Face to Face with a Royal Bengal: A Haunting Story Told Many A Time

Features Issue 108 Oct, 2010
Text by Kapil Bisht

March, in the district of Kanchanpur in far-west Nepal, is a month of mild, clear mornings. The sky shines again with the sun growing in influence after a brief repression under winter’s gloom. This is a month of short-lived mildness in weather before the ‘prodigal’ sun returns to its searing worst. Perhaps the only ones to dread March – or to renounce it because they know its gifts are always beyond them – are the children who attend schools in the neighboring Indian hill stations; their winter vacations come to an end as March begins. If you live in Kanchanpur year-round, you’ll love March.

It was in March that my uncle, Binod, had an experience that changed his reasons for remembering the month for ever. The experience also made for a great story, told many a time to the children of the house. This is that story.

Uncle Binod loved March, for it added to his real love – hunting. “In March,” he says, “the sal forests were bright with new fleshy lime-green leaves. The does were pregnant during this time of year, and would separate themselves from the stags. It was ideal for a hunter.”

The time was also ideal for another hunter, one capable of turning hunted into hunter. Binod was in the jungle to get a ‘big animal’. The big ones were stag (he never shot a doe, a rule passed down from his father) and wild boar. But he wasn’t a fussy hunter, an appropriate approach at a time when the jungle was alive with “the alarm calls of jungle fowl, made to ward off predators from their recently laid clutch of eggs”.

One day, in March, Binod set out with his cousin, Dambar, for his aunt’s farm in Pipladi, a village south of the East-West Highway. The plan was to hunt the nearby jungle the following day. In the farm, perhaps the only person more excited than Binod was the Aguwa, the title used for the leader of the Tharu families who, in those days, were employed as bonded laborers. The Aguwa, besides being a hunter himself was Binod’s ‘informer’ in Pipladi. He would have news of the jungle for Binod, about animals and their recent movements. He hunted with a muzzle-loading gun, the barrel of which was fashioned by a blacksmith from a four-wheeler’s steering rod. Although an ineffective weapon in itself, it sharpened the skills of a hunter by shifting attention from equipment to stealth. Binod and the Aguwa were a successful team; the former’s marksmanship and guns combined with the latter’s knowledge of the jungle resulted in frequent triumphs of man over beasts.

My grandfather and granduncles did not come to Pipladi only to hunt. Pipladi was also a citadel of the Bisht family. Dacoits from across the Nepal-India border were a constant threat, and, every time news of the robbers’ crossing into Nepal circulated, the Bishts moved in to Pipaldi from various outlying villages. They were never attacked, for their combined arsenal was a formidable defense against the thieves, who had an effective intelligence network. Once, two men belonging to the posse of the infamous dacoit Kallu Khan, came disguised as snake charmers to one of the Bishts’ houses for reconnaissance. What they saw (something the Bishts intended to be seen and, reported) was a massive collection of guns and ammunition spread out on blankets in the lawn. The exhibition worked, and Kallu Khan dropped his scheme of looting the sethjees (wealthy men). Invariably, the sethjees’ attention and guns would then turn away from the robbers towards the bountiful forests.

Binod was popular amongst the families living on the farm as well as in its vicinity. After arriving in the village for a hunting trip, he would spend a few hours visiting old acquaintances. Then, if his hunt was successful, he would give everyone a portion of the kill. So every time he came to the village, there was a chance the Tharu households would have fresh game meat cooking over their fires.

“I had all the information I needed for the hunt. The gothalas (herdsmen) had informed me about the recent movements of the animals,” Binod recalls of the night before the hunt. When asked about any special preparations that were made on the eve of the hunt, he says that was the Aguwa’s department. Riding into the farm on a motorcycle was cue enough for the Aguwa to begin preparations.

The forests around Pipaldi were where young Binod, as a child, had watched his father hunt sambar deer and barasingha (swamp deer). And now, a generation later, as I attempt to get him to revive his jungle adventures, Binod reminisces how during his time in Pipladi he would try to get elderly Tharus to tell stories of his father’s hunts. I can picture a wizened Tharu elder in loincloth, his laborious life etched on the sinewy contours of his dark thighs, regaling him with recollections of the time when my grandfather hunted the forests that his son eventually came to hunt in and love. A Tharu never grows old because he never stops working – toiling in the fields, fishing in a little stream, weeding gardens, or sitting in his smooth mud courtyard braiding a jute rope. And while he’s at it, he enjoys it, or at least it has always seemed that way to me.

The Hunt
To increase their prospects for success, the hunting party set out in the dark just before dawn. The chance of spotting animals was better in the earliest hours of the mornings – animal rush hour. Binod carried the Winchester .22 rifle and Dambar was given the 12-bore shotgun, apt for birds, and for quick, close range shots. Binod’s favorite, and one he hunted with usually, was the Remington bolt-action, 30.06 Springfield caliber rifle, the ‘big game special’, lay tucked under the hay on their transport. This particular model was considered by the legendary British hunter, Jim Corbett, as the best gun to hunt with in the Terai jungles. In the responsible but seldom-appreciated driver’s seat was Lokendra, uncle Binod’s nephew. The Aguwa was the utility man. Besides providing the muscles in a hunt, he was both guide and priest, for if the hunt was successful, he was the one to offer the tip from one of the kill’s ears and a piece of flesh from its knee to the Ban Devi, the Forest Goddess. Similarly, if the hunts were unsuccessful, especially ones where bad luck was involved (the Aguwa would decide when that was the case), a taawa (a slightly convex iron frying pan used for cooking rotis) was shot at to purge the bad luck.

