In the lead story of Rajesh Parameswaran’s acclaimed first collection, I Am An Executioner, a Bengal tiger escapes from an American zoo and runs amuck. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” is hair-raising, but all I could think of while reading it was: Not one more tiger-escaping-from-zoo story?
Tiger Lit has never been so popular. Look at the number of award-winning fictions in the last decade in which tigers escape from zoos. There’s Rajesh Parameswaran’s story (the collection may well win a prize); Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife; Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Carol Birch’s Booker-shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie; Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winner The White Tiger, in which the tiger’s escape is a metaphor for breaking out of the cage of poverty; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which also bagged a Booker. And we’re just talking tigers here, not animals-escaping-from-zoo fictions, which would give us Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and no doubt several others.
All kinds of besotted, bombed-out, starving, mangy, metaphoric and misunderstood man-eaters are now on the loose. Not since Humbert Humbert got into his car with a different sort of lust have our literary highways been more unsafe — or more exhilarating. From the roars of approval that have greeted each new work, it would appear that critics and jurors, having tasted blood, can’t get enough of this killer app generously spattered with words like rippling, rolling, muscular, tawny, fiery, flaming, red, pink, orange, carrot, golden, amber, yellow, black, musky, sour, and, of course, stripe-lashed.
The grandfather of modern escapee Tiger Lit is probably the noted Indian writer R. K. Narayan, whose A Tiger for Malgudi, published in 1983, ends with a former circus tiger and a yogi wandering companionably into the hills. Ironically, very few contemporary Indian writers in English would dare to write about tigers today (except metaphorically like Adiga did) for fear of being pummeled for peddling exotica — Adiga got pummeled anyway for peddling poverty — even though the tiger, widely worshiped for its unlimited power and fertility, is about as exotic to India as poverty is. All the fictions mentioned above are essentially Western (Adiga’s apart), despite a dander of Indianness, in that either the writer or the tiger is a person of Indian origin (except for Téa Obreht who is Serbian-American and her tiger Siberian, but whose novel evokes India through its frequent invocations of Kipling’s The Jungle Book). Both Rajesh Parameswaran and Rajiv Joseph are Indian-American, and all the cats are Bengal tigers — Joseph even specifies, with what one hopes is parochial satire, that his cat is from the Sunderbans in “West Bengal”, thereby ruling out any chance of it being Bangladeshi.
The tigers are a mixed bunch ranging from the mangy to the magnificent. Some of them are regular chaps with a healthy disdain for man, others are Blakesian creatures tormented by their dietary preference for juicy children. Indeed, a spiritual subtext runs like spoor through these works, deepening the roots of textual kinship beyond that of a common plot line. Perhaps this braiding of reality and fable into a meaty mysticism is inevitable in stories where tigers are orphans, atheists, metaphors, stowaways and ghosts; where they fall in love with their zoo keeper and are petted by little boys, deaf-mutes and derelicts; flee German, American and NATO bombs; catch flying fish alongside a young boy on a lifeboat; bite the hand that feeds them and, in an aching passage on what war does to caged animals, chomp on their own legs to assuage their hunger.
At the raw, red heart of this literature beats the central question: where do animals fit in the social contract? Do they fit in the deadening comfort of the zoo, where they are fed pounds and pounds of glistening red meat and organs without having to raise a whisker? How do displacement and captivity deform their souls? What happens during war? In every story, the wild and jagged chiaroscuro of the tiger’s stripes is offset against the leaden symmetry of its cage. “Captivity and freedom,” says Parameswaran in an interview to Granta, “are fundamental themes in American history and in literature broadly. Vladimir Nabokov says that Lolita was inspired by the story of an ape in a zoo ‘who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing every charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Obreht says that she felt a sneaking sympathy for Kipling’s universally reviled Shere Khan, and that her own tiger was a kind of corrective to that mean, buffoon image. Clearly, she speaks for her pack. When the various tigers break free, and the killings begin, authorial awe is palpable in the treatment of the way this endangered predator discovers its primitive natural instinct, its livid sense of smell, and the unbelievably sweet taste of freshly killed meat.
Despite occasional lapses into sentimentalism and garrulity — tiger spiritualism can get tricky — these imaginative and empathetic fictions go a long way to deepening our understanding of the shared mammalian impulses of love, violence, freedom, and above all, a lust for life.
