If you have a dog or a cat as a pet, I could tell you of my friend Deba who lovingly maintained a python, fed it live mice and inscrutably called it Brutus. Or I could trump you easily by talking of the time I had two tiger cubs. It was a short but exciting period.
Batra was a humdrum contractor who made his money by employing a bunch of scruffy young men and taking orders from small companies to repair doors and windows and paint buildings. But on weekends he was a different man: he went regularly on hunting expeditions, in the dense forests twelve miles from the central Indian city where he lived.
He was my aunt’s neighbour and regularly gifted her the fruits of his expeditions, such as venison and wild boar meat. But that summer he did something quite different.
It was my summer vacation and, since I was ten, I had won permission from my parents to visit my aunt in Maharashtra alone and stay with her for three weeks. That Saturday I saw Batra packing his truck with his tent and guns early in the morning and ran out to ask if I could join him. As always, he declined my company, but did so gently, offering the persuasive argument that the forest was dangerous for unarmed persons. He added that he doubted my aunt would endorse my venture. I returned deflated but still hopeful that perhaps the next time I could induce my aunt to agree and Batra would consent to take me along.
Batra would normally return Sunday evening, but this time his truck came roaring in on Sunday morning. My aunt had gone to see a friend and I was sitting in the porch reading Arthur Conan Doyle. I jumped up and went to see what the hunter had come home with.
Batra raised my curiosity by asking me to be careful, then opened the back of his truck. At first I thought he had brought back two puppies. Then I looked closer: they were tiger cubs.
Batra explained apologetically that he was looking for boars, when he suddenly found himself face to face with a tiger. He had no option but to shoot. He was sure it was about to pounce, but he was not sure why. His experience so far had been that wild animals tended to walk away rather than to attack. He was lucky; he had struck the tiger right between the eyes.
He was wondering what to do about the dead animal when he heard a curious sound inside the cave nearby. He went in with a flashlight and found the two tiger cubs. That explained the ferocious protectiveness of the mother tiger. Batra felt sorry and picked up the cubs.
Now, he said, he had to decide what to do about them. I had a simple solution. We had a small corner room in our house which nobody used; I alone occasionally sat there and read books. That would a perfect room for the cubs. I wanted them. I would take the best care of them, I told Batra.
Batra hesitated. He had no place for the cubs, and he had to find one quickly. I had offered a ready solution, though he had doubts it was a good one. But I was so earnest, even so importunate, that he eventually ceded. He agreed I could keep them for the moment. I was thrilled.
Together we carried the cubs in a box into the corner room and released them. Then we went to fetch some milk from the kitchen and try to spoonfeed the cubs. It worked. I got them a small ball and discarded pieces of wool to play with, but they did not seem greatly interested. They kept going all over the room, apparently smelling and searching, probably for their mother.
When my aunt returned hours later, she was aghast. She was amazed at my enthusiasm, but questioned my notion of having tigers as pets. She was however more adept at feeding the cubs. Clearly they preferred protein.
Two days later Batra had a long conference with my aunt and told me that he had been in touch with the government specialists at the Maharajbagh zoo in Nagpur city, several miles away. The specialists had insisted that the cubs needed special diet and medical attention, which could be provided only by veterinarians at the zoo. The next morning Batra came in his truck and took the cubs to Nagpur, to my complete mortification. I had thought of beautiful names for them, Toga and Toyga, but nobody cared and the christening never took place. In the nights that followed, however, I dreamed often of Toga and Toyga.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]