John Hoyland has been called Europe’s answer to Mark Rothko. On a visit to his London studio, esther walker discovers why the celebrated painter has turned to Robert Fisk of The Independent for inspiration in his latest artworks.
The Independent, April 25, 2008
“I borrow anything from anything,” says the artist John Hoyland. “I’ll borrow from other people’s work, nature, flowers – anything.” In his latest exhibition, Greetings of Love, Hoyland borrows from a more unlikely source, perhaps: a photograph of blood-spatter on the floor of a hospital in Lebanon, accompanied by a piece, about the 33-day conflict in Lebanon and northern Israel in 2006, by The Independent’s Robert Fisk.
John Hoyland in his studio. Photo: Teri Pengilley
“I’ve always liked Robert Fisk’s writing and I admire him. I thought the piece that he had written was rather moving, and I looked at the photograph that went with it and it looked just like one of my paintings.” The piece, published in August 2007, was a reflection on the previous year’s war in Lebanon and, in part, a review of the book Double Blind by the Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin.
Love and loss: ‘Lebanon’ by John Hoyland
Pellegrin’s picture, taken in Tyre’s main hospital, shows a large splash of blood on the black-and-white tiled floor of a hospital; the victim had been badly injured in an Israeli rocket attack on 6 August, 2006.
“I hate wars,” reads Fisk’s piece. “I was thinking this over as I pawed through Double Blind, from which these photographs are taken. Its terrible, rage-filled, blood-spattered pages are an awful memory to me of last year’s war in Lebanon. It began on my birthday – my 60th birthday – when a dear friend called me up and told me what a terrible birthday I was going to have, and I asked why, and she told me that two Israeli soldiers had been captured by the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and I asked Abed, my driver, to head south, because I knew that the Israelis would bomb across Lebanon. And I was right.”
Love and loss, Photo: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum
The resulting work by Hoyland is a powerful, richly coloured image, with the artist’s trademark layers of thick paint, rivers of colour running down the canvas, and his nerve-cell-like central focus. But Hoyland insists that the piece is not deliberately political.
“I don’t see Lebanon as a political piece, although the title would indicate that. I was simply struck by the constant threat to people living in the Middle East and the sheer horror of the things that happen. I suppose my sympathies would always be with the victims and the underdog, so I suppose in that way it is political.”
Lebanon is part of a wider exhibition inspired by loss. Both Patrick Caulfield and Piero Dorazio, both artists and close friends of Hoyland’s, died in 2005 and Greetings of Love is, in part, a farewell. He has referred to the paintings for Dorazio, Poem for Piero, and Caulfield, Souvenir for Patrick, as “letters to friends” and “elegies”.
Work by artist John Hoyland
“I spend a lot of time looking for structures and looking for things to hang a painting on,” says Hoyland. “You’ve got to have a structure otherwise you’ll just paint chaos. But at the moment I’m in this thing where I’m not painting sexy or structured pictures, I’m just surprising myself with what comes out. And I’ve done a lot of paintings recently that, without thinking about it, turn out to be about loss.”
Hoyland, now 73, is regarded as the leading abstract artist of his generation, and is sometimes referred to as Europe’s answer to Mark Rothko. “I don’t think he would have liked that comparison,” says Hoyland, laughing. “I knew him a little bit and he didn’t really like other people following him at all.”
John Hoyland’s studio, Photo: Teri Pengilley
Hoyland is part of a band of post-war “Mod Brit” artists such Albert Irvin, Alan Davie and Bridget Riley who , after briefly falling out of fashion, have enjoyed a recent return to popularity. Last year Davie sold a work for £234,000, and Hoyland’s bright creations have been selling for £50,000 each. ……… V
C War and conflict are a subject close to Hoyland’s heart. National Service was scrapped the year that Hoyland was due to be called up. “I was lucky that I never had to confront that. I would never have gone into the forces if I had been called up, even though some of my contemporaries seem to have enjoyed it. And the whole purpose of becoming an artist is to be an individual; the idea of going somewhere and being given a number and doing everything you’re told doesn’t appeal to me. I just don’t go in for all this shooting people who you don’t know; it sounds crazy to me.”
John Hoyland’s studio. Photo: Teri Pengilley
The war in Iraq, Hoyland feels, was similarly inexplicable. “I’ve always been 150 per cent against the war, the folly of it and the lack of wisdom on behalf of our leaders. I mean, they might be smart people but they’ve got no wisdom. They’re just like smart lawyers. But I’m older than them so maybe that makes a difference.”
Hoyland was born in Sheffield in 1934 and attended the Sheffield School of Art and then came down to London to study at the Royal Academy school of art in 1957. As a child, he constantly drew and made things. “I just had a sort of craving to make something. I don’t know why.” His parents were supportive of him going to art school and his mother always encouraged him to draw. “She would say: ‘Oh, let him draw, he’s in the mood.’ It was also a way of getting to stay up late.”
Photo: Teri Pengilley
The Royal Academy, although prestigious, was something of a disappointment. “In the Sixties we were just taught in the old manner of drawing from the figure, and painting landscapes, still lifes – things like that. I did it and I did it reasonably well, but I didn’t have a flair for it. It was all about learning to draw in a Renaissance manner. I was always better when I picked up a brush and a palette knife. We really weren’t taught much at all, it was very dry. And when we were taught history of art it was all a bit pointless. If you hadn’t seen any of the stuff, mostly in other countries, what was the point? I’ve always thought that history ought to be taught backwards – start with today and then go back.”
He then taught at the Chelsea School of Art, where he met Caulfield, who became one of his closest friends, and then at the Slade and Royal Academy art schools. He continued to paint, exhibiting in a variety of one-man shows at the Whitechapel Gallery, the Marlborough New London Gallery and, annually, at the Waddington Galleries.
It was Hoyland’s meeting with the artist, architect and pioneer of abstract art in Britain, Victor Pasmore, that accelerated his creative progression. “I was very lucky to meet Victor on a course. All the ideas I’d been reaching towards but I had no intellectual grasp of – those were all clarified on the course. Victor sat me down one day and explained in about half an hour the difference between perspective and other kinds of space, and ideas on visual perception, and that helped me a lot – ways of rendering space without perspective. That helped me no end. I was stuck painting in Formalism, although I didn’t know it was called that at the time.”
Hoyland moved to New York in 1964, where the kind of abstract impressionism in which he was interested was at a more advanced stage. “Of course, at the start we couldn’t make head nor tail of this American art. It seemed far more sophisticated and passionate than the British art of the same time. The stuff was really mystifying. Looking back, what was amazing was that somehow Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell had taken two opposite things, Constructivism and Surrealism, and somehow blended the two. They made a new hybrid.”
