Eighteen Tides and a Tiger



Eighteen Tides and a Tiger

By : Nimesh Ved  /  2017
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The Sunderbans are one of the few, if not the only, tiger reserves left that retain an air of mystery. This is not only on account of its landscape—ecologically distinct from other tiger reserves in the country—but also because of the absence of the intensive jeep safaris (tourism) and extensive camera-trapping (research) that one has begun to associate with tiger reserves. Historically too it appears not to have been a hunting ground unlike some of its well-known counterparts. April 2017 even brought the news of the Indian wolf having been photographed here for the first time. It is a landscape of unparalleled opportunities—from debates over tiger numbers to new threats that emerge in form of power plants and shipping routes—opportunities the author of Eighteen Tides and a Tiger does not exactly capitalize on.

The premise of the book is appealing. A young person from an urban area and interested in tigers comes to intern with the forest department at the Sunderbans in Bengal. He brings with him fond memories of time spent at Corbett in Uttarakhand—another tiger-bearing landscape—thus providing us some interesting opportunities for comparison. This young person then has an adventure, one that he isn’t likely to forget very soon. Intertwined with this adventure are tigers, people and the beliefs people have about tigers.

The author weaves in some interesting facets relating to the landscape, for example, how the the local boat is better for tigers than the hi-tech one. The mystery around Bonbibi and Dakhin Rai has been worked into the story, and the author even leaves us with a hint of mystery towards the end. In someone who has not visited the area, the book manages to kindle a curiosity and an urge to visit as soon as possible. Where the author falters, however, is her black-and-white take on wildlife conservation and the world around it. Little in the world is black and white, especially in a landscape like the Sunderbans.

Beginnings are crucial—be it a report, an article or a chapter in a book. Here neither the foreward nor the note in the beginning help the book. The foreward begins with, ‘People cannot differentiate between a man-eating tiger and a normal tiger,’ and ends with, ‘This is a very different book from In the Shadow of the Leaves and Leopard in the Laboratory.’ These set the tone for the pages to follow, one that is steeped in clichés, and the less said about nuances the better. Lines like ‘anyone who writes about tigers has at some point to tackle issue of Sunderbans’ do not exactly help.

The cover is eye-catching and pleasant, but the illustrations could have been better, especially given the frequency with which one comes across tiger images compared to other animals. The editing could have been better too. Terms like ‘tiger reserve’, ‘tiger sanctuary’, ‘restricted area’, ‘core area’, ‘national park’ and ‘buffer zone’ have been used, which tends to confuse, given that some of them overlap. It would have helped to either have these terms clarified or to have avoided them altogether. Similarly ‘forest department’ and ‘forestry department’ appear to have been used interchangeably, as have ‘ghagra’ and ‘skirt’. The absence of a map does not help either.

Some of the sensationalization could have been avoided. Lines like ‘the highest concentration of tigers anywhere’ appear to make little sense without context. The tiger population in the Sunderbans is mentioned as 85, but the book does not make it clear whether it includes Bangladesh (though it does state that the Bangladesh Sunderbans cover a larger area than India’s). Besides, statements like ‘tigers have never troubled us, we stay clear of core areas’ makes one wonder if tigers recognise the human-made boundaries. Other species that make an appearance in this biodiversity-rich area have been almost neglected, and where crocodile (for example) has been mentioned, the line begs clarity.

Wildlife conservation in India has been critiqued for being elitist, tiger focused and protected-area centric. This book unfortunately falls into these traps. Khan sahib is prefixed with ‘the’ each time he is mentioned, he owns a ‘sprawling mansion’, and has a ‘khansama’ at his service. He drinks ‘jin’ while the locals drink ‘sickly smelling stuff’. A forest department personnel ‘pushes aside’ tourists to make way for his boss. None of this has been questioned or looked at critically, and the principal character too makes the ‘right noises to the influential grown-ups’. A book on wildlife does not need to preach morals, but would have been good to have been sensitive to the socio-cultural/-economic situation of the landscape and country.

Nimesh enjoys undertaking train journeys and soaking in glimpses of the country they offer. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.in/ and can be reached at nimesh.explore@gmail.com.



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