Sep 27 ● BY Astha Gupta
I start project ‘three-months-in-the-hills’ aboard Nilgiri Mountain Railway’s toy train, the eucalyptus-laden mountain air and the spice-scented tea plantations quickly stir up long-forgotten memories. Two years ago, Sheena had suggested a day trip to a nearby vineyard. Somewhere between gazing out across the endless rows of vines and sampling the six local wines, we learned we did not know how to talk to each other without taking up arms anymore.
“This is good,” I said to her at one point.
“What?” she replied.
“The scenic beauty,” I said, wondering if she wanted to hear ‘us being together again.’
“I thought the wine,” she had said, pointing to the goblet in my hand, perhaps wanting credit for having arranged the trip.
I had rummaged for the right thing to say for far too long and then it was too late to say anything. The group moved on to the self-pouring dispenser machine. The mood between Sheena and me had changed, if at all there was any. I gave up and drank four more glasses of wine, having lost by then all hope of ever understanding anything that happened between the two of us.
A child bumps against my knees and grins at me. I sort of know I am supposed to reciprocate the joviality, but I am angry at something. I look away. The mother pulls the child closer. I pull the guesthouse brochure from my pocket and remind myself of the images that got me here: majestic elephants, unending chains of hills, the emerald green mist hanging low over the rustic guesthouse I have booked a room in.
Outside the train station, the sky steadily gains graphite. The last of the sunlight ricochets off clustered trees. I inhale the mountain air and choose a taxi from the throng that surges at me. When we reach the guesthouse, I feel magnanimous. I tip extra. The taxi driver looks surprised. Two hundred? He makes a show of counting the money so I can catch my mistake. I let him, even though I have no intention of asking for the money back.
As soon as I enter the property, project three-months-in-the-hillsderails. The security guard tells me a tiger recently mauled a tea estate worker to death. Co-workers found the decapitated body in the Mudhumalai forest.
“Nice to meet you too?” I say, drawing out each word.
He misses the punchline, but senses my unease and tries to reassure me.
“You are totally safe inside the guesthouse,” he says.
I search his face for signs of doubt but find only roundabout wrinkles. I pass a swing hanging loosely from a tree in the courtyard and enter the colonial guesthouse building just as all the windows are toggling from dark to light. For no apparent reason, I am suddenly afraid that I will never feel a thing, not only the emotions I am hoping to feel in the presence of these blurry hills, but any emotion in my life, ever, that no light would ever find a crack to get into my mind.
While collecting my room keys, I pick a few complimentary bananas from the fruit basket. An estate-worker meeting is wrapping up near the reception area. Bodies are huddled together, voices rise and drop. I watch each face as though they are patterns on bathroom tiles.
“What is happening here?” I ask the guesthouse manager. When he looks reluctant, I say, “I know about the mauling.”
He tells me a woman was attacked by a tiger in the same area six months ago. I don’t know how to react. Then I think that I do, and open my mouth, but he preempts me.
“Locals are angry,” he says.
“At the tiger?” I wink.
He laughs politely. “They blame forest officials for not finding a permanent solution to the tiger problem in the area.”
“I can understand. Is there wi-fi here?” I say.
“Weloveourguests. One word. All uppercase.”
He grins widely. I guess the password is his brainchild. “Creative,” I say.
He closes the register and holds the pen aloft in a kind of victory salute. “Only the truth. Enjoy your stay here.”
I run my fingers through my hair and repeat the word ‘enjoy’ in my head. So many times that it starts sounding like annoy. Killjoy. Destroy.
On the way to my room, I stop to talk to a man who is smoking behind the kitchen. I figure he is the chef from his clownish round and pleated headgear. The brochure mentioned a three-course breakfast and I am seeking details.
Instead, the chef tells me the dead worker’s name was Magu. And that he was a new grandfather. In the same breath, the chef adds, “But where will the tigers go?”
I smile. The do-not-pull-me-into-this smile. I just got here.
“This is their area, their home we are standing on. We have taken their land. All over the world.” He blows a sophisticated smoke ring.
I feel like I’ve walked into a family feud. A dinner congregation eked out of whatever overlap existed in ten people’s schedules, with huge complaints all around about either not being hungry yet or having been starved for too long by the mother who was waiting for the father to return from work before she served food.
