The weak afternoon sun, after traversing the whole sky could just somehow manage to disperse few slanting rays. Though they enveloped this vast maze of mangrove forest with a golden hue but also emitted an eminent signal for the imminent danger ahead – the fall of darkness. And in this part of the earth, darkness spells terror with an extra zest. It’s the forlorn islands of Sundarbans, anchored like dots on the heart of Bay of Bengal – also often labeled as the habitat of Man-eaters…!!!
The rustling of the fallen dried leaves in this fag end of spring somehow sounded crispier. Putu, kept hopping around barefooted, playfully experimenting which cluster of leaves generated the maximum sound. While moving around in the small area where he had been told to restrict himself, Putu encountered situations where a thin ray of sunlight intruded through the flushy canopy on his fifteen year old wheatish face. Each time those thin rays receded from his face, Putu stared overhead. The canopy’s endless spread somehow collaborated with the near to end daylight to assemble a strange feel of conspiracy, a strange welcome for the peril beyond sight. Amidst the cacophony of the birds retiring back for the day, Putu could now almost hear the loud thumping of his heart…growing louder with each passing moment.
Putu was born and brought up in one of the few last inhabited islands of this delta. His father is a honey collector. Honey collection, being the only means of earning in this part apart from the small scale scattered rice cultivation, was passed on meticulously from generation to generation. Putu’s eighteen year old elder brother is now a part of his father’s collection group. As a faint start to inculcate the tradition, Putu was often made to accompany his father in his regular escorts to the further islands dominated by dense mangroves. Encroached rarely by any being, stillness still thrived permanently here, framing it perfect for the wild honey bees to indulge in their job.
In his fifteen years of existence, Putu had two inseparable companions – poverty and the fear of man-eater, infused in the humid village air. The former was something beyond the villager’s control and later was what kept them in control. The scarcity of large sized prey and the pheromone marking their territory being washed away with the fury of evening high tide, often compelled the tigers to trespass into the inhabited islands. The first act of encroachment may be an outcome of a mere curiosity or solecism, but the ones followed later are inflamed by desire – the greed for Human flesh. The dread of such attacks is now an indispensable part of their daily lives and discussions – discussions that do nothing but firms the fear further. In all the years that Putu’s childhood took to be metamorphosed into teenage, the discussions drew in more life. Hence the fear rooted itself within Putu but somewhere the same fear brewed a faint wish – a wish to witness the cause of the dread…at least once.
The twilight with its every march towards darkness cradled a deeper silence along with. Putu’s own breath was slowly betraying his own control and kept gaining pace. The fear within him suddenly seemed to gather more prominence. In his earlier trips, his father had never been so late. Neither he had ever witnessed nightfall in a jungle so deep. Uttering his prayers almost loudly, he fanatically stared at the direction his father with his gang had marched. Neither Putu nor perhaps any human being know why in such conditions one always feel the presence of someone just behind. A tiny drop of sweat crawled down Putu’s left cheek to reach his lips. Just when the salty feel inkled him, he heard a heavy rumbling of fallen leaves. The sound came from the side their boat was anchored. Putu took a sharp turn. His eyes almost bulged out in his desperate try to spot the cause. But the light had betrayed him long ago. The sound with its heaviness, itself communicated that the cause was something bulky rushing with pace. Mouth wide opened, Putu was almost a statue now…a statue who’s thumping was clearly audible to its ears. After a short pause, the sound reproduced itself once more. From the same direction, but from a greater distance, its volume depreciating with passing moment. Clearly the subject was moving away. The next change in the sound pattern signified a leap… a leap whose start was marked by heavy rustling of leaves…but… the landing was absolutely absent. A perfect silence again. Sweating prolifically Putu breathed heavily. He could not decide whether the danger had passed or it was a preface of something greater. Grappled with fear, his thoughts oscillated between the two.
