I remember well the thrill when my father would tell me that another tiger had been killing cows near the thirteenth hole. We would be on our way to the Golf Club and I would close my eyes and sink into the lovely dizziness of our scooter rounding the curve near Pambar, my arms warm around my father’s waist. He would be wearing his khaki jacket. The mist would sting my cheeks and freeze my fingers. My father would be wearing leather gloves. The air would be heavy with the scent of damp eucalyptus. A tiger was out there somewhere.
The caddy master would greet us, lanky body, hair slicked back with Brylcreem. The Club would smell of polished wood and mildew, always mildew, and a lingering stain of smoke. My father and I would drink lemon barley water at the bar. I would wonder about the mysterious liquids in those colored bottles on the shelves.
I can still see the animal heads mounted on the walls– Indian bison, sambar deer, a sloth bear, a leopard. In my mind’s eye they’re in black and white, save for the fake red snarl of the tiger and its dusty orange pelt.
Keith DeJong had never been much of a golfer, though he once he got a hole in two on the eighth. What I loved most was looking for the truant balls that he hooked and sliced into the woods–the very woods where a tiger could well be lurking.
In those days, whenever a tiger would start killing cows, the Raja of Puthukottai would be called. He would leave his gardened lake-side manor, the tennis courts and tea tables of Tredis, and call together a small army of men.
They would scour the forests of the golf course, beating their pots and pans till the striped cat was flushed out. The Raja would be waiting. He would shoot the wicked beast straight through the heart.
Even as a boy, I had a passion for plants, so I made friends with the gardener of Van Allen, a stone hospital overlooking the cliffs that stretched high above the Tamil plains. At night when the clouds lifted, one was rewarded by a panorama of tiny blinking jewels. The largest cluster of lights was the town of Periyakulam. On those special nights when massive thunderstorms had washed across South India, a person could see all the way to the lighthouse flashing on the shore of the Bay of Bengal.
Yesudian was a quiet man with a mischievous smile who liked to smoke beedies when Dr. Leela Oommen wasn’t looking. When I asked him if he had ever seen a tiger, his face changed. No more twinkle or jokes. He stopped weeding, sat down on a granite step, and told me about an event that took place in 1958, a year before I was born. He had only been eighteen.
Once a month after payday, Yesudian and his two friends would run down the old cooli ghat trail to Tope. After a brief dip in Kumbukarai River, they would hitch a ride ten kilometers into town and catch the evening movie showing at Periyakulam Talkies. And smoke beedies. And drink a little something something. Then walk back to the foothills in the dark and make their way up via the old mountain village of Villagavi, half way up to Kodai. They would reach home just before dawn.
Yesudian would try not to yawn too much at work, but sometimes he just couldn’t fight off the fatigue, so would tell Mrs. Norris the matron that he was going to Bryant Park to get marigold seeds. In the park, he would curl up on a sunny patch of grass and nap with the golden June bugs.
One week-end, Yesudian and his friends had just seen Naadodi Mannan–The Vagabond King. The movie starred M.G.R., who playing the handsome heir to the throne opposite the beautiful princess (Saroja Devi). The two had both been dispatched to an island prison by an evil villain who wanted to crown himself king. The only problem was that a poor vagabond who looked exactly like the heir (also played by MGR) was placed in the palace by a faithful advisor. Even the prince’s wife didn’t know that he was not her husband. The vagabond M.G.R. then embarked on an epic quest to save the real prince and princess. Woh yess! Narrow escapes and floods and rope bridges collapsing and crocodiles and sword fights and love, such great love, and brilliant songs, dancing too. Woh yess!
The three young men left Periyakulam Talkies humming the tunes. They went straight to the Arrack Shop and bought little packets of joy juice before setting off in the dark, braving scorpions and cobras and poisonous thorns and earthquakes and floods and any number of heinous thugs.
After safely crossing the Kumbukarai River in the dark, they started up the Villagavi trail around 1:00 in the morning. A light drizzle was falling.
Around 2:30 AM they reached the sleeping cobble stone streets of Villagavi. A handful of village dogs descended on them barking like high-pitched jackals. Yesudian dispatched them with a few stones. Luckily they weren’t like the German Shepherd that guarded the bungalow near Tapp’s Corner on Kodai Lake. Yesudian had seen this brute bite a man without even a warning growl.
Passing through the carved granite arch at the upper end of the village, the boys paused for a little rest near the Levinge Durai shrine, a little temple which featured a statue of the British official who had shot a marauding tiger that had plagued the village. Yesudian was relieved that there were no tigers left in their hills, especially since the trail they were following took them through shadowy coffee plantations.
The three started the final ascent, a nearly vertical climb. Yesudian was so tired, he cut himself a walking stick. At least the rain had stopped. Though it was cool, he was getting thirsty. And hungry. The masala popcorn he had eaten in Periyakulam had long since been burned up. Yesudian began to feel light-headed, so he started to sing “Thoongathe thambi” to distract himself. Now that was a real song! The Vagabond King was in jail and the jailor was falling asleep. Instead of stealing the keys and escaping, MGR sang to prevent the poor man from getting into trouble.
“Don’t sleep little brother. Don’t ruin your name by being lazy. Don’t sleep, little brother.” And when the gorgeous princess Saroja Devi heard his song, she was smitten by the beauty of M.G.R.’s voice and purity of his soul. Ooh! And the way she looked at him. And then how the guards started to dance. Aaaah!
Just above Dolphin’s Nose, the boys quenched their thirst at a spring gurgling from a rock face. Only a little further now.
