BY BHAVIKA SICKA
There are memories that fade with the passage of time like waves receding into the sea. Then there are those that wash up against the shore of your mind’s eye like a recurring dream.
One such memory is from my second summer in India.
It was the year 1868, and a few officers and I had travelled to the zillah 24-Pergunnahs in the province of Bengal, at the Company’s behest. After navigating a labyrinth of canals and waterways, we reached the remote estuarine archipelago at the mouth of the bay. The coastline was fringed by mangroves that rose up on spidery legs from waterlogged flats. A paisley-shaped island materialized out of the diaphanous mist, a teardrop on the cheek of the ocean. Mudskippers burrowed into and wriggled out of clay towers. A pair of crocodiles basked motionless with their mouths agape; the ancestors of these muggers might have looked no different, sunbathing on cretaceous riverbeds.
Hungry and tired, we moored our ferry alongside a silvery glistening bank and trudged up a path that twisted and turned its way toward a huddle of hutments. Canopies of thatched straw peeped through massed foliage. I took measured steps, careful not to become mired in the loamy ground. Our arrival sent a colony of macaques chattering and shrieking, their behaviour a result of either curiosity or perceived threat. One mimicked our mannerisms, and another pelted us with the shell of a crustacean it had snacked on. Their irreverence and wickedness made it amply clear that they didn’t care a farthing that we drew our authority from the Crown. Or was it ignorance that shielded them from the knowledge that we had come to claim their lands as our own?
I lowered myself into a makeshift chair as a steward poured me a drink and scuttled away. The ferry we’d taken from Canning’s desolate wharf bobbed languidly by the quay, held in place by a thickly braided hessian rope. I put down the novel by Tobias Smollett that I had been reading—shipboard adventures that were based on Smollett’s own experiences in the navy—and brought my brandy to my lips. The Matla, a formidable force to reckon with in the monsoons, was placid and pregnant with anticipation. I was told that it would often burst at its seams, that its torrential, infuriated inundations would carry off hapless cows and carts and even entire villages, first swallowing them en masse and then regurgitating their bloated bodies.
But that evening not a ripple dimpled its burnished waters. I watched the sun dip into the tranquil river and contemplated the arcane secrets of this mysterious land of legends. A crested egret stood on one foot, a lone philosopher in a state of sedate rumination. Above, the slanting trees sighed and susurrated like tremulous lovers in search of each other. On the opposite bank now shrouded in darkness, mawalli honey-gatherers dragged themselves wearily homeward, their lanterns flickering like fireflies. A cormorant’s shrill cry was heard from somewhere across the horizon, followed by a deafening silence.
Having spent a year in Calcutta, I was familiar with the language of the natives. One of the Hindoos—an elderly fisherman who went by the name Kaka—had cooked us dinner. We made our way into his low rudimentary hut built of mud and bamboo. He sat hunched over a meal of rice and freshly-caught crabs, his knobby-kneed legs folded into his knotted lungi (sarong). His complexion was the colour of dark hardwood, perhaps as a result of Bengal’s torrid clime, and his wizened face bore the appearance of tough leather. When he looked up, I observed that his eyes were turbid and glazed over with cataracts. They resembled foggy balls of quartz crystals lodged in hollow sockets; I was certain that they had seen things that no other man had ever set eyes upon.
Once the table was arranged, Kaka proceeded to indulge us with piquant tales from his youth. He told us how to build a machan using an upturned string cot, how to cure illnesses through spells and talismans, how to propitiate potent deities to the heady and bacchanalian beating of sacred drums. “On a moonless night,” he recounted, “the discarnate souls of fishermen lost to sea would hover and flit over the marshes—green, iridescent balls, their tendriled flames licking the night—and guide us to safety or show us the way.” I was reminded of mischievous hobgoblins, their lanterns winking like meteors. As a young boy, I had often stumbled upon the coruscating dance of pinkets by the babbling brooks, deep in the woodlands of Warwickshire.
I sat enraptured and yet incredulous as Kaka spoke of the powers of pirs and fakirs, the antics of sylvan sprites, the magical prowess of tigers.
“The tiger flies through the air, and swims in the sea,” the old man said with a flourish, his frail, quivering hands making a grand gesture. “He appears from nowhere and, in the flash of an eye, disappears into nothingness.