“Is it even the tiger? Maybe a human attacked Magu?” I say.
“Clear signs. Pugmarks in a slushy area at the site and teeth marks on Magu’s neck.” He stubs out the cigarette, shrugs his shoulders and returns to the kitchen.
I will have to wait until the next day to verify the brochure’s culinary contents.
I spend the whole evening at the Pykara Lake, watching couples paddle tiny boats shaped like swans, geese and monkeys. At an elevation of over a thousand meters, the Blue Mountains are at their lushest. The moon is so bent by the wind it seems ready to fall into the water. The stars are a milky secret buried by branches. The whole universe seems to have turned into a pot of caramelizing sugar. Three months in these hills will certainly put new life into me.
I take panoramic pictures of the landscape to text my friends back home, walk on the grass to avoid the shrill toddlers on the stone walking path, and haggle with the fruit seller for a better price. In short, I do everything Sheena would have rolled her eyes at. I already feel like a new person. Sheena should see me right now.
The next day, after my best sleep in over a year, I wake up to the sounds of birds I do not recognize and congratulate myself on sailing through my first night alone in a hotel. I had been sleeping alone on the couch after Sheena left, but this still feels monumental. Having a partner is like being busy; if and once one gets used to it, the opposite is a truck forever rumbling past one’s window.
I head down to the small in-house restaurant. The three-course breakfast turns out to be a glass of juice followed by a piece of wheat toast followed by a boiled egg. The tea and coffee are both sensational, so I decide not to complain. I drink a few cups as sturdy toddlers with rosy cheeks snake between my feet. The eager parents clap as if their children just qualified for the Olympic Games. I drop a solicitous smile and get up to hire the guesthouse jeep to visit the market. My travel guides are full of vibrant pictures of shops and shoppers, and I want to spend the whole day feeling like a ‘local person’.
The market, unlike the breakfast, does not disappoint. It fractures the hills with color. In one corner, fruit and vegetable stands display produce being auctioned off to middlemen. In another, knickknacks sprawl like entrails. In the butcher and poultry area, caged chickens dally aimlessly. Porters struggle under gunnysacks all around me. I dig out the new digital camera I bought in Hong Kong and take countless pictures, just in case I find a way to parade my exciting experiences before Sheena.
Morning sights and sounds spill out of town like water running over the edge of a cup. Jangle of pots from kitchens, wheezing old vehicles, overdressed travelers pumped for the day. I locate the store advised by my guide book and buy copious quantities of homemade chocolates. Outside the store, at first, I think I have disappeared into the scene, but then, as out-of-focus faces start sharpening, as if through a graduated filter, I feel certain I am sticking out like buck teeth. I try to find the space between Sheena’s thoughts about me and my own perception of myself. All I find is a moth in flight, narrow wings fringed with small hairs.
On the way to lunch, nestling a candy bag in my lap, I look out the tinted window and spot a short man by the side of the road. His hand is stretched out, thumb pointing upward. My driver stops the jeep. “Arey! Sir!” he says.
The bearded man hops into the back seat.
“How are you?” he asks the driver.
“Very good. And you?”
“No complaints, Hari.” The man studies me for a moment, turns back to the driver. “I heard about the case.”
So my driver’s name is Hari.
“Sad situation,” Hari says.
I paid for this ride. I want to ask what this bearded fellow is doing here but do not want to come across as a stingy foreigner from the city. “Are these situations common?” I say, to nobody in particular.
“Somewhat, not an everyday thing, of course,” Hari says. “Planning to do a first-level?” he asks the intruder.
What is first-level? Also, I am famished.
The intruder turns to face me. “Hi. My name is Munir.”
“Jayan,” I say. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. Staying at the guesthouse?”
“Yes, a charming place.”
“Um hmm.” Munir is checking his phone.
“Munir sir, I am assuming you need to get to the guesthouse and pick up the equipment?” Hari says.
“I had planned that but now Kala says she is waiting to hear from the forest office.”
“I’m taking this guest for lunch, but I can drop you off at the guesthouse before that. Or at the forest office. Wherever you need to go,” Hari says, after zero consultation with me.