The last couple of minutes was the hardest Putu ever encountered. The clock declared minutes but time communicated hours. With his back leaned on a trunk, Putu unwantedly browsed in his mind through the possible outcomes and possible chances of his survival. The silence around was eating him up from inside but he knew that this silence itself was the only proof of his safety. And just when thousand thoughts were scribbling his mind, he heard again. The rustling of leaves. And this time the sound came from exact opposite direction. Putu sharply looked back. He knew his incapability in front of the darkness, but still he strained his eyes the most just to meet failure. The sound was amplifying every moment now, clearly indicating its approach towards him. In an involuntary outcome, Putu almost stopped breathing. Shriveled with fear, he hold the trunk with both hands: ears almost erect, eyes strained to the fullest , a sharp glance directed frontward, a chest now thumping loudest amidst the gallons of fear it beheld within.
Putu never thought his incapability to climb a tree would mock his survival in such circumstances. The rustling was getting louder and so was his horror drenched anxiety. Just when Putu was about to make his final choice between running in the opposite or stay frozen, he heard faint Human voices. Involuntarily again, his breath grabbed normalcy. The Human voices now complemented the rustling. Putu realized that it was his father with his gang… retreating with a greater pace, hence the sound. This feel of relief was the most precious happening that ever happened to him. Words, actions, emotions all would have failed miserably to lend measurement to this overflowing ecstasy. The first sight of his father emerging from the darkness was more than enough to induce a sprint that ended right in his father’s arms. Jubilant, his father picked him up on his shoulders, expressing his regret for being late in his return. Putu, feeling the sweat on his father’s shoulder dint pay much attention to the conversation but was still relishing the feel of being safe, the feel of the fear retracing firmly. Though for an instance a question intrigued him. What was that earlier sound from…the one that came from the side of the boat?? But the feeling of being collective, after that fearful loneliness made him skip the thought.
The high tide was trying its best to drag away the boat, but couldn’t surpass the anchor’s strength. The boat was a big one, could easily suffice a load of twenty. One of the five men crew pulled out the anchor and the boat was on move. A rounded hut built on one side of the boat, basically a faint shelter from rains. The hut left a little space behind, used by the oar man. Tired from the day’s ordeal, the crew laid their back, on the rugged wooden deck. The vaguely crescent pale yellow moon and the flickering flame of the rusted lantern inside the hut were the only two entities challenging the darkness. In a congruent fashion, the sound of the waves collapsing dead on the boat’s wall was only challenge to the deep silence around. The boat was drifting slowly but swiftly towards its destination.
Putu’s father suddenly woke up with a jerk. Facing another elderly member he spoke out “Don’t you think the boat is moving quite slowly inspite of such a meager load of 6 people? A reply came in a tone that emitted a sense of ignorance “Its good Prabir. Slow means more time to rest. Don’t use your brain so much”. A faint laugh marked the end and the person curled back to his lazy posture. A dissatisfied Prabir, looked around, spent few seconds staring at the hut. Unable to quench his query, he preferred quitting and laid back again.
The boat slowly approached the sandy river bank. Anchored. Each member, carrying their feat of the day slowly marched towards the cluster of dim lights ahead, their village. Putu, the only one empty handed was the last one. Metres ahead, suddenly Prabir turned back. He shouted to Putu “Son..run and get the lantern from the boat. I forgot to fetch it”. Since Prabir briskly turned and went on, Putu couldn’t find any chance to display his reluctance for the job assigned. Slowly,he turned back and re-approached the boat.
He waded through the shallow shore water and climbed the boat. Entered the hut. Took the lantern in his left hand. Was just about to take a turn when he felt a loud thump on the roof of the hut. Putu’s first imagination was the fall of a branch. But the imagination shattered and shifted to shivers when the thumpings started to repeat and move. The wooden roof through its squeaky sound expressed its inability to bear the heavy weight of the unknown entity. Before the roof could collapse on Putu, the creature leaped on the deck. The leap and the heavy wieght collectively gave the boat a fierce shake,which made Putu almost fly away to one side of the hut. The lantern landed with a thud. With its glass instantly gifted with numerous cracks , it rolled out to the deck.
