Das was only fifteen back in the 1940’s when he went to work as a houseboy for the Reverend Rumpus in far off Andhra. The boy’s father Daniel worked as the gardener and caretaker of Winsford compound on the far side of Kodaikanal Lake. Das had absolutely no interest in manure and roses, so he jumped at the chance to have an adventure. Reverend Rumpus, the Durai, promised Das’s parents that he would take good care of their son.
It was Das’s first time riding down the mountain road on the Jeyaraj Nadar bus. When it began to rain in Tiger Shola, he lowered the long canvas flap to keep from getting soaked. He closed his eyes: the odor of wet jungle and his damp wool sweater, the drone of the bus motor and the sloshing sound of tires as they cut through the clean rivulets that had formed on the road.
They arrived at Kodai Road Railway Station in the dark and unloaded the luggage from the roof of the bus. Das was surprised at the heat and the mosquitos. While the Durai was in the Dining Room eating an omelet on white china, Das had a tea and vadai with the red-shirted old coolie who had been engaged to handle the baggage. His meal finished, the Durai walked to the Upper Class Gentlemen’s Waiting Room and stretched out on the cane divan beneath the fan.
Das impatiently watched the Station Master’s assistant strike the worn piece of steel track that served as a gong. First bell. Second bell. Finally the dancing headlight rounding the bend, and moments later the steam engine of the Pandian Express hissed into the station, a smoking, clattering demon. The soot-covered engineer threw a racket shaped object onto the platform that an official retrieved. Das felt dizzy as the bogies whizzed by. The train slowed, then squealed to a halt.
“Come, boy!” the old coolie said. “Help me load the saamaan.”
Das hoisted the Durai’s black trunk and suitcase onto the coolie’s head, then picked up the Durai’s canvas bedroll and his own little sack of belongings.
“Stay close, boy,” the Durai said. “The train won’t wait for you if you get lost.”
They jostled through the crowd towards second class reserved where the Durai scanned the reservations list pasted near the door of the bogie.
“Yes, here we are. Climb in now.”
They mounted the steps and found their berths just as the whistle blew. The train lurched and slowly puffed away from the station. Das stuck his head out the window and watched as the lights of Kodai Road receded. The air smelled of black coal and jasmine.
“Careful, boy. You might get cinders in your eyes.” The Durai pulled him back inside. “Or be killed by a narrow bridge.”
Das rubbed his thick head of hair.
“And don’t be pulling that red chain up there on the wall. It’s for stopping the train if somebody falls off, but if you pull it by accident, they will fine you 100 rupees and put you in jail. Understand?”
Das’s mouth went dry at the thought of such a fate. Definitely, he would never pull that red handle. The Durai showed him how to attach the support chains to hold up the middle bunk.
“I will sleep on the bottom bunk,” he said.
“Where is toilet, sahr?”
The Durai pointed to the end of the car. Das found it difficult to keep his balance inside the cubicle. He was afraid of the hole that opened to the clattering tracks beneath him. On the way back to the compartment, he stayed well away from the heavy iron door that swung with the train’s rocking. He was definitely not going to fall out of this train.
After the conductor punched the cardboard tickets, the Durai pulled down the vented window shutter and said good night. Das slept to the katak katak kataka sounds of the track. In stations, he sweated under the black ceiling fans while vendors outside sold coffee, biscuits, and cool drinks, each calling in a unique, piercing monotone.
When dawn lit the sky, Das watched the rice fields slowly yield to the city of Madras. So many buildings and streets and cars and people. He stayed very close to the Durai when the train pulled into the pink domed station of Egmore. They climbed into a yellow and black Ambassador taxi, drove over a huge bridge that crossed so many trains and tracks, then stopped at the gate of Baptist Guest House in Vepery.
Das was given a room in the back with the servants. It felt so good, taking a cold pour bath and washing away the sweat and soot. He liked the odor of the green soap. Later, he helped John the Cook serve onion soup, sliced beef, boiled potatoes, and pudding to the guests who sat around the long rosewood table.
“I hope you speak Telegu,” John the Cook said. “Nobody understands Tamil where you’re going.”
“They don’t? Then how will I talk to them?”
That evening, the Durai hired another taxi to Central Station where they boarded a broad gauge train. Tamil country slipped away as they moved north into the darkness of Andhra.
Das worked hard in the Durai’s bungalow and picked up basic phrases in Telegu. He got used to the rhythms of the plains and became comfortable with his new routines. Sometimes the Durai would take Das on safari into the dry jungles of the Deccan, armed only with his camera. Das was thrilled to see spotted deer, peacocks, and herds of elephants.
On one particular occasion, the Durai took his gun. A man-eater tiger had been killing villagers, so the Durai and an Indian hunter had been summoned to dispatch the beast. Das and another houseboy, a Telegu kid of seventeen, accompanied them in a jeep stuffed with camp equipment and a goat.
