|Jan/Feb 2015 Fiction|
Mr. Jindal arrived at Bandhavgarh, exhausted by the trip from Mumbai. The train ride to Kitni took 16 hours, and following that was a brutal jeep ride of four hours covering the 120 kilometers up into the hills to the village and the resort and the tiger reserve. The road was in impossibly poor repair, even for an Indian highway: a single lane, potholed to the limit of one's endurance. The air was filled with choking clouds of red dust and the noxious fumes of India's notoriously poor-grade diesel fuel, and traffic was heavy, with the jeep constantly slowing to pass lumbering trucks or people—on bicycles, or walking, or driving teams of oxen, or herding cattle, or just plain lunatics: the sadhus, who professed to be wandering holy men but were worse than anything when it came to getting out of the way. And there had been another passenger in the jeep: an American, Mr. Weiss, a taciturn man who had said nothing the entire way, alternately dozing and looking intently at the countryside, and he had brought a large backpack and a suitcase, so the jeep was crowded with baggage and Mr. Jindal had to ride in the back seat, and it was hot and cramped, and he was thoroughly exhausted by the time he arrived in Bandhavgarh, and his neck hurt.
When Mr. Jindal arrived, the porters took his bags to one room and Weiss' bags to another, and Mr. Jindal had liked his room with its cheery view of the hills and brightly polished wooden floors and elegant walls of stone veneer and fresh white plaster, hung with gay pictures of Maharajas on horseback hunting tigers with spears, or courtly scenes of handsome princes seducing buxom Indian maids under the bemused eyes of doting servants. And the furniture was expensively upholstered in brightly colored cotton prints, all clean, all new. Even the bathroom was freshly-tiled with gleaming chrome fixtures. Above the dresser hung an ornately carved gold-gilded mirror, and Mr. Jindal paused and looked at himself. His face was thin and evenly proportioned, his nose straight, his eyes dark, wide, and intelligent, his mahogany skin without a wrinkle. His hair had gone white, a casualty exacted by years of hard work and the worries commensurate with his career as a businessman. And now, he thought, at the end of it all, he had time and the money to enjoy life, and he was grateful that he still had his health.
But evidently there was a mix-up. The owner of the resort came around and ordered Jindal's and Weiss' rooms reversed, and Jindal trudged behind the porters to a second room. It was more modest, with concrete floors overlaid with peeling linoleum imitation-wood parquet, plastered walls badly in need of paint, two worn, red and gold overstuffed chairs that didn't match, a double bed that sagged, and a bathroom with a showerhead that dripped cold water constantly. And the room faced the road, where passing traffic raised clouds of dust that drifted through the open windows. Mr. Jindal surveyed the room, and despite the disparity between the two, felt the relief of a traveler at the end of a long journey. He inquired of the porter about dinner (it was not to be served until 8:00, but there would be tea at 6:00) and checked his watch (4:00). He tipped the porter 20 rupees, took a cool shower, and lay down to take a nap.
No sooner had Mr. Jindal dozed off than the door burst open and the porter reappeared bearing four heavy suitcases and clutching a large camera bag in his teeth. From behind the porter, a man was saying, "Careful, that camera costs more than you'll earn in two lifetimes."
The porter stumbled into the room, dropped the suitcases, and set the camera bag gingerly on the edge of the bed. Behind him in the doorway, the other guest appeared. He was short and fat, bald as a cricket bat on the top of his head, but with long, black hair (obviously dyed) sprouting thick from the sides of his head and combed back over his ears. He wore a gray and red, plaid knit vest over a white shirt with a blue tie, gray wool slacks, and black shoes polished to an obsidian gleam. He wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses, too, and Mr. Jindal was immediately reminded of old photos of Chairman Mao.
The man's eyes darted nervously about the room. In a moment, they lighted upon Mr. Jindal, now sitting up in bed. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Mr. Jindal."
"And what are you doing in my room?"
"This is my room, sir." Mr. Jindal bit his lip. The deferential "sir" had been an inadvertent slip. He added hastily, "There must be some kind of mix-up."
"We'll see about that," the man said, and he turned on his heels and walked out of the room, calling from outside for the porter. The porter, who had stood to one side during the exchange, smiled weakly at Mr. Jindal, then picked up the camera bag and gripped it in his teeth, then carefully stacked the suitcases so he could cradle one under each arm while holding one in each hand. He grunted and staggered as he lifted them. He left the room without closing the door.
Mr. Jindal sighed and checked the clock by the bed. It was only 4:45, but he decided to dress for tea anyway. Perhaps, he thought, he could take a short walk into the village. It might help him relax. He dressed in his best white traditional kurta and began to fasten his sandals.
But before he could finish, the porter returned and set the suitcases on the floor and the camera bag on the bed. The stranger followed. "There has been a mistake," he said, facing the porter and not Mr. Jindal. "The management has overbooked, and I must share my room. I am very angry. I expected better service than this. If there was another hotel... but there are no better choices in this wilderness. Unless," and he cocked his eyebrow and looked at Mr. Jindal from the corner of his eye, "you decide to take a room in the village. It's probably less expensive, anyway."
Mr. Jindal finished fastening his sandals and stood up. "It is a large room," he said, "and I am all right with sharing. I'm sure the management will compensate us for any inconvenience." He extended his hand. "I'm Mr. Jindal."
