Halum, the Temple Tiger
By Nandita Bose
Bika, the crow, was tired of this vegetarian diet. But what alternative did he have, cursed as he was with a broken beak? He could only scoop up food sideways. There was no mate (who would garland him in this world of harsh reality?) to help him, and he was compelled to flatter the one-eyed dog named Mangy to survive. Mangy had also fallen into bad days. His beautiful mate Pari had run off with her litter of puppies in a shiny car with a fancy new owner who made such a fuss over the pups. Bika and Mangy had been living with an old doctor, but that life too changed when the forest began to close in. When the story of a ghost spread like wildfire, the building contractors vanished and the land surrounding the samsan ghat, the cremation ground, became deserted. Only the green multiplied inviting innumerable birds and squirrels as well as monkeys, but none cared for Mangy and Bika.
While they were guests with the old doctor, they had survived, but it was all vegetarian stuff. Then even that sure-food supply stopped. The fear of ghosts had pushed back the encroaching village, and very few braved the ghost and dared the miles through the snarling mess of forestry to visit the doctor. Finally, the old man placed a padlock on his door, waved cheerily to the banyan tree family to take over and trudged down the road to an unknown destination. The crow and the dog followed for some distance, but it began to thunder and rain when the last bus came and snapped up the doctor.
With unerring animal sense, the odd pair pushed through the messy knots of green foliage to return to their old home – the cremation ground by the sparkling stream – good old Battala Samsan. But here too there was a deserted look. There was only Pechu a gossipy owl to tell them that even the nearby temple had gone into hibernation as humans no longer dared the menace of the banyan family either to pray or to burn their dead. Only the monkeys thrived on the bounty of fruits, but they chattered nonsense and were too clannish to share anything. Even if they did drop anything, it was only a few fruits. There were many rats and squirrels, but Pechu kept it a guarded secret. Why should she share her well-stocked live-larder with these newcomers? She knew all about the elderly and weak among her prey and targeted them when night fell. She was doing them a kind service – mercy killing.
Suddenly all the animals held their breath. They heard a muffled roar. A tiger? Impossible! But who knows? Bika reasoned that the forward march of the banyan had taken it to the bend of the stream where it met the wide river. On the opposite shore were the mangrove jungles of Tigerland! Could a tiger have swum across? Mangy shook his head.
“It’s difficult but possible. Daktar Dadu used to say that the tigers there were unhappy. Man was encroaching on their homeland, and if they bared fangs to throw out intruders they would be branded as ‘man-eaters’; it meant facing the firing squad. No argument helped them. Tigers just could not understand the difference between man and beast. Food was food. Anyway seeing the green multiply at our end of the water body, the tigers had wanted to come over and colonise this place. But the crocodiles would not let them come. Perhaps one has…”
The talk was abruptly cut off as an old bleeding tiger limped through and sat down panting in the clearing below the banyan tree. Halum, the old tiger, had come! Somehow he had crossed the river. He knew all about the mood of the currents and stupid crocs. All he had to do was toss the half-eaten carcass of his own meal to distract the reptiles and swim powerfully across. Halum simply had to find a new territory. A young male tiger had taken over his beat and it was impossible to sneak around with dignity in his old haunt anymore. From across the river he had seen the temple spire and temples meant Man – lots of men!
But on reaching the banks, Halum found that he was winded. Age! Old age was leaving its mark. One leg was bleeding from a croc scratch. He tried to get back his growl when suddenly he heard two voices – two humans were arguing. Crouching Halum inched towards the temple, and sure enough, there were two men – one old and one young. He was Halum! He could never be wrong. Temple meant Man and Man meant easy kills.
The old priest Ritwik was trying to reason with his son Partha telling him not to go to the city leaving the temple. “Go for a day or two and come back with rice, dal and oil but don’t think of saying goodbye to your life here by this temple. It was given by the King to our ancestors. It’s our duty to look after the temple.”
“Duty? What shall we live off – the leavings of fruits the monkeys shower down from the treetops?”
“Why not, son? There are wildflowers also to offer to the deity. The occasional jajmans – the disciples, turn up and sometimes the villagers bring the dead also; it’s a very ancient samshan – holy – and they believe cremation here means a short-cut to heaven.”
“Baba – don’t cling to those old ideas. There is no future here. They are not even bringing the dead here so far away. I have no future here.”
“You have no future in the outside world, son. Your very name pointing to your Brahmin caste invites wrath. We are paying the price of the arrogance of our ancestors. Let us not argue. Come – sit down with the books. A time will come when Man will once more value this Knowledge of all knowledge…”
Their talk was drowned by a low growl. Halum was ready to pounce when suddenly Pechu jumped on the animal’s head. Bika quickly took up the cue and followed suit clawing the yellow crown. Pechu warned the ageing warrior “Don’t kill those two. I will peck out your eyes if you do.”
Halum was most surprised. “Why this friendship with Man? Let us kill and feast. I will give you the scraps.”
“Silence!” Pechu hooted “If you kill off these two, that will be the last nail on the coffin; no humans will come here – at least not during our lifetime. But if these two and the temple survive more humans will come. They will multiply. And Man in good numbers is good news for all of us.”
Halum was too tired to argue, but the pecking and clawing decided the issue. That night he had to be satisfied with an old blind rat that had been foolish enough to limp across his paws.
In the morning the tiger’s condition worsened. Bika had a kind heart. He brought a squashed banana near the growler. In olden days Halum would have felt insulted, but today nothing seemed to matter. With half-closed eyes, he looked wistfully at the temple spire overgrown with moss and enveloping climbers. Pechu understood.
