Tigers, Tales, Illumination

ImpossibleOwl.jpgBrian Phillips has not featured once in our pages until now, nor has The Ringer. If you read his essay below, featured also in the book to the right, the fit with our platform here is clear. Strange, though; I would not have expected to see it featured on a website that looks to be mostly focused on sports.

But it is a welcome surprise. It serves as another welcome reminder of some of the highlights of our years in India. And it provides a reason to track the author. The blurb the publisher chose to accompany the book (click the image to the right) is telling: “…Dogged, self-aware, and radiating a contagious enthusiasm for his subjects, Phillips is an exhilarating guide to the confusion and wonder of the world today. If John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead was the last great collection of New Journalism from the print era, Impossible Owls is the first of the digital age.”


Getty Images/Ringer illustration



Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree. One stepped out of high grass, crossed the road in front of me, and disappeared into grass on the other side. One walked along a low ridge on the edge of a different road, oblivious or indifferent to the tourists taking her photograph. One looked out from a cover of branches and red leaves, so perfectly concealed that from thirty feet away he kept stereoscoping in and out of sight. Three were cubs, just four or five months old. Three were juveniles, aged around one year. The rest were fully grown. All were tired, because the days were hot, and because the days were dry they moved and breathed and slept in a film of clay-colored dust.

Every morning we left before dawn, to have the best chance of seeing a tiger. At that hour the lodges didn’t serve breakfast, but at four forty-five or five o’clock or five fifteen they put out tea and ginger cookies, and sometimes porridge or fruits. Shadowed safarigoers in camouflage pants and intricately pocketed wrinkled vests gathered in hushed groups around the piles of their camera gear, sipping Darjeeling from china cups. Later, after we had driven for three or four hours, we would stop and the guides would spread a white tablecloth on the jeep’s hood and on this they would lay out a full breakfast: hard-boiled eggs in metal tins and green apples and basmati rice and triangular sections of cheese sandwich and salt in fluted glass shakers. Tea was steeped in boiling water, from kettles that drew power from the jeep’s battery. If we had stopped at a forest rest area there would be stalls where you could buy hot chai for twenty rupees and Coca-Cola for fifty rupees and also T-shirts, and books of wildlife photography still wrapped in cellophane. Tourists browsed among the tables or threw bits of egg to the stray dogs lying in the dust between the jeeps. I bought a Coke from a boy selling them from a dirty Styrofoam cooler, then looked out at the field of black bushes behind the rest area and wondered how close the tigers came.

As it happened, I never saw a tiger near a rest area. As it happened, the only wild animals I saw near rest areas were langurs, big coal-faced monkeys that congregated in troops along the sides of forest roads, infants clinging to their mothers’ necks and staring out with calmly startled eyes. Families of gray langurs would sometimes go leaping through the bushes, and I liked watching them because I liked the front-sprung, bucking gait with which they ran, tipping from hind limbs to fore. I liked the langurs, too, because their unbothered presence near a rest area seemed to suggest that there was nothing, after all, so strange about the scene, that the act of shopping for baseball caps and art books in the middle of a jungle preserve contained no insurmountable irony, that the Coca-Cola and the banyan trees and the cheese sandwiches and the monkeys were merely pieces in a puzzle whose edges were by necessity somewhat blurred. Eventually, my experience in the jungles of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh made me mistrust the convenience of this reasoning; it was comforting while it lasted.

I had no trouble imagining a tiger creeping up behind the T-shirt stand, in any case, because in the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen. Maybe a professional guide can spot one, or one of the forest villagers who live around the reserves; for a regular human with untrained, human senses, there’s no chance. The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there. Outside one of the exits from Bandhavgarh, the densely forested jungle reserve in central India, there is a sun-faded sign. It shows a picture of a tiger, and next to the tiger the sign reads: PERHAPS YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN ME, BUT PLEASE DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I HAVE SEEN YOU.

The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything, a low hum that sounds — literally, in the murmured Hindi conversation of the guides — like tiger, tiger, tiger. This zone of apprehension follows the tiger as it moves. Often, the best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate a boundary of the zone. But even then, it is impossible to predict where, or if, the tiger will appear.

The first tiger I saw came out into a rocky canyon in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas. We were parked on the rim, looking down. For several minutes before the tiger showed herself, unease warped through the canyon. An unidentifiable impulse made the human occupants of the jeeps on the canyon rim stand on their seats, gripping their binoculars with both hands. Two peacocks that had been dancing on the canyon floor folded their tails and slunk away in silence. And it was very strange: Because the tiger had been, so long as she was invisible, a hazard of pure atmosphere, a permeating energy that filled the whole jungle with dread, when she walked out into the open, she seemed curiously small and specific, no longer a magic aura but a creature bound by a body, with a body’s limitations. Above all she seemed indifferent. She had not come to justify the myth we were writing for her. She was not interested in the mood she created or in the sounds her audience made. She was hot, and here was a muddy pool, so she waded into it; that was as far as her participation went. Somehow her aloofness made her even less conspicuous. When she first appeared, I had to have her pointed out to me. I was scanning the canyon floor only for her, yet she had taken several steps out of the cover of the tree line before my eyes would register her existence.

Read the whole story here.

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