I feel like the kid that parents are talking about, while he is sitting right in between them. Like when the kid has been very naughty and unreasonable and asked for candy and a new skateboard while adults were worrying about grandma’s swollen lymph nodes.
Thankfully, Hari addresses me now. “Just a fifteen-minute detour, sir.”
It is a statement, not a question. I hesitate for just a second and Munir catches it.
“Let us drop Jayan at the restaurant first. You’re driving to the guesthouse afterwards?”
“But won’t you prefer to get started as soon as possible?” Hari says.
“Actually, I don’t mind the detour. This concerns the tiger incident?” I say.
“Yes, before the mob descends with guns and kills the unknowing animal,” Munir says.
“Oh! That is certainly more important than lunch.”
“A sympathetic foreigner?” Munir says and I laugh awkwardly.
Hari looks impressed. “The town is facing a major shortage of drivers. I am rarer than the rain these days.”
“But why the guesthouse? I’m sorry if I am asking too many questions.”
Munir does not seem to mind. “The owner is a kind man. He lets us store things in his property. Plus, the forest adjoins the guesthouse. We need to tranquilize the tiger, remove her from this heavily peopled area and leave her in the deeper jungle. She is probably already going in and out of the jungle, but I want to drop her farther off. Where she is not bothered, where she can be safe.”
Back at the guesthouse, Munir and Hari rush to find the manager. I abandon fantasies of a lavish lunch and order Chettinad egg curry and rice at the in-house restaurant. Newly married couples appear to have colonized the guesthouse in my absence, their amorous bodies have caked all public spaces like sticky honey at the bottom of a teacup.
Fake smiles and overeager laughter, Sheena would have observed. Then she would have rattled off the features of someone pretending to laugh. No laugh lines, visible bottom teeth. Random things she had learned from a Body Language School over a bored summer.
Generalized and supposedly cogent explanation for a base-level human social process, I’d have said.
Be on my side for once? She’d have stared straight into my eyes.
I’d have turned away.
It turns out that many of my happiest memories from the marriage involve lying on the couch with a drink, and then another. I did not realize it at the time, or only partially realized it. In the first couple of years, I would make an effort to put the bottles away, to wash the glasses, tidying the general area before I went back to bed, preparing the crime scene for Sheena’s early morning, investigative eyes. But then, I started to relish leaving everything behind. I know she noticed it, but she never said a thing. The mess was gone by the time I woke up and left for work. I do not know why I did it.
Obviously, things got worse. We avoided having breakfast, and then any meal, together. Our circles of friends started looking drastically different from each other’s. When in public we walked ahead of each other, or behind, but never side by side. When one of us told funny stories at parties, the other looked on in genuine shock. Who is this strange person that I once thought I knew wholly?
Just when the food is served, and the cinnamon, cardamom and peppercorns begin tantalizing my nostrils, a motley crowd, spearheaded by the hatted chef, marches to my table.
“Ba bawa?” I say, hoping they understand I meant ‘what happened’.
“Do you know how to drive?” Munir emerges from the crowd to ask me.
“Me?” I swallow a hot mouthful.
“He does! He drove up to the guest house this morning.” The chef says, jabbing his finger into my shoulder, making it abundantly clear who he is talking about.
Is this guy a cook or a detective?
“I am not sure if you heard but Hari had an urgent family emergency. He just left for his village,” Munir says. “You’ll need to drive me to the jungle.” He waits a second for the announcement to settle in, then says, “Get ready in ten minutes. The more we delay, the higher the probability of a furious gun getting the tiger.”
And with that, the parade moves on, as does the bearded chief marshal. I freeze, wishing ‘drive’ and ‘jungle’ could mutate to mean something else.
The chef comes back. “How is the curry?” he says.
Now I feel like a patient who is in a hospital for a sprained ankle. After making me wait for five hours, the doctor has just asked me what I think of the new floral curtains.
“Very delicious!” I say.
“It is my speciality.” He beams as if he has just bought me a puppy for my birthday.
“Your speciality! Really?”
He doesn’t say anything about the situation he’s just put me in. He fishes for compliments some more and disappears into the kitchen. I am a guest here. They cannot be expecting me to do this. I walk up to the manager at the front office.
“Enjoying the stay?” He says.
I ignore his amiability. My life is in question here. “So what is happening?” I say.