“Bika – this wicked sinner is turning over a new leaf. The magic of the temple is touching his hard heart and melting it.”
Halum feebly pushed the banana towards the temple perhaps as a tentative offering. Bika sitting on his crown bent toward his ear. “What is your last wish?”
“I want the temple to wake up. I promise to offer a human to the gods every day if only the temple bells begin to ring once more and …”
Bika made a face at Pechu. “The rascal is praying alright but for more prey.”
Halum was, however, continuing “I want to become the king of this jungle so that all will fear me.’
Pechu turned away in disgust “Ego! It’s the same always – food and power.”
Bika broke into the owl’s philosophising and once more placed his beak near Halum’s ear.
“Okay! Don’t worry. I will make you a Temple Tiger – a temple god. Your legend will spread, and pilgrims will come to bow to you.”
“By dying! Surely you don’t want to go on living eating rats and mice. Leave the rest to me. Die in peace. I promise you – you will become the Temple Tiger! But you must make one effort. Jump. Jump on to the temple spire. Make one last effort. That spire will take you to heaven.”
Just then Partha, the son of the priest decided to climb up to the top of the temple and clear the entangled green mass trying to choke the beautiful structure. He was tired of arguing with the old man and thought that some activity would divert his mind from the gloom of his thoughts about the future.
The sight of the moving flesh triggered the tiger into sudden instinctive action. Halum jumped. Partha swerved and the old tiger missing his target landed on the lighting conductor placed on the spire and got pierced through and through.
And so Halum died – died as he lived – in action.
Immediately the jungle municipality crew swung into action – the vultures and rats together with flies and ants. The back of the tiger had been pierced, and this made the work easy for the brigade. They poked their heads into the neatly sliced rear portion of the dead tiger and began feasting. This was exactly what Bika had wanted. He had got rid of the danger and now to use his body to bring alive the crumbling temple. Within two days, with the help of the voracious cleaners, the undertakers had done a neat job of clearing the messy rotting insides. The dog, the owl, the crow and the monkeys teamed up and did not allow further damage to be done to the skin. The Sun baked whatever remained, and the place became ideal for nesting birds who took over with their branches, sticks, straw and feathers. The tiger skin became well stuffed – good enough to be the showpiece in the hall room of any maharajah. No taxidermist could have done a better job. Now all the animals had to do was to wait.
Meanwhile, the body of the tiger on top of the temple did to the priest what his son had not been able to do for so long – he accepted failure and decided to trudge off to the nearest human habitation with his son following behind him carrying a small bundle of their earthly possessions. But after about a month they found the going impossible. Bridges and flyovers were collapsing, while drains were choked while filthy water that entered empty, abandoned multistoried houses as taps ran dry. There were human gangs at each other’s throats everywhere.
One evening the dejected pair came back to the safety of their old haunt – Battala Samsan. The father was not without a feeling of smug satisfaction when he pointed to the temple. “Son, at least we have a roof above our head, fruit from the trees and sparkling water down by the ghat of the river.” Night had fallen, and they failed to see the new addition to the temple architecture – the tiger.
Tired and exhausted they soon settled down to partake of a frugal meal. The pair had gone out to the courtyard to wash their hands when the moon came up pushing aside the clouds, and the priest and his son saw outlined against the bewitching light the tiger on the temple spire. Suddenly a miracle happened. The eyes of the tiger began to glow – literally began to glow. The priest went down on his knees before this strange sight while the son stood shivering at a distance. After an hour the glow stopped and there stood the towering form of the tiger sketched against the sky in the faint light of the stars.
From then on the at night miracle began to take place off and on teasing the two humans. The priest had no doubts, but the son was somewhat sceptical. He had to pursue the matter further. Was somebody up to tricks? But what would that somebody gain by showing off in this deserted place with none but two poor caretakers of the ancient temple? One night a group came with their dead. It was an old lady who had insisted before dying that they should put her to the flames in this ancient holy Battala Samshan site within hours of her death otherwise her successors would be disinherited from her property. There were many claimants including grandchildren. All had come in full force so that none got deprived. Suddenly the magic of the burning eyes of Halum the Temple Tiger began to unfold before them. Somehow they completed the last rites and rushed back full of tales of the Temple Tiger. Like wildfire, the word spread and within a year people began to trek miles to be lucky to see the flaming eyes of the tiger-god. Some were lucky, and some were not. But with the crowds came devotees with offerings and once more the temple and the surrounding jungle became alive with footfalls. They came – the living and the dead –and they went – respectfully afraid of the legend of the Ghost and Halum the Temple Tiger.
Mangy was delighted. Following the pilgrims, the camera folks came with lunch boxes smelling of meat, fish and eggs. The rats multiplied and there were enough entrails lying around to share with Bika. The crow, however, had suddenly become very serious. “Look Mangy – like the tiger the temple has done something to me. I am eating these bits of flesh for no other purpose than to keep the temple yard clean.”
Mangy cocked his ears and sarcastically blinked his one eye “Really?”
The son of the priest was still full of doubt. How and why did the eyes of the tiger glow on certain nights? One day he found the answer. The ants had gnawed hollow the eyes of the great predator, and into this gap on special evenings, the glow worms began their courtship dances. The son could not keep the secret of this knowledge for long from his father. But the old man chuckled. “This does not make it any less a miracle!’
“Find the answer within yourself. Silence your mind and listen to your inner voice.”