Binod couldn’t have been better equipped, but he couldn’t have been prepared for what was to happen.

During the first few hours of the hunt everything was normal except for the fact that they did not spot a single animal, says Binod. In those days of animal-laden forests, not seeing an animal for hours could never be normal. Somehow, I feel there must have been something different that day. “Was there anything out of the ordinary, something that didn’t feel quite right?” I ask him, seeking to build some tension to make the story more gripping and interesting. Binod strains to remember. He can’t remember anything different that morning other than Lokendra’s uncharacteristically erratic driving. “Lokendra who was an expert driver, kept driving the wooden bullock cart, our transport, into dense areas that day. I remarked more than once that he was going to lead us right into a tiger’s mouth,” he recalls. The hunting party drove on towards another section of the forest.

In every forest, there is an area that is wilder, and has an appearance of having changed very little over time, a place unpredictable even after scores of visits. Laalpani was one such place. Its name means ‘red water’.

Soon they reached a familiar place called Laalpani. In every forest, there is an area that is wilder, and has an appearance of having changed very little over time, a place unpredictable even after scores of visits. Laalpani was one such place. Its name means ‘red water’ after the algae-reddened waters of a lazy stream that flowed between high banks. The stream was darkened in places by the drooping branches of the trees along the banks. The shade from these branches served to cool the waters, creating idyllic pockets for animals to drink from, or to prey on those drawn to it. Sprawling jamoon trees and large thickets of cane bush (from which the cudgels carried by the Nepal police are made) created the many shady areas that attracted animals – jungle fowl, peacock, and the solitary ‘big ones’ seeking shelter from the midday heat. The habitat at Laalpani was more congenial to a tiger than to any other animal. Almost all of its needs, from the need to kill and to rest, and to a dip in the water to cool off could be fulfilled in Laalpani. This was tiger territory.

A visit to Laalpani ensured that there would at least be a pull of the trigger for a hunter. But there was no certainty about what he’d be shooting at.

The Attack
Binod had already got two red jungle cocks when he heard others crying frantically in a nearby thicket. At first Binod thought there might be a big animal like a wild boar in there, for he knew from experience that such raucous alarm calls were made only when a large animal was around. Having fired his 12-bore shotgun only minutes before, he reasoned that it couldn’t be a big animal, however, for the report of the 12-bore would have driven any big critter away. Probably a jackal, he thought. He asked his cousin if he’d like to try flying-shots at pea fowl. He did and headed for the cane bush thicket. It was decided that Binod would enter the thicket while his cousin would skirt it to the other side. Binod would try to spook the jungle fowl or possibly a pea fowl out from the thicket towards his cousin on the other side, who would be ready with the 12-bore.

With the Aguwa following him, Binod entered the thicket. Inside, both darkness and discomfort increased with every step. The hook-like thorns of the cane bush meant movement was slow. Both entering and exiting the thicket was equally difficult. As Binod was negotiating the thorns he heard a noise “like the hissing made by a cat when confronted by a dog, but much louder”. Because he had followed a tiger’s trail many a time and knew what an elusive animal it was, he dismissed that possibility. “A tiger is an extremely shy animal, so the thought of it being in there did not occur to me at all,” he says. When it occurred to him that it might be the hiss of a python, he decided to turn back.

He had just half-turned when he heard a big roar and saw the yellow-and-black stripes of the supreme hunter, the Royal Bengal tiger “tearing the bush to leap towards me”. The thicket prevented the tiger from making a clean, lethal contact, but it came at him anyway with enough force to knock him (a man well over 80 kg) down to a distance of seven feet from where he was standing. Binod fell on one arm. The other, with the .22 in it was free. Then the tiger approached the hunter who, on so many other occasions, had tried to track a tiger to hunt it down. Here they were face-to-face; Binod and a Royal Bengal, and he felt defenseless for a moment. However, as a hunter after the prized head of a tiger, Binod always believed that his ability combined with the power of the gun would prevail. “When the tiger attacked, I actually forgot that I had a gun in my hand!” he admits with the wry smile of a man who has learned a lesson the hard way. When the tiger moved in to maul him, he shouted to frighten it and pushed it back using his gun as a shield. “Surprisingly, the tiger turned around like a dog at his master’s command, and retreated into the dense thicket he had sprung out from”, Binod later wrote in an unpublished memoir of his hunting days.

