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Written by Dan Wolff - Illustrated by Christopher Baldwin
Like all tigers, I was born blind and helpless and grew with my litter mates inside the densest and thickest part of the forest, hidden from all eyes, until we were old enough to be left alone by our mother. Those early days, spent in a warm heap, pummeling a breast for milk, make up my most peaceful memory, but, of course, they did not last. We grew frisky and bold. We fought for dominance, and I came at the top, which I was sure to demonstrate to my litter mates at every opportunity. The only person who was allowed to discipline me was my mother, but all other animals in the forest lived in fear of me, because I was a tiger!
The forest was in Madhya Pradesh and was thick with animals and bamboo. I learned to hunt, starting with partridges, peacocks and hares, my appetite increasing ferociously with each month, until I could catch sambar deer, and even chase langur monkeys up trees. When the time came to separate from my family I could take down a whole guar by myself. I was ready to find another male's territory, and, with scrapes and scents, challenge him for it.
My mother told me this before I left:
"My son, you are strong, and you will be the mightiest of all tigers, but you must avoid the human village. No good will come from hunting them."
"What is a human?" I asked.
"They are spindly like deer but cannot run fast. They look like easy prey, especially their young, but I have heard they can team together and make great trouble for tigers if they are insulted. They are best left alone."
But I was too confident in myself to pay much attention. I knew how to hunt and I fancied I could take a straggler human here or there with no one being the wiser. These were my opinions as, while I wandered the forest looking for a territory suitable for my might, I came upon a village.
It was the first time I had seen human beings. They did indeed look spindly, like sambars, and it was clear they were not able to run fast. Their young appeared completely defenseless, but never strayed far from their mothers. For some days I watched the village from the dappled bamboo, because I had it in my head that I wanted to kill a human and prove that a tiger need fear no living thing. So I watched them and considered my strategy. Initially I thought of simply darting into the village, snatching one of the young, and darting back into the bamboo where they could not follow, but I was intimidated by the numbers of them and strange noises they made. Instead I decided to pick one off along the trail they walked every day to their fields. The only problem was they moved mostly in packs, so I had to wait some days before I caught one on his own. By now I was too heavy to climb trees, so I lay in wait in a bamboo thicket until he passed, then crept out behind him.
You should have heard the wail that issued from that creature when I pounced on his back. It was unlike any animal sound I had heard and startled me enough that I fumbled the killing bite, latching instead to his shoulder, while he pummeled my young face. It was most unfair, because he continued his wail and I could hear the pounding footsteps of others of his kind approaching. Furious, I let him go and bolted into the bamboo, plotting my revenge. I would eat the whole village!
Unfortunately, the next few weeks were very uncomfortable for me. The humans took this natural attack as something to make a big fuss about and beat the bamboo thickets and set burning torches along the paths, frightening the prey animals in all directions. Hunting for a sambar to slake my hunger with, I stumbled onto the territory of an old male tiger, who boxed my face so severely my head rang for days.
"Fool," he said. "I suppose it was you who riled up that ant's nest of people. Now we'll never have peace until they catch you."
It was a humbling time for a tiger. I didn't like the idea of all of the humans chasing me, which was clearly a reverse of the natural order. Frightened, and growing skinny, I skulked about in the bamboo with the village on one side of me and the territory of the old male on the other.
It was only a matter of time before they caught me. Starving, I came across a fresh sambar carcass with no other tiger's scent on it, and as I sank my teeth into it I triggered the trap. It was my first experience in a cage. Try as I might, I could not break out, and I split one of my nails trying as the humans gathered around, poked me with sticks, and made delighted sounds. A cover was thrown over the cage, plunging me into darkness, and I was taken away from my beloved forest to a human town.
At first I was a terror to all who approached the cage, but as the days went by and I could not run or exercise or properly stretch, I admit I became meek. I was hungry all the time, you see, and dependant on the humans for fresh meat, which was brought to me by one particular human, whom I will call Langur, after the monkey, for his wily ways. I grew to anticipate Langur's appearances, waited impatiently for him, could barely stop myself from growling with pleasure when he appeared with his skinny hare carcasses. As I ate he stratched my head through the cage, which I allowed, because I feared if I bit his hand off at the wrist the meat might stop coming. I was still very young, you see, and after some months in the cage my memories of the forest and the natural order of things were beginning to blur and become hazy.
The day came when I was emptied from my cage into a larger cage, with room to pace and even to pounce and leap a few steps, and Langur entered the cage with me. He had no meat with him this time but carried a chair and a wooden board. He was at my mercy, I saw, but I could not decide to kill him, for there was still no way out of the cage. Nevertheless, it had been months since I had been in the presence of another animal and my urge to assert my dominance came out. I charged at him. When I did he held the chair up in front of him and loudly stamped his foot. I was confused. A chair has four legs, and I could not decide which of them to focus on, and the stamping of the foot reminded me that a tiger does not attack frontally when his prey is ready for him. After batting ineffectually at the chair, I skedaddled around him, hoping to get him from behind, but he always turned to face me. The chair infuritated me but the four legs intimidated me. I tried to bite one of the legs off, and succeeded in splintering it, but the board caught me on the nose and I yelped and skulked to the other side of the cage. Langur was making the same sound over and over. After an exhausting hour of this kind of foolery, he left the cage and opened the door to my little pen, where a fresh carcass was waiting for me.
And so it went. It seemed there were two Langurs, the kind and gentle one who brought me all of my meals and scratched my head and my back at the base of my tail as I ate, and the ferocious one in the big cage who never let me get behind him. He was completely fearless whereas I was afraid of the board and the confusing chair. Soon I accepted his dominance over me, and I learned certain tricks.
