The Ghost floats through the tall grass.
It has been five minutes since he set his sights on the pair of bucks by the pond. The deer took their time grazing the plains as he watched patiently from the distance, and are now busy drinking water from the pond. One of them barely qualifies as an adult. They are turned away from the silent threat, their antlers brushing lightly as they drink. The Ghost raises his head a little above the gently swaying grass. His beady eyes contemplate the prey, and his tongue flicks out to wet his chops. He ducks again to a crouch, eyes still riveted on the bucks, and starts moving at a slightly improved pace.
His camouflage is perfect against the yellowed grass. It would not be so easy for his prey to spot him even if it faced the direction of his progress. Perhaps that is why the villagers have christened him ‘The Ghost’.
They called it just ‘tiger attacks’ in Kodivattam for the first few days.
It started with a bunch of cows penned in the fringes of the village getting mauled in the small hours of a night. Not so uncommon in the areas surrounding the forest. The officials of the Forest Department surveyed the scene with the usual indifference. There was a neat track of pugmarks leading up to the woods that left little doubt as to what they were dealing with.
They mumbled something about setting up a cage and left.
It would be another few occurrences and more cattle before a cage was put in place. The story had caught on by this time. It became customary of the news channels to parade into the village at the first sign of a new incident. You’d find anchors toting their mikes, smiling their fake smiles in front of cameramen who lugged their gear, casting uneasy glances at the edge of the forest. These news coverages aimed mostly at pounding on the owner of the lost cattle and extracting a mournful interview. Exactly who benefitted from this, nobody knew.
The cage was another story. Authorities were quick to brag on air about the brilliancy of the scheme. Cameras caught them playacting with the cage, mimicking a tiger and crawling in and getting locked up.
After the third ‘attack’ since the installation of the cage, a villager spoke to Sun News: “They say they have rigged up a cage to catch the animal,” he said in a voice loud enough to reach you without the aid of television. “It sure is a real nice specimen, like the one they show in MGR movies. But it’s not catching any tiger, that’s sure. We used to worry about our livestock a few days back because we live off them. Now we are scared of our own lives.” He went on to accuse the Forest department and the government before the mic was pulled unceremoniously off him.
His fears were justified soon enough.
An elderly, humped lady by the name of Kaveri headed out of her hovel one morning, just at the break of dawn, to witness a gruesome scene. Kaveri paati, as she is fondly called, strolled alongside the drying bricks her grandchildren had laid out in neat rows the day before, making calculations on how soon they would be ready to ship. As she rounded a corner of the lattice, she noticed Mullai, the seven-year-old daughter of one of her neighbours. The girl was on her knees, seemingly enraptured by a fresh bloom of rose among the shrubbery at the back of her home.
The old woman would reiterate the story in painful detail many times afterward. There would be a clump of microphones every time, fixed low to her level. “I was about to call out to the kid, I knew she was on the lookout for the bloom day in and day out. Curse the evil thing, it stood right there, by the empty plot beyond her home. I could have seen it if I looked carefully, but I didn’t. It must have remained so still, like an apparition,” says Kaveri paati, her hollowed mouth working to enunciate the words, her eyes still in the grip of terror. You can see in all these televised interviews her petrified features as she recalls the animal lurking, biding its time, just as he does right now. “And suddenly,” she says, “it plunged on the poor child. I screamed for her to look out,” her tone falters by now, she can’t help but cry. “She looked around, and it descended on her like a ghost out of hell. She caught her by her throat..”
The listeners prodded and wrung her weak will until she brought out a vivid account of the incident. Some things are better left unsaid, though.
The village of Kodivattam erupted. Men and women marched to the National Highways skirting the village, blocked the roads, chanted slogans their illiterate brains could conjure. Some of them pelted rocks into the offices of the Forest Department. Higher officials in the department had to plead with the villagers and pile up promises to appease them. News channels had a field day.
All on account of this enormous creature advancing patiently now to claim its trophy.
He is not a ‘tiger’ anymore. The old woman’s description somehow stuck. With that human snatch, he became ‘The Ghost’.
The Ghost has to be shot at sight. This remains the overarching sentiment of the villagers. But if you are one of them, you’ll be subject to some minority views, too.
“They won’t kill him,” the Head of the village would say, scratching his shiny pate. “Tigers are endangered. Those khakis up in the office wag their heads at every word we say just to keep us clear of their and other people’s businesses. They won’t kill him. They’ll be in a real fix if they do.”
“What’s fair in killing him?” said an exasperated Viji to a bunch of old women who hollered at the camera demanding the animal be slaughtered. She is one of the few literates of the entire community. “If you keep encroaching their space, the elephants and tigers are going to hit back. It’s their nature as much as ours to survive.” To which a gaunt, betel-chewing crone muttered something about living all her life in the village and encroaching on nobody's space.
