Tiger Under Pipal Tree

Volume 29: Autumn 2014


The tiger lay sprawled upon a stone girdle that ran around the pipal tree’s trunk. He was a picture of elegance in his fashionably striped suit. His furry little member peeping out from between his thighs and the soft curve of his belly gave him just that little touch of helplessness, so attractive in all things male.

The pipal spread its shiny green leaves above him, a canopy of soothing noise thanks to all the birds, not least the jungle and common crows. Together they sang and chattered incessantly amongst themselves. The sharp ‘yik, yik, yik’ of squirrels punctuated the restful atmosphere every now and then. A bus honked. Its tyres screeched. But these sounds were not close enough yet to be a bother. I began to feel good in spite of my unsuccessful work-related trip to a town that lay close to the pipal tree. I was tired and badly wanted to go back to New Delhi. But the sight of the tree – and, I must confess – the reclining tiger, made me feel like stopping, until at least the car or whatever transport my office had arranged returned to take me back. The lines of a poem I had learnt at school popped into my head, except that instead of the chestnut tree and the village smithy, it sang of other things. I sauntered into the shade as I fished into my handbag for a pen and something to write on before the poem vanished entirely from my mind. Soon I was mumbling and writing at a furious pace on the scrap of paper balanced precariously on my bag, supported by my other hand. A few minutes later, a curious sensation of being watched intently, even hungrily, made me look up. The tiger met my eye, held it, and then blinked like a tabby waiting for a belly rub. He stared at me again for what seemed to be an extraordinarily long pair of seconds before raising his chin and sniffing the air.

‘Are you in season?’

‘What?’ I said, too shocked at first by his impertinence to realise that tigers don’t talk, at least not in English. Had a man said those words I would have abused him roundly. Men, of course, use a different language, in terms of both tongue and body, and it’s hard to make them pay for the things they do. The tiger, however, had an innocent air about him, as if he were genuinely curious. He certainly was an interesting specimen.

He sniffed again, swaying his head like a sunflower in the breeze. ‘I say. You are indeed.’ He rested his head on his paws. ‘Never mind. You’re not my type. So what’s the rest of the poem like?’

Of course, the only talking tiger I knew about was Hobbes, who converses only with Calvin, while the rest of us remain mere spectators and eavesdroppers. But today was turning out to be rather unusual. I am a scribe and I was determined to make the most of it. After all, who gets the chance to have a conversation with a real live tiger?

‘It’s there,’ I said pointing at my head, mock-gun fashion. ‘I haven’t finished composing it, but. . . .’

‘You made it up? All by yourself?’

‘Well,’ I said, feeling pleased. ‘There’s a poem called “The Village Blacksmith” by H. W. Longfellow. He’s a poet we had to read in school. This poem was the one that most schools, the English-medium convent ones at least, used to teach. And I sort of took off from it and created something new. . . .’

‘Never heard of him,’ he said, interrupting me. He examined his long curving claws and drawled, ‘The one that folks – city folks, tourists etc. – usually recite when they come to the Sundarbans is “Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright”. Heard that one?’

‘Oh yes. Yes, of course. It’s by William Blake. We had to read him in school as well.’

‘I wonder why they like to hang around reciting that dumb poem every time they see either me or my friends. Most can’t even progress beyond the first two lines. There are usually a couple of chaps standing around with guns and sticks. There’s also strong wire fencing between us. The cowardly idiots. I could’ve grabbed their miserable, pompous necks, you know. Shaken the stuffing out of their woolly heads.’

‘So you’re from the Sundarbans?’

‘Yep. I am.’

‘You’ve travelled pretty far.’ This was the Grand Trunk Road, and we were a hundred miles or so away from New Delhi.

‘I was on my way to Delhi. Since that’s your capital, I was hoping my protest would be heard.’

A tiger on a protest mission? This was even better than a talking tiger. Here I was, stranded in no man’s land, having missed the bus in more ways than one, and now not only was there was a light burning bright, but it was sensational light. I sat down near him, unzipped my bag, took out my laptop and prepared to take notes.

‘What are you protesting?’ I asked innocently, quivering with excitement within.

The tiger sniffed, looked at me with puzzled eyes, and sniffed once more. ‘Strange,’ he said, but more to himself. ‘Now it’s different.’

I cleared my throat. ‘Um, I’m a journalist, a reporter at a leading Delhi paper. I can help you. Even make you famous.’

‘Tigers are already famous,’ he said contemptuously. ‘For centuries and centuries. Been painted, photographed, written about, shot and stuffed. I don’t need fame. I need food. PROPER FOOD!’

My blood turned cold. All the residents of the pipal fell silent.

‘I’m hungry,’ he said, and launched into a tirade.