He senses my irritation. “Housekeeping forgot to place mini soaps in your room, correct? I knew it! Ga—”
“I meant with the tiger.”
He seems relieved. As if he fears mini soaps more than deadly predators. “Ah! Last I heard, no change in the situation.”
My thoughts trip and roll around as if in a hurdle race. “And who is this Munir?” I say.
“He helps rescue tigers. He cares for them,” the manager says, waving his hands in a big circle as if to show ‘this much.’ “How do you know him?”
“He just asked me to drive him to the jungle.” I feel certain I resemble a fragile child, crying for his mommy.
“Oh, yes. Hari had to leave unexpectedly. Crisis in the family.”
How do I put this now? “See, I cannot do this driving thing I’ve been enlisted in. I’ve never done this sort of thing.” I can hear how my voice comes out in mouse-like squeaks.
The manager waves his hand reassuringly. “Of course, sir. Nobody is forcing you. Hari said you mentioned something about this cause being important to you.”
Ultimately, I am forced to voice it out. “I mean important yes, but as a principle. Not in practice.” I do feel bad I just said that. “None of you know how to drive?” I trail off.
“At the guesthouse, none of us. Some people in the neighborhood know how to drive, but it is hard to get ahold of them on short notice.”
I am not a selfish person. I care for animals and people and all that, but I care about not dying too. “Look… Sorry, I just cannot do it.”
That is all he says. Then he just stares at me with an open smile. Does he plan to emotionally blackmail me into this?
“I have come here for a three-month sabbatical from city stress!” I say. I meant to be aggressive but find myself imploring.
“Absolutely. Let me arrange a day trip for you to Kodanad View Point. You can enjoy sightseeing, local food and all the other touristy things.”
He picks up the telephone.
Why do I have a knack for installing myself in such situations? Like I want the world to be better, but not to be the one who betters it. Like I pray for children not to die in wars they did not create, but then I numb myself to take up jobs in companies that sponsor weapon programs in the name of nationalism. “You’re always avoiding things!” Sheena used to say, and I used to laugh. But then I started saying that to myself in my head, in her voice.
When I proposed we move to Beijing, where my company promised to make me a regional manager, Sheena asked me, “Do you know what they did in Tibet, to monks, to children, to women?”
“Who isn’t doing that? To whom is it not being done? We cannot go anywhere by that logic,” I responded, and meant ‘Let’s do what everyone else is doing—pretend none of it exists and invest in some equity.’ I made the cute face, scrunched up eyes and pucker fish lips, that she used to like while we were dating, but it only angered her further.
“I can’t believe this,” she said, walking out of the room.
Late at night, after she went to bed, I dipped her dull pink toothbrush in the water closet and watched the swirling water gush over it as I flushed the toilet over and over again. Then I replaced it next to her dental flosser, walked back to the bedroom, and fell asleep holding her.
Obviously, we tried to make it work. We stared at each other’s sleeping faces in the middle of the night, trying to remember what, who, we fell in love with. We had sex every six months, desperately, hoping it would keep the marriage together. On her birthday last year, I sent flowers to the school she taught at. When she came home, I could tell from her face that she had been crying. But she said nothing. Neither did I. There were terrible skeletons in the cupboard that I was not ready to handle.
The manager replaces the receiver. “Sir, I have requested the neighboring guesthouse send their driver over for the day. He will take you to the tourist spot, and then to the market for dinner. This service will be free-of-charge for you, to compensate for all the inconvenience.”
I breathe deeply, filling my mouth with air. But my heart continues to race.
I arrived in the hills a day after a tiger killed a hapless person, a day before the tiger might herself get killed needlessly. And I am planning an excursion. I picture Sheena parodying the situation.
No, I say loudly in my head, then shrug my shoulders deliberately. I am not somebody who believes in signs from the universe, or even cares for that kind of thinking. I will regroup, I decide. Go back to the city to buy a mansion after all. I will give up my Honda for a luxury cruiser and retire in Maldives in ten years. I am not getting myself caught up in this family drama. I am not getting killed in this crazy place. I imagine myself climbing the mountain slopes at the nearby tourist spot.
I close my eyes. Then I turn to the manager and say, “I’ll drive Munir to the jungle or wherever he needs to go.”