From then on, Hoyland didn’t look back and became one of the most celebrated artists in the UK. “If I had died in 1969 I’d be a legend by now,” remarks Hoyland of his early success. “Someone once said to me that artists don’t really get better, they just change. If you’re no good to begin with you won’t be any good at the end.
“I read a piece by Kenneth Clark once who was also saying that it’s rare that artists get better as they get older. He put it down to a sort of ‘unholy rage’ you get in young men. When you’re young, you start out wanting to be a tough guy and to beat everyone up with your work – the instinct is to be dominant and aggressive. And then you get into middle age and start wanting to be an intellectual and showing people that you know all the polemics of the game and to show people that you can match anybody in that way, too. And then when you get old, you just go crazy.”
When Hoyland moved down to London from Sheffield he moved into the flat he still lives in now. It is part of an old abandoned hat-factory near Smithfield that he and 13 others, including the pop artist Allen Jones, bought in to for £120,000 between them. There is just one large room to live in, with a wall partially dividing the living space from the small sleeping space which you can just see while sitting on the low-backed brown leather sofas.
“The bed gets made twice a week: once when my girlfriend comes round and once when the cleaner comes round,” says Hoyland. “I don’t think you really need to make the bed with duvets, you just clamber back into your pit at night. I live like a kind of fairly rich student.”
Today Hoyland is wearing a red-and-white checked shirt, black trousers and black cowboy-boots. (“I always thought fashion was rubbish – I still do.”) His hair is a spiky shock of white and he wears large, tinted glasses, which keep slipping down his nose.
Attached to the flat where he lives is his studio, a once-large room-space now encroached upon by hundreds of canvases. The floor is thick with paint-spatters and everything else – chairs, books, doors, is covered in more paint. Hoyland’s canvases, which he has the luxury of buying pre-stretched these days, are laid onto the floor and he works above them. The canvases are tipped this way and that to achieve a dribbled effect and he uses an iridescent paint that, when it catches the light, gleams like metal.
“Everyone always remarks on the floor,” says Hoyland. “They all want to buy the floor and not the paintings!”
There is also a foot-high stack of catalogues detailing Hoyland’s 40-year exhibition history. It’s a back catalogue that speaks of a ferocious work ethic and a dedication to art. “There’s that ridiculous cliché, you know, ‘If you remember the Sixties then you weren’t there.’ Well, I was very much there and I remember them. We were never into drugs. I didn’t even really drink in those days – we couldn’t afford it. When I was a student I couldn’t even afford to take a girl out for a cup of coffee.
“I remember Patrick [Caulfield] going to Rome on this hair-raising drive in a souped-up Mini with Robert Fraser [the art dealer] and they went to this very smart party with princesses and so on. Well, someone passed him a cigarette and he took it, thinking that they’d given it to him because he was next to the ashtray, and stubbed it out. It was a joint, of course, and they all looked at him like, ‘Who’s this guy?’ We just had no idea. A lot of our students were doing LSD and they all turned out the same kind of paintings – sort of fuzzy things. They all thought they were highly original, of course. No, I was just trying to be respectable.
“I was always interested in serious art and serious literature and I had a wife and kid. I thought the Stones were overrated, although Mick Jagger’s a great showman. I preferred the blues, Miles Davis, or Bach and Berlioz.” The wife he refers to is Airi Karakainen, with whom he had one son; they divorced in 1968.
The modern art-scene seems to leave Hoyland cold; he is disappointed in the venal element that has crept into artistic endeavour. “The thing I miss in a lot of younger painters is the lack of passion and soulfulness. Nowadays to them it’s all about succeeding. When we went to art school we never dreamed we would make a living out of art, make a lot of money or become famous or anything. Now they’re all got their stuff set out with their [website addresses] and their business cards printed up.
“A lot of young artists now have an idea and want to illustrate it, but they do almost everything they can to avoid paint and the sensuality of painting. It’s all so concept-based – and the real killer is computer art. Some of it is all right when you first look at it, but when you look closer it becomes more vacuous. The whole thing for me is the spontaneity that happens in the process of creating something.”
Does he think people like Charles Saatchi, who make superstars out of art students overnight by buying their work for huge sums of money, are to blame? “Saatchi has his own taste and his own raison d’être,” says Hoyland carefully. “He’s taken a lot of risks, he’s bought some good stuff, but I think he’s bought a lot of junk as well. But it’s up to him what he does with his money.
Sadly, people’s success today is often based on how much they’re written about. These guys are very savvy – that whole generation that came out of Goldsmiths, they’re very savvy about the media. Damien [Hirst] is a smart guy. They reckon he’s the richest artist in the world. But I don’t think you make great art unless you paint it yourself.”
A lot has changed, says Hoyland, but some things are still the same. “Someone asked me the other day what the teachers at the Royal Academy were like when I was there. And I said: ‘Oh… just a bunch of grey-haired old fogeys who didn’t know what we were doing.’ And then I realised, well, we’ve come full circle!”
Greetings of Love is at Beaux Arts, Cork Street, London W1 (020-7437 5799) from 30 April to 31 May
‘You become accustomed to the smell of blood during war’
As a witness to unbearable horror during his years in the Middle East, Robert fisk has – on occasion – been lost for words. But he believes that John Hoyland’s artwork, capturing the brutality of conflict, is as eloquent as any journalist’s article
By Robert Fisk.
I was in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron once, in 2001, and the Palestinians had lynched three supposed collaborators. And they were hanging so terribly, almost naked, on the electricity pylons out of town, that I could not write in my notebook. Instead, I drew pictures of their bodies hanging from the pylons. Young boys – Palestinian boys – were stubbing out cigarettes on their near-naked bodies and they reminded me of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, all arrows and pain and forgiveness, and so all I could do was draw. I still have the pictures. They are ridiculous, stupid, the work of a reporter who suddenly couldn’t bring himself to write the details on the page.
But I understand Hoyland’s picture, even if it is not my picture. After I saw the oil fires burning in Kuwait in 1991, an Irish artist painted Fisk’s Fires – a title I could have done without – in which she very accurately portrayed the bleached desert with the rich, thick, chocolate-tasting oil we tasted in the aftermath of the war. Sometimes, I wish these painters were with us when we saw the war with our own eyes – and which they could then see with theirs.
But John Hoyland’s Blood and Flowers quite scrupulously directs our eyesight on to the bright, glittering centre of gore that we – be we photographers or writers – look at immediately we enter the centre of that little Golgotha which we wish to visit and of which we never wish to be a part: the hospital. Blood is not essentially terrible. It is about life. But it smells. Stay in a hospital during a war and you will become accustomed to the chemical smell of blood. It is quite normal. Doctors and nurses are used to it. So am I. But when I smell it in war, it becomes an obscenity.