Like Cat and Mouse
The attack was over, but the threat remained. Binod did not know what to expect next. “I remember thinking: The cat-and-mouse game is on. He is going to toy with me now,” he reminisces. The scene of a cat toying with a mouse; cornering it, clawing it, letting it scurry for a distance before pouncing on it again, played on Binod’s mind. On the ground, and cornered, he was in a dilemma. He couldn’t decide whether to make a break for the exit or stay where he was. To make matters worse, he had been thrown away from the passage that led in and out of the thicket. If he chose to flee he would have to move forward towards the tiger, before taking a right turn out of the thicket. Slowly, as his senses began functioning again, he remembered his gun. But it was “... useless.” he says. “The .22 had neither the power nor enough noise to ruffle a tiger,” explaining his decision not to even bring his gun to a shooting position.

Amazingly, it took Binod “a minute at the most” to decide to exit the bush than wait for the tiger’s next move.

The tiger was angry now. And, for the first time, he heard the Aguwa shouting from outside the thicket to chase the tiger away. Amazingly, it took Binod “a minute at the most” to decide to exit the bush than wait for the tiger’s next move.

“It’s a tiger, you fool! It nearly got me. Let’s get out of here!” he shouted to the Aguwa.

Binod slowly backed out of the thicket where the fleet-footed Aguwa was peeping into the bush on tiptoes. He had run away when the tiger had attacked, but hadn’t fled altogether. “He was standing just outside the thicket when I came out,” Binod remembers with gratitude. Both of them then ran to the bullock cart. “Is it a wild boar?” Binod’s nephew asked, mistaking the duo’s fear for excitement. “It’s a tiger, you fool! It nearly got me. Let’s get out of here,” repeated a cross Binod.

Just as he got into the cart, Binod remembered his cousin Dambar. The tiger had gone in his direction. Too scared to even raise his voice, Binod asked Lokendra and the Aguwa to shout for Dambar. A faint reply came from the distance. They steered the bullock cart towards the place from where Dambar’s voice had come until they finally met him. He then told them what had happened on his side of the thicket. Hearing the tiger’s roar, he had fled to a nearby tree, and thinking that he was climbing, kept scrambling up an imaginary tree.

It was then that the Aguwa spotted blood on Binod’s hip. When Binod reached out to examine his hitherto unnoticed wound, his finger actually went into a hole in the flesh. With his bloodied trousers, he lay prostrate on the cart with the Aguwa pressing down a handkerchief over the wound to stem the flow of blood.

As the village fields came into sight, the Aguwa ran ahead of the cart to fetch the man from the village infirmary. Once in the farm, Binod put up a smiling face to allay his aunt’s apprehensions. After the wound was cleaned and dressed, Binod thought it best to return to Mahendranagar, his hometown. For the first time in his life, perhaps, the thought of riding the motorcycle was not appealing; but he had no option, for, in those days, he was the only one in the village who knew how to ride one. So he rode into Mahendranagar with a sore backside, carefully looking at familiar houses, trees, and other landmarks on the way thinking, “Since I had lost lots of blood, I decided that if I saw two of something where I previously knew only one existed, I would stop,” he says.

He arrived home safely where another cousin, a doctor, tended to his wounds. The doctor, who was himself a great marksman, had heard that there was a wounded tiger in the area where Binod had been attacked. The doctor suggested vaccinating Binod as a precaution against rabies. Since vaccines weren’t available in town, a man was sent to the Rabies Research Centre in Patuwa Dangar near the hill-station of Nainital, located in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. One after another, Binod received 14 injections around his navel.

The Summing Up
Reflecting on why the attack had ended so abruptly, Binod and other hunters with whom he discussed the incident agreed on three reasons. First: The tiger was resting, not feeding on a kill. Second: It was alone, not with cubs. And third: It wasn’t injured. If any of these conditions hadn’t been true, the tiger would have attacked to kill, not just to drive him away.

When Binod thinks back on his encounter with the Royal Bengal, he admits his mistake and always vindicates the tiger from accusations of malice, or whimsical fury. Years have passed since his encounter in the thicket, and more shall undoubtedly pass while he defends the tiger against stigma.

Uncle Binod usually ends his tale of the faceoff with this thought: “My cousin Dambar and I were talking to each other through the thicket. This must have made the tiger feel caged in. I misunderstood his warning – the hissing. But, when he came out to attack me his intention wasn’t wrong.”

Humans have taken their toll on the forests and its rightful dwellers. And, although scars from that incident remain on Binod, it is not known how many tigers, if any, remain to prowl Laalpani. Today, the avarice in man has got the better of him, and the lamentable truth is that our intentions are wrong.

After writing this story the author says: “This is my uncle Binod’s story. As a kid I relished the adventure side of it. Now, I write about it to convey the subtle message it carries. Even the tiger, an instinctive killer, showed surprising restraint and understanding when my uncle trespassed into its territory. My uncle understood the circumstances under which the tiger attacked, and, thus, respects it. For our part, we must understand the situation the tiger is now in and leave it alone in the forests of the Terai, not try bringing it home in parts.” 

Kapil Bisht is a freelance writer from far-west Nepal and a frequent contributor to ECS Nepal magazine. He may be contacted at papercloudtree@hotmail.com. Binod Bisht, an ex-sportsman, is now a wildlife conservationist, and can be contacted at mywildwest@gmail.com.