Putu somehow gathered himself for a flee,which ended just seconds past it’s start. He had just crossed the hut’s entrance and landed on the deck when he faced his greatest fear and desire at the same time. A matter of moments…and the fear stormed away the desire in every bits. It was just at a metre distance from him. Royal Bengal Tiger. The darkness was at its pinnacle,yet Putu could see the majestic creation perffectly. To be accurate he could see it little and feel it much more. The tiger was facing Putu and Putu had to face it owing to the sudden and deep numb phase his whole body had crept into. The black iregular lines on its body seem to absorb the minimal moonlight available and shine out bright. The huge body emitted an acute feel of terror…the glowing eyes emitted a radiance that seem to disperse away the darknesss…royal and regal in every aspect.
A terrified Putu..or rather a statue of Putu seemed to have been implanted still. Horror in its extreme form was now a component of every cell of Putu. He was anticipating death any moment. Amidst this his faintly fuctioning brain could now co relate the first sound of leaves that came from the boat’s direction and his father’s complaint of the boat moving with a slow speed inspite of high tide and lesser members. In real they had an extra member all through their ride,hiding in the space behind the hut.
The tiger took a step towards Putu. Putu’s mind prompted him to shout.. to run..even to cry. But his frozen muscles made every effort futile. The great creature’s head was now less than a feet from Putu’s. Huge it was. Something inside Putu gave him a feel that it can easily gobble up more than half of Putu in one gulp. With each breathe it took, the nostrils stirred,alongwith a sound resembling a deep distant storm. In one guesture one of its canine flashed which was longer than Putu’s middlefinger. Putu, bereft of any feeling had already offered himself to death. He longed to cry for once..to shout for once…but the tiger seemed to have insulated his voice to core. He stared at its eyes for a moment…and closed them again. Putu never imagined his faint wish would be fulfilled in a way that would trade his life.
A part of the Putu’s subconscious mind suddenly flashed him the face of his mother.A sort of final bid to himself.Involuntary again, this time a tear drop did crawl his left cheek.The other part was anticipating the attack anytime. He could hear the sound of his own teeth clattering …the severity of his shiver was at peak. Few moments passed by. A few more. Eyes closed tight. Another few moments .Death cant be more brutal to him by being so slow. He is the Maneater. The ever ravenous maneater. How can he spare even moments??
Somehow Putu dared to open his eyes. Shocked,he found the tiger still staring him the same way..but now from a few feet back. Putu doubted that it had reced just to jump back more fiercefully. But the next few moments cleared it all. A further shocked Putu observed the so called Maneater slowly turn around. It jumped from the boat,on the sand and ran towards the village. As the creature infused into the darkness,Putu collapsed on the deck.
It was about a little more than ten minutes when Putu could hear his father’s yell from far. By the time his father came rushing near,Putu had stood up. Panting his father spoke in broken words ‘Putu, what you are still doing here. Come immediately. We need to rush home. Theres a tiger in the village’. Completely unaware of what had happened,his father almost dragged Putu. Putu was silent and expressionless.
Few had spotted the tiger as it entered the core village area. Both the news and terror dispersed rapidly within the village. An age old mike system of the village panchyat with its faintly clear sound anounced warnings to the villagers not to step out of home. Forest department was informed who defered the possiblity of any operation till sunrise. Soon the anouncements ceased and a silence gulped the village alike every other night. Only difference being an acute feel of terror accompanied the silence. It was a known fact that the thatched roofs would not suffice if attacked. But from time memorial Hope has been the closest friend of the poor. With a little more distaste for their poverty and a little more hope in hearts, the villagers waited for the dawn.
Prabir pushed Putu and himself inside the door and closed the door behind with a thud. As he grasped for breath, Putu’s mother came running and hugged Putu hard with teary eyes. Putu was still silent.
That night, anxiety permitted none to eat much. For Prabir it was thoughts of what awaited . For Putu it was thoughts of what already happened. And for Putu’s mother it was poor motherhood that never demands more then the well being of family.
Putu silently squeezeed himself to his tattered bed on the corner. Sleep was miles away.Facing towards the roof,all he could see was the tiger’s fierceful canines within inches of his eyes. The enormous body and each part emitting terror equally. The magnificently crafted black lines haunted like a maze. Sudden shivers brought him back from the different world he kept travelling to again and again. He couldnot help his eyes getting moist.
