The tawny eyes glowed in the dark. Nothing moved! But the leaves on the huge, old, old trees yielded to the teasing breeze as they shimmied and sashayed just to appease it. The darkness reflected the world around. The smouldering eyes alighted on the distant body, still and unmoving. As it adjusted his gaze, he evaluated the worth, he decided to go for it, after all something was better than nothing! He had not had anything for many days.
Crouching low, freezing between steps, stealthily it approached its target. Making sure there were no witnesses. Ha! Ha! He forgot the trees! The huge trees, timeless in age, were talking to each other, whispering softly as they watched him boldly move forward again.
The night sky suddenly transformed with the appearance of the creamy yellow moon, hanging in the sky like a huge ‘Rosogolla’. So huge, so near, you could just reach out and pluck it. The moonlight shone bright on the dark world below casting its magical spell as it transformed the entire landscape … silver trees, silver leaves, silver grass and silver streams. The rocks and boulders sparked silver too.
The darkness, the gloom magically lifted. He now felt trapped. Would he be seen? His protection, his solace, the dark night had vanished. Leaving him exposed. He froze mid-step, eyes blazing, his face a fearsome mask, yet commanding reverence. He looked straight ahead at his prey! And he was baffled. He too had turned silver! Before his very eyes he watched the transformation!
It was a man; so rare these days, sitting immobile under a huge Peepal tree. He looked like an ascetic. And light seemed to emanate from him. There was a halo around his head, soft and golden, his eyes were closed as if in deep contemplation, but his lips were smiling as such peace radiated that even he, a hungry tiger felt drenched in that peace, becoming content. He knew instinctively that this was his ‘master’. He crouched forward, bent his head near the seated source of sublime love as no more were there any illusions.
As for the man glowing with inner light of self-realization, he was lost to this world. That was many moons ago. A time when the illumined man and his followers gave sanctity to all. That seemed more a dream now. The tiger shook himself out of his reverie as he looked around.
The stark tree trunks, bereft of their green glory, looked like carcasses stretching their limbs Heaven wards begging for mercy. The clear blue sky reflecting the dazzling light of the brilliant sun was blemish free. Not even a small puff of cloud stained its horizons. The poor earth begged for mercy. It could not tolerate the relentless showering of angry heat on it or all its children. The fauna had long gone, as had the flora, slowly and slowly. For thirteen long years it had not rained. Not a shower, not a drizzle, not even a drop.
The tiger, the last one on earth dug deeper in the cave floor, in its fruitless attempt to cool its burning body. He recalled memories of another day when he was cantering with the breeze, romping along with his father. The slopes of the hill were a carpet of green. Tall trees stood sentinel, opening their bosoms to hundreds of birds, squirrels, bats, lizards, snakes and what not. The flitting butterflies painted in the colours of the rainbow vividly standing out among the greens and browns. And those dragonflies? A masterpiece of art, science, and creativity, buzzing around, hovering, flying and sometimes alighting here or there. The forest echoed with myriad songs; from the koels to the kingfishers, from crickets to bulbuls, sometimes interrupted by the raucous monkeys in their merry troops.
The sun was welcomed, worshipped rather. The days lengthened and shortened; life went on. Cubs were born and the pride took great pride in bringing them up. The two-legged humans were also in great numbers. They were everywhere. Sometimes they would come and kill everything they could see. Sometimes even taking the mighty trees down. They were no match in appearance to any other creature but single handedly they destroyed all. Soon the earth watched in shock as they waged a battle for hundred days.
“Why are the humans raging such a battle father?”
“Don’t know son. They don’t eat what they kill, neither do they let the other animals. They don’t follow any of the laws of Nature. Its difficult to understand them.”
“ Their battle has lasted 100 sunrises so far!”
“Their carcasses lie strewn on the hill sides, the forests and are causing only the flies and maggots to multiply. I don’t see the vultures, the hyenas or the foxes scavenging. Only Fate can tell what lies ahead.”
“ How will they have any progeny if none are left alive? They waste their time in futile bloodshed and forget to tend to their cattle, home, and hearth. I worry about our safety.”
