What’s common to Charlie Hebdo and a tiger—in this case Ustad, or T24? Freedom, of course—that old canard, freedom of speech, on one side and freedom to eat, to put it baldly, on the other. Freedom is possibly the most wildly celebrated cause in the world, the one word guaranteed to ensure no further examination of the matter under debate. Charlie Hebdo flaunted freedom of speech to the extent that its editor and his team became martyrs to the cause. And Ustad? Tigers have their own sense of entitlement and superiority—without it they wouldn’t be the splendid beasts that they are. Of course, unlike Charlie Hebdo, Ustad was not aware that he was trespassing—or perhaps he was. He’d lived under the observation of strange two-legged beings for years. Some kind of monkey they were, who chattered and jabbered whenever they saw him and showed every sign of being unafraid, wounding to an alpha tiger’s ego.
Discussing the two puts me between two odd stools—as a writer of five books who should avow freedom of speech as a birthright and as a reluctant wildlife ‘expert’ who started delving into tiger issues after a book involving Jim Corbett’s ghost and a tiger on the run. (If I’ve had no striped encounters of the third kind, I do have a stream of FB posts on the tiger!)
What do I think of freedom? Good in the long run, but like those cowards who are hesitant of hurting people’s feelings, I tend to approach it with wariness. As I would be wary of any tiger that allowed me within twenty feet of it and showed no signs of aggression. Tigers walk freely with deer and wild pigs—they have an uneasy kind of coexistence. “If I’m not hungry, I won’t eat you”—as every animal knows. What do human beings know? They project their own animalistic worship on jungle cats—the tiger is friendly, it’s being human, we’ve given it a pet name. Charlie Hebdo is brilliant, puts its finger exactly where it is needed to point out human folly. And so what if a few feathers are ruffled?
But then, to what end? A kind of collision course in both cases, with the world frantically waving its flags in celebration and no one worrying about the pile of exquisite corpses. Speech and tigers are meant to be free. Certainly. Freedom of thought rather than freedom of speech, the power to look at the world and draw your own conclusions. The freedom to roam keeping the environmental balance—tigers are exterminators and creatures of myth, maintaining strange relationships with rivers and the tides of the moon.
Charlie Hebdo still raises racist cries in fits and starts—small ones, since the greater cause remains that of freedom of speech and there is the issue of the martyred cartoonists. That continues to divide the world over the cause of intelligence and its uses and what exactly constitutes free speech. (The most recent outcry was over the satirical magazine getting the PEN freedom of speech award, with some prominent authors boycotting the event, saying it celebrated “cultural intolerance”.)
Ustad is currently dividing India because his freedom has been taken away from him, turning his stripes into a prisoner’s coat. During his long reign in Ranthambore, Ustad’s alleged kills were made only in his territory—though his territory included looking into forest guard’s huts. He has been seen licking his victim’s blood from the ground by Dharmendar Khandal of the NGO Tiger Watch and on that occasion chased a jeep. What does emerge is the fact that he is very used to people and, possibly even a little contemptuous. He is also—shades of Piku, but not so entertaining for a tiger—constipated, which makes him short-tempered.
The two worlds have no direct connection, except for the matter of what constitutes freedom. However, people have obviously noticed the point of similarity because ‘Je Suis Ustad’ flags have been waving hard on the heels of ‘Je Suis Charlie’, and while the Charlie Hebdo issue has simmered down, Ustad’s daily diet and the confines of his enclosure still continue to be a talking point and the petitions go backwards and forwards to the courts. In both cases, the bulk of the protesters were never directly on the receiving end of either French satire or a tiger’s aggression.
Is freedom allowed allegedly to man-eat? Is freedom allowed to offend to the point of death? Is my definition of freedom the same as yours? There are no easy answers.
(Anjana Basu is the author of In the Shadow of the Leaves, a children’s book about the ghost of Jim Corbett and tigers.)