ancestors had the same primeval fear. The law of the jungle was the same law that holds now. And long before the banyan and the mango and the silk-cotton jungle, there were the swamps. The vines were there then, so were the dragonflies. Strange fish swam in those waters, great lizards waded in them. They too had a presence. And before the swamps there was the great ocean in which life thrived. There were great beasts and lesser beasts. The law was written there, deep in the ocean.

You are not indispensable, O tiger. You and I will vanish. The myth, the adat, the awe, the fear. The banyan, the mango, the silk-cotton. Even the ancient vines and dragonflies. To be replaced by the resort-houses and their chlorinated swimming pools. But there will be a jungle forever, known by a newer name. And the law of the jungle, the harmony of fear, the law that is eternal and beyond repeal shall reign then too.


Image:- Kuniyoshi Utagawa, ukiyo-e, The Tiger.


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