Some of them just want him ‘removed’. A tiger’s place is in the savannah, they argue. If it steps out of there, time to catch it, incapacitate it if needed, and transport it to a zoo or sanctuary somewhere.
If only it was so easy.
The smaller one of the deer pauses, raises its head, looks around. All the Ghost has to do is stop moving; his skin blends in so well with the environment that the unsuspecting animal casts its glance his way without noticing a thing. The sight is a photographer’s dream. The Ghost remains frozen in his tracks, his whole being locked in an instance of eager anticipation. One of his front legs is raised, the paw poised in an unfinished step. The eyes are trained on the prize in an unwavering focus; you’d be hard-pressed to find them blink. In the crouched stance, the bones of his back push taut against the smooth pelt, forming a crude V of a hump.
The entire front of the body stays rooted on the spot - head bent forward, ears stuck out, a leg still aloft - as his hindquarters dip smoothly and he settles on his haunches.
You can’t help but appreciate the elegance of the animal. Unless you are his next meal.
The paw comes down in slow motion. It lands on a bed of dried leaves but does not make so much as a rustle. The bucks have returned to their business. The beast seems to decide to give up the hiding act. He stands up to his full height. The slanted eyes come clear of the grass. The stripes on his pelt flex and bunch as he struts in that majestic way of his, the one that exudes authority and power. The rich orange skin ripples like water as tough muscles work beneath it. Not even a whisker twitches as he approaches the clearing with the precision of a cat that he is. The silence is pressing in itself, yet the ill-fated deer flick their heads this way and that in every direction but the predator.
His massive head remains bowed as he parts the last of the grass and steps out into the open. The tongue flashes once again in a pink swish as if it was a ritual he conducted before the kill. He is still quite far away from his prey, yet he seems to decide to go for it. The huge frame lowers into a crouch. The hind legs fold over and prime for the spring. His cleft upper lip draws back to work up a snarl revealing huge stumps of fangs.
The Ghost pounces with a roar.
I take the shot.
It appears to echo throughout the jungle, cutting out the tiger’s roar. The recoil is jarring, but my sights are still trained on my quarry. He took it at the neck, not on the forehead where I aimed. I chide myself silently for waiting too long, for losing focus. Who cared about the grace of a tiger’s leap? I should have pulled the trigger right when he came out of the covering. When he stood statue-still for me.
He lies on his side, one of the forelegs thrashing weakly. A clean shot between the eyes would have sent him along with some decorum. He deserves it, this elusive creature that has worked up every person in every village in the vicinity so much that nobody’s having a good night’s sleep anymore. After all his raids and kills and successful evasions from not-so-eager rangers, it has to come to this at last: a surprise bullet from a seasoned hunter.
I debate for a few moments whether to shoot him again or wait it out. For some reason, watching the death throes of an animal as majestic as this one feels criminal. And that he has to fall on account of a cowardly shot dispatched from a safe distance, from high atop a tree makes me feel squeamish. I take aim. The beady eyes of the tiger swim into my view. They appear full of life even now. He snarls and groans. He gasps for breath and the whole body is shaking at the exertion, as if in a palsy. I steady my hands and fire. The crimson splash on his face is final.
I scan the area carefully once before starting to climb down from the tree. Even the normal background noises of the jungle have died down with the gunshot. The silence is complete and scary. I take a moment to stretch expansively; I had to wait for more than two hours in an uncomfortable foetal position for the Ghost to show up. Compared to the fruitless, longer waits of the past five days it is a jackpot, though.
I hang the rifle across my shoulder and take out my pistol. I walk slowly to the fallen cat, pistol levelled at its head. You can never be too careful with a tiger.
The deer have fled as you can imagine. I walk into the clearing. The sun is high, but an occasional breeze gushes in, undulating the grassy fields. Close up, the Ghost lives up to his name. He is a mountain of flesh, stretching a full eight feet or more. It’s ironic his killer has to look so puny against his dead frame. I hover the gun over his partly-opened, fanged jaw, and think, now here’s an animal worth bucks for every inch of its being.
With the pistol still poised at his head, I go down on a knee beside him and take my time to appreciate the treasure. The lucid, golden skin, with those impeccable stripes, which is soon to be peeled off by a meticulous craftsman and sold off for a fortune. Deadly fangs that cost a wealth of dollars in the right market. So go the claws that never got to click out to impale on the bucks. The bones, innards, brain, eyeballs, even the penis and whiskers, are all going to be ripped off and turned into money.
I allow myself a smile. The long journey to this remote corner of the state has not been a waste, after all. Smuggling the body out from the forest is going to be another problem. But hey, if the authorities were so good, why would the tiger linger for so long only for me to come down and finish it? I slowly trace my way back to the sanctuary of a tree in the rim of the clearing and take out my walkie-talkie.
“The cat’s down. Wake up and get the jeep here right now before some foolish ranger walks in. Over and out.”
A blood-curdling roar issues from deep within the forest.