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of tigers and men


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  If, for reasons best known to yourself, you were to imagine purgatory as a spit of desolate wasteland barely elevated above a boiling sea, you would, as a matter of course, find yourself in possession of a not inaccurate picture of the island of Tanjung Pinang, which lies hard on the 104th parallel of longitude east, in Indonesian waters just south of Singapore. Though from time to time one hears a place described as existing "at the edge of nowhere," for those travelers unfortunate enough to have found themselves stranded there, Tanjung Pinang surpasses even this unflattering description. It is nowhere itself.

Almost every afternoon a shiny boat butts up against the dock and a troop of brightly clad day-trippers steps ashore, come presumably to gawk at the open market, the open sewers, the pariah dogs--sights no longer easily come by in the steel and glass tourist mecca to the north. In their defense, it must be admitted that the contrasts are striking. In Singapore one can be jailed for throwing garbage into the street; in Tanjung Pinang there is, strictly speaking, nowhere else to throw it.

At high noon, on a day when the sun is obscured in a caldron of superheated mist a billion miles away, and the air is so stupefyingly still it seems ready to ignite, I am crouched in the damp shade of the customs shack on the dock, staring across the surface of the sea, which at this moment seems less a liquid than a boundless, infinitely pliable metallic skin. With an ever dwindling reserve of patience, I am awaiting the arrival of the Sempoerna, a vessel whose alleged mission it is to transport, twice weekly, passengers and cargo from this running scab on the face of the waters to the infinitely greater nowhere of Sumatra, traversing in the process a hundred miles of open water before heading upriver to the oil boomtown of Pekanbaru. The entire journey reportedly never requires less than twenty-four hours. But for a journey to blossom and bear fruit, it must first begin, and the Sempoerna is now five hours late.

I reach down to the dock beside me and pick up my canteen and unscrew the lid. I carry it to my lips and allow the last drops of spit-warm water to dribble down my throat. Replacing the cap, disgusted, I sit back and make an effort to resist the mental cataloguing of all my needs, the greatest of which probably is sheer distraction--a flashy drugstore thriller, a slick magazine... But the case is hopeless.

I find myself at the moment in uncharacteristic possession of a single book, a paperback copy of August Strindberg's Inferno, described on its back cover as "an intensely powerful record" of Strindberg's "mental collapse"--discovered two nights ago under the bed in my room at a cheap Chinese hotel in Singapore. Soiled, dog-eared, with all the juiciest passages underlined, it appears to have already served some hapless traveler as a guidebook to the nether regions of the mind. What I know, having read a few pages, is that old August would have loved Tanjung Pinang; it would have slipped under his skin, coursed through his veins like a virus.

That leaves only the letters. Reaching into my shirt pocket, I remove one of them--the one without an envelope, the one I picked up in Kuala Lumpur four days ago. It is damp with sweat, transparent as a fish's skin. I unfold it carefully and begin to read:

San Martino a Scapeto
Italy

Dear Richard,

Your letter finally caught up with me here just two days ago. Though I was very pleased to hear that you are well, I have to admit that I was disturbed--no other word readily springs to mind--at the chapter of your book you sent me to read. Though wonderfully well written, it is such an unhappy piece of work, so obviously, one might even say brazenly, misanthropic, that I found it nearly impossible to finish. Perhaps this will come as a shock to you. I am sorry if it does. Let me try to explain.

Yes, I agree with you when you suggest that the efforts now being made on behalf of the natural world are at best "pathetic." Yes, I agree that in the end, very little, if any, of what remains will be saved. But to question the motives of those who continue the struggle is, I believe, a seriously mistaken attitude of the first order. What would you have these people do? Fold their tents, go home, and spend the rest of their lives wallowing in self-pity? They are, after all, only people, doing the best they can. That is a cliché, I admit. But clichés have their uses.

I wish that I could say that your letter pleased me more, but I am afraid it did not. I believe that this plan of yours to see a tiger on foot is mad. Nothing more or less. It is almost as though in seeing a tiger on foot you were expecting a shower of illumination, or a burst of insight. This is ridiculous.

What would happen if you were to find a tiger in the forest? It would probably simply walk--or run--away. That is the likelihood. But there is of course another possibility. If surprised, it might kill you on the spot, or maul you so badly you would pray for death. Is that what you want, then? Is that what you are searching for? Are you really suicidal? Do you for some obscure pathological reason fancy the idea of ending up like David Hunt, crying out in horror in a corner of some obscure forest as your life drains away from you? You of all people should know that animals don't care a damn about us. They live in their world, we in ours. The two do not mix. They did once. But no more. Believe me, I understand this better than you know. What I know equally is that my foolish talk about my own experiences in the past (during our trip to Corbett especially) is partly to blame for all this. Believe me when I say that I deeply regret that I ever said a word about them.

I know that all this has been unpleasant to read, and I am truly sorry for that. But I felt that I had to speak to you honestly. It is the responsibility of a friend to do so.

But I would like to end on a more pleasant note. As I write this, it is afternoon, sunny and bright. In the garden bees and butterflies are hovering around the flowers. There are a few hard-edged clouds in the sky which remind me, for some reason, of the work of the painter Mantegna. Bach is on the stereo--the first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier. At this particular moment of my life--except for, perhaps, my worries about you--the world seems utterly benign. I have not had the opportunity to speak to you of my love for Bach, greatest of all the musical masters. Perhaps, if we can settle all this nonsense, we can get around to him at our next meeting. I am very much looking forward to seeing you on 21 Oct. in Kathmandu.

I hope you will not take all this too badly. I care about you and hope that this letter finds you well. Please take care of yourself in Sumatra. Don't do anything stupid. I will be back in India by the time you receive this. If your plans change, you can contact me there.

Best regards,
Kailash



I fold the letter and slip it back into my pocket, at the same moment aware that someone has invaded my solitude--a European, thirtyish, bearded, a bit scruffy. Turning my way, he stares intently for a moment, offering the sort of desultory nod that recognizes presence but demands nothing in return. Walking directly in front of me, eyes averted to avoid any further contact, he proceeds to the far side of the customs shack, drops his pack onto the dock, and sits down, back to the wall. Staring directly out to sea, he makes it abundantly clear, without saying a word, that he has no wish whatever to be disturbed.

It will be a long journey to Sumatra; it might be nice to have someone to talk to. But this guy does not exactly radiate friendliness. Looking at him, I can't help feeling it might be best on the whole to steer clear of him.

 
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Excerpted from Of Tigers and Men by Richard Ives. Copyright © 1996 by Richard Ives. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.