Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

How times have changed! When my Dad was posted in the tea gardens from the 70s till the early years after 2000, we would hear of several isolated incidents of tigers and leopards attacking people and cattle. They would be captured and handed over to forest officials instead of being killed. That is because most species were by then in the endangered category and many had reached a stage of extinction, so we were out to save whatever was left of our wildlife.

However, hunting was quite common in earlier times whether for sport or safety. I was home in July enroute to Assam and was going through my parents albums when I chanced upon this photograph of my granddad and his colleagues with a tiger.

My granddad at the centre with his co-workers

My granddad was the Manager of a tea garden called Narayanpur near Tezpur. My Mom's early childhood was spent mainly in the tea gardens. The later years she was sent off to Calcutta for her education where she lived in a big, fat joint family in New Alipore with loads of aunts, uncles and cousins. :) However, during the holidays, she would visit my grandparents in Assam.

This incident occurred before she moved to Calcutta. One afternoon, sometime in the late 1950's, my granddad came home for lunch and informed my grandmom that a tiger had been hiding in the tea bushes and had attacked a woman tea plucker biting off her hand. The woman was immediately transported to the nearest hospital and the other tea pluckers had gone off to their quarters early as it was too dangerous with the tiger still on the prowl somewhere in and around the tea bushes.

News had also spread like wildfire that the previous night the tiger had taken a few hens, goats, and other domestic animals from the living quarters. That was also the reason everyone suspected that the tiger may return any time and were frightened.

When dusk fell, my grandfather instructed the night chowkidar to check that all doors and windows were properly sealed and ensure that no one stepped out of the bungalow. After giving instructions, my grandfather got into the jeep and drove off in the darkness of the night.

It was a cold night and in Assam darkness descends even quicker during the winters. Those days there were no phones and my grandmom was extremely worried about my granddad's safety. She kept a vigil all night waiting for him to return. My Mom and her sisters all huddled up with my grandmom and wouldn't let her go anywhere out of fear. From the labour quarters which is at a distance, the sound of drums and tribal music could be heard rising eerily to a crescendo and fading out again. The labour quarters were made of mud and thatch roofs and were not very safe. The labourers lit a bonfire and there were festivities with song and dance not only because it was "Bada Din (Christmas)" but also to scare the tiger away with the sound of drumbeats.

My Mom doesn't remember when she fell asleep but she does remember waking up once in the night and seeing my grandmom chant prayers with these beads around her fingers. She went back to sleep and was woken again by the sound of voices. My granddad had returned and it was almost day break.

He narrated how he and Mr. Pandit spent the whole night in a machan built over a tree. They tied two goats and chickens to the bamboo sticks at the base of the machan to lure the tiger out of the jungle. The tiger got tempted and as soon as it appeared, they fired a couple of shots.

There was a lot of celebration and jubilation at the garden next morning. At 10 am, my granddad took my mom and her sisters to the office. The dead corpse of the tiger was placed right in front of the office and still looked scary. My Mom felt he may wake up any moment and attack again. She was frightened but also felt sorry for the tiger as she imagined that the tiger would be missed by his family members. This is one childhood memory that stayed with her and that is why she has kept this faded photograph for over 50 years.


Pratima said...

Awesome read!! Will tell Rohan this story today.. He is a huge fan of Jim Corbett and his tiger-encounters.. so much so that I have to make up stories to tell him.

The blog was great and I could imagine the night, the drums and music wafting in from a distance and just the fear of knowing that a tiger is not too far away!

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