After dinner, Grandpa relaxed on a reed mat chewing paan and his grandchildren settled around him asking for a story. He was about eighty with a clean shaven head except for a tuft of hair on the top.
When asked why he didn’t shave that off too, he said that while at a temple when the priest drops some sacred rice on his head, a few grains should remain for a few minutes. The tuft of hair helps to hold them. It’s inauspicious if rice falls to the floor immediately, he explained. He knew such Hindu customs well.
Grandpa leaned back against the wall for support.
“Meera, Shanthi, Reyva and Anish, this happened almost 50 years ago. I was a Government revenue officer holding a powerful position as a ‘Tahsildar,’ in Markapur district. The area where I worked was mountainous and covered by thick jungle. I checked land revenues, supervised local official’s work and solved villagers’ minor disputes. I was honest and fair, so people respected me. I traveled from village to village, mostly on horseback, sometimes by foot, and occasionally in a doli.
“What is a doli, Grandpa?” Shanthi asked.
“It’s a swing cot hung by ropes from a sturdy horizontal pole. I sat on the cot and two people belonging to the Chenchus, a mountain tribe, placed the pole on their shoulders, one at each end and carried the doli.
“Once I was traveling towards a small village, Gunapuram, in the midst of Nallamala forest. Two Chenchus carried me in a doli through a narrow jungle path surrounded by thick bushes, creepers and tall trees. My cook walked in front, carrying a gunny bag of food. Dusk had set in. It was hard to see except for vague shadows. The leading Chenchu lit a small hurricane lamp which barely illuminated ten feet in front. Crickets, frogs and unknown insects chirped loudly and I heard jackals howling nearby. Night birds made weird noises. It was turning chilly so I covered myself with a blanket.
“Then I heard something stepping on dry leaves. I peered in to the darkness and saw an animal, the size of a big dog, leisurely following us a few feet behind. I asked the Chenchus whether they noticed the animal.
“No, Swami, we don’t see anything,” they replied, but when they increased their pace to a trot, I was worried.
“I turned and again looked closely in to the darkness. There was nothing there except dark shadows and swaying branches. Was the animal my imagination and the shadows playing tricks on my vision?
“The doli bearers stopped suddenly and stood like stone statues. I could see my cook shivering. I squinted my eyes and stared to the front. Then I saw it. A huge tiger sat on its haunches blocking our path. Its yellow-red eyes glowed like fire balls. I felt sure the tiger would eat us all for dinner. I thought I would never see your grandma again. I prayed God Balaji to remove the tiger right away and if done, I would break fifty coconuts to Him.
“I didn’t know how long we stopped there. Seconds seemed like hours. Suddenly, the tiger roared, the sound reverberating throughout the jungle, then gracefully jumped into the bushes and disappeared. Several bats on the trees flapped their wings and took to the air. Foxes howled. My cook wetted his dhoti. All this happened in an instant.
“The Chenchus didn’t drop me and run away because they were used to seeing tigers in the jungle. My cook was confused and shaking. He was drenched in sweat. We carried and placed him in the doli and covered him with my blanket.
“Suddenly, the tiger returned and circled us three times. It jumped over the doli. It sharpened its claws against a tree trunk nearby. After completing the act to its satisfaction, the tiger lay down in front of us and leisurely licked and cleaned its paws. Then it rested its head over the front paws and looked at us. After a few minutes, the tiger growled, got up and walked off into the bushes.
“After a while, we slowly moved out of the place and reached the village without further incident. I settled in the forest bungalow that was reserved for me, had dinner and fell into a deep sleep.
“The next morning, when the Chenchus came to collect money for their service, I asked them why the tiger didn’t attack us.
“Swami,” they replied, “We knew the animal coming behind us was a tiger. If we had told you, we didn’t know how you or your cook would have reacted. The tiger would certainly have attacked us if we had irritated it. It killed a cow two days ago and ate it partially. So, it was not interested in us.”
Meera asked, “Grandpa, tell me, why the tiger didn’t harm you and move away?”
“My dear Meera, the tiger stared at me and I stared back. At last it realized that I was a Tahsildar, a powerful Government official, so the tiger graciously removed itself out of my way.
“Come on, Grandpa.”
“All right. I’ll tell you. Later, I asked the curator of the forest bungalow about the peculiar behavior of the tiger. He said a few months back there was a circus show at Markapur. During the show, a tiger jumped over the cage and escaped into the jungle. The circus personnel and forest rangers searched for the animal but could not locate it. The tiger was used to people’s presence, so didn’t harm us. When it stumbled upon us, it remembered its circus routine and circled us, jumped over us, and sat expecting commands and meat pieces from us. Getting none, disappointed, the tiger growled and walked away. Luckily, it was the circus tiger we encountered that night.
“Now, go to bed. Have pleasant tiger dreams.