At the camp, Das and the Telegu boy pitched the faded canvas tent. They served the noon meal to the hunters who then prepared to go down to the river with the goat. The plan was to stake the little animal as live bait beneath the tree platform the villagers had constructed for them.
“You two stay here,” Reverend Rumpus said. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
“But what if tiger is coming here, sahr?”
“Don’t worry, Das, my boy. Tigers are afraid of fire. Just keep feeding the flames and you should be just fine.”
After the hunters had left, Das and the other boy built up the fire till their cheeks were glowing. In time they lay as close to the flames as the dared and dosed off.
In the deep of night with white ash covering the slumbering coals, Das awoke to the deranged yipping of jackals. He sat up, stirred the coals and was about to put on more firewood when he realized that they had used up all the wood. He was debating venturing into the forest to gather more sticks when he heard it. Not a loud sound, but a very distinctive sort of cough.. Though he had never heard such a sound before, he knew exactly what it was.
Das shook his friend. “Did you hear it?”
Das’s eyes tried to pierce the darkness, his nostrils flaring.
“We’re run out of sticks,” he whispered.
There it was again, then a low-pitched rumble coming from the shadows just beyond the glow. The two boys looked at each other for a moment, then charged into the Durai’s tent. They clawed at the flaps in an attempt to shut themselves safely inside.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” the older boy said, his voice cracking. “One swipe of its claws and this tent will be shreds. And look at the lower edges. Anything could easily slip under—“
“What Shhhh! You think it doesn’t know exactly where we are? We should never have come to this place. I don’t what to die.”
“Listen to me,” Das said. “I have an idea.”
Das and the boy strained at the first tent pole until till it came down. The second was more difficult, but the boys were strong and soon they had collapsed the heavy canvas over themselves. Das crawled under the Reverend’s bedroll for extra protection. He waited, face pressed against the dirt and twigs.
An hour passed. Nothing.
“I can hardly breathe,” the other boy whispered. “Maybe it’s gone.”
“Or it’s just waiting for us to come out.”
Das’s eyes were filled with grit and his sweat-soaked chest itched. The thirst was unbearable.
Something heavy stepped upon the canvas.
Das stiffened. Another step, carefully placed. A third. He could hear the beast’s breath. A throaty growl, very close. Das suppressed the urge to scream.
A long silence.
It would be over for them soon. He thought of how excited he had been to ride the steam train for the first time.
The animal nudged his leg.
Das fought the urge to kick and thrash. He longed for his house in Kodai, a cup of smoky tea from his mother’s hand. She had cried when he had said goodbye.
A deafening roar. The boys screamed and struggled against the weight of the canvas. They were pinned. Another roar, but this one from further away. The tiger jumped off the canvas. Two aggressive volleys of growls now. Guttural hissing, back and forth sallies, the staccato spitting of venom. Roar upon roar. Rage.
Das forgot the suffocation, the itching, the heat, the stench of his sweat, the thirst. Neither boy spoke, even after the roaring moved away from the camp and disappeared into the woods. Das wondered if the beasts had already killed the Durai and the other hunter. He wondered when the cats would come back for young meat.
Das must have dosed off, for the next thing he remembered was the voice of the Durai.
“What’s going on here? What happened to the tent? Boys! Where are you?”
Das and his friend cried out from beneath the canvas and were soon pulled them free.
Cool air. Two men with guns. The light of dawn.
“Did you kill the tigers?” Das asked.
“There are no tigers around here.”
“But there were two in the camp last night,” Das said. “That’s why we hid under the tent. One touched my leg with its paw.”
“They were fighting,” the other boy said. “A horrible battle.”
The Durai looked at the other hunter. The two men began to laugh.
“What imaginations you boys have! Two tigers indeed.”
“But sahr, look here in dust,” Das said.
The Durai’s face suddenly changed when he saw the pugmarks. He and the other hunter walked around the campsite in silence.
“We’re not safe here,” the Durai said. “This is not good. Not good at all. Come boys, let’s pack it up.”
Later when the story reached Das’s father, the man sent word for his son to return home immediately. Reverend Rumpus made the arrangements and paid Das well for his services.
When Das arrived back in Kodai, his father informed him that he had already picked out a girl for him to marry.
“Her name is Packiamma. Even though she’s just thirteen, she’s very strong. Enough of this running about in the jungles with Reverend Rumpus. I’m going to teach you how to manure roses. It’s time you started behaving like a man.”
Das was not happy being forced to marry like this, to settle down when he still wanted more adventures. But when he met Packiamma, he was smitten.
“Your nose is too big,” the girl said. “But I kind of like you. You’ll do.”
A week later he approached his father. “Appa, if you don’t allow me to marry this Packiamma, I vow to you, I will never marry as long as I live.”
Over the next sixty years, when work was done and the mood was just right, Das would tell the story of Reverend Rumpus and the tigers.
Packiamma would clap. “Correctaa! Very good. But now look how old and weak you are.”
“Keep quiet, old lady. I can still fight tigers with my bare hands.”
“Stuffed tigers, maybe. Poyah! Go bring me some tea.”