The first few rays of sunshine struggled to pierce the dense winter foliage. Jungle animals hurried in search of their last chance at a meal before daylight. A couple of wild boar, bellies full of sugarcane, grunted through a 300-strong herd of chittal (spotted deer) as they too slowly grazed their way towards the edge of the field and the safety of the teak.
All was normal in the jungle.
The jackal’s ears twitched at the only discordant note. A woman was screaming in the distant village.
Sita’s pains were far more than she anticipated. Initially, they were sporadic and bearable. Now they were relentless. Excrutiatingly slamming her, wave upon terrifying wave. Having witnessed the birth of her nephew she thought she was prepared for what was to come but the pain she felt now was beyond her wildest imagination.
Ramu watched the entire scene with awe as he stood just outside the doorway of the small hut. He shivered, half in cold and half in fear at the sound of his wife’s screams.
His only consolation was the fact that she was in good hands.
Ramu’s house was a Who’s-Who of the small jungle village. Everyone who was anyone was there. Yet they all stood respectfully aside as Lakshmibai, the unofficial village midwife, strode in, head held high. Her soiled, tattered cotton sari had seen better days. Her hair, caked stiff with village dust, was piled untidily on top of her head, held there by a piece of blue plastic, stripped from a disposable plastic bag. She briefly dipped her grubby fingers, just enough to submerge her long filthy nails, into a bowl of hot water which she had specifically ordered be kept ready when the time came.
One of the village big-wigs nodded knowingly, “This is to prevent ‘septic’; she learned all these wonderful things when she worked as an ayah in the big city hospital.”
He watched in apprehension as the delivery progressed; his wife’s screams… the muted comments of the villagers comparing this delivery to those they had witnessed before… the bossy midwife… his attention riveted to that small spark of life that was slowly but steadily being pushed, pulled and all but cheered into this world.
When he finally set his eyes on Jeevan, (who one of the village elders felt looked like a hairless, skinny, baandar without a tail), his chest was bursting with pride. This was, by far, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his entire life.
Not far from the village, deep in the heart of the jungle, a similar scene was taking place– without the fanfare. A tigress was in the middle of labour. She had uneventfully already delivered two female cubs. The third showed a single-minded reluctance to leave the security of its mother’s womb. Dawn was about to break and very soon the forest would be swarming with people. When it finally emerged, she gently nuzzled it and turned it over, “A male cub. No wonder he gave me a tough time!” she thought wryly to herself, “I’ll call him Alsi – the lazy one!!”
Although Jeevan and Alsi shared the same birth date (almost to the minute), they were poles apart. In a few years time Alsi had already separated from his mother and sisters and was a full grown tiger; self-sufficient and fully capable of looking after himself. Jeevan on the other hand was still dependent on his father. In fact the two doted on each other. The bursting feeling of love and pride Ramu experienced at the time of his son’s birth had not diminished. Jeevan too looked up to his father with awe, and was convinced, with the conviction that only a child can have, that his father was the closest thing to God in all matters.
Which is why, when Jeevan noticed a black patch develop on his arm he chose to show it to his father rather than the village Hakeem. Secretly pleased that his son had more faith in him than the quack, he studiously examined the area, turning the boy several times so as to visualise it at different angles, before proclaiming, more in hope than conviction, that there was nothing to worry about.
The patches continued to surface at different parts of Jeevan’s body. It was only when the nosebleeds appeared, that Ramu decided that enough was enough; the Hakim needed to be consulted. A number of herbal potions were prescribed. For the price of a chicken, (the crafty old Hakeem did have his eyes on Ramu’s prize fowl), an ointment was specially formulated.
Ramu was by now a very worried man. All the Hakeem’s efforts, the village prayers, and the numerous offerings made to the local village deity were not working. The symptoms increased. More disconcerting was the fact that Jeevan was loosing weight alarmingly. His appetite too had all but disappeared.
Something needed to be done.
He would have to go to the big hospital in the city for advice and treatment. He had never been to the city but he knew it to be extremely expensive. A large amount of money would be required. He had but one cow on which his entire existence now depended. He would sell the animal. Nothing was too good for his Jeevan. He would get a good price for sure. Whatever money was left after the treatment he would reinvest in a goat or chickens.