He taught me several of his sounds. One of them, which went 'Rajah!' meant that I was supposed to pay attention to what he wanted. He shouted this one often. Later I learned 'Rajah, jump!' which meant I had to hop over the board he held out. Whenever I got frisky and attacked the chair, hoping to break down its barrier at last, he shouted 'Hah! Rajah, back!' and bopped me on the nose with the board. My poor nose was becoming very sensitive to that board and I longed to break it into splinters with my teeth, but I was intimidated by Langur's staring eyes and lack of fear.
Many of the humans gathered around the cage while Langur put me through my paces, and made loud excited sounds. Because I wanted to remind them what a tiger was capable of, I acted especially fierce towards the chair, which they seemed to appreciate. The truth was, I was sort of enjoying myself, because my day's training was the only time I got any exercise. Afterwards, when I was tired out, I could eat my meal in my pen and Langur would scratch my head. I was becoming dull and content inside my prison when something strange happened.
I have not yet mentioned that there was another human I recognised by sight, a female child, who cleaned my pen and watched over me. Unless Langur was there making certain I behaved, she never touched me or reached into the pen, which was a shame, because she looked very tender. I could tell she was frightened of me and I growled at her whenever she approached by herself, relishing her shrinking away. If he had understood the language of tigers, I would have told Langur, "let her in the cage with me! I'll show you what a tiger can do. None of this silly hopping over boards."
It was clear she didn't like me any more than I liked her. In fact, once she tainted my meal somehow and I was sick for days. It was infuriating, a tiger being at the mercy of a human child, and I longed for the moment when Langur would slip up, leaving the door of my cage unlatched. I dreamed of it. And then, one night, I woke from a dream to find that the door of my cage was actually open.
All about was quiet, the tents and houses where the humans lived were dark. A noise had woken me, and I scented the little human girl on the air. At last! I took some cautious steps from my cage, looking all about, and growling low out of nervousness. No one saw me or challenged me, and no board descended on my nose with the command "Hah! Rajah, back!" I could scent the little girl and finally traced her to the trunk of a banyan tree that loomed over the tents. Looking up, I saw movement, and a momentary reflection from a pair of eyes watching me. The girl, after opening my cage, had climbed the banyan tree.
It was infuriating. I had not climbed a tree since I was practically a kitten, and I was certainly too heavy to do it now. Additionally, my muscles and tendons were cramped and weak from months of confinement with no more exercise than leaping over Langur's board, and I found it hard to stand straight and walk. I sat at the base of the tree, looking longingly up to where the girl's feet dangled, wishing to stay there until she came down or fell out.
But I couldn't. I was free. The concept was slowly starting to sink into my head. Strangely enough, my strongest urge was to return to my cage, curl up and wait for tomorrow's training session. Wouldn't Langur be proud if he found me still in my cage with the door open! After all, I had been Langur's tiger for perhaps half my young life. Perhaps I had forgotten how to hunt? The first male tiger's territory I stumbled into would get me severely pummeled. Although I could smell a river, the human houses stretched in all directions and I didn't know which way the forest was. Once word passed around that I was loose, the humans would rise like a nest of ants again and not rest until I was recaptured. All these thoughts ran through my head as I sat at the base of the banyan tree, hungrily eyeing the little girl who stared right back down at me.
It was hunger that got me motivated. I heard the noise of one of the dogs people kept, and with one pounce I killed it. That act inspired me to escape, reminded me of what a tiger truly was. After devouring most of the dog, I set off as a low run away from the tents, down the widest of the streets around me, in the direction that smelled most of river water.
I loped along until I was exhausted, then I trotted, then I prowled, looking for the way out of the town into the forest. Dogs barked as I passed and I was frightened of discovery. From open doors the smell of young humans wafted out and the temptation to eat one of them was nearly overwhelming, but I had to escape unnoticed. Dawn was coming. And then it came - dawn came on a grown Bengal tiger walking boldly down the center of a human street.
Discovery followed, and if the fuss at the very first village where I pounced on the farmer had seemed like a big deal, it was nothing compared to the alarm that rose when I was sighted. I heard screaming. Dogs bayed. From somewhere there was a siren. I darted down alleyways, through back yards, the howling of dogs getting closer on all sides. Finally, I was cornered in a courtyard, dogs growling on all sides of me, the yammering of humans behind the dogs. I cuffed one of the dogs, sending him rolling, and was about to pounce and end his miserable life when I heard the command "Hah! Rajah, back!"
Instinctively I backed away from the cur, who scampered off, whimpering. Langur stepped from the crowd, weilding a heavy stick. The chair was nowhere in sight. I wondered what we would do now, if we would go into some kind of performance, Langur demonstrating his dominance over me, making me roll over and bear my belly, lead me tamely back to my cage. I supposed it would be better than being torn apart by a dozen dogs...
But something had changed. Langur, treading carefully, showed real fear upon his face.
They were bringing the cage into the courtyard. The door of the cage was open. Waving his stick menacingly, Langur ushered me towards it. I made a show of padding towards the cage, watching the mesmerised humans back away, and then I turned and pounced on Langur.
"Hah! Rajah - " He did not get to complete his magic spell. I had him flat on the tiles of the courtyard, one heavy paw on his chest, pushing all the air out of his lungs. Someone in the crowd screamed. I saw his face darken as he beat ineffectually at my shoulder with the stick. All it would take would be one bite to the neck, but something stopped me. Perhaps it was all the back scratchings, who knows? In any case, I showed my dominance. And then I turned tail and ran for my life.
The crowd parted like water and then I saw water, real water, a river that ran behind the row of houses, separated from me by high rail fence. On the other side of the river - was that grey mass the forest? Using all of my flagging strength, I practiced the one trick I had learned above all others - how to jump over a board - and cleared it in one leap.