“The Infamous Bengal Ming” by Rajesh Parameswaran
This story could easily be called “Lost in Translation.” Ming the tiger is in love with his bald, chubby zoo keeper Kitch. But then Kitch mistakes Ming’s love for aggression and smacks him on the nose with a thin, long stick that he always carries but has never ever used before. Hell hath no fury like a tiger scorned. Ming pounces on Kitch, and love bites him like a vampire, “just once, hard and quick” in the neck. But never having hurt a man in his life, Ming is clueless about his own strength and is aghast at what he has done. He tries desperately to lap at Kitch’s neck to stanch the flow, and then, in a spine-tingling introduction of menace, realizes that he can’t stop licking because “Kitch’s blood was delicious.” In that one line, a killer is born. Ming breaks free, and feels a “strange and terrifying euphoria.” The story continues in this darkly comic vein with the bungling, well-meaning tiger trying to help a human cub (even though it smells terrible) by using his giant mouth to provide “a warm, comforting womb for it,” only to be filled with self-loathing when he realizes that he has “stupidly, inadvertently, recklessly suffocated it.” He even roars encouragingly at it from his “hot and humid lungs” but it refuses to stir. Parameswaran’s prose has the tender-savage texture of a rare steak veined with blood, and even though one feels a juddering revulsion when Ming the merciless chomps blissfully on fresh viscera and declares, “I have never felt so much love in all my life,” it also feels utterly and helplessly right.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Jamrach’s tiger is trigger rather than theme of Birch’s Victorian-era novel. He stars only in the first few pages of the story, when he breaks out of his cage and meets dreamy, young Jaffy Brown. That brief encounter in a filthy London market, during which Jaffy strokes the tiger on the nose and is gently picked up by the scruff of his neck, radically changes his fortunes. By the time Jaffy is carried home to his mother, his head, which a few minutes ago, was smaller than the tiger’s paw, now feels larger that “St. Paul’s dome” and is bursting with tiger love. Not only is this regal tiger-man cub encounter (based on a true event) an inversion of the Shere Khan-Mowgli hate-fest, but Birch gives us with what is easily one of the most eloquent descriptions of a tiger’s face as seen through a boy’s wonder-struck eyes. Her calm, Zen-like paean has resonances of Blake’s “fearful symmetry”, but instead of the dread hand of fear, an intense stirring of awe is what one feels.
Here’s Jaffy talking about his tiger:
The Sun himself came down and walked on earth…This cat was the size of a small horse, solid, massively chested, rippling powerfully about the shoulders. He was gold, and the pattern painted so carefully all over him, so utterly perfect, was the blackest black in the world. His paws were the size of footstools, his chest snow white…He drew me like honey draws a wasp. I had no fear. I came before the godly indifference of his face and looked into his clear yellow eyes. His nose was a slope of downy gold, his nostrils pink and moist as a pup’s. He raised his thick, white dotted lips and smiled, and his whiskers bloomed…Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose. Even now I feel how beautiful that touch was. Nothing had ever been so soft and clean…he raised his paw—bigger than my head—and lazily knocked me off my feet. It was like being felled by a cushion.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph’s brutal play was inspired by a bizarre but true news report of a tiger in a bombed-out Baghdad zoo biting off the hand of an American soldier. This scathing critique of the Iraq war uses grotesque comedy and magic realism to devastating effect. Joseph’s tiger chomps the right hand of a soldier who is sweetly but stupidly trying to feed it a Slim Jim. The tiger is then shot dead with Uday Hussein’s gold gun which the solider has looted along with a gold toilet seat he plans to flog on eBay. Tiger becomes a mangy, ghetto-mouthed ghost who stalks through the city saying “motherfucker” and gets completely spooked by the “burned and skeletal” animal topiary in Uday Hussein’s private garden, an eerie stand-in for a perverted Eden. “I mean, what the fuck is this supposed to be?…Vegetative beasts?…People. First they throw all the animals in a zoo and then they carve up the bushes to make it look like we never left.”
The tiger hates the fact that his ghost has been condemned to wander this burning city, and thinks of himself as Dante in Hades. In a broader examination of war and man’s affinity for violence, he recalls how he had once devoured a girl and a boy, and wonders if that makes him evil, only to solemnly conclude: “It wasn’t cruel, it was lunch.”
The only reason this damning play managed to be staged on Broadway – which loves bombshells but hates bombs – was because it had the crowd-pulling cat on its cast. Unfortunately, the tiger’s precious monologues are the one off-key note in this otherwise pitch-perfect play. Like the one-handed solider who pays a young Iraqi prostitute to stand behind him and help him jerk off because his new robotic right hand can’t do it and his left hand can’t get the angle right, the tiger’s belabored intellectual masturbation has the same cack-handed feel.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Obreht’s novel has one main tiger (the titular husband) and two in walk-on roles, though walk-on is a cruel term for Zbogom (Freedom) who, crazed with fear and hunger during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, begins to “eat his own legs, first one then another,” in a bloody metaphor for the fragmentation of the country.