I remember how Condoleezza Rice, when she was Secretary of State, visited Lebanon at the height of the war – at the apogee of the casualties – and said that the birth of democracy could be bloody. Well, yes indeed. The midwifery was a fearful business. Lots of blood. Huge amid the hospitals. God spare us Ms Rice’s hospital delivery rooms…
I’m not sure how sincerely we should lock on to art to portray history (or war). I have to admit that Tolstoy’s Battle of Borodino in War and Peace tells me as much about human conflict as Anna Karenina tells me about love. I am more moved by the music of Cecil Coles – one of only two well-known British composers killed in the 1914-1918 war – than I am by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. But this does not reduce the comprehensive, unstoppable power of great art to convince – just as a brilliantly made movie can do in the cinema.
I have to admit that I have a few worries about art and war. Can a painter who has never experienced war really understand the nature of the vile beast? Most of Britain’s First World War artists were in France, but that does not apply to Iraq. When I saw wild beasts – the desert dogs – tearing apart the corpses of men, women and children in southern Iraq (killed by the United States Air Force and, yes, by the RAF, whose pilots – God bless them – refused to go on killing the innocent) and running off across the sand with fingers and arms and legs, there was no art form to convey this horror. Film would have been a horror movie, paintings an obscenity. Maybe only photographs – undoctored – can tell you what we see.
Goya got it right. I went to see an exhibition of his sketches in Lille a few years ago – the irony of my father’s trenches a few miles away (he was a 19-year-old soldier in the third battle of the Somme) not lost on me – and was almost overwhelmed by the cruelty that he transmits. The collaborators hanging, near-naked, from the pylons seemed so close to the raped and impaled guerrilla fighters of Spain that art seemed almost pointless. What is the point of intellect when the brain will always be crushed by the body?
When the Americans entered Baghdad in April 2003, I ran into the main teaching hospital in Baghdad to find a scene of Crimean war proportions. Men holding amputated hands, soldiers screaming for their mothers as their skin burned, a man without an eye, a ribbon of bandage allowing a trail of blood to run from his empty socket. Blood overflowed my shoes. I guess it’s at times like this that we need John Hoyland.
If you care about hunger, eat less meat.
By George Monbiot*. 15th April 2008
Never mind the economic crisis. Focus for a moment on a more urgent threat: the great food recession which is sweeping the world faster than the credit crunch.
You have probably seen the figures by now: the price of rice has risen by three-quarters in the past year, that of wheat by 130%(1). There are food crises in 37 countries. One hundred million people, according to the World Bank, could be pushed into deeper poverty by the high prices(2). But I bet you have missed the most telling statistic. At 2.1bn tonnes, last year’s global grain harvest broke all records(3). It beat the previous year’s by almost 5%. The crisis, in other words, has begun before world food supplies are hit by climate change. If hunger can strike now, what will happen if harvests decline?
There is plenty of food. It is just not reaching human stomachs. Of the 2.13bn tonnes likely to be consumed this year, only 1.01bn, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), will feed people(4).
I am sorely tempted to write another column about biofuels. From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops. The World Bank points out that “the grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol … could feed one person for a year”(5). Last year global stockpiles of cereals declined by around 53m tonnes(6); this gives you a rough idea of the size of the hunger gap. The production of biofuels this year will consume almost 100m tonnes(7), which suggests that they are directly responsible for the current crisis. In the Guardian yesterday the transport secretary Ruth Kelly promised that “if we need to adjust policy in the light of new evidence, we will.”(8) What new evidence does she require? In the midst of a global humanitarian crisis, we have just become legally obliged to use food as fuel. It is a crime against humanity in which every driver in this country has been forced to participate.
But I have been saying this for four years and I am boring myself. Of course we must demand that our governments scrap the rules which turn grain into the fastest food of all. But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals(9). This could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.
While meat consumption is booming in Asia and Latin America, in the United Kingdom it has scarcely changed since the government started gathering data in 1974. At just over 1kg per person per week(10), it’s still about 40% above the global average(11), though less than half the amount consumed in the United States(12). We eat less beef and more chicken than we did 30 years ago, which means a smaller total impact. Beef cattle eat about 8kg of grain or meal for every kilogramme of flesh they produce; a kilogramme of chicken needs just 2kg of feed. Even so, our consumption rate is plainly unsustainable.
In his magazine The Land, Simon Fairlie has updated the figures produced 30 years ago in Kenneth Mellanby’s book Can Britain Feed Itself? Fairlie found that a vegan diet grown by means of conventional agriculture would require only 3m hectares of arable land (around half the current total)(13). Even if we reduced our consumption of meat by half, a mixed farming system would need 4.4m hectares of arable fields and 6.4 million hectares of pasture. A vegan Britain could make a massive contribution to global food stocks.
But I cannot advocate a diet I am incapable of following. I tried it for about 18 months, lost two stone, went as white as bone and felt that I was losing my mind. I know a few healthy-looking vegans and I admire them immensely. But after almost every talk I give, I am pestered by swarms of vegans demanding that I adopt their lifestyle. I cannot help noticing that in most cases their skin has turned a fascinating pearl grey.
What level of meat-eating would be sustainable? One approach is to work out how great a cut would be needed to accommodate the growth in human numbers. The UN expects the population to rise to 9bn by 2050. These extra people will require another 325m tonnes of grain(14). Let us assume, perhaps generously, that politicians like Ms Kelly are able to “adjust policy in the light of new evidence” and stop turning food into fuel. Let us pretend that improvements in plant breeding can keep pace with the deficits caused by climate change. We would need to find an extra 225m tonnes of grain. This leaves 531m tonnes for livestock production, which suggests a sustainable consumption level for meat and milk some 30% below the current world rate. This means 420g of meat per person per week, or about 40% of the UK’s average consumption.
This estimate is complicated by several factors. If we eat less meat we must eat more plant protein, which means taking more land away from animals. On the other hand, some livestock is raised on pasture, so it doesn’t contribute to the grain deficit. Simon Fairlie estimates that if animals were kept only on land that’s unsuitable for arable farming, and given scraps and waste from food processing, the world could produce between a third and two thirds of its current milk and meat supply(15). But this system then runs into a different problem. The FAO calculates that animal keeping is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impacts are especially grave in places where livestock graze freely(16). The only reasonable answer to the question of how much meat we should eat is as little as possible. Let’s reserve it – as most societies have done until recently – for special occasions.
