A collection of Ruskin Bond’s favourite animal stories and personal essays, The Last Tiger includes the author’s fondest memories of nature and wildlife. Some of them hark back to his lonely childhood. Mehmoud, his friend and “jungle cook”, who had previously worked for Jim Corbett, often told him stories about the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist (whom he called “Carpet-sahib”) and the various tigers he had come across – “man-eaters, cattle-eaters, child-eaters” – while working with him. In The Last Days of the Tonga, Bond reminisces about the time he travelled from Dehradun to Haridwar in a tonga, a mode of transport that has now become extinct. He also recalls the dak-ghari ponies, which had more traffic sense than many taxi drivers.
Song of the Forest is full of the sounds that Bond encountered while living in a red-roofed cottage on the outskirts of Mussoorie – the magpies, wagtails and finches making merry; the call of the barking deer; a dog howling at the moon; “an owl talking to himself”; “a nightjar making an occasional comment”; “the sawing cough of a leopard”; gentle sounds of the stream as it tumbled over rocks and pebbles at the bottom of the hill; and the strident chorus of hundreds of cicadas – “The cicadas make their shrill music by scraping their legs against their quivering bodies.”
The cottage also served as a convenient refuge for wild creatures in the monsoon, as the reader learns in Guests who come in From the Forest. A squirrel, a mantis, a bamboo beetle, a tiny bat and a deep purple whistling thrush were some frequent visitors. In Chocolates at Midnight, Bond discovers that naughty rats shared his love for bars of chocolate and were regularly making off with his hoard.
The book includes the author’s recollections about his maternal grandfather’s odd assortment of pets, including tiger cubs, chameleons and cassowary birds. An entire chapter is dedicated to the comical adventures of Toto, his grandfather’s mischievous pet monkey, who was bought from and later sold back to a tonga driver. ‘The Regimental Myna’ features an intelligent myna called Dickens who belonged to Bond’s paternal grandfather, Private Bond, a soldier who came to India with the King’s Own Scottish Rifles.
The myna’s literary namesake had a big role to play in the evolution of the author’s creative and intellectual life. On a weeklong hunting expedition in the Terai forests of the Siwaliks with a group of his uncle’s sporting friends, 12 year old Bond chose to spend more time in the rest house with its shelf full of books. Over the next few days, as he pored over them, he chanced upon Dickens for the first time. David Copperfield set him on the road to literature. “I identified with young David and wanted to grow up to be a writer like him,” he says.
The titular story, The Last Tiger, is about the lone tiger left in the jungle when a large area of forest was cleared to make way for a refugee settlement camp. A film producer bought the rights for the story soon after it was published and Tom Alter, among others, acted in the film. However, it found no distributor and was never released.
Bond brings alive the magic of the Himalayas. While describing the vegetation, he notes how closely the flora of the lower Himalayas, between 5,000 and 8,000 feet, resembles that of the English countryside. His love for the mountains is palpable. “I would praise God for leaves and grass and the smell of things – the smell of mint and bruised clover – and the touch of things – the touch of grass and air and sky, the touch of the sky’s blueness,” he writes.
The book has some interesting anecdotes about animals, such as the fact that Himalayan bears enjoy eating pumpkins, corn, plums, apricots and the flowers of the mahua tree. Bond also writes of the 300 species of snakes found in India, pointing out that only 40 can be considered dangerous, and only five can kill a healthy grown man. “But even a dangerous snake won’t attack you unless it is trodden upon, or in some way provoked,” he explains.
In a sense, this book is a plea for the reader to conserve wildlife. “While we preserve our tigers, we must also take care of the birds, animals, and small creatures that are in danger of disappearing,” Bond states in his introduction. “How can there be an India without beautiful parrots, pheasants, kingfishers, cormorants, and flamingos?” How, indeed?
A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel
The views expressed are personal
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