The main tiger is another war victim, but of the German bombs that pounded Belgrade in 1941. By the time he breaks free, he is mangy, missing teeth and a “host for leeches.” The streets are littered with corpses, so he feasts on “the dense watery taste of the bloated dead” until he makes his first kill, a juicy young calf, and is sent into an ecstasy of longing for fresh meat, bovine or human. He begins to haunt a mountain village, and the villagers, who have never seen a tiger before, are convinced that a yellow-eyed devil has descended. The only two who are unafraid are the narrator’s grandfather, then a young boy addicted to Jungle Book, and the butcher’s wife, a teenage, deaf-mute Muslim girl with large eyes and a runny nose, whom the butcher calls bitch and beats to a pulp.
Obreht’s novel is deeply political but curiously nameless — there are no Serbians, Bosnians or Allied Forces, and the country is not identified. The only two outsider-enemies who are identified are the tiger and the Muslim girl. A brief and wondrous kinship ignites between these two outcasts. She steals out at night to feed him meat from the smoke house, and when the butcher mysteriously dies and she turns out to be pregnant, the village is convinced that she has become the tiger’s wife. This fable was inspired by Beauty and the Beast, and Obreht is on the mark when she says that the tiger’s voice “came very naturally to her and felt right.” With crafted, velveteen prose, she evokes the tiger’s mythic presence, his warm, sour smell and “big red, heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs.”
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Balram Halwai, a desperately poor man from rural India, and the titular character of this unsparingly harsh novel, is employed as the chauffeur of a corrupt feudal family in Delhi. Servant and master represent the two Indias — the India of darkness and the India of light, and Balram is consumed by an almost deranged desire to escape his India, haunted as he is by the memory of his tubercular rickshaw-puller father. Nor is he satisfied with the bones that have been thrown him — a new uniform and regular meals. “In the old days,” he says, “there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies and only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.”
The predatory analogy recurs when he compares the plight of the poor to hens in a chicken coop. “Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”
Balram doesn’t want to be eaten. The law of the jungle says that the only way not to be eaten is to become the eater, the tiger. But not any tiger. He realizes this when he visits the National Zoo in Delhi, where he sees that rare and special beast, a white tiger, pacing restlessly in his pen like “the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film.” The tiger, he says, was “hypnotizing himself by walking like this — it was the only way he could tolerate his cage.” Suddenly, the tiger stops, turns and looks him in the eye. In that piercing, epiphanic moment, so potent that he faints with rapture, Balram realizes that he “can’t live the rest of his life in a cage.” If he has to kill to break free, well, the India of Light has gotten away with murder.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A garrulous, funny, and moving fable of faith and survival, which Barack Obama called “an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling.” But first things first. Martel’s talkative narrator, the Hindu-Muslim-Christian Pi Patel, should get a gold medal for coming up with the most extravagant analogies ever used to describe a tiger’s bits and pieces — including its feces.
Pi’s heightened observations are the result of him being shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. So here goes. The “flame-colored carnivore” has paws larger than “volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica” and a round head larger than the “planet Jupiter;” his mouth is “an enormous pink cave” with teeth like “long yellow stalactites and stalagmites” and a tongue “the size and color of a rubber hot-water bottle;” his ears are “perfect arches;” his feces (which hungry Pi tries to eat and spits out) “a big ball of gulab jamun but with none of the softness;” his mating cry “as rich as gold or honey and as spine-tingling as the depth of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees;” and his leaping body “a fleeting, furred rainbow.” Want more? Pi is positively rapturous on his first-mate’s “carrot-orange face:” “The patches of white above the eyes, on the cheeks and around the mouth came off as finishing touches worthy of a Kathakali dancer. The result was a face that looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese.”
For 227 days, during which he swings between boredom and terror, Pi and the Kathakali-Chinese butterfly coexist. They make it because Pi manages to cow the horribly seasick tiger with shrill blasts from an orange whistle and keep them both alive by catching turtles and flying fish, having cannily divined that the zoo tiger looks upon him as a food provider and will spare him if he continues to provide. As his salt-encrusted body blisters and burns and his clothes fray to shreds, the vegetarian Pi discovers the joy of drinking “the fresh-tasting fluid from the eyes of large fish.” He goes from being sick with fear of Richard Parker to the realization that without him for company, he will lose the will to survive. Eventually, his prayers to Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and Vishnu are answered and the two mammals are saved. But Pi is devastated, when, without so much as a backward glance Richard Parker slinks into the Mexican jungle. For the rest of his life he is haunted by this cold-hearted desertion, the lack of a proper goodbye. Perhaps Pi might derive some consolation from what the Indian poet Eunice de Souza has to say about Richard Parker’s haughty species in a poem called “Advice to Women:”
if you want to learn to cope with
the otherness of lovers.
Otherness is not always neglect –
Cats return to their litter trays
when they need to.
Don’t cuss out of the window
at their enemies.
That stare of perpetual surprise
in those great green eyes
will teach you
to die alone.
Image Credit: Pexels/Blue Ox Studio.