For both environmental and humanitarian reasons, beef is out. Pigs and chickens feed more efficiently, but unless they are free range you encounter another ethical issue: the monstrous conditions in which they are kept. I would like to encourage people to start eating tilapia instead of meat. It’s a freshwater fish which can be raised entirely on vegetable matter and has the best conversion efficiency – about 1.6kg of feed for 1kg of meat – of any farmed animal(17). Until meat can be grown in flasks, this is about as close as we are likely to come to sustainable flesh-eating.
Re-reading this article, I see that there is something surreal about it. While half the world wonders whether it will eat at all, I am pondering which of our endless choices we should take. Here the price of food barely registers. Our shops are better stocked than ever before. We perceive the global food crisis dimly, if at all. It is hard to understand how two such different food economies could occupy the same planet, until you realise that they feed off each other.
2. World Bank, 14th April 2008. Food Price Crisis Imperils 100 Million in Poor Countries, Zoellick Says. Press release. http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/NEWS/0,,contentMDK:21729143~menuPK:51062075~pagePK:34370~piPK:34424~theSitePK:4607,00.html
3. Food and Agriculture Organisation, April 2008. Crop Prospects and Food Situation.
5. World Bank, 2008. Biofuels: The Promise and the Risks. http://econ.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/EXTDEC/EXTRESEARCH/EXTWDRS/EXTWDR2008/0,,contentMDK:21501336~pagePK:64167689~piPK:64167673~theSitePK:2795143,00.html
6. Gerrit Buntrock, 6th December 2007. Cheap no more. The Economist.
7. Food and Agriculture Organisation, April 2008, ibid.
8. Ruth Kelly, 14th April 2008. Biofuels: a blueprint for the future? The Guardian.
9. Food and Agriculture Organisation, April 2008, ibid.
10. The British government gives a total meat purchase figure of 1042g/person/week for 2006.
11. There’s a discussion of global average figures here: http://envirostats.info/2007/09/18/0406/
12. See Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow. Figure 1.4, p9.
13. Simon Fairlie, Winter 2007-8. Can Britain Feed Itself? The Land.
14. Based on the current population of 6.8bn consuming 1006mt of grain.
15. Simon Fairlie, forthcoming. Default livestock farming. The Land, Summer 2008.
16. Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow.
17. The FAO (ibid) gives 1.6-1.8. On April 12th, I spoke to Francis Murray of the Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, who suggested 1.5.
“If the Sundarbans goes under, the tiger episode on earth is over,” says one Indian naturalist. Photograph by Tim Laman. National Geographic Image Collection
The New Yorker, April 21, 2008
The old man stepped onto our boat out of the utter blackness that falls between the abrupt fall of twilight, at five o’clock, and the rising of the full moon. His name was Phani Gayen, and he was employed at the Saznekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, in the mangrove forest on the northern border of India’s Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, where we were moored. Formerly, he was a crab fisherman, taking his small, pole-punted boat down along the forest’s brackish tidal creeks and narrow channels. On June 23, 1984, at half past noon, he had gone into the forest with companions to collect wood. He turned and found a tiger springing for him, roaring. “I was then forty-five years old and very, very strong,” he said. “I did not allow the tiger’s face to touch my face.” He stroked his Adam’s apple. “The tiger’s throat is very hard, here.” As the tiger gripped him with its paws, its head hung over his shoulder, drenching his shirt with saliva. “I knew I was going to die. So I embraced the tiger. He was soft. The tiger was soft. Like a sponge.” Somehow, this surrender freed him—the tiger released him and turned on one of his companions. Taking the companion by the throat, the tiger headed back into the forest.
The claw wounds on Gayen’s head and face kept him in the hospital for three months. The wounds healed, but his ear was damaged permanently. Over the years, he had told his story many times. “I no longer fear the tiger,” he declared, his scarred face lit by the yellow bulb that our boat’s generator powered. “It is the tiger’s nature.” But he avoids entering the forest.
The bulb’s light did not extend to the shore, and Gayen vanished into darkness on the long, narrow gangplank. The camp where he worked was one of only a few small stations in the 4,263 square kilometres of protected forest. At the mouth of the Ganges Delta, the Sundarbans encompasses the largest single mangrove ecosystem in the world, of which roughly forty per cent lies in India and sixty per cent in Bangladesh. The 9,630 square kilometres of the Indian Sundarbans, designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, are in turn divided into two more or less equal regions. Of the hundred and eight islands lying in the web of tidal rivers, creeks, and channels, fifty-four are inhabited—or “reclaimed”—supporting a rural, poor population of more than four million people. To the southeast lies the tiger reserve, whose swamp forest and intricate waterways are the improbable domain of the uniquely aquatic Royal Bengal tiger.
Washed by powerful, twice-daily tides flowing from the Bay of Bengal, and regularly buffeted by cyclones, the Sundarbans has always been unstable, its low landmasses constantly being eroded, silted, and reconfigured. Upstream pollution, from Calcutta; increasing salinity, caused by naturally occurring displacement of freshwater sources; and depredation of the forest by villagers cutting wood are long-standing threats. Still, the Sundarbans remains “intact,” thanks partly to stringent conservation measures and to its inaccessibility, and partly to the Sundarbans tiger, whose presence insures that the forest is too dangerous to enter casually. “Without the tiger, we would have no forest,” I was told by villagers, fishermen, wood collectors, honey gatherers—by all who cautiously skirt the forest.
I had come to the Sundarbans in late November, after the rainy season, with members of a not-for-profit agency, the Anudip Foundation, which offers livelihood training, and whose members were interested in producing a film about the region. Kushal Mookherjee, a Calcutta-based naturalist and wildlife consultant, who had been coming to the Sundarbans regularly for field study for more than a decade, was also on board. Another companion, Dr. Pranabes Sanyal, an authority on mangrove ecosystems, was the former field director, from 1980 to 1986, of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. The forest reserve can be reached only by boat, and our plan was to travel the rivers and back ways haunted by one of the most viable tiger populations remaining in the wild.
We had joined our launch, the sixty-two-foot M.V. Tanaya, at a small port on a channel off the Matla River, one of the main arteries through the reserve. Little other traffic was going our way as we wended through the waters of the reclaimed Sundarbans. On either side, broad embankments of baked clay fortified the land against the tide, giving each village the appearance of a walled city. Fishing vessels listed in the mud below them; hours later, the same boats would be floating as much as fifteen feet higher, level with the walls. In recent years, the tides have become more menacing, as the sea levels have climbed inexorably. Toward the end of 2006, two islands from the western edge of the Sundarbans archipelago were reported to have vanished beneath the water.