Munir is sitting right outside the restaurant, on the floor, dressed in camouflage. A small bag, packed and ready to go, lies next to him. He motions for me to sit down. I do. Daylight comes in through the leaves like woven gold.
“The tranquilizer will take some time to get here from the forest office. Might as well enjoy a cup of tea.”
I have given up any notion of control over my life. I forget about the uneaten Chettinad egg curry as Munir orders the tea.
“What’s your story?” he says.
On his temple I see a scar, but I’m too close to get a good look. He notices me trying, turns his head around so I can appreciate the sharp force mark.
Which version do I tell him?
“Tell me the version that you tell yourself.”
I am impressed by his mind-reading, but don’t show it. “Angst-ed away the teens. Screwed around in my twenties. Tried to get a handle on things in the thirties, unsuccessfully. Now in my forties, determined to be a hero, I guess.”
“You ought to be a writer,” he says.
“Already one of the unsuccessful things.”
“What were the others?”
The dark, intense Nilgiri tea arrives in steel mugs, and the aroma lights me up. God bless Buddha for discovering this joyful potion. With our eyes trained on the Western Ghats, Munir and I take small sips of what I know is the low-grade variety. I read online only international buyers can afford the hand-sorted, full-leaf versions.
“You were saying?” He is not letting go.
“Husband, accountant, city person?”
“There seems to be more to you than that, but we can talk about it later. If we survive this operation.” He sees the shock on my face and laughs. “Don’t worry, I am joking. A few estate workers will help us out. This is not an easy task, but not unsafe. We only consider a rescue successful when neither the animal nor anyone in the team is hurt.”
“I believe you.” I act friendly, as if I am in on the joke.
“But the task demands complete mindfulness,” he says. “You must remember that. Not the spirituality fad from the mobile apps. I am talking about the Bhagavad Gita’s discussions of yoga and the Vedic concept of meditation.”
I have tried yoga at government camps but have no real idea of what Munir means. I also do not want to offend him if he worships the tiger in a religious sort of way. I nod.
“Do you have any questions for me?”
“Aren’t such things illegal?” I say.
“Sedating and moving tigers?”
He gives me a look, an ‘I-can’t-believe-this’ look. Then he says, wistfully, as if talking to himself, “I shouldn’t be amazed but I always am. At what the world has come to. Where we think that saving people, saving animals, doing good is illegal. But taking away acres of natural land that actually belonged to those people and to those animals, in order to build steel plants, sugar mills and oil refineries, is legal. Where we cajole tribals and animals into making way for urban development, but forget about them the moment they leave, letting them rot on the margins. If they dare ask questions, we brand them insane. And if they don’t make way, we make it legal to shoot them down like rabid dogs.”
He stares into my eyes and waits, like he is waiting for my response, like my reaction would matter to him, like he trusts me to say something meaningful now.
“When did middle-class types like you and me hand over all vital decisions to those who only care about money?” he says.
I am unable to hold his gaze. This is nothing unusual for me. Sheena had pointed it out during our early days together, when she was still attentive and affectionate. “Look into my eyes,” she would say, and I would laugh, supposedly to mock her, but actually because I feared her gaze would tear through my facade, that she would uncover a deeply unlovable trait and abandon me.
Munir’s eyes wander off somewhere. He probably realizes that while he could go on talking, this is about how much I can take in one sitting. “Don’t let this magical tea go to waste!” he says, pointing my mug.
Finally, in the last six months, began the biting, brutal sarcasm. Sheena and I stopped communicating except to let the pain out. We spoke only to spit out the venom burning inside of us.
“You’ve earned a lifelong Gandhi badge by teaching orphans once a month, isn’t it?” she said.
“By donating a twentieth of your salary to an animal shelter, you are Mother Teresa, aren’t you?” I said.
“I can’t hate you more, Jayan!”
“You can’t hate me more than I hate you, Sheena.”
“I can’t believe this,” she said. Her masterstroke. What she said when she couldn’t think to say anything worse. That she could not believe. To me it meant she could not believe what a pathetic person I was. She could not believe she had ended up with me, that she had failed to see the monster in me earlier, that I waited until now to reveal my true colors. I always gave up at this point because I did not want her to say any of these things out loud. I did not want her to know that I shared her ridicule of me.
