Bimla lit the wood chips inside her mud stove for the third time. The wood chips were damp and were not catching fire easily.
The thought of having to buy match sticks was enough to make Bimla try harder. She took a metal pipe and blew the air through it, while she lit her last match. The wood chips responded and soon Bimla had a smoky fire crackling in the stove. She put some water to boil in a pot and sat down to clean one cup of rice for the night meal. As she added the last grain and covered the pot, she heard a loud thud outside the door.
Keshav was home from the forest. He had gathered a big bundle of wood that would fetch good money in the town of Gosaba. Nowadays, it was difficult to cut enough wood to make a living—the forest officers were extra vigilant and at the slightest sign that the woodcutters had breached the government-drawn line, they descended on the perpetrators and confiscated the wood and imposed heavy fines for breaking the law. It was a miracle that Keshav had managed to gather this bundle.
Bimla’s eyes lit up at the sight of the huge bundle of firewood. She knew the money from the firewood would help pay for a few necessary expenses.
Bimla watched as Keshav looked around the hut, picked Putul up, put her up on his shoulders and then picked up Khokon, who was giggling uncontrollably in anticipation of what was to follow.
Once the meal was ready the four of them sat down for dinner in the dim light of the kerosene lamp. Khokon was asleep even before the meal was over. Putul lay down beside her brother as the thunder rumbled outside. Thunder never scared the kids growing up in the Sunderbans. They knew it was part of nature’s cycle. Thunder, lightning, rain, flood, famine … these were forces the kids here knew well. They were fast asleep by the time the skies opened up and the rain beat down furiously on the thatched roof. They did not hear the knock on the door.
The forest officer rushed in as Keshav opened the door.
“You cheat,” he shouted with water streaming down his face. “I thought I saw someone sneak past with a big bundle of wood on his head. I suspected it was you. How dare you cut down government trees? Don’t you know the Sunderbans belong to the Bengal tigers? If the District Commissioner finds out, my job is gone and then who will feed my wife and children? You?”
“Please, Sir,” begged Keshav. “I just cut one of the branches that came down in the last storm. We are down to the last few cups of rice … my children will die of hunger if I don’t get some money soon. I promise you, Sir, I will sell the wood in Gosaba without anyone seeing me. You will not get into any trouble. Please Sir. I would offer you dinner but there is no more rice left. My wife will make you some hot tea so you don’t catch a cold in this rain. Please Sir, don’t take away this bundle of wood.”
Keshav fell at the forest officer’s feet and Bimla rushed to the stove to make a cup of tea using up the precious milk she was saving for the children.
“What are you going to give me to keep my mouth shut? This cup of tea? And there is hardly any milk in it—it is no better than the dirty rainwater out there. Have you not heard how the District Commissioner keeps saying the Sunderbans belong to the Bengal tiger? Have you not heard that he has vowed to punish anyone who harms the Bengal tiger in any way. Your wife works in his house and you still have the guts to steal from the Bengal tiger’s forest?” barked the forest officer.
“Please Sir, I don’t have anything to give you. If I did, why would I risk everything to gather this bundle of wood? I have no money at all Sir. My wife will get paid next Monday, till then we have nothing in the house except two cups of rice. No vegetables, not even a fish in the water tub,” cried Keshav, his hands still on the forest officer’s wet sandals.
Once it became clear to the Forest Officer that Keshav really had nothing in the house to give him, he snatched the bundle of wood and walked out of the house without another word. Putul and Khokon watched sleepily from their blankets and went back to sleep even before the door was shut.
In the morning the incident of the previous night was forgotten. All Keshav remembered was never to gather wood from that part of the forest again. He cursed himself for not going straight to Gosaba from the forest. It was a lesson learned for the next time. But for now Keshav still had to figure out how to feed the family.
“Bimla, ask the lady of the house where you work for some money today. Tell her you need an advance of at least one hundred rupees ($1.68). We need to buy rice and lentils for the kids. I hear the forest officers are extra-vigilant now. The new District Commissioner is very strict. He is determined not to lose a single tiger on this side of the Sunderbans. The forest officers are so scared of him that they are not even accepting bribes to look the other way. I will not be able to get any wood this week. If we are lucky, I might be able to find some honey, but that will not fetch us much money. Our only hope is the lady—tell her about the kids.”
