A book about saving a tiger cub, from poachers, set in the Sunderbans. Has to be about animal and environment conservation, right? Well, it is, but also goes beyond. To make a very keen point about a key aspect related to conservation. Education. But not the way we hear it most times – education of the populace – but education at a more individual level. But first, the story.
A female tiger cub has escaped from the reserve, clawing a small hole in the fence. The rangers are looking for her (to bring her back to safety), her mom is definitely looking for her (and the rangers fear that if she’s not able to find her cub soon, she will find or make her way out of the reserve and wreak the ensuing havoc on the denizens), the nefarious Gupta is looking for her (to sell her fur, teeth and other tiger talismans in the animal trade market), and thus the protagonist Neel too wants to look for her (to save her from evil Gupta).
But Neel has a problem. (Obviously; stories need conflicts.) He has been selected (by Headmaster; yes, sentence-case) to represent his school for a prestigious scholarship exam, but so far is not showing much aptitude or inclination for it, well, at least not in one subject. Maths. Plus, getting selected will mean leaving his beloved family (parents and elder sister, Rupa) and his equally beloved Sunderbans for the school in the city. He eventually decides to throw caution and maths to the winds and go in search of cubbie, accompanied by Rupa.
Why does he believe he will succeed, when the rangers, Gupta and mommie haven’t so far? He knows his beloved island very well, especially nooks and crannies where someone of his (and the cubbie’s) size are likely to creep in away from searching eyes. He begins by mapping the island, using, interestingly enough, maths to make an accurate map. Does he find cubbie? Does cubbie manage to re-unite with mommie? Or does Gupta beat them to it? Well, you do know how most children’s / animal fiction turns out.
Now, as I wrote above, to me, Mitali Perkins’ ‘Tiger Boy’ is more about the education bit. Education is necessary for conservation, of both flora and fauna. The sundari trees, which give the Sunderbans its name, are necessary for the prevention of soil erosion, which enables the yearly growth of the paddy crop. (Neel’s father, Jai, is against the indiscriminate cutting of the trees, and his paddy yield is envious year on year.) Education can be beneficial in ways you can’t immediately see; maths-loathing Neel is able to make that accurate map and… (leave you to discover) only due to the maths he has managed to learn. The reward for education and for anything else (you’re getting how the story ends, aren’t you?), especially for the young, can be more education: Neel is gifted books on the Sunderbans by the rangers, to which he notes to himself that ‘he knows the land so well that he’ll probably be able to point out a few errors in each book’. Also, learning subjects other than those of your interest can be useful (the point about learning maths above and a point about doing things outside your comfort zone). And finally, the most poignant point Perkins makes is about girls’ education. Girls in rural, coastal, and interior areas of India are typically pulled out of school at a young age, to either assist at home or, if they have a brother/s, for the money to be diverted to the boy’s education. You believe Neel finally gets motivated to crack that exam when his sister, who was pulled out of school too, wistfully urges him, “If you learn, you will be able to teach me.”
So, while ‘Tiger Boy’ may not be great writing (the style is meant more to aid the story along than to have you pause and ponder, for instance, about the beauty of the Sunderbans), in more ways than one, it is a satisfying read. But ok, when it comes to describing the cub, it does become poetic after all, dropping writing beauties just like the kisses Neel keeps dropping on cubbie’s forehead. Read the way cubbie is described, and you’ll feel like dropping and dripping kisses on her forehead yourself.
Pick up ‘Tiger Boy’. The tigers, the Sunderbans, and the education system (no matter how flawed it may seem) will thank you for the love.
Read more about the book and tiger conservation efforts in the Sunderbans here: TigerBoy.org