So I stopped talking and let her think she won this round. Every single time. She was the tiger I fed with my silence even as it fortified her. I wondered if she knew how much I suffered, how her judgment of me reduced me each time, how her disapproval made chaos of my thoughts, how her verdict made it increasingly difficult for me to live with myself. The same feeling of losing control, of losing my mind, of hopelessness made worse by the hunch that Sheena knew the extent of damage she was causing me, that she actually delighted in disassembling me one atom at a time. And yet, I stopped talking each time. I did not want her to scrape away the last ribbon of glue holding my flawed self together.
I feel like I am in the center of an exotic salad bowl. Shades of green on trees are sprinkled with red, white and blue from the flowers on the forest floor. It is raining thickly and the lush foliage intimidates me. The wind is picking up. Storm clouds brew behind us. Young leaves are bustling. Water charges downstream. I could record a YouTube video titled ‘Tranquil Forest: Soothing Music and Inspirational Quotes’ if I did not have my life to protect.
Sedans can reach Kanoor Village, but cannot travel beyond. Only high-clearance vehicles proceed further, tackling the five miles of off-roading, crossing over covered jungle tracks and open grassland. During the monsoons, this stretch is impassable, but jeeps can make it all the way up to the final stages, crossing ridges and tracks eroded into gullies.
Beyond the Trishula shrine, the road traverses along the crest of a mountain chain, most of it lying in the shade of the jungle, with occasional patches of the Shola Mountains passing us by. In the next section, the trail descends a saddle between the ridges with no shade for the next two miles. There are no human settlements beyond Kanoor, except for a lone house or two. By way of a foot dance with the clutch and brake, I ensure the vehicle does not stall. I have never felt the way I am feeling in this moment: all my senses so engaged, my body so involved in something, my mind so focused.
Impressed by my grip on the vehicle, Munir brightens and starts telling me about himself. He teaches mathematics in a town thirty miles away. He loves animals more than anybody loves anything. He is often the first one to report to the scene in cases of man vs. animal conflict in this part of the Western Ghats. He has rescued many animals and saved many more from being shot by unscrupulous poachers and unaware villagers.
And his heart beats loudest for the gorgeous big cat. The tiger. A rapidly declining beast of breathtaking beauty—ruthless poaching in these jungles, traditional medicine, the much-in-demand tiger bone wine, and even selfies, all complicit in the destruction. Tiger habitats in the Western Ghats are shrinking, Munir tells me, a major reason behind the man vs. animal conflict. I am awed, not just by the man’s principles, but also by his personality. There is something about him that makes him a natural leader. I don’t know what it is, but it is enough to rejig my feelings of unworthiness. A fist tightens in my throat. Fear, a feeble song playing on a distant radio, pounds in my ears now. What is he doing here with me? I do not deserve to be in his company. I am unacceptable, small, weak. What if I let him down as well?
“What are you doing here?” he says.
“You’re a tenderfoot from the city.”
“I sort of got fired from my job,” I say, almost waiting for a sign of reproach.
“Ah! Day of reckoning, soul-searching, self-discovery.” He laughs.
I get the sense that he is enjoying the banter but has had better, as if we’re having sex and, no matter how hard I try to show off my skills, his past lovers beat me to it.
“Look!” He is suddenly animated. “That’s the tree with the camphor-scented leaves!”
“Wow,” I say, unsure of the right response.
“Isn’t nature spectacular?”
“Certainly!” I say, and feel it.
“This was certainly not what you were expecting from your soul-searching trip?” he says. “This deadly adventure.”
“In fact, I came here at the right time, I think.” I look around at patchwork leaves drawing a map of my life. The forest leans into me, the moody air cushions my body.
He seems happy with my response. “This is a good time to visit,” he says. “But you must know that these forests have a way of hypnotizing you quickly.”
“I thought you love these forests?”
“I do, but not because of the hallucinations.”
‘Then because of what?’ I want to ask him, but I don’t because I know he has been answering that question piece-by-piece ever since we met this morning. I should be afraid, but I am not. I suddenly feel calm, and then I feel strange about that; my emotions are a rollercoaster I am riding involuntarily. I feel as if waves of euphoria have rolled into my brain and displaced all care about finding another job, another wife, another life. As if fear has tired of my brain and dissolved into the forest.