The man grunted a guttural, "enh," then removed his shaving kit from a suitcase and went into the bathroom and closed the door. Jindal hesitated. The porter was still standing just outside the open front door. He looked confused. Jindal took out his wallet and handed the porter two ten-rupee notes. The porter bowed and closed the door. The bathroom door opened. "Lalwani," the man said, but he said it with a curious, Chinese accent, so that it sounded like La Wanee. Then he closed the door, and a moment later Mr. Jindal heard Mr. Lalwani drawing a bath.
It was a pleasant walk of about a kilometer into town. The road wound down into a dry ravine and then out again, past a few scattered houses, and Mr. Jindal saw no one but a few women in colorful saris harvesting wheat in a distant field. He was surprised to find Mr. Weiss sitting at a table outside the village coffee shop. The village itself wasn't much, a cluster of low huts built of mud bricks with clay tile roofs. The walls of the better homes were plastered with dried cow dung, the rest smeared with ordinary mud. Folklore held that dried dung discouraged mosquitoes, thereby reducing the risk of malaria, but Mr. Jindal doubted this. The coffee shop was built just like the houses, except that it had a dusty, rusting roof of corrugated tin. There were three plastic tables set outside along with a dozen plastic chairs.
Weiss was short and silver-blonde, slightly overweight, but not grossly obese like so many of the foreign visitors Mr. Jindal had met. Weiss had a leathery, worn face accentuated by the red road dust from the afternoon's ride, now blackening with sweat from the afternoon heat. He was dressed carelessly in denim shorts and a khaki photographer's vest over a faded red tee shirt, tattered hiking boots, and a battered green canvas hat. He motioned for Mr. Jindal to sit down. "Chai?" he asked, "it's quite good."
Mr. Jindal nodded appreciatively and sat down. "Namaste," he said, bowing slightly.
"Tif Weiss," Weiss said, extending his hand.
"Sharad Jindal." He shook Weiss' hand and noted that, like many Americans, Weiss affected a crushing grip. "I suppose you've come to see the tigers?"
"Yes," The proprietor of the café came out, and Weiss held up two fingers.
Mr. Jindal cleared his throat. "First trip to India?"
"Yes." He poured Mr. Jindal a glass of bottled water.
"You are from America."
"Vermont, but I've traveled all over."
Mr. Jindal nodded. "I was photographing in Alaska last fall, near Juneau. It was beautiful. I got some very nice pictures of bear and eagle feeding on the salmon."
"I've never been to Alaska."
"You must go sometime. I've photographed tigers and lions and leopards, both in India and in Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia. I even photographed a snow leopard in Tibet, very rare. But nothing I have seen was half as intimidating as the brown bear."
"I saw one once, in Montana, from a distance. I was on horseback, and the bear was on the other side of a canyon. It looked as big as my horse. I was glad it wasn't any closer."
"The one animal I would most like to photograph," Mr. Jindal said, "is the black panther."
Weiss cocked his head. "Why's that?"
"Not only are they rare, but from a photographer's perspective, they're nearly impossible to capture on film. You see, they lodge in trees, up in the shadows. And half the trick of photography is getting the light right. It's a delicate art. You must plan your shot carefully, but being in the right place at the right time is only a small part of the game. You must have the right equipment, and compose and time your shot. And the subject must cooperate. I've gone to the Everglades three times to photograph panthers, and only once seen one, and that was just a glimpse in the shadows. I'm going again in January."
Weiss said, "I'm no photographer. I just came because I heard I could see tigers."
"What do you do?"
"I'm in IT."
"IT. Internet technology. I teach business professionals to use their computers efficiently. The average worker uses only five percent of his or her computer's potential. I teach them to use more. Even if it's only shortcuts, it makes them more productive."
"I see. I'm not very good with computers myself. My son practically lives on his, but I still count on my fingers." Mr. Jindal laughed.
"And what do you do?" Weiss asked.
"I own a photography store in Mumbai."
"No, photography is my hobby. In my store I sell cameras and darkroom equipment, printers, papers, chemicals, supplies. If you use it in photography, I sell it." He handed Weiss a card.
Weiss put the card in his shirt pocket without reading it.
The waiter brought more chai, and Mr. Jindal sipped, then nodded his approval. "It's good."
Weiss said, "Until I came to India, I'd never had chai. Now I like it almost as much as coffee."
They finished their drinks in silence. Mr. Jindal stood up. "Perhaps I'll see you at dinner?"
"I'll look for you," Weiss said.
The resort consisted of a dozen bungalows clustered around a central lodge, a darkly lit but attractive room, wood paneled, with immaculate white linens and polished silver table settings. The most outstanding feature of the room was that there was a tree growing out of the middle of it, the structure of the lodge tying into the tree as a living central pillar. The walls were decorated with wildlife pictures, primarily tigers. Mr. Jindal guessed they were taken by guests.
Most of the pictures were amateurish. Either the light was wrong, or the tigers were obscured in peculiar ways by grass or underbrush, or the composition was out of balance. He could tell from the clarity of the focus that most of the photographers used expensive equipment and had some degree of competence. But there was only so much you could learn in a class. Photography, he felt, required something more than a working knowledge of shutter speeds, ASAs, focal lengths, and aperture settings. There was that intangible element called the photographer's eye, and that was something you either had or you didn't, and it couldn't be taught.
