Here there be Tygers

The Spell of the Tiger    by Sy Montgomery

xvii+231 pp, Houghton Mifflin 1995 ....   reviewed 11 January 1998 by David P. Stern


      Among the few remaining strongholds of nature, in this age of vanishing wildlife, is a place where tigers still stalk and kill humans, not the other way around. That is a maze of saltwater swamps, mangrove forests and low islands, the "Sundarbans Tiger Preserve" in the delta of the Ganges, a true wilderness in spite of its proximity to metropolitan Calcutta. Its tigers subsist on deer and wild boar, but they do not fear man. Expert swimmers, they may leap onto a boat that has entered their domain--often illegally, its occupants seeking timber or wild honey--snatch a victim and disappear.

      This book is a travelogue, the fruit of several visits to the Sundarbans. Though unseen tiger eyes have no doubt watched and followed the writer, the tiger himself is rarely seen: only once, for a few seconds, does Sy Montgomery catch a glimpse. Yet its presence is everywhere--in tiger stories told by villagers, pawprints in the mud, or in the carcass of a deer floating by, killed by a powerful bite through its neck.

      India is a crowded country, and villages surround the preserve. Each year, by official count, tigers there kill 30 to 40 people--the real number is probably larger, because attacks on those entering illegally are rarely reported. The dreaded Bengali cyclones, vicious storms which make the sea overflow the land, claim many more lives, and crocodiles and snakes also find victims; but it is the threat of the tiger which colors daily life. The way people co-exist with tigers and adjust their lives to its threat, that is what the book is really about.

      More and more of us, even in India, dwell in cities, where religion is either institutional or neglected, and where divine intervention is no longer taken for granted. Villages in the Sundarbans live by older rules: both nature and the gods are tangible and alive, and the tiger is their natural link. Daksin Ray, ruler of all tigers, and Bonobibi, goddess of the forest, are feared and revered by Hindus and Muslims alike, and whenever villagers enter an endangered area, a holy man with spells and amulets, a gunin, comes along to keep the tigers away. If such a party is nevertheless attacked--even the gunin may be a victim--a reason is invariable found, an act of impiety, some offense which the gods would not let pass.

      Superstition? Easy for us to say so, surrounded by paved roads, our daily life revolving around electric and electronic gadgets. But for those that dwell in the Sundarbans, listening to the wind, watching the darkness (what was that bump against the boat? are we being followed?), life remains steeped in mystery. Stories of miraculous escapes and divine retributions are not viewed as strange but fit the pattern. It is to the credit of Sy Montgomery that her book captures that other-worldly atmosphere without in any way belittling the people who live in it. I doubt many of us would actually want to visit that part of India and cruise the muddy waters of the Sundarbans, the way she did. But reading about it, in the comfort and safety of one's armchair, is an enjoyable and memorable experience.


Return to listing of books

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 19 January 2002