Tiger Woman – Priyanath was sinking slowly into the quicksand. The deep yellow mass had the viscous consistency of mud.The dense, impenetrable sludge closed in on him, entering his nostrils, his mouth. Priyanath was choking. Suddenly the deep yellow began to change colour in some places to orange. An unusual coppery orange.
Priyanath tried to recollect where he had seen this particular shade before. But even before he could remember, he thought he could see what looked like black stripes on a tawny background, and was simultaneously overcome by a sharp, foul stench. It was a familiar smell. The raw odour of tiger urine. It wasn’t just in the jungle but also in its cage that the tiger sprayed its urine to lay stake to its territory.
Even in his benumbed state, Priyanath wanted to laugh, reminded of a strange habit of his own. Wherever he went with his troupe, he always urinated beneath the open sky after the last post of the main tent had been driven into the ground. It was Fatikchandra – mad Fatik – who had been the first to observe this peculiar practice of his. “So you’re staking your territory, Priyababu,” he had brayed one day.
The stripes appeared even clearer now against the tawny background. Priyanath reached out, his fingers sinking into coarse, thick fur. A rumbling sound emerged, which he recognised at once. Lakshmi. The Royal Bengal tiger whom he considered no less than his daughter. Lakshmi and Narayan had been tiny balls of cotton when the King of Rewah had given them as gifts to Priyanath. He used to feed them their milk himself, using cottonwool wicks to drip it into their mouths.
Lakshmi was as good as her name, totally obedient and utterly devoted to Priyanath. Narayan wasn’t naughty either. Both of them knew Priyanath was there as soon as he went up to their cages, leaning their heads against the bars and purring for his caresses. But Lakshmi was, in fact, more than a daughter. As a baby she would often refuse to return to her cage, adamant about staying with him. He would have to let her sleep in his tent, next to his bed. On some winter nights she would even climb into his bed, nestling against him.