Perhaps this was the thing, he reflected, that kept him coming back again and again to photograph wildlife. It wasn't that he was going to take a photo that had never been taken before. Even the black panther had been done, albeit rarely.
Once in a great while, someone would photograph an animal that was believed extinct, or engaged in a behavior that had not been previously documented. On the wall of the lodge, for instance, were two photographs of tigers in trees, a mother and her cub. So far as Mr. Jindal knew, tigers didn't climb trees. But there it was, in living color, proof that they did, unless this was one of those Photoshop manipulations, digital forgeries like his son liked to manufacture in his spare time.
Mr. Jindal shook his head. Computer wizards might someday transubstantiate these shams by the thousands, near-perfect simulations of creatures in places they could never be, doing things they could never do, like Vishnu, appearing as a human body with a boar's head, or the Monkey God, or Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, or an eight-armed Kali with her scimitar and necklace of severed heads. But no matter how clever they were with their machines, there was one thing they could never offer: that serendipitous moment when equipment, nature, and artist came together in a perfect, holy trinity.
What was it, Mr. Jindal wondered, that made the photographer stay his trigger-finger a split-second, just long enough for the tiger to look up and bare his teeth or narrow his eyes, or pause in the only patch of light in otherwise shrouded brush—or the instinct that said, later on in the darkroom, crop here, so that the picture is theoretically out-of-balance, but in way that is aesthetically stunning. Perhaps it was the quest to understand this phenomenon that kept him coming back.
The door opened, and Mr. Jindal looked up, expecting Mr. Weiss. But instead he saw Mr. Lalwani standing in the entry, looking around the various tables, appearing slightly bewildered. Most of the guests were Europeans, French or German, except for Mr. Weiss. Mr. Lalwani's face soured but brightened when it lit upon Mr. Jindal. He hurried to the table and sat down on the opposite side.
"Good evening," Mr. Jindal said.
Mr. Lalwani grunted, then replied, "Good evening" in his affected Chinese accent.
A waiter appeared with soup and glasses of chilled water. Mr. Lalwani sniffed at the soup, then shooed away the water. "Bring me a bottle," he said, "unopened." He took a tentative spoonful of soup, then finished the bowl, slurping loudly as he ate.
Mr. Weiss came in, saw Mr. Jindal and Mr. Lalwani, and walked across the room to their table. "Mind if I join you?" he asked. Without waiting for a reply, he sat down.
Mr. Jindal nodded.
Mr. Lalwani grunted and said in Hindi, "Goddamn white ought to sit at his own table."
"Shukryia," Mr. Weiss said. "Thank you."
Mr. Lalwani looked away, and scowling, muttered something Mr. Jindal could not make out.
"So tell me," Mr. Jindal asked, "what part of India are you from?"
A line of waiters came in from the kitchen, each carrying a polished steel bowl. The spicy aroma instantly filled the room like incense. The waiters allowed Mr. Lalwani to serve himself first: potato curry, dal, rice, mutton in gravy, vegetable paaneers, and roti. There was plenty of food for all of them, though Mr. Lalwani loaded his plate with more than any two guests could eat. When he had finished heaping his plate, he replied, "My family came from Gorakhpur, in the north, but I have lived in Hong Kong for nearly 50 years."
"And what do you do in Hong Kong?" Weiss asked.
"Me? Ahh, nothing. I go to board meetings now and then. I own a few manufacturing companies, but mostly I travel around taking pictures."
"What kind of manufacturing?"
Mr. Lalwani paused, his fork suspended in mid-air. "Manufacturing," he said, and then continued eating.
Weiss nodded but didn't speak again until dinner was finished. Afterwards, he stood up, nodded, and said, "Good night, gentlemen."
Once Weiss was gone, Mr. Lalwani became quite animated. For nearly a half-hour he regaled Mr. Jindal with his photographic escapades, including the details of three previous trips to Bandhavgarh, all of which resulted in tiger sightings. "In fact," Mr. Lalwani confided, "I'm making a presentation of my work to the Royal Society of Hong Kong as soon as I leave. It is a special honor to be invited to join the Royal Society, you know, especially for a resident of Indian origin."
Later on in their room, Mr. Lalwani booted his laptop and showed Mr. Jindal the presentation he had carefully prepared. In addition to tigers, Mr. Lalwani had photos of nearly every imaginable game animal: black bear, brown bear, polar bear, panda bear, elephant, hippo, rhinoceroses (one and two-horned), giraffe, zebra, an assortment of 20-odd rare deer, elk, moose, caribou, mountain goats, wild boar, an exhaustive collection of all 25 sub-species of cobra (both male and female), seven different types of crocodiles, and more than 80 rare songbirds. But the bulk of Mr. Lalwani's collection were cats: Indian and African lions, South American jaguars, African leopards, snow leopards, lynx, manx, ocelots, cheetahs, American mountain lions, and (Mr. Jindal's heart sank when he saw it), a perfectly executed shot of a black panther crouched on a branch so close it seemed the photographer could have reached out and stroked the cat's gleaming fur. "This," Lalwani said, tapping the image of the panther on the screen with his finger, "is the grand finale, the coup-de-gras! Do you know how long it took me to get this picture?"
Mr. Jindal shook his head.
