'Twas the night before Christmas....the man and the child slept peacefully. I sat alone, in the living room, legs tucked under a thin shawl and curled up in one corner of the sofa, reading. Page after page, I read, then, at one point, I closed the book, thinking, wondering, imagining, I shivered a bit, turned and switched on the portable heater to warm my feet. Not that it was so cold, but I felt chilled. It was because of the book I was reading.
A few weeks ago, my Father and I were discussing books and he recommended, 'The man-eaters of Kumaon' and I immediately checked my local library listing for the same. It was unavailable and so I went on to the inter-library loan section and put in my request.
As I sat reading line after line, page after page, I was in the book, I was walking alongside the author, observing, yet unseen by the characters in the book, like Harry Potter in the Pensieve. I watched with bated breath as the author came face to face with a man-eating tiger and raised his rifle, my blood froze and a scream died in my throat.
The tiger was dead, the villagers and I were relieved and I came back to reality, it was rather late and I had not realized but there was a thunderstorm brewing outside!
I crept into bed, the man and child did not stir, I sighed, turned over and closed my eyes as the thunder rumbled and lightning flashed all night. And then, all of a sudden, I was awake and fully alert and sitting bolt upright in bed, next to me, M was sitting up too, still groggy with sleep. We both heard it, a scrambling, scratching.... panicky sort of sound, like, like..... claws on wood...
To my man-eating-tiger-inflamed mind, it was fuel to fire. A million thoughts and images flashed in my mind as a brilliant flash of lightning lit the room for two seconds. And among those million thoughts and images, one image stood out clearly, as though it was yesterday.
I put that thought on hold as M and I tried to determine the sound, concluding it was our noisy, upstairs neighbor ( and possibly a big size dog they own, who was scared senseless by Mother Nature) we lay down again, listening to the thudding of our own hearts.
I turned over and smiled and went back to my thought.
About a decade ago, two young girls sat out in the balcony of the apartment that overlooked a hillside, dense with vegetation after the abundant Mumbai Monsoon. Somewhere a small waterfall tinkled and gurgled and crickets chirped.
Lisa and I, after a long day at college, found it very relaxing. Just sitting out there in the balcony / patio, talking of anything except our day and studies. Mostly we wove stories with what we had read and what we saw around us.
That night, we were intrepid hunters, hunting in the dense forests. The balcony tiles became our 'machan' (n. In , a high platform or some device to protect and conceal the hunter while he is watching for the tiger. The machan is usually built in a tree and is concealed by the branches. source:Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia) as we watched and waited for the 'lame-one' to make an appearance.
Many a tale we wove with the lame tiger (Sherekhan, I must admit) as the 'shikar'. How we laughed! How naive we were!
Intrepid! Pshaw! We would run for miles, screaming like banshees, if we saw a lizard on the wall!
As I read about the man-eaters, I saw in my minds eye, the image of a tiger I had seen in Jijamata Udyan (or Ranichi Baug or the Mumbai Zoo as it was known). As I stood near the enclosure, hands on the rail, desperate for a glance of the famous tiger, almost giving up when I saw him! First a paw and then silently, like a thought, the hulking shape of a tiger came in full view, his enormous face, glinting eyes, sleek coat, the orange and black stripes, muscles rippling slightly as he walked. For two seconds, our eyes met and then slowly, with indifference, he put his face down and lapped some water and then almost deliberately, turned his back on me and went back into the bamboo shade that was made for him and lay down.
I realized, I was gripping the metal railing and unknowingly and the first look at that enormous and strong paw, my eyes had gone to the padlock wondering if it was indeed safe. For I saw, one swipe at that lock and the tiger would have been free, can chains and a Nav-Tal like lock, even if it was the biggest one in the market, at that time, survive an 8 foot (possibly more) full-grown Tiger, if and when roused?
I left the zoo with that image burned forevermore into my memory and respect for the Tiger and pity, that such a magnificent beast was caged.
I slept with all these thoughts whirling in my mind, wondering what Christmas morning would bring, rain? cold winds? hail?... snow?
Looks like a lot of people wished for a white Christmas...
As I looked out of the window in the morning, all was quiet, there was no indication that a thunderstorm had raged just hours ago.
There was a sudden flurry of snowflakes and we watched it fall softly to the ground as we ate a late breakfast.
Donning our thick boots and jackets we ran out into the patio and danced about and when we were shivering, dashed back into the living room, into the cozy warmth.
All fears of the night forgotten, happy that we were celebrating a White Christmas!