Tales of the Bengal Tiger

Bengal, tiger, eyes,
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Tigers may be fading in reality, but in fiction, they serve as Nature's compass for man's conscience.

Royal and fierce in its appearance, the Bengal Tiger (Panthera Tigris Tigris), is the national animal of both India and Bangladesh. With equal parts fear and reverence, mankind has treated the tiger as both enemy and victim of man’s aspirations. Is there a wisdom to be gleaned from the stories we tell about the tiger?

In the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, a folk tale has kept alive a local belief that Nature was not to be exploited. It begins with Dokkhin Rai – a sage who transformed into a tiger to stop locals from disturbing him in his forest.

In his new form, he killed without mercy, calling his actions a tax on humanity for what they had taken from the forest. He declared himself lord and master of the 370 million beings who lived in the forest and for a while, there was nothing the humans could do.

Folktales and mythologies are often manifestations of ground realities. The Sundarbans are home to the world’s largest standing population of wild Bengal Tigers. It’s one of the few places on earth where you could still be eaten by a tiger, with up to 60 killed here every year. In older days the situation was worse – between 1860 and 1866, 4218 were killed by tigers.

But if tigers were avowed man-eaters, they would kill 24,090 people every year according to one estimate. Tigers turn to eating man only when there is nothing else – or when they have been provoked.

Which brings us back to the folk tale.

In some versions, Allah sees the deterioration of human-tiger relations, and orders a girl called Bonbibi to rescue the people of the ‘eighteen tides’ – a reference to an older name of the Sundarbans. Bonbibi (whose name means ‘Lady of the Forest’) was an abandoned orphan who was raised by a deer. She set out on a pilgrimage with her brother to Medina and then Mecca – from here she returned bearing holy soil, intending to invoke Allah and drive away Dokkhin Rai.

Her strong elder brother is called upon to destroy Dokkhin – and it looks like the end of the sage-tiger is near. But Dokkhin tiger has an old friend, Ghazi – a traveling Sufi saint. He asks for peace – for if a man were to kill the tiger, would he be any different from the animal? Both sides are heard out and Dokkhin makes a point – “If humans are given a free reign, there will be no forest left.”

A covenant is reached. The Dokkhin surrenders the plundered wealth he had pillaged and humans promise never to enter the forest except with ‘a pure heart’ and empty hands. It’s a moral parable on the ‘right’ to a forest’s riches – only those, who enter the forest with neither greed nor violence in their hearts and whose hands and pockets are empty as testimony to their need and poverty, may enter and take what they need. The tiger is thus a guardian of natural riches, an enforcer of nature’s balance.

It’s an advice some locals still follow to this day, at least, those who care. For the tides have almost wholly turned – fewer tigers live in forests today than do in captivity in the United States alone.

It’s a situation where the tiger is no longer a wild animal – but a captive spectacle of man. It doesn’t help that those tigers that live in zoo’s and nature reserves are expected not to foray outside of them. If real life tigers could speak, it’s likely that they would still roar at the injustice of it all.

So what have fictional tigers tried to tell us?

Bill Waterson’s popular comic strip ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ features an anthropomorphic Bengal tiger – Hobbes – as the imaginary companion of Calvin, a philosophical six-year-old boy. The sassy tiger is the perfect foil to Calvin’s hyperactive imagination.

Calvin: Do you believe in the Devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?

Hobbes: I’m not sure man needs the help.

Calvin: You just can’t talk to animals about these things.

Hobbes can play, dance and converse with Calvin – but his base animal instincts are always there, making him violently pounce on Calvin whenever the latter returns from school. But Hobbes is also a form of Natural conscience. When Calvin tries to trap a butterfly in a jar as a pet, Hobbes convinces him otherwise with a simple phrase:

Hobbes: If people could put rainbows in zoos, they’d do it.

Moving from comic strips to the Oscar-winning film Life of Pi, a simple plot point drives the narrative – a boy is stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger in the middle of the ocean. For many, this is a situation of their worst fears. How could one expect to survive for even a minute alone with a tiger?

But the film quickly shows us what tiger companionship could look like – from up close. Richard Parker, the tiger, isn’t interested in killing his human, not when there’s fish to catch. The boy proves useful to the tiger as well – getting him fresh water and keeping the raft heading in a firm direction. Richard Parker even saves the boy’s life at one point.

Coexistence, seemingly, is the theme. But at the outset, Life of Pi is a story “that will make you believe in God.” The tiger is more than a character – it’s a narrative device to make us look inward into human nature. Richard is the boy’s own savage inner nature – one that we’d like to pretend doesn’t exist.

But perhaps the most ‘real’ fictional tigers are to be found in Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’. Set within the Sundarbans, the novel explores the lives of the Bangladeshi refugees forced out of their homes in East Pakistan by the horrors of Partition. With the Indian government unwilling to give them a habitable home, they try to make one in the tidal islands of the Sunderbans – tiger territory.

The novel is abundant with the perspective of the local, and the story of Dokkhin Rai features prominently. The tiger, to the minds of those who must live with it, is a constant reminder of death – but a just one, perhaps. It’s man who thrives on injustice – as the refugees find out when the government asks them to leave for trespassing tiger territory.

It culminates in a state-led massacre on the island of Morichjhapi – a real event where up to 1000 could have been killed.

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Tiger, bengal, jungle
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As Project Tiger growls on, the debate between conservation of human rights grows ever more important. Though hailed as the most successful conservation effort so far, the focus on the tiger accompanied myopia to other species.

The Bengal Tiger was once among man’s greatest fears. Today, in fictional devices, it has become a mirror for our own actions. The wild Bengal tiger is on its way out – but has man figured out how to tame his own wilderness? As far things stand today, the covenant between Dokkhin Rai and humanity is a long-shattered ideal. Not even the locals believe in the old stories anymore.

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