Sunday, November 30, 2008

The old tiger still roars

25 kilometres from the Indo-Nepal border, framed against the Terai forests of Lakhimpur Kheri, stands a lonely house… and here they say, an old tiger still roars.

The house was empty. Rising flood waters of the Soheli had claimed these lands for long this season and while the waters had receded, the old tiger hadn’t returned yet to his Haven. On the verandah, next to stacks of mouldy books, throwing a silent challenge, rolled a solid iron barbell, loaded thick with weighted plates. I succumbed to the lure and gripped the cold steel bar and heaved. Nothing happened… I heaved again, and it moved a few reluctant inches before I gave in to gravity and let the barbell clang to the floors. “Sahab roz uthathe thhey, till about 8-10 yrs ago”, said a voice. It was the caretaker. That weight must’ve weighed many hundred pounds and ‘Sahab’ was supposedly 91 now. I wondered about the veracity of the legend. ‘Sahab’ wasn’t here though. He’d moved a few kilometers south, and we followed. I remembered what a local zamindar had said. “He isn’t very tall but used to be a very strong man. He once picked up the front axle of a tractor. Even today his arms are in better shape than yours or mine”. Then I saw him on the front porch of his house, a frail little man curled up on a high chair, a gentle smile welcoming us. He motioned for us to sit and the first thing I asked him was if he’d really picked up the tractor. “Just stories…”, boomed the man’s voice and then he shook my hand with an iron grip that suggested that these ‘stories’ must ring true… surely, the old tiger still roars.

‘Billy’ Arjan Singh is what they called him in the early days when he went about trying to be ‘The Corbett of Kheri’ as he put it, but today he prefers just plain Arjan Singh. Tracing his lineage to the royal family of Kapurthala and Anglo –Bengali Christians, ‘Billy’ loved the great outdoors. He wrestled, lifted weights and in keeping with his heritage, made friends with the hunting rifle rather early in life. He killed his first leopard at 12 and his first tiger at 14. In fact, he was quite a blood thirsty little butcher in those days, killing every possible animal within the range of his rifle. On one occasion he and his brother were returning from the forest in a car and saw a hyena loping across. They fired at the unhappy beast till they ran out of bullets. Then they tried to run the animal over and yet the suffering animal wouldn’t die. There are tales a plenty of his ‘callous brutality’ as he puts it in one of his books. And yet, the forest had claimed his soul and with each animal he killed, he felt a little emptier inside until the day he realised that he killed not for the joys of the hunt as much as he killed to quiet his own feelings of inadequacy. Since then, he has ruthlessly denounced his own weaknesses that had made him into a wanton killer. Today, as the crops stand in his fields, he tells his farm hands that the animals have first right to these crops and there would be enough for all. And sure enough, there is. There’s a sadness in those eyes when he talks of that same blood lust, greed and human insecurity that he once felt, which still turns men into poachers and forests to fallow land, but he hasn’t given up the fight… the old tiger still roars.

As an adult, Billy returned from the army after the second great war and moved to these lands bordering the forests of Dudhwa, hoping to make a living as a farmer. It was difficult because these lands were overrun by stray and wild ungulates, and yet Billy succeeded in running the farm in the lap of nature, sharing its bounties with the wild animals who frequented it. Around the same time, in the 1960s, he took up cudgels against the rather popular sport-hunting outfitters who organised trophy hunting expeditions for rich paying clients. Billy was almost single-handedly responsible for driving them out and having the government ban trophy hunting for good. In a way, he was atoning for the transgressions of his early days. And Dudhwa, especially its rare barasinghas, owe an invaluable debt to this man for dedicating his life to protecting the park from poachers, land grabbers, and securing the future of this deer.

But when I ask him of his legacy, he seems unsure. “Democracy will kill the tiger. There are just too many of us and soon these forest too will have to go. What can you do?”, he says. I’m saddened to hear him say that. I was hoping that he, more than anyone else would hold out defiant hope. After all, isn’t he the most decorated conservationist in the world, having won awards and appreciation from all quarters and corners and isn’t he the man who poachers still fear? And isn’t he the man who has repeatedly achieved the impossible, whether it be protecting a forgotten landscape from eternal destruction or be it successfully returning hand reared leopards and tigers back to the wild. “What can I do? I’m an old man now. Everybody I know is gone. I’m just waiting for the end. Soon, I’ll be gone too… and so would the forests.” I must’ve looked crestfallen, and I was. Though physically much taller, I felt dwarfed by the majesty and aura of the man. I must’ve seemed like a sad little boy who’s had his last shred of hope wrenched away from his hopeful heart. The affectionate old man seemed to take pity on the little boy sitting across him and his eyes softened… “I haven’t given up yet. I might be old but I’m not going to quit. I’m still working hard… I can’t give up the fight.” There’s fire burning in that belly yet… the old tiger roars still…

Conservationist extraordinaire Billy Arjan Singh seemed a lonely warrior. The man who had shared shikar yarns as a boy with Jim Corbett now looked back on his time spent in these forests he loves so dearly with a fondness that overwhelmed me. The proud figure, unbending, unyielding, brave of heart and stout of limb, forever chasing redemption, had shades of Victor Hugo’s unforgettable hero – Jean Valjean. It was lunch time and Billy’s man Friday, Shriram, was helping him away… As he got up to leave, he said “if you want to save the tiger, you have to give him a vote.” And then he said, “you want to know what my obituary would be?” I didn’t. There’s time yet sir, I said. “I’ll tell you… The lines are Kipling’s (Tiger--Tiger) but they speak of my soul…” He paused for a while and the lines came back, first in a trickle and then in waves… child-like joy creased his face as his voice grew strident - What of the hunting, hunter bold,

Brother the watch was long and cold.

What of the quarry ye went to kill?

Brother, he crops in the jungle still.

Where is the power that made your pride?

Brother, it ebbs from my flank and side.

Where is the haste that ye hurry by?

Brother, I go to my lair to die.

The legend that had taken on a life and aura of its own as it emanated from his being while we spoke had shrunk back into the tiny old man as he hobbled back to his room. As he stopped to turn and wave, I said a silent prayer, for I hoped and believed that old tiger will roar for long still… for who knows what these forests would become, if not for that roar.


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