The three made their way up to the old pines near Levinge Stream, crossed the slippery rocks, then stumbled up the last bit of jungle trail to emerge at the rose gardens of La Providence Monastery. They cut through to Club Road and paused near the old hollow tree.
“I’m taking the short-cut home,” Yesudian said. “See you vagabonds later.”
While the other two walked down the main road in the direction of the bazaar, Yesudian took the narrow lane down through the densest part of the jungle that led to the Old Cemetery. Stumbling into potholes, at times having to feel his way in the darkness, he began to feel a presence. It was as if something or somebody was following. Maybe this night hiking wasn’t such a good idea, he thought. He quickened his pace, not daring to look behind him.
Yesudian escaped the forest and passed Red Lynch, the bungalow of Gemini Ganesh, another major Tamil film star. The lights from the windows were comforting. After passing the British Mission Compound, he arrived at Tapp’s Corner and began to tip-toe, hoping the big German Shepherd was sleeping.
Yesudian took a left on the Lake Road and headed towards Laughing Waters. Good, the big dog was nowhere to be seen.
A bank of mist rolled in and a light rain began to fall, making a hissing sound on the lily pads at the lake’s end. Yesudian began to shiver. It had been so nice to be in the heat of the plains.
Save for the rain, all was silent. Not a single Ambassador car was purring along the road. No wood-cutters heading out to the hills. No crooked-horned cows. Not even a stray dog.
Yesudian had just started down the muddy swamp trail towards his settlement when he saw the vague shape of a large animal loping towards him.
Anger filled him. Why should he have to be afraid of that dog when he was in his own territory? Yesudian dropped to his haunches and grabbed up a few good-sized rocks in the darkness. The animal stopped as if sizing him up. Yesudian’s fingers tightened around his walking stick.
“Podah!” He hurled the first rock at the animal. It jumped to the side. He hurled the second. The animal responded with an irritated growl.
Yesudian charged like a madman, cutting the air with his stick. “I’ve fought crocodiles and raging floods and hundreds of men with swords. You think I won’t bash you into tiny bits?”
The animal turned abruptly and leapt through the rushes, then bounded up the slope into a pear orchard.
“Coward!” Yesudian’s words echoed across the lake. “Come back here, you bag of butter!”
Flushed with warmth and power, Yesudian slashed at the swamp weeds with his stick. He began to laugh. He laughed as he sloshed through mud puddles, decimating the enemy hoards with his sword.
Nearer to home he became still, washed up quickly in the spring, then slipped into the family’s little stone cottage unnoticed. It was 4:30 A.M. Perfect. Coals in the fire place. A heavy woolen blanket. The sound of his brothers snoring. Sleep.
The next morning, Yesudian awoke to the muffled sound of a woman wailing. He sat up and stretched, relieved to find that he was alone in the cottage. Loud talking. He thought he heard his father’s voice. Yesudian’s eyes stung and his tongue was dry. He debated going back to sleep, but the wailing was making him curious.
Yesudian hauled himself up from his mat, moved to the door and gazed across the meadow to the neighbor’s house which was situated just in front of the jungle. A crowd had gathered outside the tall compound wall. Mist was blanketing the ground, wisps rising slowly into the trees.
Yesudian walked barefoot across the dewy grass. As he drew near he saw his father squatting with a group of men, pointing. Several women had gathered around the neighbor lady who was crying quietly now. Yesudian asked his older brother Saminathan what was going on.
“A tiger killed their calf last night.”
“How’s that possible? There aren’t any tigers around here.”
“See for yourself.”
The brother pointed out the massive paw prints in the mud, the blood streaks on the eight-foot stone wall, the drag marks heading into the raspberry brambles at the jungle’s edge.
“It leapt over the wall right here, see, grabbed the calf by the neck, and hauled it back over the wall. And without hardly making a sound. They didn’t discover that it was gone till tmorning.”
The cicadas in the jungle trees were throbbing. Yesudian tried to imagine the power of the beast. Those paws were larger then his hands with the fingers spread. Imagine being caught in their grip. And how it had hoisted that calf over an eight-foot wall. The calf was six months old. It would have weighed more than a full-grown man.
“They think it happened around 5 in the morning,” Saminathan said. He slapped Yesudian on the shoulder. “So, what time did you finally get home last night, thumbi?”
“Well, not so late…maybe around–” Yesudian felt his ears burn. A deep unease was twisting his gut.
“I’m not feeling so well. I’ve got to go.”
The brother laughed. “Don’t let Appa smell your breath. Adeyngappa! How much did you drink anyway?”
Yesudian rushed to the spring, splashed cold water in his eyes and sat on the flat washing stone till the nausea passed. A thought struck him with such force, that he leapt to his feet and started running towards the lake. His chest was burning when he arrived at the spot where he had confronted the large animal.
He scanned the muddy ground and found two sets of prints. One had been made by his own sandals. And the other ones, oh God, they were huge. This had been no dog. They were the marks of the tiger.
It’s been many years since Yesudian told me that story. He has since passed on, as has my father. Yesudian’s sons still live with their extended family on the edge of Bombay Shola, but the jungle is disappearing.
A few years ago I was camping with friends and my sons on Ibex Cliff along the southern escarpment of our mountain range. My son called me, excited by what he had just discovered. There in the center of our trail was an enormous pugmark. There could be no mistake. The foot print had been made by a tiger and it was fresh.
Mist was swirling through the rhododendron trees. The view to the plains had been blotted out.
Was the tiger watching us that very moment, body tensed and tail twitching?
I closed my eyes. There it was, its massive paws and rippling shoulders. And the face. No sepia head on the wall this, or fake red snarl.
I saw naked fire and burning eyes.