Seems he’d been on a diet of bread and milk and the odd rat or two for months. The price of mutton having gone up, chickens being banned on account of the bird flu, the spotted deer too fast among the mangroves for his injured paw; and with humans becoming more and more of a health risk as far as foods went, he didn’t have much choice. He showed me the paw. There was a blister between two of its toes. It looked like there was something wedged between them, too. I gingerly extracted a small pinecone. He looked offended that it was only a pine-cone.

‘Pine-cones are sharp, and can be painful,’ I said. ‘I had a German Shepherd once that used to get cones from the Casuarinas in our driveway into his paws. He would limp until one of us got it out. These are smaller than pine, but as bad. Once he even cut his paw and we had to get a vet to look at it.’

He licked his injury. ‘Thanks. It’s a bit better already. But do you think a vet will look at it anyway?’

‘Well,’ I said, looking around. ‘I don’t think there are many around here. But there’ll be one at the Delhi zoo for sure. I mean, one that’s qualified to treat tigers. He’ll give you an injection to start with.’

He studied his paw as he digested the information. ‘It’ll heal. All it needs is nourishment. And I could use a decent meal. Right now!’

His tummy growled, alarming me and the other fauna around us.

‘How about cows?’ I offered. ‘They’re not as fast as deer. And tasty, too though I prefer veal. More tender.’

‘Cow?’ He was shocked. ‘You eat cow? You are an interesting woman.’ He sniffed, and looked a little disappointed before warming up to what, I realised soon enough, was his pet subject. ‘I’m a member of an endangered species. No, am endangered. But I’m not sure I’m up to risking a Hindu mob for the sake of cow. Don’t know how you managed to evade them.’ He looked at me with suspicion. ‘What’s the deal, lady? First, you come into season. Then it’s suddenly gone. And now, you’re tempting me with cow?’

‘Deal? What deal?’ I said, annoyed at his constant reference to my being in season. ‘If you’re so scared of the Hindu-Fundoo fanatics, why don’t you eat buffaloes? They’re not holy.’

The tiger looked at me in disgust. ‘And how does a starving tiger get buffalo in the Sundarbans, pray?’ He growled along with his tummy. ‘You city people are all the same. All you know are some poems that you mugged up at school. And the art of snapping in and out of season. You’ve no idea about the country. You know nothing! When did buffaloes get into the Sundarbans? Eh? I ought to eat you up for your ignorance, skinny as you are.’

I was alarmed. The situation was getting sticky. ‘I’ve got some ham sandwiches. If you want,’ I suggested.

‘What are they?’ asked the tiger, at once curious and suspicious.

‘It – it’s a kind of processed meat. Pig’s meat.’

‘Pig? Hmm? Pig, did you say? Aah! You’re a Christian, then? Christians eat both pig and cow, right?’ he said, pleased with his knowledge.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘They do. But I’m not a Christian.’

The tiger was stereotyping me. He was typecasting me. I hate it when anyone does that! I felt rebellion boiling in my veins once more. Why can’t we just live and let live without bunging people into cubbyholes?

‘I’m Hindu. Or rather my parents are. I don’t care one way or the other,

as long as I get to eat and live the way I please,’ I said, throwing caution to the winds and regretting it almost immediately. I didn’t know anything about the tiger’s philosophy, ideology or political leanings. If he had been a tigress I could have hazarded a guess. But one has to be careful these days. It doesn’t take much to stir up controversy – though it can be good for one’s career, mind you, provided you manage to get out alive in the first place.

The tiger looked quizzical. His tail twitched. A langur monkey let out a sharp cry of alarm from another tree.

‘I didn’t know Hindus ate beef,’ he said at last.

‘They do. I mean they used to. Centuries ago, as a matter of fact. But we mustn’t talk about the past. A historian – D. N. Jha to be precise – got into trouble for digging too deeply into Hindu eating habits.’

‘Doesn’t make any sense,’ said the tiger. ‘Humans are funny creatures.’

‘I agree,’ I said and sighed. The sandwich had begun to wilt in my hand.

‘You want?’

He put out his good paw and took the sandwich. ‘Rather salty, but nice,’ he said, chewing slowly. ‘In days of yore we ate baby boar. Very juicy.’ He sighed.

He looked so forlorn, lying there thinking of baby boar. ‘Would you like a smoke?’ I said.

‘Don’t mind if I do,’ he said, offering his lips to me.

I lit a cigarette and put it between them. The tiger puffed, and then took it elegantly in his claws and contemplated it. We shared the cigarette in silence for a while. The feeling was quite beautiful, sitting beneath the pipal, life humming above and around us, just the two of us. And the bus was still far away.

‘Where’s the rest of the poem?’ said the tiger suddenly.

A squirrel stopped in mid-yik.

‘Poem?’ I said blankly.

He prodded me with his paw. It was heavy and warm. ‘The one you wrote. The one about me.’