"Ha!" Mr. Lalwani shouted, slapping himself on the thigh. "Half-a-day! I bribed one of the park rangers to tranquilize him with a dart gun. He had a radio collar on, too, so he was easy to track. I took the collar out with Photoshop. You could look under a microscope and never know it was there."
Mr. Jindal slept well that night, though he was aware Mr. Lalwani was tossing and turning, sometimes snoring loudly beside him. When Mr. Jindal got up to use the bathroom, he found an open medicine bottle containing little blue pills by the sink. He held one up to the light. There were no markings, and the writing on the bottle was in Chinese.
A porter woke them at five, and they dressed hurriedly, donning jackets and hats because the hill country was cool in the morning. Mr. Lalwani insisted on sitting in the front of the jeep. Weiss and Mr. Jindal sat in back, along with Mr. Patankar, the resort's resident tiger expert. At the entry to the park they were joined by a guide who rode standing on the back bumper while holding on to the jeep's roll bar. For nearly an hour they crisscrossed the reserve at breakneck speed, pausing only to exchange notes with the drivers of other jeeps from the other resorts in the area. The drivers, guides, and Patankar conversed animatedly in Hindi. From time to time Weiss asked what they were saying. "They are tracking the tigers," Mr. Jindal replied.
At other times the driver abruptly stopped and shushed his passengers. They would sit for several minutes, then reverse the jeep a few hundred yards and sit some more, or drive forward a ways and stop, or zip around to the other side of the ridge and wait there. The air was chilly, and Mr. Jindal needed to use the bathroom. He squirmed in his seat. His right leg had gone numb.
"What the hell are they doing now?" Weiss asked.
"Sambhar deer," Patankar replied. "They make a distinctive call when the tigers are on the prowl."
"Yes, a little high-pitched 'Oh!' sound. If you listen carefully, you can hear it."
After a minute, Weiss admitted that he could, though he wasn't sure if the deer were sounding an alarm about tigers or about the jeeps.
A few hundred meters down the road, Patankar slowed the driver and pointed out tiger tracks, very clear in the thick dust. "The tiger likes trails," Patankar explained. "He can't tell the difference between a road and a natural trail. He has no fear of men or jeeps. That's one reason he makes easy prey."
"You mean we could drive right up to one?" Weiss asked.
"Happens all the time. We've even had them charge the jeeps, though they seldom bite."
"How seldom is seldom?"
"Show him your arm," Mr. Lalwani grunted.
Patankar rolled up his right sleeve and showed Weiss three large puncture marks on his forearm. The scars were bright red and thickly granulated.
"A tiger did this?"
Patankar waived his hand dismissively. "It was not a big thing. She had been hit by a car on the highway the night before. She had gone crazy, digging up dirt and clawing trees. She was bleeding from the mouth, clearly injured. A jeep came along with some tourists, and the tiger charged. The driver and the guide ran away, but the tourists froze. The tiger grabbed one of them, and they had a tug-of-war—the tourists and the tiger. We came round the bend, and I got out and grabbed the tiger by the tail..."
"You grabbed the tiger?"
"What else could I do? Feeding tourists to the tigers would be very bad for business, and for the tigers."
"Not to mention the tourists."
"Yes, bad for them, too. But when people and tigers interact, tigers always get the worst of it. Anyway, I grabbed the tiger until she let go of the tourist, and then she roughed me up a bit. She left, and the rangers closed the park until they killed her."
Weiss clapped Patankar on the shoulder. "Hat's off to you, buddy," he said. "A man who'll grab a tiger by the tail can ride in my jeep anytime."
"Really, it's nothing. Tigers can behead a sambhar with a single slash of their paw, but they rarely attack people. They have more to fear from us than we do from them."
"You mean poachers?"
"Yes. Poachers take almost half the tigers born in the park."
"For the pelts or the thrill?"
"Neither. Most of the time it's villagers killing a tiger that's taken to lifting cattle. The pelts are practically worthless, get caught with one and you lose it and draw a prison sentence. Besides, one tiger equals one pelt. Not much profit there. The professionals are after the bones. Grind them into powder and sell them on the black market. It's big medicine in China, you know. As an aphrodisiac."
"Something like that. But there's no thrill to hunting a tiger. Go hide in the bamboo, the tiger will find you."
"Is that what the poachers do?"
"No, it's worse than that. The tiger kills a deer or lifts a cow. Then it hangs around the carcass feeding and sleeping until the meat's all gone. All the poacher has to do is sight the vultures, then poison the carcass. Much quieter than a gun and just as effective. Safer, in fact."
Another jeep passed, and the drivers exchanged notes. Then the driver turned around and followed the second jeep around the bend and up a trail hewn from solid rock, climbing to the top of a steep escarpment.
"We're in luck," Patankar said. "They've sighted a female and four cubs. They usually put on quite a show."
Within a few minutes, nearly a dozen jeeps converged on the hilltop. Then three elephants appeared, lumbering down the road in a row. The mahut riding the largest elephant goaded it off the road, and in just a few seconds, even the sound of it crashing through the brush was lost. A few minutes later the elephant returned, and all of the mahuts guided their elephants alongside the jeeps. The passengers scrambled up from their seats to the rollbars, and from the rollbars onto the platforms on top of the elephants. The guides and the drivers steadied the more infirm passengers, Mr. Lalwani for one, and then passed them their cameras when they were safely aboard.