Alsi true to his name spent all his time sleeping and eating. He had already marked out his territory and thanks to the ban on hunting, he was relatively safe and there was ample game in the jungle. Of late he felt a slight twinge in his left shoulder. It was more irritating than actually debilitating. His irritation was further heightened by the continuous droves of noisy humans in their noisy vehicles. Once he was spotted they would park as close as they possibly could till he was forced to get up and leave.
It was one of these tourists who noticed that Alsi walked with a slight limp, favoring his left forelimb. When back at camp he mentioned it to the local Forrest Officer.
The forest official knew all the animals on sight and when he came across Alsi during one of his rounds he did notice the limp. On a more careful examination through binoculars he noticed a small lump on the tiger’s left shoulder.
In his detailed report he meticulously noted how his sharp eyes detected the tiger’s limp and how over a period of weeks of careful observation he had narrowed down the problem to a lump on the tiger’s left forequarters. He quickly dispatched his report to his senior officer. He made sure that copies also reached the desks of his senior’s seniors. Just to make sure that credit was given where credit was due.
He also made sure that his observations reached the ears of a TV crew that happened to be filming in the jungle at the time. It was probably this move that was responsible for the tremendous response to the tiger’s ailment.
By the time Ramu and Jeevan reached the big city, Alsi’s story had hit the front page. Complete with pictures of the tiger and an inset of the swelling on the animal’s shoulder. It even ran a small feature on the official who ‘made’ the discovery.
Ramu barely noticed the article. He was too preoccupied with his own problems. He had grossly underestimated the amount of money needed. All his plans of selling his cow and having enough money left over after the treatment of his son evaporated. He realised now that the money he got was barely enough to survive, let alone pay for the treatment.
He had visited the hospital several times having to wait several hours each time before his ‘number’ was called. On the 4th visit, 3 weeks after he came into town, he managed to meet a relatively senior doctor who told him, in less than 5 minutes, that the tests showed a type of blood cancer. He was informed that his son would require to undergo multiple courses of injections for which he was handed a prescription and was told to wait in a queue for admission. (The patient before him had waited over a month and was yet to be admitted).
If that was not enough, when he handed the prescription to the pharmacist, he realised that he could not afford a single course of treatment, leave alone the entire series of injections.
Alsi on the other hand had no such problems. The hype generated by the media ensured that money flowed from all corners of the globe. Environmental organizations took an active interest in the case. Veterinary specialists were consulted. Alsi’s reports were electronically transmitted to various centers around the world based on which a diagnosis was made.
The tiger suffered from a cancerous tumor that was eminently curable with surgery.
Two surgeons were flown down to perform the biopsy and the surgery. For weeks every newspaper carried out the latest development in the tiger saga.
All this while Ramu was getting increasingly depressed. He walked around the city in a trance. His eyes were swollen and blood-shot with the tears he had shed over the past few weeks. So much so that most passersby mistook him for a drug addict. His finances were close to zero and had forced him to take to begging.
Jeevan by now was skin and bones. The once lively village boy was only a shadow of his old self. His eyes, listless though they were, still looked with confidence at his father, knowing that he would find a way out.
It was early one mornings, on a day very similar to that of his birth, that Jeevan passed away.
Unlike that of his birth, there was no fanfare. No bigwigs. No “skilled” midwife. He just tiredly closed his eight-year-old eyes for the last time. Ramu, who had held his hand tightly all night, felt it go limp as a fresh tear rolled down his already soaked cheeks.
A huge crowd had gathered in the jungle. Camera crews, politicians, forest officers, and a whole bunch of tourists, both local and foreign. All eyes glued on the unconcerned tiger sitting in a secluded patch of forest.
Cameras clicked furiously, desperate to capture the fresh surgical scars on the animal’s shoulder in the rapidly fading light.
The air was filled with a sense of achievement – A tiger was saved!
Barely a kilometre away, a silent, lonely figure sat crouched on a rocky outcrop.
Silhouetted against the evening sun he was oblivious of the drama taking place not far from him. His body trembling with the deep sadness and utter despair that threatened to overwhelm him.
Nearby, a lapwing shrieked in protest, protecting her nest. A shimmer of electric blue hovered above the village pond before diving for a fishy meal.
Taking a deep breath he rose slowly, picked up his axe trudged quietly into the jungle.