“I really needed some time away. Too much was happening. I feel—” I search for the right word. “I feel somewhat soothed.”
He smiles. “I understand, but do not get deceived by the easy well-being you might be feeling in this moment.”
“I can’t be deceived more. Was caught up in the rat race until recently, you know?”
“That is one thing I don’t know.”
“You are lucky in that case.”
He scratches and picks at a scab on the back of his hand. I lift my left arm to look at the scab I’ve been patiently nursing, waiting for it to fall off naturally, as Sheena would have advised me to. Now I mirror Munir’s movements and scrape at it aggressively until it peels off, managing to maneuver the vehicle smoothly all along.
“I’ve read all the books though. The cubicle grinding, moving the mozzarella, ramen over tapas variety of books. The best bullshit I ever read,” he says.
I laugh loudly. “It is certainly all bullshit.” And that gets me thinking. “But what isn’t?”
“Well, your bullshit is different from mine. For me, this isn’t.”
I wonder if by ‘this’ he means the operation we are in the middle of, or the jungle that is engulfing us one tree at a time, or the tiger that I am told is rivaled only by the lion in strength and ferocity, or something much more that I cannot hope to comprehend just yet. I also wonder if I will ever discover something that isn’t bullshit for me. For now, my sense of well-being is rising high like the evergreens around me. For now, I feel like I could do this thing, although I’m not sure what this thing is, and if such a declaration means much on my second day in a new place.
“By the way, there is no book called ramen over—” I begin.
Munir puts a finger to his lips.
By now I’m driving so slowly we might as well be walking. We are in the deep jungle and the rain has turned the ground into slush. We continue like that for a few moments, me driving with all my attention focused on Munir, him with a finger on his lips, his eyes directed ahead.
You don’t find tigers. Other animals find them for you. The wind murmurs in the leaves and the liquid notes of an Indian roller pour out of the depths of the jungle. We hear the alarm call of a Nilgiri tahr, a low, grunting noise, alerting the other animals to danger. Nearby a gaur lifts its head, ears twitching. A moment later the langur monkeys, high in the canopy, begin to bark.
“Tiger,” Munir whispers.
I follow Munir’s gaze to where he indicates the tiger might be. She does not appear; she materializes. One moment there is nothing, the next a striped torso is gliding through the grass between the trees, only about ten feet away from us. A powerful nocturnal hunter prowling around her natural habitat, she moves in padded slow motion, her head perfectly still as her shoulders roll with each step.
Munir places his palm on my forearm signaling for me to stop. I apply the brakes. The jeep rolls to a smooth halt. The remote injection equipment lies at Munir’s feet. A mixture of sweat and rain trickles down my face. As my heartbeat escalates, I’m lost in the green chorus of the jungle: a perennial stream, trees rustling in the wind, the pitter-patter of rain, a ventriloquist tree-frog and ubiquitous cicadas. Time turns to stone.
The tiger is like a dream, a perceptual feast, a complex hallucination. I feed her my awe and she rewards me with lucidity. My limbs fall loose, my head tilts backward. I don’t know where my physical experience ends and where an immutable space begins in which I notice things I never have before. I can make out the veins on a leaf beyond the tiger. I can hear the breath of the trees.
The day Sheena left me, she was convinced she had misjudged me. On that day, she truly believed. And so, on earlier occasions, when she said she could not believe, she meant she could not believe I was capable of viciousness. She still had faith in me every single time.
Munir clenches his jaw softly, calming an inner storm. He is quiet. Devotion seeps out of him in faint, diaphragmatic breaths.
The tiger finally meets our joint gaze, although I have a feeling she has eyes only for Munir. The gaur gallops away. Munir’s hand gently reaches out for the tranquilizer. I ready myself to assist him, however he might need me to.
I have become the wind, the trees, the forest right after the rain has washed it clean. Doubt seeps away from my body and, even if briefly, it is good to know what that feels like.
On my left is a wild collage: a gorge filled with lush vegetation, wildflowers and a stream flowing into the plains to meet a lake brimming in the distance. The bioluminescent fungus on rotting bark and twigs on the forest floor has begun glowing, as if in protest of the descending night. Somewhere, not far away, silvery birdsong echoes through the ghats.