Our African adventure jogged a few memories. Stories about my grandfather heard in my childhood in bits and pieces. Some narrated by his sons, some gleaned from his diaries I stumbled upon. I heard these tales between the ages of 10 and 18. Most of it is true, for everything else I uphold the term ‘artistic licence’ as my shield.
KK or Krishnan Nair held up a solid build of six feet one in his thick dark skin; he also had the strength of an ox. The only times his thin lips succumbed to a smile was when he listened to stories told by his old friends.
I saw his life-size portrait on entering my paternal grandparents’ house for the first time in 1971. Clad in khakis, white cotton shirt, and brown boots he stood with his left hand covering the muzzle of a double-barrelled gun. Two dogs fiercely guarded his flanks. The starkness of the black and white picture added to the aura of the legendary hunter.
At the top of the steep wooden staircase hung the head of a wild buffalo lost in time. On the nights that we lost power, the ghostly head illuminated by lightning gave me the chills.
Those dogs were long dead. But I found the gun behind a door in the farthest room on the second floor. When I gathered the courage to lift it without permission the heavy gun slipped from my hands. The butt landed on my right foot. Before it clattered to the ground I grabbed it by the leather strap. I did not know if he kept it loaded at the time.
The jungles of Wayanad
I have met the man, KK’s friend, who escaped the wrath of the tiger. Achuthan Nair, or AC, was KK’s friend and companion on many hunting expeditions.
AC had a sprawling house in Balusseri overlooking the gorge that bordered the jungles of Kerala and Karnataka. Men in Kerala rarely wore shirts. When my brother and I along with two of my cousins went to his house, AC proudly showed off the deep gouge marks on his back. The shoulders had caved in to the tiger’s grip. The last of his white hair was rapidly flushing down the whirlpool formation on top of his head. There were deep claw marks on both sides of his bald head.
“That’s the bite marks of the tiger.” Achuthan Nair’s eyes began to shine. If they were bigger he would have narrated the whole incident with his eyes.
“No. No. Start from the beginning,” my brother begged and clambered on to the long armrest of AC’s easy chair.
Achuthan Nair leaned back and put his feet up on the other armrest and began his story.
This incident happened in 1942. It was at the height of the monsoons when I visited your grandfather. He had sent a man two days before asking me over. A man-eater was roaming the foothills of Wayanad and had so far killed two men.
I realised this hunting trip would be different. KK had killed many wild beasts. But this was my first time hunting a tiger. It was a days’ trip to the foot of the mountain range including the four-hour bus ride and walk to the foothills.
By the time we reached the forest outpost it was dark. I got into the log cabin while KK tied the dogs to the wooden bench.
“Where are you coming from?” I could barely make out the man’s features shaped by the oil lamp hung from the bamboo rafters.
“From far. Kozhikode.”
KK came in and stood framing the door.
“Aaaah. You must be the hunter who has come to kill the tiger?” The relief on the forest officer’s face was brighter than the dim light.
“Yes. This is Krishnan Nair. I am Achuthan Nair.”
“I am Chatthutti, one of the forest officers.”
“We had a long ride. When can we retire?” I was eager to get some rest.
“Raman will be coming soon to escort you.” Chatthutti poured two teas from the flask and placed the glasses on the high table. “So have you killed any tigers before?”
“You name it. Krishnan Nair had killed them. And I’m there with him on every hunting trip.”
“Really? Even tigers?” The flickering lamp danced in Chatthutti’s eyes.
The dogs uttered low growls. Soon Raman came into the cabin and took off his head cloth and hung it around his neck. “I was waiting for you all evening. Captain asked me to bring you up as soon you came in.”
KK got up, shouldered the gun, and untied the dogs. I followed him with the holdall carrying our clothes, ammunition, spare batteries for the torch, and tobacco.
Raman lit the choottu from the embers in the brick stove, waved it briskly to fan the flames, and walked in front of us. Within shouting distance of the cabin we came upon a clearing with a small building. This place was better lit with petromax hanging in the corners of the white-washed building. I could see smaller lamps inside through the small thick window rungs. The heavy brass studded wooden door was shut. Raman snuffed the choottu and pulled the chord on the bell. I could not read the English inscription above the door.