Weiss' eyes bugged when he saw Mr. Lalwani's camera—the lens looked like something you might launch small rockets from. Then he saw that Mr. Jindal had the exact same camera and lens, as did most of the other tourists. Weiss whistled softly to himself and looked at his puny Olympus digital.
Mr. Jindal handed his camera to Weiss and climbed onto the platform. Weiss' arm bucked under the weight. "How the hell do you hold this thing?" he asked.
Mr. Jindal smiled. "It takes some getting used to, but when you feel the adrenaline, you forget the weight. In fact, there's something to be said for holding a substantial lens. It is less affected by vibration. It makes your hand steadier."
And by the time I'm able to afford a $25,000 ensemble, Weiss thought, my hands will need all the stability they can get.
Weiss passed the camera to Patankar, who handed it up to Mr. Jindal. Weiss stood up on the seat to climb on, but Mr. Lalwani spoke sharply to the mahut, who kicked the elephant in the back of the head and got it moving. Weiss nearly tumbled off the jeep. Patankar and the guide steadied him. As the elephant lumbered into the brush, Mr. Jindal looked back and shrugged his shoulders.
Once they were out of earshot, Mr. Jindal asked Mr. Lalwani why he hadn't allowed Weiss onto the platform.
"Too crowded. He'll mess up my shots. He's not taking pictures, anyway. Did you see that shit camera of his? Let him wait."
Weiss sat down, said nothing.
"They'll come back for you," Patankar said.
Weiss smiled, his face pinched.
"Sometimes the mahuts do that, you know, only take two at a time." The lie was transparent. Weiss had only to look at the other tourists climbing three, even four at a time onto the platforms, to know otherwise. But he maintained a dignified if stoic silence. He took out a pair of field glasses and began studying the surrounding foliage.
Patankar watched Weiss, and guessing he was looking for songbirds, said, "Tot rungi, jungle wrens."
Weiss said nothing.
Patankar climbed out of the front seat and into the back. He patted Weiss on the shoulder. "Let me tell you a story," he said. "Two years ago Lalwani came out here for the first time. I had heard rumors about him. Guide talk, you know, 'drinking their whiskey' things. I had actually seen his work in exhibitions. He's a world-class photographer. Our second day out he was paired up with a couple of French girls and an old Norwegian gentleman named Halvor. The girls might not have been 20, and Halvor was 80 if he was a day. We drove all morning without much luck—the tigers just didn't want to be seen. It was most unusual, really. The big male, V2, kept roving back and forth along the ridge."
"After a while, Halvor had to get out to pee. The guide wasn't very happy about having the guests tramp about in a wood full of tigers. It's not a good idea. But that day the guide was especially uneasy about things, and he insisted Halvor stay close to the jeep. Well, the girls and I looked the other way, out of modesty, I suppose. But then Lalwani grabs his camera and starts taking pictures. The bastard, I thought. I was about to say something, but when I looked, I saw there was a leopard crouched on a branch not three feet above the spot where Halvor was relieving himself. I was stunned. And while Lalwani clicked away, the leopard reached down and tried to swat the hat off Halvor's head. By this time, all of us were looking, but none of us said a word. Tongue-tied, the lot of us. I can't speak for the others, but I was afraid to startle the thing. Halvor zipped up his pants, completely oblivious, and got into the jeep, and the driver started it up, and we shot out of there. Nobody told him, either."
"That night, after dinner, I asked Lalwani why he didn't say anything. After all, the man could have been killed. 'And miss a shot like that?' he replied. Ask him about it, he'll show you the picture."
"Right," Weiss said.
Mr. Jindal and Mr. Lalwani were gone nearly a half-hour. When they returned, Mr. Lalwani climbed down, grinning and grunting. Patankar asked if he'd seen tigers, and Mr. Lalwani replied that he had "got some good shots." Mr. Jindal handed Mr. Lalwani's camera down to Patankar, then motioned for Weiss to join him, and they rode back into the bamboo together.
If it were possible to say seeing tigers in the wild was disappointing, Weiss would have said that. Anticlimactic. The tiger stretched in feline repose, soaking up the morning sun on a bare rock. The mahut goaded the elephant right to the tiger. The tiger was larger than Weiss imagined—a two-year-old cub was nearly full grown—and it paid them virtually no notice. The elephants circled the tiger while the tourists clicked away with their cameras. Except that there were no walls, the scene could have been enacted at any decent zoo. Occasionally the tiger looked around, and once he licked his paw. And there was a moment—though it only lasted a second—when the tiger looked up, annoyed, and made eye contact with Weiss. But that moment was something Weiss would never forget. It was a look that said, "I could rip your head off if I wanted." After ten minutes the mahut turned to Weiss and hesitated.
"If you want to stay longer," Mr. Jindal whispered, "you have to pay more."
Weiss took in the scene: the tiger, eyes closed, dozing, not paying them the slightest attention; the circling elephants, tearing off the tender clumps of young bamboo and eating as they thrashed around in the brush; the tourists, outfitted in the finest REI jungle-adventure clothing money could buy, their motor-driven super-cameras whirring and clicking. "Let's go," he said.
And that was the way the second day passed, and the third, and the fourth, only that Mr. Jindal saw less and less of Weiss. Weiss began to ride in jeeps with the European tourists, and he even missed one of the jungle excursions altogether. When he inquired, the head porter said Weiss had gone on a hike to a temple complex at the top of Bandhavgarh Hill. Weiss took his meals late and alone and seldom spoke to anyone.