“He can stalk you for hours, even for days. “He remembers everything.
“Like a crow, he even remembers faces.”
The raconteur fell into silence, his cloudy eyes distant. I observed how they crinkled at the corners as he smiled to himself—savoring an emotion, a memory that flitted into his consciousness like a bewildered moth. I waited for the memory to pass, and then pointed to his right arm, where a five-inch white scar dappled his dark skin.
“It happened the night before poush sankranti, some twenty years ago,” Kaka began, rousing from his reverie, his brow furrowing as he strained to recollect every detail. “We had set out with our boats before the break of dawn. A chadar (bed sheet) of mist hung heavy over the river’s slate expanse, wrapping around our ankles. The tide was low and we made our way, through gnarled and rickety branches, up a narrow khari (creek). Some of the men wore masks with the face of Dokkhin Rai—the terrible, the supreme!—behind their heads in order to confound the tiger. But I told them then, as I’d told them time and again, that the tiger is no fool!
“All the while, I had an unnerving feeling that we were being closely watched, and my hair was standing on end. All was deathly quiet, except the lapping of our paddles as they parted the brackish waters. The silence was palpable, inscrutable, as though the forest were holding its breath. As we began to lay down our nets, I heard a rustle in the underbrush, and the tall leaves of spear grass to my right parted slowly. A pair of amber eyes fixed themselves on me, steady and impassive; I caught a glimpse of the fervid, implacable flames that burnt in the caverns of their depths.
“I dared not move; I dared not breathe. I felt my heartbeat quicken, not in terror, but in awe. Every muscle in my body tightened like the string of a khamak (folk chordophone). I cannot be sure how many moments passed, but it seemed as though time had stood still, all the world suspended.
“The silence was pierced by a cry that echoed through the wilderness—‘Baagh (Tiger)! Baagh (Tiger)!’ one of the fishermen shrieked, his eyes darkening like charcoal, his face contorting in such a manner as to appear more horrible than the mask he wore. The sound ricocheted between the trees on either side of us. I felt the boat rock violently beneath my feet as the other men, now gripped by a sudden panic, floundered and fumbled desperately in the dark for their lathis (sticks). The animal sensed the threat and curled its brown lips in a menacing snarl. It lunged toward me, and I instinctively threw up my arm to protect my neck. I felt a searing pain, a warm trickle of blood, then a cold splash of murky water and the taste of salt and silt in my mouth. I surfaced to see the fishermen descend on the animal, kicking and raining blows. One of them straddled its large body and drove a knife into its heart, dousing the fire’s rage. The eyes looked at me once more, before the smoldering cinders died out and all was dark and still again.
“The sun lingered below the horizon, tingeing the night with a muted, nebulous, orange glow. Bitan, my wife’s brother—who is now no more—peeled a stem off a tree and tightened it around my lacerated arm, just here, over the gash where the teeth had severed the flesh from the bone. He twisted a stick to tighten the tourniquet. As we were heading back to the boat, we heard a plaintive call wafting through the stillness. It seemed to emanate from a cluster of tiger ferns a few feet away. With cautious trepidation, we trudged up the slippery embankment and, on parting the ferns, found a tawny cub nestled in its undergrowth.
“She was a mother, and she was only trying to protect her young one,” Kaka lamented, taking a sip from a large green coconut and proceeding to scrape its fleshy kernel with his fingers, the veins of his hands bulging conspicuously against his translucent age-spotted skin. “The other men, they tried to kill the cub too,” he continued, slurping up a wobbly, jelly-like piece of the coconut’s creamy interior, “and they beat it without mercy till it lost an eye! But I shielded their blows and scooped up the little one with this very arm, and I ran, not knowing nor thinking, toward the heart of the forest.
“Soaked to the bone, I sank down on the rank grass—soft as a straw pallet—just as the sun burst forth audaciously over the dark-rimmed horizon like a gulmohar in flames, spreading its vermilion streaks across the sky and setting the clouds ablaze. I watched the rivulets converge and flow into the bosom of the great sea. And as the little cub gamboled away into a fountain of golpata (nipa palms) to reclaim its mother’s land, it dawned on me that we are all fragmentary embers of the same unquenchable fire; we simmer beneath the ashes and then turn to dust, only to reunite as part of the vast, the unchanging, the all-pervasive.
“Ayam atma brahma.