“If the Sundarbans goes under, the tiger episode on earth is over,” Kushal said, a belief shared by many authorities. The plight of tigers worldwide is critical, with the most optimistic estimates positing a population of between thirty-three hundred and forty-three hundred. Some four hundred tigers are cautiously estimated to inhabit the combined Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh.
From time to time, we passed solitary women trudging through the water near the shoreline, pulling nets behind them as they trawled for prawn seed. This practice, introduced in the past twenty years or so, has disastrously reduced prawn and other fish populations, and the constant pacing along the fragile shore by the women and children who drag the nets has contributed to erosion. In their flowing saris, the women presented picturesque silhouettes that belied the danger of their work, up to ten hours a day waist high in the murky water. As many as ten fatal crocodile attacks are documented each year, and, I was told, too many shark attacks to report. The most common are by dog sharks, which take a bite of soft tissue—a leg or buttock—but do not kill. “They are considered minor hazards,” Dr. Sanyal said, with a sympathetic grimace. The Sundarbans’s occupational hazards—crocodiles, sharks, cobras, kraits, swimming tigers, and cyclones—make it one of the most dangerous places in the world.
As we passed from the reclaimed area into the waters of the protected tiger reserve, the villages petered out, the occasional wooden ghat or jetty the only evidence of human presence. On the right bank, there were, suddenly and starkly, no structures at all, but only a barely discernible web of netting draping the forested waterline—a fanciful strategy intended to deter straying tigers.
The boat arrived at the long jetty of the Saznekhali Wildlife Sanctuary, in a buffer zone established around the tiger reserve’s most stringently protected core, which is off-limits to everyone except personnel and vetted researchers. The river was at very low tide, and a compound loomed above the river and fifteen feet of exposed mud banks like a fort bristling with defenses. Stoutly staked at the high-tide mark, a quadruple row of bamboo pylons formed a palisade, patrolled by a troop of rhesus monkeys. Inside the compound stood a shrine to Banbibi, the divine protectress of the forest, and to Dakshin Roi, the tiger god.
“In most of the forest stations, there is a deity statue,” Dr. Sanyal said as we stood before gaudily painted representations of the gods. The inhabitants of the Sundarbans are both Hindu and Muslim, but the wilderness has forged its own idiosyncratic beliefs, honored by people of both faiths. Banbibi is depicted as an attractive, sari-clad woman; she does not accept sacrifices of animals or blood but is propitiated with sweets. She is serene and kind, and is often shown riding unconcernedly on a roaring tiger, like Dionysus on his leopard.
“Mother, we are going to your kingdom,” runs a characteristic puja, or prayer, offered to Banbibi by devotees who must enter the forest: “Kindly protect us, please see that we get a safe return, we do not fall prey under your tiger’s paw.” Sometimes Banbibi’s brother, Shajangali, is depicted with her. In “dress and countenance,” as one authority has written, he seems to belong to “Muslim gentry.” The dashing Dakshin Roi, depicted as a mustachioed, gun-carrying, horse-riding, sporting gentleman, is Tiger incarnate. He is deep yellow, with large, compelling eyes. Within this nexus of sometimes contradictory associations, he is, like Vishnu, the Preserver, principally worshipped for his curative powers: “A god can create life and can take it,” as a village woman told me with some energy. An actual tiger might be Dakshin Roi, or the animal on which Banbibi rides, or Vishnu.
“Tiger is the king of the Sundarvans,” writes Tushar Niyogi in his “Tiger Cult of the Sundarvans” (from which the quotations above are also taken). “Any account of the Sundarvans remains incomplete if it does not include elaborate notes on Tiger.”
he boat pulled away from the Saznekhali jetty at dark. Some miles upstream, we dropped anchor at another village. By eight o’clock, the full moon had risen, and sky and river alike became milk white. The sound of the generator chug-chugged pleasantly across the water, and when it was shut off there was nothing to be heard at all. The few dhows also at anchor appeared as half-moon silhouettes. When dawn broke the next day, they had already departed.
We continued generally east, going against the tide in a narrowing of the river, which smoked with dawn mist. A small fishing boat appeared ahead, and as we drew abreast our captain hailed it. A man dressed in a ragged blue-and-white-striped shirt and a checked longi waved uncertainly. He was joined by his wife, who wore a heavy sweater over her sari against the morning cold. His name was Parimal Biswas, and he was a crab fisherman. A swath of tattered awning sheltered their bedding and tiny kitchen, and the bow was filled with a huge basket teeming with crabs, which Biswas uncovered with obvious pride; there were, he estimated, some fifty to sixty kilos. At a hundred rupees, or two dollars and fifty cents, a kilo, he expected to get more than a hundred dollars from this trip—a lot of money. His line was already rebaited, and he was punting along the shoreline, looking for a likely place to make a final drop.
Yes, he said, in answer to Dr. Sanyal’s query, he had often seen tigers. “When we see one, we cross to the opposite bank and lie down low,” his wife explained. “We pretend no one is around.” Biswas knew his work was dangerous. “But I have to eat,” he said with feeling. Digging into a pocket, he drew out a document, reaching across the water to hand it to Dr. Sanyal. “It is a permit to fish here,” Dr. Sanyal said. “He was born a cripple, and is allowed to fish here,” in the reserve. The permit, issued by the Government of West Bengal, Forest Department, was important: among other things, it insured that his family would be recompensed in the event that he was taken by a tiger.
We were still heading east, toward the most remote part of the reserve. Fronds of the great nipa palm and of the phoenix palm burst out of the leafy mangrove greenery. According to folk etymology, “Sundarbans” is Bangla for “the forest of beautiful trees,” and the mangroves shimmered in the low morning light—literally shimmered, as the leaves of some species are covered with a glossy protective wax, which is secreted, along with excess salt, as one of their strategic adaptations to the saline water. The vast majority of the Bengal coast’s marine life begins in the nursery of the Sundarbans; fifty-three species of reptiles are harbored here, more than two hundred species of birds, and at least fifty species of mammals, including the endangered Irrawaddy and Gangetic dolphins, the Smooth Indian otter and the cheetah-spotted fishing cat. A hundred years ago, there were Java rhino, wild buffalo, and swamp deer.
Sitting under the bow breezeway, Dr. Sanyal was watching the forest drift past, noting with pride its many accomplishments: the pneumatophores, or respiratory roots that rise in perpendicular spikes above the mud, like snorkels, carrying oxygen to the mangrove plant; the “derricks,” or elaborate root scaffolding that secures the mangrove in the tugging tides and the region’s many cyclones. “There are twenty-eight true mangrove species in Sundarbans,” Dr. Sanyal said, and he seemed about to embark on a loving recitation of them all. Reed slender, inherently elegant even in bush attire, Dr. Sanyal exuded an aura of gentleness and humility. To meet him in civilian life, in his home city of Calcutta, say, one might have surmised that he belonged to some contemplative priestly order; in reality, of course, he was a renowned authority on the hero-beast Panthera tigris tigris, the Royal Bengal tiger.