‘Oh, that one!’ I said, dipping into my bag. I took out the paper. It was a flyer advertising home-delivered burgers on one side and plain white on the other. My poem was on what had been the blank side. ‘Shall I?’ I said, and cleared my throat.

‘Please,’ he said. ‘Be my guest.’

The tiger blew smoke rings delicately into my face as I read.


Tiger Under Pipal Tree


Beneath the spreading pipal tree

Panthera Tigris Tigris lies.

The Bengal tiger: a mighty cat is he

With lethal claws and sinewy thighs.

His neck is strong, his carriage proud

Sharp as thorns his tawny eyes.


His fur is yellow, black and thick

His face would shame the sphinx.

His ears are pricked for the faintest sound

None can fathom what he thinks.

He stalks and kills four-legged and two:

Their nemesis, their royal jinx.


Morning, noon, at dusk or night

Birds and beasts all hear him roar –

Dread his silent, padded step,

And the terror lying in store

For the unwary, old or slow

Upon the forest floor.


Humans trespass through his land

Or shimmy up his trees

For flowers, fruits, and leafy herbs

And the precious toil of bees

False faces worn behind their heads

To mask their fear and unease.


He saunters to the forest’s edge

He sniffs the fragrant grass.

He hears the bellow of buffaloes

The bells of cows that pass

The bleats of goats and lambs and ewes

And smiles his tiger smile at last.


These sounds are music to his ears

Manna from the heavens.

He crouches flat upon the ground

With narrowed eyes – and listens . . .

To the timid beat of the moving feast,

For the one at sixes and sevens.


Silent and intent upon his hunt

Swiftly through the woods he goes.

A blur of yellow among twigs and leaves

With knives at the ends of his toes.

He pounces on that unguarded neck,

His teeth unclasp, and – Snap! They close.


Thanks! All thanks to thee, O Goddess

Fierce queen of forest, stream and dell.

Let man heap flowers at your feet

Chant hymns and ring their bells

I am the one you ride with pride

Mother, in your holy heart I dwell.


Let them bring out sticks and guns

Their angry, warlike tom-tom drums

Their frantic howls and whooping cries.

Their poaching thieves, their city spies.

Furless, clawless, toothless, meek,

Honour and glory in my fall they seek –

Those fools will never understand                        

Nature’s will nor Nature’s hand!


 ‘Well?’ I said, after a long pause.

The tiger replied with a soft snore. The cigarette had fallen and lay burning itself out on the ground below. I reached over and opened his left eye with my index finger and thumb. He stretched his forearm to encircle and draw me close. He yawned hugely.

 ‘Long poem,’ he said, finally opening both eyes. ‘I lost you after the sphinx. Was the original as boring?’

I felt hurt. I don’t write poems every day. In fact I don’t write poems at all. They just don’t pay. Now I had written one and it was about him. I looked at my poem again. Maybe if I typed it out it would look better.

Maybe the mistakes, if there were any, would become clearer. But I didn’t want to. I had followed a classic poem’s rhythmic structure. That was a smart move. I didn’t know anyone who had rewritten an old poem and made it fresh, made something entirely new.

 ‘You know,’ said the tiger, interrupting my reverie, ‘I don’t particularly care for human meat. It’s quite tasteless. There just isn’t enough muscle for me to chew on, and there’s too much fat. To make matters worse, all this boom-shoom, shining-whining business has severely cut down our habitat. Can you imagine us chasing humans for food in these concrete jungles? We’d starve. Almost everybody has a car these days. And of foreign make, too!’ The tiger brought his face close to mine. His breath smelled of cigarettes and ham and a hint of what must have been dead rat. ‘Got another light, baby?’ I flinched. The cheek of it!

A brown kite passing overhead silently dropped the carrion that it had been trying to tear apart in mid air. The tiger looked at the fallen morsel wistfully. He shrugged. ‘Sometimes I feel like a hyena,’ he said and looked moodily around, spitting out a stray bit of tobacco.

I nodded in sympathy, and handed him another one that I’d already lit. ‘Have you discussed these problems amongst yourselves?’ I said. ‘You have a union, I suppose.’

The tiger looked at his claws. ‘Oh, we are united all right, but forming a union? That’s so sheepish! Herd mentality, if you ask me. No way. We big cats like our designated spaces, our individuality. We walk alone.’

‘I agree. But sometimes you need to get together; that’s what coalition governments do, you know. Have you ever been to New Delhi?’

He looked at me irritably. ‘No I haven’t. I just told you that I’m on my way there.’

‘Yes, yes, yes, ‘I said hastily. ‘Yes, so you did. By the way, did you know that you’re one of our national symbols?’

He snorted. ‘Is that why we are being persecuted?’ ‘

You’re not being persecuted!’