“Oh, but for that fleeting moment when we do burn,” Kaka concluded, his dull, filmy eyes suddenly dazzling with the light of a hundred milky galaxies, “we can set the world on fire.”
That night, the droning mosquitoes wouldn’t let me sleep. A particularly pestiferous female hovered over my face, carrying the heavy weight of her blood-engorged posterior. These ubiquitous winged killers had probably claimed more lives in the swamplands—lives lost to malaria, chikungunya, and the dreaded dengue fever—than the notorious big cats that lurked beneath fronds and thorny thickets.
I listened to the rain beating down relentlessly upon the corrugated roof of my cabin and watched the dim, flaxen light from the oil lamp cast long and lonely shadows across the walls of unhewn wood. Somewhere, a bullfrog awoke from its underground slumber, and bleated like a goat in heat. A muntjac barked, sounding an alarm. I felt my mind wander.
The heathens believed that if a man were to chance upon a tiger and escape with his life intact, he had been touched by the divine. He had the power to heal, and to ward off all evil, and was to be revered as a god.
Why do we seek refuge in something larger than ourselves? Could there be even one iota of truth in the accounts of such reportedly numinous manifestations? I grappled with the thought. I was certain that it was fear and superstition that enchained the naïve Hindoos, and led them to attribute occurrences otherwise inexplicable to divine causation; this, in turn, spreading from one to another, might have solidified a belief in the supernatural in their collective psyche.
When sleep finally began to weigh heavy on my eyelids, I was jolted awake by frantic, discordant shouts and cries. It became evident that I was not destined to obtain repose that night. Still groggy and disoriented from the liquor, I threw on my jacquard robe and tumbled outside to ascertain the reason for the uproar, allowing my eyes to adjust to the pitch black. The sheets of rain had thinned, petering out to a light drizzle. My boot squelched in a boggy puddle shaped like a gaping mouth. There was the stench of death around, a deadly miasma. A cow’s carcass lay on its side, its guts spilling out like a clew of fattened red-worms. A panic- stricken crowd wailed and hissed, brandishing their torches and hurling stones at a lithe form pacing at the edge of the open glade by the river. I squinted at this tenuous shadow as it appeared into and disappeared out of view, first silhouetted against the foggy curtain of the night and then merging with the dark forest. I began to discern the stripes that striated its dark pelage, and I felt the very marrow in my bones begin to freeze in fear.
A distraught woman wailed like a hysterical banshee. “It is Shiva, the ferocious!”
The predator’s tail was taut and held low, twitching and lashing at intervals like a possessed serpent. Its ears were flattened back, its mouth slightly open. It circled the crumpled figure of a man who, I presume, was the cowherd, and that of a little girl who surprisingly appeared unscathed. I watched in dismay as Shiva approached the toddler, clamped its jaws around her body, and began to drag her away slowly, keeping its eyes locked on us all the while.
A Mohammedan with a straggling beard looked at me with rheumy, pleading eyes. “Saahib,” he pleaded, his hands clasped together in desperate supplication; “only you can save his daughter!”
I shook off my stupor and made a dart for my cabin. I tried to remember where I had stowed my rifle. In all the commotion, Kaka had hobbled out of his hut, slowly and imperceptibly, his angular frame tottering toward the bloodthirsty beast. I stopped in my tracks and watched him in mild amazement; his movements, blurred by the vaporous rain, appeared almost dreamlike, almost surreal. Surely, the old man was out of his mind!
What happened next was out of the ordinary, and words don’t come easy to describe the occurrence. The man and the beast exchanged a look; it seemed to me that they were communicating without words. The animal hesitated a moment, then unstiffened its body posture; its tail dropped loose, its ears perked up. It lowered its head and placed the child before the man’s feet, holding his gaze a moment longer before turning and disappearing into the brooding jungle.
In the glimmer of the melancholy moonlight, it struck me that the beast had only one eye.
And such are the tales of which legends are made.
Bhavika Sicka is pursuing an MFA at Old Dominion University, and has graduated with a BA in English from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University. Her work has been published in Mused – the BellaOnline Literary Review, Junto Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, and Jabberwock (the literary journal of the Department of English, Lady Shri Ram College). She is from Calcutta, India, and is currently based in Norfolk, Virginia.
Image Credit: “Night Forest” by Deborah Torley Stephan