The adaptation of the Sundarbans tiger to the mangrove ecosystem is every bit as remarkable as that of the mangrove system to tidal ecology. Tigers, the largest of the world’s big cats, migrated to India twelve thousand years ago from south China and southeast Asia; the time of their arrival in the Sundarbans is not known. In the marshy land and brackish channels caused by encroaching tides, the huge terrestrial animals took to the water. “The Sundarbans tiger is amphibious,” Dr. Sanyal said. The tiger’s diet is not only meat based; it also includes aquatic prey, such as monitor lizards and other reptiles, frogs, and fish. The variety of the tiger’s prey—ranging, as one field manual cheerfully notes, “from fish to human beings”—is another advantage that the Sundarbans tiger has over other tiger populations.
It was only nine o’clock when the boat arrived at a neat compound of concrete-block buildings and gardens, where reserve officials and staff, some with their families, lived, surrounded by high, stout wire fencing. The day before, a tiger had sauntered along a creek outside the compound and left its pugmarks. “This was a female,” Dr. Sanyal said, pointing out that the four pads were slightly rectangular, each measuring about two and three-quarters inches. The pad marks of a male would be squarer and broader.
The prints had been made not far from a “mangrove cage walk”—a two-hundred-metre-long path through the forest under a protective wire tunnel, such as one might find in a maximum-security prison. The path ended at a thirty-foot-high watchtower, level with the tops of the tallest trees and overlooking a broad river that marks both the eastern limit of the Indian Sundarbans and the international border with Bangladesh. Historically, bandits have operated on both sides of the border, but the Bangladesh Sundarbans, which is also under protection, is considered the more lawless. The possibility of closer collaboration between the two Sundarbans is being explored, but for now the little-patrolled seventy-kilometre-long river border remains vulnerable to traffic and to poachers.
“A male tiger on this side who hears a female over there will swim over to her,” Dr. Sanyal said. Tigers can swim five miles, so the two-mile dash to Bangladesh would be a mere jaunt. “Once, I was following a tiger in a motorboat,” Dr. Sanyal said, as we continued looking across the river. “And the tiger was swimming faster.” A tiger is said to have clocked more than eighteen hundred feet at seven minutes and eighteen seconds—against the tide. Put another way, a tiger’s time for a hundred-metre freestyle would be a respectable one minute and twenty seconds. “Tiger is a very silent, very swift swimmer,” Dr. Sanyal said.
The Royal Bengal tiger is solitary and “secretive”—the last attribute regularly appears in the language of even the most sober field manuals. A group of tigers—should one be so fortunate to see one—is called a streak. A male tiger can be as large as ten and a half feet in length and weigh more than five hundred pounds. The tiger’s coat is deep amber, the lines of its characteristic black shadow-stripes abstract and sophisticated. Its claws retract, like those of a domestic cat; it “prusts,” or chuffs, rather than purrs, as well as roars. The iris of the tiger’s eye is amber-yellow. The tiger is one of the few anointed animals commonly referred to as “charismatic”; “Nature’s masterpiece of the creation,” to cite a recent book; or, as Kushal put it, “something to look up to,” both beautiful and powerful. The tiger is also a very clever animal, and a very effective predator. Stories abound of its strategic, chess-player maneuvering of prey and of its extraordinary stealth. Every story told to me by a witness or survivor of a tiger attack included words to the effect of “it came from nowhere.”
roject Tiger was inaugurated by the government of India in 1973, following the first tiger census, which disclosed that, of the estimated forty thousand tigers living in India at the turn of the previous century, fewer than two thousand remained. For decades, the conservation program had the reputation of being one of the most effective in the world, but in recent years tiger populations in India, as elsewhere, have plummeted, with drops in many reserves of as much as fifty to sixty per cent. In 2005, it was learned that every tiger in the Sariska Tiger Reserve—some hundred miles from India’s capital, New Delhi—had been killed by poachers.
A booming Chinese market for traditional medicines, responsible for other wildlife losses, remains the primary incentive for tiger poaching. In the Sundarbans, developments such as building projects and new roads within the reclaimed land are also cause for concern: roads, jetties, even cell-phone towers make remote tigerland more accessible.
“Sundarbans is a very, very difficult place—it’s one of the most difficult places. That is why tigers are surviving in Sundarbans,” Kushal said. “The poachers don’t know exactly how the tiger moves, where it’s living. That is why they could possibly not do what they have done to other places. That is the only reason—the terrain itself is protecting the tiger in Sundarbans.”
The results for the 2006 census of the Sundarbans population have not been announced. Estimates by scientists who know the area intimately suggest somewhere in the region of two hundred tigers. The Wildlife Institute of India, which was responsible for conducting the nationwide survey of all reserves under the auspices of Project Tiger, has cited the logistical difficulties presented by new methodology. Previously, a plaster cast was made of the rear left paw of each individual set of pugmarks—a task that, from the deck of the Tanaya, at least, seemed of almost Sisyphean impossibility. For the 2006 census, pug counting was combined with camera trapping and prey and habitat assessment, and in 2007 the census undertook the new strategy of radio-collaring representative Sundarbans tigers—a momentous development. Hitherto, Tigerland has existed as a world unto itself, protected, as Kushal had pointed out, by its inscrutability—impenetrable, secretive, inviolate.
eering southwest, we entered a new network of creeks, cutting diagonally into the interior of Pirkhali, a block of islands measuring roughly a hundred and fifty square kilometres and marked on maps as being “dense mixed jungle.” “There are resident tigers at Pirkhali,” Dr. Sanyal said. “As well as those that visit.” We entered an arm of the Gosaba River, which broadened to open, long views down its straight course.
Ahead, lazing on the mud, was a small crocodile. As the boat ambled on, Dr. Sanyal told of an eyewitness account reported many years ago: Crossing a broad river, like this one, a tiger had been followed by a crocodile. Maneuvering alongside the tiger, the crocodile thrashed its great tail, striking the tiger across his nose. Here Dr. Sanyal straightened his back and raised his head imperiously; unconsciously, he assumed the mien and manner of the hero-beast. “Tiger had blood coming out of his nose,” Dr. Sanyal said, majestically. “But he did not say a thing. He kept on swimming. As soon as he got to the other side, he put one paw on the ground, and he turned with the second paw and came up under the crocodile’s belly, and flipped him”—eighteen hundred pounds of estuarine crocodile, which the tiger then ripped open. There was a pause while we savored this tale of strategy and courage. Dr. Sanyal had regained his own gentle manner. “And this is why we love Tiger,” he said.
