Sayantan Basu

© Copyright 2018 by Sayantan Basu

Royal Bengal Tiger Sighting at Lalgarh.

Basu’s love for the wild has always drawn him to stories of encounters with wild animals, their sightings and captures. Predator is the narration of one such true story he fetched from the villages of Bengal. A tiger sighting in the forests of Lalgarh after 107 years had left authorities and villagers clueless. A two-month long operation followed in its pursuit with the tragic ending of the majestic creature being caught and put to death by the locals. The author ends up in a chance meeting with a survivor of that dreaded encounter only to realise the brutality of a predator.   

I distinctly remember that frosty, melancholic evening of January 15, 2018. I sat on the edge of my torn out sofa in the cubicle that I have for a room. Street lamps were lighting up one by one and a shroud of smog descended on the desolate road, reminiscent of the city’s clogged arteries.

My eternal pensive mood rarely gets uplifted but it did that evening. A local news channel was flashing the news of a tiger’s pugmarks discovered in the jungles of Lalgarh, Jhargram in the district of West Midnapore roughly 170 km from my metropolitan home of Kolkata.

I have always had the regret of never visiting a Tiger Reserve, not witnessing a tiger or any unstrained animal up close and personal. Ever since my middle class home has been blessed with the wonders of an idiot box I have stayed glued to wildlife documentaries and such other stories of the wild.

That evening my inner feline enthusiast did a thousand imaginary cartwheels not just because those paw marks hinted at a sighting of my favourite creature in the wild – but this occurred at a time when their numbers are dwindling with each passing second. Just because the marks were found at a place only a few kilometers away from my mother’s office of DIET Midnapore, I was maybe a tad bit excited.

My excitement knew no bounds when leading dailies and local channels published a rare photographic evidence of the elusive conqueror caught by strategically placed camera traps of the Forest Department.

The entire state anticipated the predator’s next move and speculated within their comfort walls. It was a survivor no doubt, a living embodiment of a long migration seldom heard of, maybe from Simlipal Tiger Reserve, 200km southward in Orissa or an even further Palamu, 400km northwest to Lalgarh, or an unprecedented 700km trek from Sanjay National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Maybe it was looking to carve out its own territory, find a mate or maybe it was an old compelled brave heart ousted by a young male in a fight over scarce resources and territory. No one knew all these answers. The villagers stayed petrified in concern, the authorities stayed clueless and all that could be done was to follow the trails.

The trails were followed for 2 months with advanced drones, tranquilizing teams and cages with live baits not bringing any success until the morning of April 13, the tiger fell to a mob of 500 angry, armed and cornered villagers in a small patch of Baghghora forest, finished with a spear piercing through its skull.

It was the end of May and I was onboard the Purulia Express enroute to a weekend getaway to my mother’s quarters in Jhargram. Eyes scavenged for beauty, but gaping wounds on childhood fantasies I believe are hard to heal.

Scraping them afresh, on the second day of my visit I met Bablu Mahato, the brave brother of Badal Mahato, the man who had looked the tiger in the eye as he killed it. Bablu Mahato was accompanying their youngest brother on matters of admission. My mother’s colleagues, blessed with this chance meeting with the war veteran, compelled him to stay back till evening to narrate the heroic tale.

At the fall of dusk we all sat on a high ground near the quarters with tea and samosas from the canteen, a distant tune of the saharul from the nearby village and the sound of cicadas everywhere around.

Bablu recounted in his rustic dialect the dreadful evening of March when he saw the tiger for the first time, watching his herd of cattle from a nearby shrub.

Didimoni, I could never forget that stone cold sight. We rang Tamak and Tumdak and neighbours rushed out of their houses to flee the tiger for the day.” The horror still embedded in the musculature of his face, he continued with teary eyes of how he spent every night of the aweful months that followed, wide awake in fear.

Some day Rahim would find a calf with its heart torn out; the next day Sarala would lose her baby. The list of casualties went on increasing. The Babus of the Forest Department wanted to catch the beast and not kill it. But that meant staking our lives in danger, like always. So we decided that we had to kill the beast ourselves and we were no longer scared. What more was to lose than precious lives every other day?” With a soft laugh, he added, “Bishu wanted to take a selfie with its severed head as we would often joke in the evenings. We knew one thing for sure - it was meant to be killed.”

I felt an eerie silence all around. It seemed the cicadas had all gone quiet at once. I could hear the wind howl as I watched Bablu’s face grow darker, his voice deeper. There was an unpleasant calmness in his tone as he uttered, “It was meant to be killed.”

Swords, spears, arrows what had we not stocked up! Every evening, turn by turn we would keep our cattle in open pastures and wait nearby ready to strike but that beast never turned up. The entire village was growing impatient. The wait was never this long with other animals. This vaishak alone, we had 15 shikar utsavs fetching back trophies of pangolins, bob cats, jackals, monitor lizards, birds, snakes, wild boars and what not! The male enjoyed a wonderful killing spree and the village feasted on a gala dinner. Babus from Kolkata arrived too and took back meat and skin from the hunt. We wondered what festivity, what fortune the tiger would bring us.”

What kind of festival demands such senseless killing?”

Bablu nodded his head with a smirk. “A festival of our pride, the manliness that we have inherited from our ancestors. This is our land and to protect it, my son, grandson and the generations thereafter will plunge the spear without hesitation.”

I watched Bablu’s coal-red eyes, ruthless as every contour of his face now seemed. He was no longer the simple man of the afternoon.

Finally that morning I had a sighting. It was sitting amidst a heap of leaves and twigs feasting on a wild boar. Without wasting any more time, we all charged at him but he attacked my brother in a fit. My brother, brave as he was, pushed the weapon back and out came a long roar followed by softened growls that slowly faded away. We helped my brother get up on his feet. Pain was immaterial. It was a memorable day for us indeed. The entire village celebrated with beating of the drums. The carcass was our trophy, our salvation and we danced and reveled with the machismo of killing the demon. Bishu jostled to get his selfie clicked and so did many of my neighbours. It gave me a sense of pride to think my brother brought them all this festivity. Local netas came to visit my brother at the hospital with garlands, sweets and gifts. At long last, we were again at peace.”

I sat there in the dark; the trees seemed no less than cursed beings of nightmares. No moon, no stars but a blanket of unexplained heaviness. I felt a lump in my throat. My tea was finished and so was everyone else’s. Bablu and his brother rose to leave.

Bidding us all goodbye, he faded into the forest track one footprint at a time. I watched him closely. My long-borne regret was no more.

Sayantan Basu is a second year student of marine engineering in Indian Maritime University, Kolkata Campus with an ardent love for books and literature. Winner of quite a number of creative writing contests organized byScholastic, India at school level and college fests across the nation, Basu is an eloquent orator and debater too. He draws inspiration from authors around the globe, celebrated or contemporary. An artist at heart, he paints with his words as much as with his brushes. He has participated in international collaborations like Rivers of the World, a Thames Festival Project.

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