But on the morning of the fifth day, Mr. Jindal sought out Weiss in his room before the morning ride. "I hope I'm not disturbing you," he said.
Weiss stood by the door, bleary-eyed, half-dressed, wearing only shorts and socks. The porters had already been around bringing the guests coffee. Mr. Jindal could see that the room, so cheerful and bright a few days ago, had taken on some of Weiss' taciturn demeanor. A computer screen on the dresser by the bed bathed the room in watery blue light, and there were clothes and notebooks and things strewn haphazardly about. It occurred to Mr. Jindal that Weiss had been up all night.
"What do you want?" Weiss asked.
"May I come in?"
Weiss opened the door wide enough to allow Mr. Jindal to enter, then shut it. "Would you like some coffee?" Weiss asked.
"No, thank you," Mr. Jindal said. "Actually, I can't stand the coffee here."
Weiss laughed, an honest, child-like laugh, and Mr. Jindal realized it was the first time he had seen Weiss' brighter side. Until then, he wasn't sure Weiss had one.
"Imagine," Weiss said, "a five-star resort serving Sanka decaf. Here, I brought my own," and he poured Mr. Jindal a cup from a small carafe.
Jindal tasted the coffee—it was milky and sweet, Indian style, just how he liked it. He raised the cup slightly in Weiss' direction. "This tastes like French Market coffee," he said.
"It is," Weiss replied. "You've been to New Orleans?"
"Yes. An exhibition there in 1999."
"And you liked it?"
"I love America. I have a brother there, you know."
"In Sarasota, Florida."
"And what does he do?"
"He was a doctor, but now he's retired. I'm going to visit him soon. He's advancing in years."
Weiss refreshed their cups, then sat down on the edge of the bed and scratched his face sleepily. "You're not close?"
"How did you guess?"
"Just a feeling."
Mr. Jindal opened his mouth, then shut it again.
"You can tell me."
Mr. Jindal smiled. "We quarreled when we were young. He wanted to go to America and make his fortune. I wanted to go to college, but one of us had to stay home and take care of our parents. It was his responsibility—he was the older—but he was insistent. He was always stubborn, but my father said there was time enough to send us both to college, and so my brother went to Berkeley and earned his Bachelor's, then to UCLA to medical school, and he married an American girl, and they had children, and he never came home. My father fell ill, and the responsibility for his care—and even my brother's education—devolved upon me. I took over my father's shop, just like my son is taking over after me." Mr. Jindal folded his hands on his lap and looked about the room. He could see on the computer that Weiss had been writing.
Weiss got up and poured himself another cup of coffee.
"But that was along time ago," Mr. Jindal said. "How do you say, water over the dam?"
"Something like that," Weiss said.
"Actually, I came to talk about Mr. Lalwani."
"What about him?"
"He has a small problem."
"With all his problems, a small one would hardly stand out."
Mr. Jindal smiled and set his cup on the counter. "It's his computer, actually. He has a very important presentation to make in Hong Kong tomorrow, and his laptop has crashed. There is no place here for him to fix it, and no way to get it to someone who can. I remembered you said you worked on computers, and I was wondering if I could prevail upon you to fix it. As a favor to me."
"So why doesn't he ask me?"
"Would you help him if he asked you?"
"I'd tell him to fuck himself."
"I suspect he knows that. In any event, he's too proud to ask, even if he knew you would say yes."
"So screw him."
"But he didn't ask me, Mr. Weiss, I came on my own."
"And what makes you think I won't tell you to piss off?"
"Because I think you are a better person than that."
Weiss got up and rummaged around in a pile of dirty clothes until he found a gray tee shirt. He sniffed under the arms, then put it on. He clapped the floppy green hat on his head. "You don't know me very well."
"I believe I know you well enough."
Weiss offered Mr. Jindal another cup of coffee, which Mr. Jindal declined by placing his hand over his cup. "Tell me something," Weiss said. "How can you stand to hang around with that asshole? I can't think of two people more unlike."
"There are two kinds of people in the world," Mr. Jindal replied. "Walls and mirrors. The walls are easy, they're obstacles to overcome. We get around them, climb over them, knock them down if we have to. They test our will. Sometimes they give us opportunity to grow, especially in tolerance. That's a big thing in India, you know. With 15 religions and 20 languages, acceptance might be our most important asset."
"But mirrors are another thing altogether. You see, there is nothing more frightening than seeing ourselves for what we are. It's easy to test our resolve when it comes to others. But when the test is about ourselves..." His voice trailed off. "Mr. Lalwani may be difficult, but aren't the difficult accomplishments the most rewarding?"
"What's to accomplish?" Weiss asked. "Tonight I go back to Mumbai, and five minutes after I've gone, I won't remember his name."
"It seems to me he has gotten quite under your skin."
"He doesn't take up as much space in my head as you think."
"So you don't mind helping him with his computer?"
"I didn't say that."
"Either you do or you don't. It's a yes or no question."
Weiss got up and shut his computer down, then opened the curtains and looked around outside, his back to Mr. Jindal.