Netidhopani Camp stood at the southern limit of the buffer zone and on the edge of the reserve’s most protected core area. Unusually, the site had historic remains: the ruins of a three-hundred-year-old brick temple, built to commemorate a young widow whose prayers to Shiva were said to have brought her dead husband back to life. The interior was rumored to house a lingam of Shiva; two weeks earlier, it had also housed a tiger, which had borrowed its convenient shade.
The quarters of the camp’s officials were domestic and attractive, with paths lined with pots of hibiscus, marigolds, and roses—the whole surrounded by a palisade of wire. The fence bore a large inward dent, which had been made by a tiger charging at chatting forest officials. The warden told us that he had lived here for a year and a half, and had seen a lot of tigers. Just five days earlier, two had strolled in together and rolled around on the ground near the sweet-water pond outside the compound, and only two days ago a man in a small fishing party had been killed by a tiger very nearby. One of his companions, who had witnessed the death, had “lost his senses” from fear. It was the third person killed in the area this year—all victims, it was believed, of a single tiger. As the warden put it, “There was a true man-eater around.”
The warden was about to go on patrol, and agreed to let us follow his boat. It is not known why Sundarbans tigers have a propensity for man-eating, although theories abound: because the salt water makes them irritable, because human bodies floating down from the Ganges have whetted their appetite, and so forth; more plausibly, Sundarbans tigers, in their remote domain, have never learned to fear man. Their taste for humans is not, however, as happens elsewhere, because the tigers are old or infirm and humans make easy prey. A distinction must be made, as Dr. Sanyal pointed out, between the “circumstantial man-eater,” such as a tigress protecting her cub, and man-eaters like the one across the river, the site of whose last kill the boat had now reached.
It was a pretty bay at the entrance to a narrow channel, and it was easy to see why someone might use it as a mooring. Ahead of us, suddenly, the warden’s boat began churning backward; the officials in their khaki park uniforms crowded the starboard rail, pointing into the forest; remembering us, some turned and urgently beckoned. Less than two minutes later, when we pulled up, there was nothing to see but low-growing mangrove trees. The tiger had been resting on the shaded beach afforded by the low tide. Peering deeply into the forest recesses through high-powered binoculars, I could see the natural paths that wound among the mangrove clusters, shelters made of a matting of branches, lairs and dark shadowy areas—a thousand places to hide a tiger.
“After Project Tiger was launched, it was our duty to minimize the man-animal conflict,” Dr. Sanyal said afterward, recalling his years as a forest officer. “Whenever a tiger strays inside a village, one has to go immediately. . . . It’s an emergency.” As field director of the Sundarbans, he had been equipped with two jet speedboats and a marksman with a tranquillizer gun. “I used to take a hand mike with me so that I could guide the people—‘Don’t come very near Tiger, keep a distance.’ ”
In his monthly rounds to the islands and villages, Dr. Sanyal sought to persuade the local people that officialdom was committed to the region, not just to the tigers. Initially, there had been resentment; villagers pointed out, “The tiger is killing us—why is it protected?” “When they saw that we were attending to them, their enmity to Tiger was gradually reduced,” Dr. Sanyal said. “Quite a few tigers were killed before by the villagers.” He continued, “Fortunately for me, all the six years I stayed there as field director, not a single tiger was killed by the local people—not a single one. It was only due to the coöperation I got.”
Sundarbans tiger attacks were documented as early as the sixteen-hundreds, and legend has it that during the British colonial era tigers every year claimed hundreds of lives. Today, the number of reported deaths has averaged around ten a year for the past decade. This reduction involved an aggressive campaign to modify the conduct of both man and tiger, which inspired an arsenal of hopeful and imaginative tiger deterrents: masks with a painted human face worn on the back of the head to trick the tiger, who prefers attacking from behind; Tiger Guard Head Gear, a fibreglass casing for the head, neck, and chest, issued to forest staff, who, like villagers, are highly vulnerable. Hot and awkward in the summer, the outfit was, according to Dr. Sanyal, “very comfortable” in the winter, which is the working season. “I went inside the forest many, many times without attack—you look something like an astronaut,” he said, which alone may have deterred the baffled tigers. Another measure was the creation of life-size electrified clay dummies, dressed in the clothes of honey gatherers and fishermen and left to stand in the forest, administering a two-hundred-and-thirty-volt jolt to any attacking tiger.
But the primary strategy to “minimize man-eating” was to keep as many people as possible out of the forest. “During my entire stay, I did not find a single case where a tiger came inside a village and killed a man,” Dr. Sanyal said. Livestock, not people, were the victims; in 2004, a tiger famously killed sixteen cattle in a single night. “The problem is when the people are going inside the forest,” he went on. “That’s what I tried to convince them. ‘This is what is happening: when Tiger is coming to your territory, he is not killing you; but when you are entering Tiger’s places, then the killing takes place.’ They realized that, but they said, ‘Our living is fishing, honey collecting, and woodcutting, so what to do? We have to venture to Tigerland.’ ”
e had arranged to meet with a group of honey gatherers, who, of all who venture into Tigerland, undertake the most dangerous forest work. Joining us on a small launch that we had acquired for the outing, they gave instructions to the captain, who took us to a place where the gatherers commonly entered the forest.
A spokesman emerged from the honey collectors, a thin man, with gray hair and beard stubble, named Haldar. He had been going into the forest for honey since he was about twenty, some thirty years ago. There was a protocol for his profession, which he outlined with much authority: around the first of April of every year, when the forest was in full bloom, you went to the Forest Department to obtain a honey-collecting permit, and were issued a tiger-tricking mask, for the back of the head. “We leave them in the boat,” he said matter-of-factly, to Dr. Sanyal’s consternation. “The mask gets in the way when you are climbing trees.” A team of men works together; this year, he had gone out with five companions. Before you went, you made a puja and prayed to Banbibi.
To find honey, you followed the bees, climbing a tree and looking up to sight them. The bees must be full bees; an empty bee wags his tail and flies erratically, a full bee flies in a true bee line. You spent all day in the forest, smoking out hives.