 ‘Oh yeah? We aren’t?’ snarled the tiger, making me flinch again. ‘Look at us. No, look at me, sitting here with a belly that’s only a quarter full – milk and bread, a couple of mangy rats and, OK, one ham sandwich. And I’m talking politics with a pen pusher? If I had any self respect I’d gobble you up right here and now!’

He was so angry that he got up and roared. I took the blast of his dead-rat-ham-sandwich-cigarette breath. The crows and other birds fled the pipal. The bus, which was quite close now and weighed down by passengers on its left side, came careening round the corner and juddered to a halt. There was silence for a few seconds, and then the cry rang out.

‘Sher! Sher! Sher!’

‘What’s that noise?’ the tiger said irritably.

‘The result of your roar. They’re shouting your name now.’

He looked smug. Then a fist-sized rock hit him squarely on the nose.

‘What’s this?’ he yelped, holding a paw up to his bloodied face.

I turned around to look, and my blood grew cold for the second time. Two dozen men, and some women too, were charging at us. They had stout sticks and one of them had what looked like a home-made gun. They were pointing at me and making signs at me to flee. Some had started to beat a rhythmic tattoo against the bus’s tin sides. Several rhesus macaque monkeys took this as an invitation to jump on top of the bus and go hoop-hoop-hoop. Altogether, they were creating enough hoopla to summon Yamdoot, the lord of death himself. He didn’t appear, of course, but the thought gave me an idea.

‘Quick,’ I said. ‘If you want to save your skin, allow me to jump on your back and pretend to be the goddess.’

‘Which goddess?’ he said, swishing his tail.

‘Durga,’ I said in my haste, and immediately realised my mistake. Durga rode a lion, not a tiger. ‘I know it’s not Kali,’ I said, more to myself than him. ‘She stands on her hubby’s chest. But why are we discussing goddesses? You want to be saved or not?’

‘Of course I do,’ he snapped. ‘How do I know there’s a tiger-riding goddess in your neck of the woods? What if they kill me, or both of us?’

‘You of all folks should know,’ I snapped back. ‘Isn’t there one such goddess for every village in and around your Sundarbans?’

‘That’s Bon Bibi. Nobody knows her here. If you’re so smart, go figure out a goddess these chumps are familiar with.’

It took me a few seconds, but I managed to remember her name. ‘It’s Jagadhatri,’ I said, as the name fell from head to lip like manna. ‘Jagadhatri Ma. She rides a tiger, I’m sure. Quick now!’

He stepped down and I leapt up onto the concrete girdle, slung a leg over his back, and clutched his neck for dear life. The crowd drew ominously closer.

‘Don’t cling to me,’ he said. ‘Behave like a goddess. Fling your arms around. Shout. Chant. Do something.’

I slung my bag across my shoulders, making sure my laptop was safe inside, and tied my scarf around my head like a bandanna. The crowd had stopped advancing. The people were crying out to me now. They looked shocked, terrified and incredulous. Clearly, they had never seen a woman on a tiger before. Just then, and unbidden, Edward Lear’s famous limerick danced into my mind like a wayward macaque. This one, I decided, I would definitely not recite. No way. But the lines were already having their effect on me, and all I could think of next in response to the tiger’s nagging was the ‘Hail Mary.’

‘Hail Mary,’ I squeaked. ‘Full of grace. The Lord is with thee. . . .’

‘What’s this?’ cried the tiger. He had already set off at a trot down the road. ‘What’s with you now?’

‘It’s a prayer. Keeps the Devil away,’ I said, between gulps of air. ‘We had to say it in our school. Compulsory. Catholic school you know. So, it’s sort of gone into me. . . .’

‘Stop being an idiot,’ he said, turning to glare at me. ‘My nose is bleeding. Can’t you see? Your Hail Mary won’t keep those devils away. Chant or sing something else. Anything that sounds heathen. How else will you sound like a true goddess?’

He had a point. My recitation sounded tame, fit for church or chapel or school assembly hall, not the highway with dozens of people after us with sticks and a gun. They hadn’t yet fired it, I noted with relief. Maybe because of me. But if we wanted to make good our escape, I realised, I would have to stop them in their tracks and inspire them . . . to take pictures! I had to behave like Jagadhatri!

Lady Luck winked at me. I spied a young pipal, probably an offshoot of the older tree, growing a few yards away. I reached for one of its branches that lay low and twisted it out of its sappy socket. My leafy lance firmly grasped in my hand, I flailed my arms about, yelling out the poem I had composed. Sure enough, after a few paces, I heard the comforting click of cell phones, and then the chorus began:

‘Devi Ma! Devi Ma ki Jai! Sherowali Devi! Sherowali Devi Ma ki Jai!’

Some even prostrated themselves as they chanted, their voices ringing out clear along the tranquil road, streaking forward like shiny silver bullets beneath the moon – which of course hadn’t yet risen, though the atmosphere was such that it warranted a moonlit dusk or night, a time for unnatural endings.


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