The date on the photograph says 9th July, 1998.Where was I on the 9th of July, 1998?
I was 11 years old on that Thursday. In school- 5thgrade. My first year in secondary school. I remember adoring my class teacher. I lived in Mumbai. And July in Mumbai means a lot of rain. With rains come the bright yellow bullfrogs, croaking their hearts out to impress equally pudgy lovers. Every shower brings with it a refreshing scent that can refresh the gloomiest of hearts. You can see the rufous crowns of tiny tailor birds as they dart under the canopy only to emerge in the brief spells of pristine silence,‘tuweet’ing away to glory. The silence of the rain does not silence the city.Vendors make the best use of the intermediate lull and begin hawking their wares to hurried mothers preparing their children for school. And I sat in the midst of the umbrellas and raincoats and tiffins and hot milk (that I hated by the way), simply tying my shoelaces…Unaware of an episode that was unfolding in another part of my country…An episode that would reduce me to tears 15 years later.
In the verdant hills of northeast India, an entire village was preparing itself for the big day. Even as I lay curled up on my bed, the best men had been sent out to comb the hills. In the early morning chill of the Barail ranges, brave men stepped out, with a khartoos (shotgun) slung across their shoulders. They were accompanied by young boys, armed with tin cans and sticks off the forest. And even as I tied my shoelaces and walked through the comforting rain towards school, men and boys combed the mountains, in search of the elusive predator.
I enjoyed school. I wonder what scientific principles I learnt in school on that day. Or maybe I read the chapter in Balbharti about the men from Kashmir who made delicious saffron rice and meat. Or Daffodils by Woodsworth, and felt how amazed at how a little snippet of nature has the potential to fill hearts with joy. I shared my tiffin with my friends, ate hot vadapav and danced in the mucky playground.
Out in the Barails, the men were still searching. The torrential rain often depressed their spirits, but not their resolve. They were determined to hunt down the big cat of the jungle, the cat that ruled Indian jungles until a systematic drive by Indians and foreigners, rajahs and peasantry succeeded in bringing India’s national animal to the brink ofextinction. But the villagers were not aware about the debates raging through the country on the issue. They were not aware, or chose to not be aware about legal implications of hunting the species, for them it was a threat to the survival of their children and their cattle – it was all they knew, all they had seen, all they had learned. But in that monsoon of 1998, traditional spears had been replaced by automatic guns. The dao and the bamboo had not been abandoned though- it served as a befitting deathbed to the royal cat.
As I skipped into puddles and stretched tiny fingers out to feel the rain, the still mountain air of the far-off tribe reverberated with war cries. In the brief lull from the rain, they had spotted the fiery orange object of their hunt- the majestic Bengal tiger. The forest was full of drum beats, of men howling, shouting, trying to prod the beast into the arms of the gunmen.The tiger ran out from its bamboo cover, from north to south and east, but it was cornered. The forest was full of strange sounds, and instinct drove the beast straight towards the west. The guns were ready, shots were fired, a roar was heard. And then… Silence. The tiger had fallen like the melting sunset…
I was out in the rain again, building imaginary bridges in puddles. In the northeast, men were hacking the very bamboo where the tiger had hid with their daos. Using twine and years of experience, they built a pyre on which to rest the beast. As I built imaginary houses with open umbrellas and crowded under them with friends, the tiger lay alone, cold, a mass of its glorious self. And as I returned back to the comfort of my home, children from the village started peeking out and looking at the magnificence of the beast that lay before them. And as I ate my dinner, there was a feast for the hunters who had been out since dawn. The dead tiger lay tied up in a corner, every now and then a child would go up and stare at it. And wish he could one day do what his elders had done.
The children of the village never got a chance to emulate their elders. Like many other children in the rest of India. This tiger, that the village had tracked, chased, scared, shot, shot again, carried across their shoulders, tied on the bamboo, and photographed, THIS TIGER WAS THE LAST TIGER OF THE REGION.
Fifteen years have flown past, and the children of old now have families of their own. The world has gone on around them, the youth are travelling out to study in the city, get fancy jobs and settle with families. The villagers still hunt, but they get smaller quarry now, an occasional deer or wild boar. Now they go behind smaller game – civets, squirrels, birds and whatever else that crosses their way.
I have changed too…from electronics to conservation biology…it has been akin to riding a roller coaster.
There is a singular truth that has not changed, the truth that is taped to the wall in front of me. And a truth that is fast replicating itself in the rest of the northeast. The lush evergreen forests of that country lay barren of the apex predator that ruled the hills – Empty forests with bleeding trees are all that remain as testimony to untold stories of ruthless extinction.
I think back to the faded photograph and my head bows down-in shame, in reverence to the mighty cat and in regret at being a silent witness.
P.S: Photograph is real, story may/may not be fictional