The Tiger in the Tunnel by Ruskin Bond
Thembu’s father, Baldeo, was a small-time employee in the railways. His job demanded working at night. No matter how cold or wet the night was, he had to brave the elements to go out of his hut for duty. His humble dwelling was beside a jungle.
On one occasion, Thembu was awake in his bed when his father got ready to step out. It was a dark, quiet and forbidding night. The stillness was broken by the shrill cry of the cicadas. One could even hear the faint tik tak sounds of the woodpeckers, digging into barks of trees with their beaks. A mild breeze blew. The grunt of a wild boar digging out its delicious roots punctuated the pervasive silence of the jungle.
Baldeo worked as a watchman in the railways. He lay awake as he had to go out on his night duty. He removed the thick shawl from his body rather reluctantly. The cold was biting. The midnight’s cold was unforgiving. The station he was attached to was very rudimentary set-up where trains stopped only occasionally. There was a long tunnel ahead, and the trains needed to be flagged in due to safety considerations. This was the reason why the trains slowed down briefly as they went past the station to enter the tunnel.
On Baldeo’s shoulders lay the responsibility of inspecting the tunnel for any possible obstruction of the track. He would signal the trains in only if there was no hindrance to obstruct the train. Baldeo used to stand guard at the tunnel entrance and manually wave the train in by his hand-crafted signal. Despite, the basic nature of this arrangement, Baldeo’s contribution to the safe passage of the train was critical.
On that fateful night, the young boy Thembu wanted to accompany his father. His curiousity got the better of his comfort in the warm bed. But, Baldeo didn’t want his son to be exposed to that night’s cold. Thembu was asked not to venture out.
Thembu was a 12-year-old then. He had to extend a helping hand to his mother and young sister in household chores and in the work in the family farm. This robbed him of the opportunity to sleep in the station beside his father, Baldeo. From the station to their hut that stood bordering the tribal village, it was a three mile trek. Baldeo’s salary from the railways, although meager, came in handy to meet his family’s needs. The paltry income from their paddy farm fell well short of their needs. Baldeo, had thus managed to avoid grinding poverty. His love for the railways and the Khalasi job he did was, therefore, understandable.
Baldeo, with sleep weighing down his eye lids, struggled to rise. It took him some effort to find the match box he wanted to light the lamp. Undeterred by the darkness and the cold, he stepped out of his hut and set off for the station treading the same solitary jungle path which he used every night on his way to duty. Thembu had fallen asleep again in the meanwhile.
Baldeo was not sure if the lamp in the signal post was alight. Wrapping the shawl around his body, he trudged forward along the track in the chill. It was not a pleasant job, but he did it each night dutifully. But, he loved to return to the warmth of his hut.
The hills on either towered over the rail track. An uncanny feeling of fear seemed to grip the desolate area. The wild animals were there around the place. Baldeo had to be very alert to their presence. He had heard many stories about the man-eaters that stalked the tunnel, but he consciously brushed these tales as nothing but figments of imagination. Till that night, he had not encountered any wild animal.
Some panthers, obviously, were there. One such cat was killed by the villagers. Their spears pierced its body to death. Panthers had stayed clear of Baldeo’s hut so far.
Baldeo, undaunted by the looming danger of wild animals in the area, walked forward confidently. His tribal blood had trained him to defy the fears. He carried a small axe, which he could use to deadly effect when the need rose. He used it to chop off trees, and as a bulwark against the jungle animals’ possible attack.
On one occasion, he had killed a boar with the same axe. His family feasted on its meat for three days. The axe was a precious family possession. It had belonged to his father who had wrought its steel blade quite deftly over charcoal fire. The blade’s shine had remained intact over the years. In the hand of Baldeo, it was a formidable weapon against any attack. On occasions, railway officials had offered good money to buy the weapon, but Baldeo was too proud of it to part with it.
Baldeo, finally, reached the tunnel. It was a frightening sight as the dark interior seemed to awe any intruder.
Baldeo’s concern was the lamp. It had stopped burning. Had it run dry? He wanted to ascertain if there was enough oil left in it. If not, he would have to rush home to fetch some. The train was due soon. He lowered the lamp using its chain.
As he ran his hand over his body to get hold of the match box, he could hear the shriek of a deer from afar. He heard a big thud from nearby undergrowth. It made Baldeo’s hairs stand on their roots. Luckily for him, there was some oil left in the lamp. That saved him the trouble of going back to his hut. He lit the lamp, put it in position, and looked around apprehensively.
