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Excerpt | The Lonely Tiger

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 Hugh Allen

The Lonely Tiger | Hugh Allen

Gruesome game

‘For heaven’s sake get out while you can!’

That was the advice from nearly all our friends when we told them about Mandikhera. To most of them I suppose it did seem odd to find us negotiating for a large estate in India when the rest of our countrymen were hurrying away from what they believed was suddenly a most uncertain continent. ‘You’ll never have a moment’s peace,’ a lot of them warned. ‘These Congress chaps are as anti-British as hell. Nearly all of them have been in jail and they’re just waiting to pay some of that score back.’

Nothing we heard about the future from any of these friends was ever cheerful, but even when the last of them had left we had not changed our minds. In a short time the sale was through and Mandikhera was ours. It was just what we wanted: a quiet place off the beaten track with enough interest to help us forget the war and how it had unsettled our lives. However, to say that we had chosen it after careful consideration would not have been true. It was one of those things that just happen and we had undoubtedly taken the line of least resistance: we were already in India and fate had already shown us the sort of place we wanted to live in. Indeed, to take the truth a little further, it would be right to say that Mandikhera was something of a port in a storm, and when we came to it first each of us secretly believed that whatever might happen in the future—either in India or elsewhere—could not matter very much.

That attitude had come about because both of us thought then that our lives had been completely ruined. Babs, who had lived in India before the war, had lost her husband in Malaya and was left with the unattractive prospect of returning to an empty home in England. For more than a year she had lived in a Bombay hotel trying to make up her mind about the future; and it was while she was still wondering what to do that I returned to India and went to see her. Now it was that fate made the first move, for it had been no part of my original plan to see her then but on my way home; and it had also not occurred to me that she would find me a very different brother from the one she had known before the war. I learned the next day what a shock I had been when she remarked that she was surprised to find that I had been allowed to come out alone. I asked her why—and with true sisterly directness she told me: ‘Because you’re more of a half-wit than I realized and someone ought to be looking after you.’

That was pretty much the truth, and it had come about from a head injury which had left my mind nearly blank for the best part of a year. Then, when things started to return, two complications came with them: like the old professor I was extremely absent-minded while my memory itself was not much better than that of a rather inattentive child. Back at home these two things together had left behind me a trail of open mouths and raised eyebrows. The daily 8.5 to Waterloo was out of the question. I just wasn’t prepared to take the risk of what might and could happen to a well-organized office if I were part of it.

I suppose I ran away, not only from that but from a lot of other things as well. I like to think, though, that the doctor sent me when he suggested that a long sea voyage would put everything right. India drew me back like a magnet. It was there I had been in hospital and it was the country I still remembered best. Soon after the ship docked I hauled Babs off to my original objective: the jungles through which I had hunted during wartime leaves. Once in their fastness, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here any little oddities of dress and behaviour would not matter at all, for most sahibs were crazy anyway and scarcely more predictable than the mad dogs about the village.

One day while wandering through the jungles, I came upon the estate of Mandikhera with its four villages nestling in their clearings among the trees. A chance word told me that the owner was selling. We looked the estate over, and although the home farm with its extensive orchards had been neglected for more than fifteen years, we decided that the place was really worth considering. Here was the answer, at least to my own troubles. A quiet life, room to roam with a gun, the only neighbours the simple people of the forest. It intrigued Babs too for she loves wild places and will keep as many animals as she has the room for. Indeed, before we left from that first inspection, she was already planning what could be done to the house.

As soon as the sale was through, we moved in and started to settle down. The estate certainly was peaceful and we were very much on our own; the only neighbours were the people of the forest and the nearest town for shopping and a few amusements was hundreds of miles away. However, when we had been in some time, several of the big landowners near about started to call on us. Quite naturally they were curious to see what we were like and to find out why we had stayed when the rest of our people had left India. Now an Indian, when he meets you for the first time, is very likely to ply you with questions of a highly personal and intimate kind. But if he asks you what your income is, how many times you have been married and why you did this and not that, he is not being rude but polite by showing a keen interest in your affairs.

On one or two occasions, we told the truth about why we had come to Mandikhera. This, however, opened up such a vast field for further questions that there was just no knowing what was coming next. In the end, I got out a stock answer which was simply: ‘I’m very keen on shikar, you know, and my sister likes looking after the ones I don’t shoot.’ It was part of the truth anyway; for ever since I was old enough to draw back the elastic of a catapult, to hunt big game had been a burning ambition. From a very early age, I had been reading every book about shikar I could get my hands on. When I found Mandikhera I was still reading them and there is little doubt that the thought of all the shooting I should get here influenced my own decision about the estate perhaps more than anything else.

The thought of that now makes me smile when I see how my cherished ambition has actually worked out. All my life I had dreamed of hunting big game and yearned for the opportunity to do it. Yet, when the chance came, I knew almost at once that I was not a true hunter at heart, and I found in practice that I should probably never make a good one. What few successes there have been amount to nothing when ranked beside the failures. To start with I did a great deal of hunting and killed a large number of animals just for the sport of it. Then all at once, and for a reason that was not immediately clear, I was suddenly less keen. I began to wonder why. The urge to go hunting was still as strong as ever, and whenever I was out the old thrill of stalking an animal was just as fierce. Yet something now was different, though just what it was still escaped me. I went on wondering until one day I realized that the thrill of hunting vanished the second after I had pulled a trigger.

At last, I knew the truth. Two forces were pulling me in different directions. On one side was a real love for all animals, on the other side was that old urge to hunt them. Almost from that moment I laid aside the rifle and took to watching animals instead of shooting them. But if I had been a bad hunter before I was a worse one now for this kind of hunting calls for much more skill if you really want to satisfy your curiosity.

However, I did not give up the rifle entirely for I still hunt for meat and still go after any animal which is better dead. Yet the urge always to hunt with a rifle even after more than ten years in the jungle is as strong as ever; the only difference is that now I know the truth and that the thrill will die the moment I pull the trigger. After that, when I look down on a lifeless body, there comes a pang of remorse and the guilty thought that there but for me goes a magnificent animal.

Excerpted with permission from Rupa.

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