Bimla nodded, knowing she had no other choice. The lady would get upset with her, and ask why they could not figure out how to make the money last a month. She would bring up every single day that Bimla missed work because her kids were sick. She would say Bimla had a bad attitude towards work. But Bimla knew she had no choice. She was worried because Khokon needed to be taken to the hospital for his small pox shot that morning, so after asking for money, she would have to ask for a few hours off to take her son to the hospital. It was a free shot and if she did not do it today, she would have to take him another day to the regular hospital and pay fifty rupees for it. Mustering up all her courage, Bimla walked to the bungalow and entered through the servant’s door.
“Is that you Bimla?” asked Mrs. Gupta. “Come in to the library. Today is a big day and I want to make sure we are all prepared. My husband just received word that he has won an award and we are throwing a party this evening. District Commissioners from all the neighboring districts will be attending. We will also have some animal activists here. My head is spinning trying to keep the guest list straight in my head. Come here, we have a lot of work today.”
Bimla was in a fix. How could she ask for money and a few hours off if there was a party planned for the evening? Maybe she should just ask for the money and not for time off. That way she could use some of the money towards the vaccine for her son from a private doctor. If she took her son for the free vaccine it would save her the doctor’s fees but Mrs.
Gupta would be so angry at her that she would not give her an advance and then her kids would go hungry. Better to pay the doctor. Also, Bimla knew that the rich people who came to these parties would give her a tip so she was better off staying and helping with the party.
Bimla helped the other servants unload the large crates of drinks from the van. Then the gardener gave her fresh-cut flowers in a bucket of water to be taken to Mrs. Gupta, who was going to arrange them in fancy vases that would be placed at various points in the house.
Then, Bimla started the time-consuming process of shining the floors, the wooden banister with intricate carvings, the furniture and finally the endless number of large glass windows in the house. Bimla knew there was no way she could leave early today. By the time the cleaning was done it would be time to help with serving the food. These parties usually ended well after midnight and she would be lucky if she got home before 2 a.m. Hopefully, Keshav would cook the last cup of rice they had and feed the children.
“Bimla, come here. Take this saree,” said Mrs.Gupta. “Remember, you wear this for the party and then put it back in the closet before you go home. This is only for you to wear when the guests are here. I want you to look clean. I definitely do not want my guests to think I don’t pay you enough,” she said.
Bimla looked at the saree that Mrs. Gupta handed to her. If only she could take this home she could make several dresses for her children with it!
Tasty pieces of grilled chicken, spicy fried cheese, potato filled pies, delicious peanuts … the appetizers were being served faster than they were being consumed and were being washed down with glasses of fancy cocktails. Mrs. Gupta stood with her friends, dressed in a turquiose blue saree. Her diamond earrings reflected the soft lights in the room and her voice matched the music being played.
“I am so proud of my husband. He has dedicated his life to the protection of the Bengal tiger. Seriously, the Bengal tiger is right now our only source of pride,” Mrs. Gupta said. “I mean what else can India boast about? This award he got for his work is not just an award for him but for all who are taking care of the legacy of the Sunderbans. Do you know that not a single tiger has been lost since he took over the management of the forest?”
“I will tell you this,” said a lady in high heels, “it is our duty to protect the Bengal tiger. Right now we have only 400 of them left. Can you believe that? My grandfather used to say there were at least 4,000 of them in his youth!”
“That’s why I joined the ‘Save Our Tigers’ group,” said Ms. Banerjee. “We collect money for the tigers and make sure the uneducated farmers don’t destroy their precious lives for the sake of a few measly rupees. I will pass around the donation forms, I hope you will donate generously to protect our legacy.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Gupta. “Put me down for 500 rupees. Really, it is the least I can do for the tiger, and for our country.”
Many women followed Mrs. Gupta’s cue and agreed to donate generously for the cause of the Bengal tiger, the legacy that needed to be protected.
Alcohol flowed freely as evening matured into night. The pitch darkness outside was in sharp contrast to the lights inside the house. Several of the guests ambled into the dining room to heap food onto their plates. The forest outside awoke to the night as a majestic Bengal tiger walked to the river for a long drink of cool water.
It was past 2 a.m. by the time the party started winding down. The food was cleared from the dining table and the leftovers distributed amongst the servants. The party was a roaring success and Mr. Gupta was bursting with pride and happiness.
“I will not allow a single tiger to die on my watch,” he announced, over and over again.
Bimla walked with the other servants through the forest. By the time they reached the cluster of huts where they lived, it was close to dawn. She walked into her hut and put away the food she brought in a pot and hung the pot from the ceiling to make sure ants did not feast on the precious leftovers she brought back for her children.