“Aiyeee! You cannot read!” My brother interrupted.
“I still cannot read English!” AC crisscrossed the legs the other way.
“Go on with the story,” one of cousins leaned forward. “When did you see the tiger?”
That was not until three days later.
The building doubled as a forest and police outpost. Anyway we were given a room at the back of the building. After a meal of spicy chicken curry and pathiri we retired. The dogs were fed bones of goat and water and were tied to the wooden post outside our room.
I snuffed out the oil lamp, rolled out a mat, and lay down. KK was already fast asleep on the metal cot. The mountains are cold at night and it had started to rain heavily. I pulled the woollen blanket over my head trying to shut out the sounds of thunder and fears in my head. It rained throughout the night. Whenever the dogs growled I got up and looked out. The lightning lit up the forest around us; I could see nothing else.
I woke up at the sounds and shouts of whistles and men marching. Through the wooden window bars I counted 10 men in brown shorts with lots of leg room, white undershirts, and red boots. Some of the brown socks looked tired and formed pools around the ankles.
KK was sitting on the raised tiled verandah around the building with a steaming cup of tea. I walked out and sat next to him on my haunches.
“Did you meet the captain?”
“Not yet.” KK rolled the paper, licked the end to seal the tobacco, and set it on fire.
After the parade, Raman came around with my tea. “The captain would like to see you.”
At the end of the clearing there was a smaller building which I had completely missed last night. It had three office rooms. We found the captain in the middle room sitting behind an old desk covered with dusty brown files tied by red threads.
“It’s good of you to come immediately. I cannot stress the importance of this assignment.” Captain Velappa Menon sat straight without touching the wooden back.
“I got your postcard. All I know is that there’s a tiger on the loose and it is killing people,” KK sat in one of the chairs and crossed his legs.
I moved nearer to the window and looked outside. The mountain range was engulfed in thick fog. Everything else was dense green, wet with a million shades of green. I could hear gushing water and sounds of birds. It certainly was ‘God’s own country’!
“The tiger was first sighted more than two weeks ago in Malayalam’s rubber plantation. Raman can take you there. It’s already killed two tappers. We don’t know if there were any more deaths. It takes days to get news around here. No one ventures out alone and certainly not at night.”
“I’ll go up in the afternoon.” KK took out his tobacco pouch.
“The vegetation is very thick as you go up. Combined with the fog you cannot see the person standing next to you. I know I don’t have to tell you to be careful.” Captain Velappa Menon leaned back perhaps gaining some confidence from seeing KK’s calmness.
“They hunt at night. The fog comes in the morning. We will build a machan near the water and wait.”
The killing field
We set off with Raman leading the way up the slippery slope of sliding mud and insects. Big droplets of water fell from the trees and rock overhanging. I had wrapped the ammunition in two layers of waxed cloth. This could make the difference between life and death.
“Tigers do not venture out this far from the forest unless food is scarce. Or they have tasted human blood. This tiger has killed before. I am sure of it. Have you heard anything, Raman?” KK brought up the rear and let the dogs off the leash.
Raman, machete in hand, waved to the distance. “No. I have not heard anything. The plantation is that way. Goats and sometimes dogs disappear. But it could be anything.” Raman abandoned the steep path and climbed on to a wider path with deep tracks.
“Lumber is transported this way. It takes a bit longer to reach there but this is more open.” Raman waited for us to reach his side.
An hour later the path took us to a big metal gate held together by stone posts and guarded by statues of lions. Raman unlatched the smaller gate and pushed it open.
“During the tapping season a lorry from Mananthavadi comes every week to transport the rubber sheets. After the season only the caretaker is left behind with his family. The workers are mostly from neighbouring villages. They live here during the tapping season.”
I knew that the season was almost ending and an incident like this would drive away the workers. We had to find the tiger quickly.