Apart from the terrified thoughts one more thing didnt let him be at ease. A question. “Why did the Tiger let me go? It has been framed to kill and named because of it’s killings. The Man eater. Then why didnt he eat me? Do I not qualify as a man? It left me unharmed from a distance of inches. Are they really Maneater? Father keeps telling us that any tiger will attack human at the first sight. Is he so wrong? Is the belief that whole of my village cultivate is false?…Are they actualy so called Man eater?” Putu couldnot sleep.
That night when the village had many awakened eyes filled with extreme hatred for the creature, one pair of young eyes carried something different…!! That may not exactly fit the cask of affection or respect but surely was something that defied the usual thoughts and notion.
A thin ray of morning sunlight, through one of the holes in the thatched roof stirred awake Putu. Squeezing his eyes,he tried to recall when he fell asleep. An increasing sound of a crowd drove Putu out. He saw a hoard of villagers in a nearby field. A silent realisation and Putu was running in full pace towards the event spot. His mother’s fervent shout to stop him was ignored fervently. It took immense efforts for Putu to squeeze himself to the front among a swarm of more than two hundred people.And then the sight caught his eye.
The Tiger with his huge body was waddling among the almost ripened rice plantation. The wild life authorities had already fired one dart resulting its collapse. Desperately throwing its paws in the air, it tried to defer its own drift to unconsciousness. It roared but the dread was no more. More than two hundred pair of eyes,filled with hatred were silently extracting pleasure from the Tiger’s struggle. A silent feel of victory crept into each. Putu was the only one different.
Amidst all these another incident dramaticaly took shape. A marijuana addict(common in these islands,commonly called bhaang) emerged out from the crowd who had a sudden urge to touch the tiger. The hue and cry allowed him to traverse a significant distance without grabbing significant attention. And when he was spotted, he was quite near to the Tiger. The crowd showted him to come back. Some even threw stones. But the marijuana inside himself was strong enough to keep him committed to his stupid wish. The more he approached the semi-conscious Tiger,the more stones made their way. Some hit the Tiger too.
All present failed to pump logic into this fantasy driven madness as the subject touched the tail. Nothing happened except the slowed down tiger slowly moved its tail. Marijuana defies your sense to quit.He touched again. This time the dizzy tiger,waved a hind paw in defence. It hit him right on his right thigh.The finger long nails managed to return back with no less than a pound flesh. Soaked in blood, visualy gruesome. The addict shrieked out loud in pain and fell down. Marijuana defies logic..but not pain. He with his trouser soaked red in blood laid just near the tiger,drifting towards death. A unique blend of happenings. Within a distance of few feet laid two victims. The tiger was the victim of Humans and the human was the victim of the Tiger. Both barely conscious. The terror and fright in the vista suddenly surged up high. And so was the chaos. Many wished but nobody dared to pull the addict. All knew it was moments before the addict would bleed to death. Such was the dread , that all feared attack even from the barely mobile creature. And it was then the second dart was fired. It pierced near the neck and the animal collapsed totally. Unconscious. Immobile. Helpless.
The addict was soon taken away from the site.He was still alive. The Tiger, now just a body was netted by the wildlife authorities. Dragged like a dead,it was pulled to the cage. The hatred in the eyes of the people continued to exist..perhaps incremented after the last happening. All witnessed the reality. But still most accused the Tiger for the addict’s state. Maneater – the term was being uttered by everyone. Only Putu knew they were wrong.
Putu kept watching the Tiger’s body being dragged. It still glowed majesticaly in the nascent spring sunlight. Only moments before it was being feared..and now loathfully dragged. A tear again rolled out of his left eye. He had no proof..no reason to believe…but he knew that the Tiger didnt land in the island to eat any man. It was not a man eater. But rather someone who let off a man..or atleast a lower form of a man,a child… to breathe..to live. A heavy feeling enveloped his heart as he watched the royal being mercilessly treated as an animal. Few more tears rolled down his cheek.
Turning back he slowly walked towards home. The crop stubbles on the edge of the field pricked his barefoot. The Sun rays were burning his face. Unaffected,Putu was lost in one thought “Haven’t the Men themselves turned the Tigers into Man eaters???”