"Mr. Weiss, after my brother finished college, he never came back to India. He had excuses. He had student loans to pay. His wife was frail. She worried about the health of their children. He had to provide for their future and their education. Good reasons, all. India tests your endurance daily: the poverty, pollution, dirt, disease, the sheer weight of the crowds. My father died of cancer, a slow death, a painful death, and none of us were happy, and there was much unsaid between us. My bother got what he wanted, and I didn't. A Muslim friend once told me, 'Allah gives and forgives. Man gets and forgets.' My father never asked my brother to come home. I've thought a lot about that, and I learned one very important lesson. Resentment, Mr. Weiss, is like cancer. It kills us, and the other fellow doesn't feel a thing. Tell me, have you seen The African Queen?"
"Yes, with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn."
"I've seen it."
"Do you remember that scene, the one where Bogart woke up hung over and found Miss Hepburn pouring out his whiskey?"
"I guess so."
"Do you remember what Bogart said?"
"He said, 'Miss, don't do that. A man's got to have a little drink every now and then. It's human nature.' And she replied, 'Human nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.'"
"Do you know who Saint Francis is?"
"The patron saint of AA?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Just kidding. I know who he is."
"He wrote a famous prayer."
"Serenity, yes, but more about acceptance. Did you know he was buried in India?"
"I didn't know that."
"Yes, in Goa. At any rate, think about it. Perhaps our test is to put up with others, as others have put up with us. Or beyond that, to repay others with kindness in excess of what they have shown us. I have begun to understand, in my advancing years, that life is precious and short. I realize, Mr. Weiss, that my brother would have been very unhappy had he stayed in India. And I think that I resented him all those years because he got to leave and I didn't, even though I have done well, perhaps better than I would have done in America. But now I look at life differently. It's not about what other people do, or even what they do to me. It's about what I do, and what effect I have on the world for being here. And that's the mirror, Mr. Weiss. When the world shows me what I am, what I can be, and I have to choose which I will become. Think about it. I wouldn't expect Mr. Lalwani to express the slightest bit of gratitude. But it provides you with the chance to be the better man."
Weiss didn't show for the morning ride, and Mr. Jindal and Mr. Lalwani rode alone in their jeep. Mr. Lalwani was agitated before they left, and when the tigers did not cooperate, his mood soured and they cut short the morning excursion. On the way back, Mr. Lalwani said, "I bought a Mac. Four thousand US dollars. The world's best computer, and now this! What will I do? My presentation is tomorrow! I shall be ruined. But when they returned, they found Weiss loitering by the gate. He gave Mr. Jindal a sideways glance, then said to Mr. Lalwani, "I'll take a look at that computer."
Mr. Lalwani nodded, expressionless. Mr. Jindal beamed.
There was a Zero-Haliburton briefcase on the bed, and Weiss, without waiting for Mr. Lalwani, tried to open it. The case was locked. Mr. Lalwani took the case and dialed in the combination. Weiss opened it. There was nothing inside but a Hong Kong phone book. Mr. Lalwani's face broadened in a grin.
"Maybe thief take briefcase," Mr. Lalwani said. He shut it, then knelt by the bed and removed the bottom drawer from the nightstand. He reached in and withdrew the laptop. "But not take computer." He set it on the coffee table and motioned for Weiss to sit down.
Weiss sat on the floor while Mr. Lalwani booted it up. He tried to bring up the presentation. The computer flashed a gray dialogue box advising the program would not start because it could not locate data files.
"File gone," Mr. Lalwani said.
Weiss rested his elbows on his knees and his chin in his hands. "Why did you buy a Mac?" he asked.
Mr. Lalwani grunted. "Best computer."
"That depends on what you want it for. Graphics, yes, but it's not the easiest thing to work on. And I'm a PC man, myself."
"But you fix, yes?"
There was a hint, Weiss thought, of desperation in the question. "Maybe."
Mr. Lalwani sat down next to Weiss. He opened Photoshop, then called up a file labeled 'Tigers.' The screen went black, and a moment later the computer began to play Journey's "Eye of the Tiger." A series of images flashed onscreen, all tigers, most shots taken sequentially with a high-speed, motor-driven camera. Tigers emerged from jungle shadows and circled the photographer. Cubs roughhoused with one another and their mother. A huge male fed on a Sambarh carcass. And in one stunning sequence, a pair of tigers copulated. "Very rare photo," Mr. Lalwani said.
When that file finished, Mr. Lalwani started another, this one of songbirds. They flashed across the screen in scintillating color, their plumage almost incandescent, berries and insects in their beaks. And after that came a series about the high, lonely deserts of Kashmir. And then there was one of nudes, black and whites, most of women, but some of men, too, and some of men and women together. Weiss involuntarily leaned closer to the screen. He found himself gasping at the images. Some of the pictures were particularly erotic, especially a series of European models partly clad in native Rajasthani costumes. Others were simply beautiful. Temples in human form. Weiss' eyes brimmed with tears. The only think he could compare Mr. Lalwani's work to was Michelangelo's David. He'd heard Lalwani was good, but this was museum-quality art.
Mr. Lalwani nudged Weiss with his elbow. "What you think, eh?"
When the display ended, Weiss asked, "What do you need me for? You can show these, and you'll be fine."
Mr. Lalwani shook his head. "Presentation my life work, best pictures. This for Royal Academy Hong Kong. Induct as member. I spend hours make perfect. Cut, touch, fix light, color. And order important, much thought about this picture, that picture. Take time. All put to music. Whole thing symphony, rise and fall to coup-de-grace."