“Thousands of sunrises ago they had a similar battle. That ran for a long, long, time. The soil was soaked with their blood, the earth was buried in their carcasses. Only some foxes, hyenas and vultures dared to partake of them. That stopped too… the stench of the rotting bodies must have reached the skies. Only a handful of the two legged could be seen. Silent! Somber! Spiritless! Floating around like spirits. Their flock then moved away. Some distant place we never heard of. In their absence the forests, the land, the rivers abounded with life. There was enough to feed all of us and there was peace.”
As the sun set in the cloudless horizon, the heat desperately tried to wiggle out of the earth’s trap, failing miserably. The twinkling stars and the shining moon adorned the dark night, falsely luring the tiger out of its lair. He was back in the cemetery of bleached trees, lifeless due to lack of water, bereft of its companions, the birds, the animals. It had become his quest to look for life, of any kind. He could not live long but all he wanted was to meet another life form, even a two-legged human would do.
Years ago, the last of the animal world had collapsed as there wasn’t sufficient water for all, neither was there enough fodder. Turning cannibalistic some survived a few years more.
Remembering the illumined one, he set forth to the edges of his forest, now a grave of what used to be gigantic trees of all kinds. The once gurgling streams and rivers had become a trail of hard, caked mud, with cracks running across the bed, waiting to snare any thing that moved. With his quest firmly held in his heart the once fearsome, commanding king of the realm took off.
At the edge of the human terrain, there were strange sounds, like creatures in pain. There was a huge pyre lit, the flames leaping to the skies, and he could see many, many, carcasses within it. The fire cackled, roared and danced fiercely. The burning earth had long taken away his fear of creatures, but fire was its enemy, something to be feared, something to be revered, and a monstrous one such as this, to be kept away from.
As he surveyed the goings on, the last tiger spotted a dog. Food! His stomach rumbled, his heart leapt, and his mind raced. He didn’t notice the bald-headed man, nearby sitting still, eyes shut, oblivious to all around. Stealthily he approached his quarry, focused in mind, shutting out all distractions. With one final leap, the once rippling muscles made an effort to gracefully cut through the air and in an instant, he landed in a heap at the feet of the ascetic. Perplexed, the tiger realised the dog sensing danger had shifted close to his master. Memories from another time, from a distant past helped him to realise his quest had been successful.
The lone man surviving in the village after the warring tribes had decimated each other till only a handful of women and infants survived had undertaken the onerous task of cremating the dead. This was what he had inherited from those who had passed away. They could manage only a few scores at a time. Death and destruction had ravaged the world. He meditated often to seek his purpose. How could he an ascetic, provide succour to the widowed, childless, women or the orphaned infants. Often, he wondered what it was he had done to inherit such a world. When the men were robust and vigorous, when the women were alive, young, and vibrant, he would spout the tenets of their great teacher, but not one stopped to even listen.
As he sought guidance from the Divine today, he was blessed with a live tiger. For years they had thought the forests were empty, barren, and dead. But now, another living animal, it surely was a sign.
Collecting all the women and children, he continued to speak in soft comforting tones as he provided some food to the one who had befriended hunger. The humans had borne so much pain, so much loss that they had released fear for there was nothing more to lose. They were the living dead. Waiting for Yama to unite them with their loved ones in the nether world.
“This tiger is God sent! He is divine indication! It is our duty to take care of him and keep him safe. From today we have to reinvent ourselves and this world. A lot of destruction has taken place.
Have you wondered why we have been spared? Come lets nurture it back again!” The soft yet commanding tone of the ascetic soothed the hearts of all who listened and agreed in unison, “Yes master”.
Having laid the bodies to rest as best as they could, they packed their belongings and moved to the East. The tiger walked beside the dog; cause he remembered another such man who had nourished him many moons ago. The building of trust was important, for together they would survive.
As they walked the barren, brown, boulder strewn, hot earth sweat trickling down their brows, the infants barely able to keep up, the women shifting them on to their hips, lips moving in silent prayer.