Traditionally, honey collectors and wood gatherers entered the forest only with a gunin, a man credited with knowledge of charms to keep tigers at bay; but, as “Tiger Cult of the Sundarvans” notes, in recent times “more than once their tricks have been proved ineffective . . . to check the howling beast,” particularly when gunins themselves have fallen to the tiger’s paw. The book continues, “And it is interesting that, usually, when a tiger attacks a jungle entrant it breaks the neck of the victim and carries away. But while a tiger attacks a spirited gunin . . . it generally puts its paw on the face of the person so that he cannot utter his charm.” In thirty years of honey gathering, Haldar said, he had seen twenty-five tigers, and, like the other collectors on the launch, he had been attacked. His friend Sardar, who was sitting beside him, said that years ago he had been jumped from behind and held down under a tiger’s paw while one of his companions hit the animal with a wood axe until it released him. Here, Sardar turned his back and lifted his shirt to show a large, dark, unmistakably pug-shaped scar.
Following animated directions, the launch turned and nosed into a shallow inlet. A frisson of expectation passed over the boat, as palpable as a cold shadow, while the mangrove foliage closed around the bow. “Well, here we are,” Haldar said with glee every bit as palpable; “Let’s all get out!” Dr. Sanyal frowned and gently shook his head, and, after a face-saving pause, the launch reversed and slunk back downriver. Hugging the mud banks, now at low tide, we passed very close to a large snake, which, even with its head buried in a muddy hole, was at least six feet long. Yelping in unison, Dr. Sanyal and Kushal leaned over the boat’s rail for a better look. “King cobra!” Kushal exclaimed, as the snake withdrew its head with cold dignity. “You have been asking us about the tiger, but there are other dangerous creatures,” Haldar said indignantly. “There are a lot of snakes inside, and in particular the cobra.”
Some minutes later, the launch drew abreast of a small, shaky hut set back from the forest fringe and looped with colorful garlands—one of the numerous small shrines to Banbibi that stand along the rivers. “Our families pray to God when we go into the forest,” Haldar said. “The wives, the parents—everyone cries. Our wives treat us as dead when we are gone. They eat only at night; imagining us in the forest in the day, they don’t eat then. They imagine us in the boat, safe, at night—then they eat.” Throughout the Sundarbans, it is common for wives to live like widows while their husbands are in the forest, forgoing the prerogatives of married women, such as colorful saris and the splash of vermillion in their hair. There are also villages of real “tiger widows,” women whose husbands entered the forest and simply never came out. At the threat posed by tigers, Haldar waved a hand. “There would be no Sundarbans if there were no tiger,” he said, echoing a familiar sentiment. “People will remove the wood.” He added, philosophically, “I would be risking my life anyway, whatever I did.”
n the settlement of Jharkhali, on Namkhana Island, we sought out the companion of the man who had been killed two days earlier by the tiger we had almost seen. His name was Monoranjan Mondol, and we met in an attractive bungalow of vaguely colonial-era style, with tightly closed green shutters. A few years earlier, two tigers had ambled into the building, and it was now little used. Mondol was a tall, athletic-looking man, with handsome, distinguished features; he walked carefully, very erect, and with the reserve of a man who was still visibly stunned.
The sun through the green shutters formed bands of light across Mondol’s face as he described how his party of three men had moored their small boat in the pleasant creek we had seen. At some point, the men noticed pugmarks on the right bank. Someone said, “There’s a tiger here; let’s hurry and finish.” They were looking to the right but the tiger came from the left, and roared. Together, the three men rushed forward, making a noise. “But the tiger was not to be frightened,” Mondol recalled. Leaping toward the victim, it caught him by the throat and simply carried him into the forest. Mondol ran after them for some thirty or forty feet and then stopped. “Such a big animal, but there was not a branch broken,” he said, and even before his words were translated it was possible to catch the wonderment in his voice: Not a branch, not a twig out of place.
ur last hours in the Sundarbans were passed in a narrow creek just beyond the Sundarkati Eco-Conservation Camp, in the western buffer zone. Although not under the jurisdiction of Project Tiger, Sundarkati was known to have a lot of tigers; according to Pradeep Vyas, a joint director of the Biosphere Reserve, over the past several years some twenty-five had strayed across the river into villages in the vicinity, two of which had been trapped or tranquillized recently—one, an old tiger with one hind leg, was transported to the Calcutta zoo.
We had been told of a strategic creek, at the intersection of two channels, and arrived at dawn to find a small boat moored off one of the banks, with a solitary fisherman on board. Fresh pugmarks, made in the night, circled the boat—from right bank to left, from left bank to right. Yes, said the fisherman, looking worried, he had known a tiger was around, but—asking the familiar question—what was he to do?
As the fisherman punted to the river, our boat anchored in the channel. The right bank bore thick stands of phoenix palms, a favorite of the tiger. The sun beat down on the channel. The phoenix palms, striped with dried orangish fronds and dark shadows, were surely tiger territory. As time passed, our talk became idle, and in a low moment I encouraged Kushal to give his tiger roar, as the fishermen and honey gatherers had done in the course of their narratives. Laughing and leaning back against the port rail, Kushal roared—“AAA-uuugh,” a sound that swallowed space rather than projected into it.
There was a brief pause, and then, from the starboard side, an answering roar.
“Something big is moving in there,” someone called from the roof, but by the time I scrambled up there I saw only the briefest tremble of movement in the fronds.
“If it had been a mating call, he would have responded immediately,” Dr. Sanyal said afterward. “Tiger was curious, just testing us.”
On four occasions, Dr. Sanyal had alluded to an incident that had taken place years earlier and obviously still haunted him, and on the last day of our voyage he told the story. In 1989, he had been summoned to a village on Basanti Island into which a tiger had strayed. Arriving at dusk with a marksman and a tranquillizing gun, he found the animal lying low in a bamboo grove. The tiger was darted, and Dr. Sanyal and his colleague loaded it onto the flatbed of a rickshaw van. In the dark, with the tiger lying between them, they began the hour-and-a-half journey across the island to the motor launch that would deliver the tiger safely across the river.
“After about an hour, I found that Tiger was coming to,” Dr. Sanyal said. As the tiger tried to sit up, Dr. Sanyal asked his assistant to administer Valium. “Then he brought out his box and found there is no Valium,” Dr. Sangal recounted. “So I was in a fix.” A second, two-milligram dose of tranquillizer was reluctantly administered to the tiger, and they continued on. At the motor launch, the sleeping tiger began salivating heavily, and then blood came from its mouth. It had been over-tranquillized.
“Ultimately, it died,” Dr. Sanyal said. He paused before continuing, “The great experience was the next day. I found hundreds of people were coming to see this tiger. I was not feeling well, because it had died. I was sitting there in a chair. Everyone who was coming and seeing the tiger was telling me, ‘What is this? Could you not save this animal? It is a beautiful animal! You could have saved it.’
“This thing we say—‘If Tiger is not there, our forest will not be there, we will not get our honey’—that is a secondary thing. But this was the direct impact: they were looking at me—‘You could have saved this beautiful animal.’ ” ♦