The Half-Tiger

by Ajay M K © 2001

"It is hardcore tribal area, with people who worship eclipses and multiple suns" she said. Hardly five minutes after we had met, this statement from her seemed too abrupt.

"How far from here?", I asked.

"About thirty miles. The highway on the ghat section winds itself up into mists, hugging the lush green foliage. You could feel the smell of rhododendrons and wild blue flowers in full bloom. This time of the year, the hills awould be pregnant with colours." "Quite interesting, really."

"They have been exploited for centuries now. Wasted away - this group of primitive people. Their culture systematically marginalised. Their folklore corrupted." The tropical sunshine outside was not in any mood to compromise. She continued, "they believed in the virgin birth of their land atop the mountains, till their children went to school and came with theories of evolution."

The description of the tribals continued - how their villages were built with mud and dried cane, their ceremonies in which men pierced their ears with golden rings and their women unabashedly roamed around with naked breasts. The rays of the setting sun were dancing through the venetian blinds of the coffee shop, falling on the driftwood on the dining table. The displayed papayas and pineapples appeared larger.

She went into her habitual mute mode, adjusting her tresses dreamily. Her langorous eyes reminded one of the pervasive poverty and tragedy around. The extinction of this tribe would be merely a shard from this tragedy, a hologram - sordid and defiled.

"How come no one knows about this tribe, then? if they are just a few miles from here?"

"You have to cross inhospitable terrain to reach their checkpost, a small granite temple under a huge banyan tree. The greenery is infested with pit vipers and blood-sucking mosquitoes. For the less urban, more superstitious lot, there is the legend of the half-tiger."

We were interrupted by Prof..Brehme, an elderly German anthropologist, the last of the delegates to leave the seminar venue. A gregarious man, he had naturally drifted to our table. Our table had a most unlikely combo - a reticent wildlife researcher barely into her twenties, a German professor still soaking in the pleasures of India, and me, ambivalent about my role in the seminar as training coordinator.

"You mentioned a half-tiger, a term fraught with anthropological significance", the professor butted in, barely controlling his guttural intonations.

She explained in her grim tone. It turned out that the half-beast is a theme in many tribal cultures. Jung had studied this phenomenon quite closely. Only, here the half-beast was part of the household imagination - almost reality. She described the mysterious claw marks on a forest guide killed on a full-moon night, the night of the half-tiger.

The moon set and the dawn was welcomed by the racket-tailed drongos and the awkward cries of the crow pheasants. Prof. Brehme came to my room excitedly. "We are leaving to the hills, to see the tribals." He saw I was puzzled and went on. " I'll explain. Today is a full-moon night. The tribals will enact the myth of the half-tiger."

A quick breakfast of grilled sandwiches and coconut water and we were off in a strange vehicle intended for this tropical jungle. Built like a closed jeep, the windows of the vehicle had slits so small that you could not put your little fingers through. The windscreen also had a similar mesh and it was a miracle that our driver could see the serpentine road ahead.

Soon, the texture of the landscape changed. The green was getting darker, thicker and quieter. Morose. The smell of wildlife was trickling in. No sounds of birds. Only the occasional frenzy of monkeys on the tree branches. Vermillion-coloured hibiscus dotted the sids of the steep, climbing roads. Sparkling rivulets met us once in five or ten minutes.

The professor was tense. She was contemplative. Our tribal guide was adjusting the electrical contraption connected to the wire mesh.

The road was increasingly bumpy anf the progress slow. The afternoon sun seemed subdued by the defiance of the forest cover. Shades under gigantic trees created worlds whose inhabitants maintained an eerie silence. Even the monkeys respected the surrounding stillness and watched us intently from the branches. We could almost sense our atavism, as if in their looks we also gathered their blessings. Mists invaded our vision and I could clearly apprehend the caress of the clouds. There was no vestige of man anywhere. No footprints of civilisation. Just dense, melancholic, ancient spirits gliding in relentless flight. The maze of vegetation almost swooned for an instant and I sensed the tug of the womb.A strange helplessness amazed us. We understood our visceral predicament clearly and for a moment we enjoyed our uphill trance.

The engine sputtered and died. The car shrunk into an unobtrusive alien violation, as it were. A feeble attempt by the Professor to resurrect from this morbid, calamitous stillness was pre-empted by our tribal guide. He turned to us with his index finger on his lips - "silence", he meant. His eyes flamed with primal lava that fomented beneath his human skin. Like a warrior-god he expanded into a taut determination, brows knit in infinite alertness. The igniton wire on the electric contraption crackled and the car buzzed like an electric fly-catcher with an invisible purple radiance around it. We were in the land of dreams and folklore. Danger was imminent, a hair's length away in this space-time conundrum. Move a lego from this complex interplay of destinies and we would become mere shadows in this legacy of gore and human-sacrifice. Bright red after-images haunted us in the palpable hush.

There was a stirring. The birds flew away noisily. A black nimbus blanketed the earth. We could see that he was coming. The forest foretold his madness. Suddenly, the half-tiger emerged near a pale, twisted dry tree stump. He danced, spewing blood and mucus, deriding us with subaltern abuses, kicking, incessantly kicking our dreams of mastery, humiliating us..... drawing blood. He was advancing, bolder, larger, vehemently protesting, along with the waterfalls nearby. It was almost hopeless. Sense prevailed only when the tropical sun tore a cloud asunder and dazzled the yellow of an oreole. The comatose engine awoke in the heat and we began to think. To try to escape. We instinctively retraced the bends on the road. The greenery seemed happy to see us off. The same poker-faced monkeys met us on a hair-pin curve and waved us off gleefully. The earth had spoken a harsh language, the only one we responded to.

"It was the half-tiger born out of our greed to rape nature", said our guide. "He is still in his adolescence. Will grow too large for this forest and will intrude our villages then"

"...a monstrous mutant of our aspirations to engineer the world around", the professor added.

We had enacted the legend of the half-tiger in our viscera. He will visit us again, nudging us from inside during socialite evenings and emerging in our nightmares. The beast in us. All of us.

x x x

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