Is this what had happened centuries ago, when the faithful were taken to a promised land, far away from pain? The ascetic rooted in his faith and purpose knew they would find sustenance, water, food, and shelter, but when, where…
The three-year-old, Om seemed to have been rejuvenated with the arrival of the tiger. No one recalled his parents, or grandparents but he soon became the soul of the group. He would often be found playing with the dog and the tiger. When some elderly woman would be shedding uncontrolled tears, his little once- chubby- hands would attempt to swipe them away. His gurgling laughter was music to the ears of all, mesmerised they would swallow it and regurgitate their own.
The stars guided them at night as they trudged on before stopping to rest. Many sunrises were followed by many sunsets. The infants were now sylphlike, scrawny, spindly urchins. They could scamper quickly and didn’t have to be carried. The women however seemed to have slowed down. Sometimes they would dig up some wild tubers, which had escaped man and beast. Else they crawled on fresh air. The ascetic lived on his breath alone. Soon they felt soothing cool winds blowing. The pleasures of a cool touch to the skin, had been wiped from their collective consciousness.
A loud sound assaulted their hearing one fine day. Not having heard anything but human voices and the deafening silence they were puzzled. As they proceeded slowly, they came across a little gurgling stream surging forth from deep inside the earth. It seemed to be the epitome of courage spewing forth life sustaining water for whoever could take it. The ascetic saw this as another divine sign and gently scooped the cool liquid, thrilled to the core, lifting it overhead and sprinkling it in all directions as thanksgiving. Taking a scoopful next he poured it into his parched mouth, where the sweet cool liquid first kissed the dry palate and then trickled down his gullet. So that how divine blessings feel! He invited all to partake of the blessing and drench their mouths and gullets.
The little ones could barely remember sucking at their mothers breasts, this seemed better than those fading memories. The women had forgotten what it was like to drink water. To quench their thirst. Soon the little oasis saw the motley group shed their rags and bathe their dust crusted bodies and matted hair, gulping large handfuls throwing it on their heads and swirling into a cool bliss never enjoyed before.
Om then sprinkled a handful on the oldest woman around and their leader the Ascetic. The sudden splash of mischief caught them off guard and they responded with a sprinkle in turn. Squealing in delight he ran around the group sprinkling the precious water on one and all. Then he wet the dog and the tiger. The animals jumped to take gulps of their share, yelping, and purring with delight. The valley reverberated with laughter, and squeals of delight for a long, long, time.
As the sun set that evening, the happy souls sat down to thank the Divine for giving them water, for blessing them. As they looked at the stars and moon that night, the elderly grandma recalled the prophecy, after the bloodiest battle is over the chosen few will be led by a striped soul to the land of joy. That night all slept soundly as a calm blanketed them in its soft shawl, while Earth itself held them to her bosom.
They were rudely awakened to a horde of eyes staring at them. These men were different in appearance from any they had ever seen. Fear gurgled in the women. They had not lived so long to see their lives end unceremoniously. The ascetic being a little further apart slept blissfully unaware.
Gagging the mouths of the women they prepared to carry them off when they heard a low growl from behind. They thugs froze. They swiveled around to see what it could be and there stood a snarling duo. The striped tiger, freshly bathed, stood majestic and powerful impaling their hearts with a trident of fear. The growling dog was no less fearsome. Canines bared, face wreathed in an angry scowl, making its intentions very clear, that it would shred to bits assailants who dared attack their family.
It was easy for Om and the others to sneak up quietly behind the frozen thugs and bind them with their own turbans. As the ascetic arose from his meditation, he smiled at first and then shook with roaring laughter. This is the third sign. You are capable of taking care of yourselves. You don’t need me anymore. You have inherited this earth and the future will be yours!
The thugs revealed they were a small band of surviving men who stuck together to kill whatever they could, to survive. They pleaded to be let loose and promised they would never trouble them. In fact, if any other thugs should ever attack them by mistake, they would be there to protect them.
Accepting their oath, they were let loose. It was unbelievable how fast they disappeared. They decided to follow the little stream and see if they could find a better place where they could build themselves homes.
The path was led by the ascetic as the tiger and the dog followed him like little lambs.
Author’s note: If a will is a document that declares inheritance, this story has been woven around that inheritance, where the will is not a physical document but a moral responsibility.
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