Not losing any more time, he went on his inspection tour of the tunnel’s passageway. The lamp on his hand swung as he walked briskly. The shadows danced to and fro on the wall. The tunnel was clear. Baldeo paced back to the entrance and waited for the train’s approach.
The train was late. Baldeo wrapped himself up tightly to kkeep warm and sat down. Soon, he dozed off, forgetting the unusual sounds he had heard some time earlier.
In the hut, the rumbling sound of the train set the environment alive. Thembu woke up from his sleep, and thinking that he was beside his father, blurted out, ‘Father, it is time to light the lamp.’ Soon, he discovered that his father had left much earlier leaving him on the warm bed of the hut. He lay wide awake hoping to see his father back from duty after the train departed.
Baldeo was woken up hearing the frightening grunt of a jungle cat very close to him. Bracing up for the danger, Baldeo grabbed his axe firmly, and wanted to figure out the location from which the sound came. An ominous silence lasted for a while. Was it the lull before a storm?
A few pebbles came cascading down the slope preceded by a thump. The tiger had arrived at Ground Zero!
Baldeo knew for certain it was a tiger, but he did not know the direction in which it was moving. ‘Was the tiger heading towards his hut, where his son Thembu was asleep?’ wondered Baldeo.
Just about a minute after, the majestic animal unveiled itself within yards of where Baldeo stood. I t was coming straight at him. The tiger’s shone brightly with their piercing gaze. Baldeo’s sense told him the futility of fleeing. Outpacing a tiger on the prowl is humanly impossible, he reasoned. With the signal post at his back, Baldeo stood still frozen fear as the tiger approached.
The tiger was a man-eater. He knew how feeble humans were against its might. Expecting no great fight-back from his prey, the tiger assumed a frightening aggressive posture with its right paw forward.
Baldeo moved swiftly to evade the paw and swung back at his attacker with his axe. The axe landed on the tiger’s shoulder. The enraged tiger charged against Baldeo with full fury. Baldeo again hit back at it with his axe. The axe inflicted a deep cut on the tiger’s leg, almost chopping it off. Unfortunately, the axe remained stuck in the tiger’s body leaving Baldeo without his only weapon of defence. Baldeo became utterly vulnerable now.
The tiger, seething in pain, pounced upon Baldeo with savage vengeance, and tore his body apart in no time. For Baldeo, the end came swiftly. He felt an excruciating pain on his back before falling silent for good. He had perished.
The tiger retreated to a distance and licked its limb. The pain of the cut made him to grunt intermittently. The tiger was also shaken by the encounter. It could not hear the sound of the approaching train. The Overland Mail came in majestically with its furnace aglow and smoke and sparks shrouding the engine as it struggled to climb up the incline.
Just before entering the tunnel, the driver blew the steam whistle, as was customary. The intent was to ward off obstructions from the track. The train kicked up a big noise inside the narrow tunnel. After a while, it emerged triumphantly at the other end. The din in the forest died down fast. Everything fell silent as if nothing had happened.
As a routine practice, the driver halted the train to re-charge water into the engine. He got down for unwinding a bit, and inspecting the headlamp. But, what he saw sent a shiver down his spine. He had never see anything like this before.
The tiger’s mangled body was stuck just above the cowcatcher of the engine. Obviously, the tiger had been mauled by the steel giant.
People soon gathered around the place. They gaped at the carcass, and made their own judgments in shock and wonder.
Thembu had arrived on the spot where the deadly encounter with the tiger had ended his father’s life. The poor boy sobbed as he looked on with his tear-filled eyes at what remained of his dead father. He sat there, undeterred by the approaching darkness. He wanted to guard his father’s dead body from the jungle animals who relished human flesh. The relief watchman came in due course.
For two complete days a pall of gloom hung over Thembu, his sister and the mother. The grief almost numbed them into silence.
But, life had to go on, regardless of the misfortune. On Thembu’s shoulder fell the responsibility of earning a living. Just three nights after the ghastly incident involving his father, Thembu was there at the tunnel doing exactly what his dead father did. It was a legacy he was proud of.
To cut the boredom, Thembu sang silently to himself as he waited for the incoming train. His father had fought valiantly winning everyone’s acclaim. The tiger’s death was sweet revenge for Thembu’s family. Besides, he had inherited the legendary axe that had inflicted such a fatal cut on the tiger. He felt proud.