"Yes. Black panther. Last shot, best shot."
"And you didn't make a back-up?"
Lalwani looked away. "No expect problem. Not finish until few days. Think maybe dust get in hard drive. What you think? You fix?"
Weiss looked at his watch. "I might, but it's gonna take time. And I leave this evening. I have to catch a train to Mumbai."
"I fly Hong Kong tonight. Presentation in morning."
"I'll try," Weiss said, "but you have to leave me alone. I can't work with you watching me."
Mr. Jindal was pleased that Weiss agreed to fix the computer. Mr. Lalwani fretted all afternoon. They went for the afternoon ride, and he forgot to bring water and snacks. He was hypercritical of the driver and guide. There were too close or too far, the light was wrong, their talking disturbed the animals. When they returned, Weiss wasn't in his room. In a panic Mr. Lalwani dashed to the front desk, but the manager assured him Weiss had not checked out. He didn't know where Weiss was. Perhaps he had gone to town.
They went back to their room to wait. Mr. Jindal sat on the edge of the bed watching Mr. Lalwani muttering threats and stuffing his suitcases. And when Mr. Lalwani was packed and the jeep loaded for the trip, Mr. Jindal laid his hand gently on Mr. Lalwani's shoulder and reminded him that Weiss was doing him a favor, and that there must be some good reason Weiss had gone, a part he needed, some kind of advice, perhaps?
"In this shit-hole?" Mr. Lalwani asked.
Mr. Jindal had just summoned a driver to take them to the village when Weiss appeared, whistling and walking down the road with the laptop tucked under his arm. Mr. Lalwani snatched the computer from Weiss' hands. "Why you go?" he asked.
"The generator was down," Weiss explained.
Mr. Lalwani waived his free hand in Weiss' face. "Use battery! No need power."
"The computer may run on batteries, but I was up all night. I needed coffee to work."
The driver tapped Mr. Lalwani on the shoulder. "Time, sir," he said. "You don't want to be late."
"But you fix?" Mr. Lalwani said.
Mr. Lalwani hesitated.
Weiss said, "But the batteries are nearly exhausted, and if you run them down, you'll lose all of it. You'll have to charge them in the morning when you get to Hong Kong. I wouldn't boot it now. And the problem is with your hard drive. It's become unstable. I know it will boot once more, but I wouldn't play with it. Trust me. Go the meeting and fire it up. You'll get one more run out of it. After that, I make no promises."
Mr. Lalwani stared hard at Weiss, then tucked the laptop into its case and climbed into the jeep.
"I'll ride with you," Mr. Jindal said. He smiled and shook hands with Weiss and got into the jeep. As they pulled out into the road, he looked back once and nodded.
Mr. Jindal stood on the tarmac watching the sun glint off the wings of Mr. Lalwani's plane as it banked and headed north towards Kolkata. When it was gone, he reached down and loosened his right sandal, and shook his foot until a small red pebble fell out. He picked it up and held it to the light, his lips moving silently. Then he threw it away.
Weiss stood in the middle of his hotel room, his things packed. The room was much like he'd found it when he arrived, pretty, but empty. He felt guilty that the management deferred to him as a foreign tourist and put Mr. Jindal in with Mr. Lalwani. Weiss would have been all right with the older room. He might have preferred it. Of course, things could have been worse. What if Weiss had been asked to room with Mr. Lalwani? That would have been unacceptable. How Mr. Jindal put up with him was beyond his comprehension. He thought about Jindal. Weiss liked him, in spite of his philosophical ramblings.
He and Mr. Jindal had extended invitations to visit each others' homes, his in Vermont, Mr. Jindal's in Mumbai. And Mr. Jindal would come, Weiss knew, at least as far as Florida. But something told Weiss that Mr. Jindal would stop in Sarasota on the way to the Everglades. And who knows, Weiss thought. Mr. Jindal and his brother had a lot of catching up to do. That panther picture might have to wait for another trip. He found that thought oddly reassuring.
Weiss turned and saw his reflection in the mirror. He was getting older. There were lines etched around his eyes, his hair was thinning, gone gray around the temples. But he was still young at heart, and strong. And he didn't like Mr. Lalwani. Jindal's a good man, Weiss thought, but he's not right about everything. And Patankar was wrong about a few things, too. There was a thrill to tiger hunting. Even if you only poisoned the carcass. Weiss grinned and imagined Lalwani in the morning: the posh auditorium and the crowd of pretentious intellectuals, the blank stares on their faces, the guffaws breaking off into an icy silence. Mr. Lalwani, the consummate showman, dressed in his most expensive blue silk suit, his fingers glittering with jeweled rings. His expression would be puzzled, grim awareness dawning like the crimson flush spreading across his face. But the damage was done. Just like the tiger, Weiss thought, the burn in the blood means the end has arrived. It had taken Weiss just a few minutes to redirect the missing file. After that, he only had to doctor one picture. He prowled around Mr. Lalwani's computer until he found cookies from a porn site—and it had been a nasty one—then went to work. Cut and paste, a few minutes with Photoshop, and presto: he had a picture of Lalwani for the ages. He deleted the black panther—the last picture in the show—and replaced it with the forgery. And there it was: the coup-de-grace.
"Take that, asshole," he said.