We walked to the top of the hill and a colonial style building framed by a wide verandah grew into our view. Four people were sitting on the steps and smoking beedis. When they saw us they got up, threw away their smokes, and took off their head cloth. “Did the captain send you?”
“Yes. This is the hunter Krishnan Nair.” Raman leaned the machete against the post.
They brought two cane chairs and placed it on the verandah. KK slipped the leash on the dogs and tied them to a post. He kept the gun against the brick wall and sat down.
“What really happened?” Raman spoke in the local dialect.
All four of them spoke at once. All I heard was, “There were 10 of us. One died immediately. We brought the other one here. By the time the captain sent for the doctor the next morning, he died.”
“Two of the tappers left the same night. Two others waited for daylight and they too left.”
“We have not gone into the field for four days.”
“We need a live goat. I will tell you where to tie it. We also need to build a machan near the place where the killings took place.” I farmed out the tasks to Raman and the others.
“It is too late now to build a machan,” the tallest tapper offered. “We can do it early tomorrow.”
KK grunted and asked for some food to be given to the dogs.
The next morning we set out at five. There was nothing evident around the bushes where the tiger dragged one of the trappers. Two men clambered up adjacent trees and started building two machans at varying heights. They cut bamboo and fashioned ropes from bamboo reeds. The lower machan was the height of about two tall men and was long enough for one person to lie down. They spread a few coconut leaves and husks to soften it. Two others came with a bleating goat by mid-afternoon.
Raman went back with the men promising to be back before nightfall.
I tied the goat at the end of the clearing in clear sight of KK’s gun. Climbing up to the machan with the torch, ammunition, and food was much harder than I thought. Now it was a long wait. I hoped it would not rain heavily. The dense foliage should provide some cover.
My brother was fast asleep in AC’s lap. He called for his wife who took him inside.
“Let’s finish the story now.”
We stayed on the machan for three days. I was sure this was a waste of time. The tiger was never going to come back. We heard the goat bleating the second night. I shone the torch all around but saw or heard nothing. We took turns keeping watch.
I knew KK would not return without taking at least one shot at the tiger. We continued the watch and waited for the third day. Every morning and evening Raman and the men would come with supplies, making noises all the way to scare even the leaves.
On the third day evening I climbed down to relieve myself. KK was sitting in his perch cleaning and oiling the gun. I walked past the goat and aimed at the tree with the broadest trunk.
Everything happened so quickly that even now I cannot put it in the right sequence. The goat bleated alarmingly and started running around trying to break free. I was half way into my pee.
KK jumped down from his perch. The dogs were barking wildly. There was a rustle in the bushes behind the tree. I looked at the bushes tense but automatically still minding my business. An orange shape sprang out with such force that I was knocked out. The goat’s bleating was snuffed out. I turned around to see the tiger crouching beside the bloodied goat.
KK already had the rifle on his shoulder. I locked eyes with the tiger. I backed up to realise that the tree had stopped me. The tiger jumped and hooked its paws into my shoulder. I did not remember anything after that.
All of us were sitting up now. I could feel the hair on my hand separating itself from each other. It may have been the chill in the wind. I shivered and wrapped my hands around the knees.
“Did grandpa find the tiger?”
After much coaxing KK told the rest of the story by my hospital bed.
The tiger had pounced and pinned me against the tree. It seems the tiger had propped me up, with its claws buried in my sagging shoulders. He was chewing on my head and had it almost entirely in its mouth!
KK had cocked both barrels did not shoot for fear of killing me. The tiger released my head for a moment. Probably gagged or was taking a deep breath for the final bite! KK shot it in the shoulder.
The tiger dropped me with a roar and turned to face KK. The dogs were barking and running around the tiger. KK emptied the last barrel. This time in the chest. The tiger dropped. Got up. And ran into the bushes.
I was in the hospital for three months.
The men found the carcass deep in the jungle after five days of searching. The tiger had covered a lot of ground even with its wounds. It had already been dead for a couple of days by then.
Even now writing about the tale gives me goosebumps.
One question remains in my head. ‘Did grandpa ever miss a target?’
But I will let my memory of him remain. Untainted.