Fear of tigers


Annu Jalais's last lecture in EHESS, Paris, on Tuesday, November 12, 2019, was focused on fear. The fear she mentions shouldn't be confused with anxiety, awe or fright. According to Annu's witnesses of the Sundarban social life, fear often turns the person who faced it into being seriously ill. Fear is even a feeling one can die of. At the least, when a human meets with the tiger, out of fear, s/he becomes another. Thus, villagers in the Sundarban where Annu conducted her long and deep observation*, don't turn their fear into anger. Not only do they accept the tiger but some of them look for its defiant company: the opportunity of a real encounter. All men or women venturing within the forbidden perimeter of the tigers reservation, expect to be brave enough to face the tiger. When this happens, except if death is the outcome, the chosen human comes across an intensely dangerous situation, yet an extremely desired one. What Annu emphasises on, is that, through the likely encounter, humans and tigers belong to the same society. In the Sundarban, tigers like humans belong to the forest society. When they venture out in the jungle, humans are part of a broad network where tigers are among the masters.

The tiger is not this cute baby cat that India forged for the Commonwealth Olympics games logo. The tiger is a powerful and daring stripped cat. It is huge. Moreover, the tiger, as recalled by the Sundarban's people, belongs to the world of deities where earthly existence is off-sided by magic powers. Among the divinities of the forest, Bon Bibi is in charge of the whole forestal ecosystem. The other one, Dakshina Roy, is the deification of the tiger. He is the tiger seen a divinity. As Annu recalls after having collected many a villager's experience, the tiger is a good swimmer and he relishes on human flesh. Unimpressed by police regulations, he can swiftly cross the Ganges and get his evening meal on the human inhabited islands. Last winter, I was offered the cell phone photos of the bloody remnants of such a meal. Poachers who go to the tiger's island for fur, honey or timber expect to come across the tiger; but, even more than the tiger, they expect to meet with themselves. And they also expect to meet with another world, that of the forest.

The meeting with themselves is triggered by an extreme fear. Some tiger poachers who did meet the tiger instantly died of fear. Some died a few days or a few years later, which sounds bizarre since the climax of the face-to-face had time to vanish and blur. Some carry on their disease for years. But some get transformed by the encounter. As one of Annu's informers recalled her, mentioning his job: "For me it is not work. It is an addiction. Ignoring the plea of my wife and children, I rush there twice a month. You ask why? I can't really answer. What I know is that you put an ill person in the jungle and he will get better. You put an insomniac and he will get sleep. The jungle has properties that you will find nowhere else. It is a sacred place."

I would say that the jungle is not only sacred but also social. Or rather political. Annu insists in her book that "what is at relevance is that divisions between people today are not so much based on jati or religion, but as whether one owns a substantial amount of land versus one who depends on the forest. Land symbolises hierarchy and exploitation and is seen as dividing families. In contrast, the forest will be highlighted as the domain of equality, a realm which unites every-one in a web of sharing." Fear is at the origin of this polarisation between the village way of life and forest culture. On and again, forest is seen as the culture of equality, equalising all beings confronted with the ultimate fear. As a political achievement, Supata Banerjee Sarkar, another anthropologist, reckons that the harsh conditions not only produced solidarity among humans, but, first of all, amongst gods: "it was not possible of compartmentalise the human community between Hindu and Muslims." As a matter of fact, Hindu, Muslims and others, all worship Bon Bibi as the master of the Forest. And Dakshina Roy as the Tiger deity. We're a long way out of the village social fabric.

The remaining question rises as how can fear be the equalising factor of this very special Sundarban's society. This is when meeting with oneself turns into meeting with the forest. And probably into an encounter with one's own death. It is the major fear that opens one's eyes to a not even suspected world.

This brings us to today and why this ethic of the forest, so much expected in our times of blindness, is relevant for today's human kind. When we face a situation so unknown that no scientific clues, no great narrative, no clever prediction can give us a hint about tomorrow, when wise persons and informed observers suggest that our planet may be uninhabitable within a few decades, we feel this fear that Annu's poacher is telling us about. Facing this fear erases social competition and blurs exploitation. Fear reminds us of a forest society that equalises all living bodies into solidarity with their common habitat. Notwithstanding, it is not the forest that gives us the feeling to belonging to the same society. It is, as Annu mentions, the fear, the ultimate fear of being torn into pieces under the teeth of a crocodile or those of a tiger. Forest offers to humans the model of a society solidarised by the paradoxical urgent care for one another. Fear opens our eyes wide. We not only belong to the society of tigers, but also of bees, sequoias, crocodiles, mosquitos, grapes, wolves and more. With all living bodies, we better behave as good partners, not as astute stewards.

If we, humans, were not able to forge the equalising regulations that could save the common habitat, fear might do the trick. We haven't got a clue about the future visage of fear, but we suspect that we'll be close to dying of it. If this is what we can count on to stop the massacre on our dear blue tennis ball, we don't relish on this prospect, but we'll bravely try to be up to it.

*Annu Jalais, Forest of tigers, Routledge, India, 2009

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Marc Hatzfeld, Sociologue des marges sociales
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