It has been 13 long years to this incident and to this day I regret not having even a single photograph of it. My father never invested in a camera. He is probably not interested in one, probably not even in the normal day to day use of the equipment.
The day I speak of is one of the most exiting days of my life. After all, it is not every day that one gets to touch a living, fully conscious, grown up tiger. And not many people in the world can claim to have done so, can they? Yes dear, you read it right. I have had the good fortune of getting as close as one can possibly get to one of these magestic animals. And so has been the case with my brother. We did that together.
If I remember it correctly, it was 7th of June, 1997. Just one day back we had come to Patna from Muzaffarpur to board the (very) early morning Danapur-Tata Express, the train we usually took to go to Vidyapith at the end of our one and a half month long vacation. Although she seldom did so, this time Maa had also decided to come along. We were staying put at the place of Munni Bua, and had a full day to kill and not really many places in the town to pay a visit to.
It was at the morning breakfast table that bua suddenly suggested that we must go to the Sanjay Gandhi Jaivik Udyan, the Patna zoo. A few days back, Boski Didi's school had taken her whole batch out for a picnic there. And she had come back with this information regarding a grown up tiger there which could be touched, obviously in the presence of Ram Pyare, the guy who was responsible for taking care of the animal.
So, as soon as our breakfast got over, the four of us - Maa, Papa, myself and my brother - left for the zoo. Bua had decided to stay back as she had some more mundane things to take care of.
Now, as is the case with most of the cities of our generation, Patna zoo happens to be an oasis in an otherwise desert. Full of greenery and an island of tranquility, this is sadly the last and the most open space left in an otherwise over-crowded, tightly packed city.
Once we were in, finding the place of the tiger was not a difficult thing to do. Ram Pyare and his tiger were obviously the hottest news those days on the zoo campus. I remember Googling Ram Pyare out a couple of years down the line when I was in my college, and I was delighted to find an article regarding him in India Today. Sadly, I am not able to find that link now. However, one page concerning him still happens to be on the net and interested readers may go to it by clicking here.
Although I am not an expert in this matter, with its orange skin and black stripes, I am pretty sure the tiger that I am talking about was a Royal Bengal tiger. It was 'kept' in front of the white tiger cage. On its left was another big enclosure with 3-4 similar looking Royal Bengals in it.
The time we reached the place Ram Pyare was not there. Yet, to our utter surprise, the only thing separating the completely unchained tiger (or was it a tigress?) from the visiters to the zoo was an iron fence not more than 2 feet high. If it had so wished, our tiger could have easily jumped the fence and gone for a long, solitary walk anywhere in the zoo, putting the whole system in disarray. Instead, completely oblivious of the onlookers and its eyes tightly shut, all it chose to do was to lie down lazily in the bright early noon sunlight. Oh! What a breathtakingly beautiful sight it was! I have never been to any Wildlife Park in my life and this remains the most free tiger I have ever come across.
After around half an hour, Ram Pyare came along to pay a visit to his tiger. Short, dark skinned and shabbily dressed, he was just like any other person one can ever come across. I and my brother were exited. The ultimate purpose of our visit to the zoo was to touch the tiger, not just to have a look at it and go back home. That we will get a number of chances to do. This was a life time opportunity. We urged our father to talk to Ram Pyare and get us an opportunity to do that. Luckily he obliged. Maa was shit scared, but by the time she could start protesting, Papa had already started talking to Ram Pyare.
The time we were waiting for since morning had arrived.
Once Ram Pyare was inside the fence, he called us to join him. The instruction given to us was simple. We will get a very brief duration to touch the hind legs and the back of the animal and then we will get out fast. While we did so, Ram Pyare was stroking the tiger on its face, sitting comfortably on its side. So, we touched the dream animal on its hind legs. And, my good gracious god, what a soft skin it had! Isn't it surprising for an animal so feared of to have a skin so soft?
While the memory of that day will always be alive with me, sadly it is the tigers themselves who are facing extinction. So much so that in order to publicise the plight of the jungle cat (and obviously to serve its own corporate needs), a mobile company - Aircel - has come up with an advertisement in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund. I have a television set at home, but I have decided not to have cable connection as I find it to be less entertaining and more irritating. As a result, I have not seen the concerned advertisement till now. I am sure it must be a great ad. But isn't it sad that we the humans have brought the world to such a stage that we need to come out with advertisements in order to help equally important lifeforms survive?
India has already lost all of her Cheetah-s and I am afraid the day is not far when, in spite of all these cosmetic efforts, the country will lose all of its Panthera Tigris population as well. From around 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century to 3,642 in 2002 and 1,411 in 2008; their numbers have come down really fast. It will be a dark day indeed, if it ever comes, when my children will ask me to show a tiger to them and the closest thing that I would be able to do would be to tell them this story of my personal, friendly encounter with one of them.
Panthera Tigris: Going! Going!! .. Thankfully NOT YET Gone Away.