The next morning Bimla wiped the sleep away from her eyes and splashed cold water on her face. Unfortunately, no one had given her a tip at the party the previous night. The guests had given away everything they had in their purses to save the Bengal tiger. And there was no opportunity to ask Mrs. Gupta for money so she had to go back and try her luck again. Putul and Khokon were already licking the pieces of chicken their father had put in front of them. It was a long time since they had eaten any chicken.
“Keshav, can you take care of Putul this morning? I will take Khokon with me to the lady’s house. There will be a lot of cleaning work to do this morning and you know how she does not like children running in the house. Khokon will sit quietly but you know Putul. She will run into all the rooms make the lady very angry.”
“OK, I will take Putul with me and we will have a lot of fun picking twigs in the forest,” said Keshav. “Putul can watch me collecting honey from the hives, if we are lucky enough to find one.”
Keshav and Putul sat in the shade of the large berry tree in the forest. Keshav had gone deep into the forest to avoid the officers who kept vigil. He knew he had entered the area that belonged to the Bengal tiger and he was not supposed to take any wood from here but there was no other way he knew to make a living. Bimla had packed some leftover chicken pieces in a piece of newspaper. Keshav opened it and lay it in front of Putul. The aroma of spiced chicken filled the nostrils of Keshav, Putul and the animals around them. Not far from them, the Bengal tiger slept in the long grass becoming one with the grass. He was hungry and tired and had not had any food for a few days now. He opened his eyes and looked around. It was not the smell of chicken but the smell of the human that brought him to his feet.
After lunch, Keshav busied himself looking for honey and Putul walked between the trees, picking up wild berries or colored stones that the tide had thrown here in ages past. By the time Keshav realized Putul had wandered too far away, it was too late—the majestic Bengal tiger had already claimed her. Keshav was frantic as he ran deeper into the forest searching for Putul, screaming her name. It took him several minutes before he found her in a small clearing struggling to free herself from the strong grip of the tiger. With her small frame, she was no match for the strength of the hungry, mighty Bengal tiger. When Keshav screamed out, the large yellow and black tiger turned and looked at him through its expressionless eyes.
Within minutes, three forest officers appeared on the scene and watched as the tiger dragged Putul deeper into the forest. They threw stones at the tiger, one even threw a big branch on the tiger but apart from causing the tiger to work faster it did not help Putul.
“Please Sir, use your gun. Shoot down that tiger and save my Putul,” cried Keshav. He was running back and forth between the tiger and the forest officers, trying to pull his daughter from the tiger’s grasp, willing it to take him instead. The tiger knocked him down effortlessly and picked up a now unconscious Putul in its mouth. The forest officers were jumping up and down to distract the tiger. One was crying out loud praying to Goddess Durga to leave the little girl alone.
The man with the gun threw his gun on the ground and screamed for someone else to pull the trigger.
“I have strict orders never to shoot a tiger. The commissioner will fire me from my job if I am responsible for the loss of a tiger. Please, someone save the little girl. Please God, please save the girl. If I shoot the tiger, I might as well shoot my kids since they will die of hunger very soon when I lose my job. The government will protect this tiger as there are only 400 of them left. But no one will protect our children, there are too many of them!”
Keshav, ran to the gun it was too late. The fresh red blood on the ground from Putul’s neck was proof that his little girl was no longer alive.
In a government-owned building far from where the tiger was enjoying its meal, the award ceremony was in full swing. The governor pinned the badge of honor on to Mr. Gupta’s expensive suit pocket as the announcement was made over the microphone system.
“And the award of excellence for saving the legacy of the Bengal tiger, and making every Indian proud, goes to District Commissioner Gupta.”
Anu Chitrapu likes to write stories that bring out the social injustices that exist today. Anu holds an MBA from MIT Sloan and works in the financial services sector. She lives in Boston with her husband and two children.
We thought this story had an interesting approach, not often found in literary fiction: the emphasis on a specific message. It remains open to debate whether nature conservation should ever take precedence over the problem of human hunger. Whether or not the reader agrees with the author’s vehement position on this question, the story contains clearly drawn characters and dramatic scenes.
Tania James is the author of a novel, Atlas of Unknowns. Her most recent book is Aerogrammes and Other Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews,and Library Journal, as well as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist and was a Katha Short Story contest winner himself for two years in a row. His first novel, Partitions, and two poetry collections were published to wide acclaim. His most recent novel is The Abundance. Visit www.amitmajmudar.com for details.