Meera Nair: How to Catch a Tiger

Meera Nair is the author of Maya Saves the Day.

My father liked to say that he had roamed the world’s seas as a sailor on a ship. He would sing the praises of a foreign cook on the ship’s galley who taught him how to cut vegetables with flamboyance, stir chicken extract into the soup, thicken it with flour. In the end, the soup didn’t taste like it was the Best Soup in the Whole Wide World like he claimed, but I didn’t mind. Perhaps I thought this was how exotic chefs from other lands cooked on the high seas.
I was seven or eight or ten, so the details are little fuzzy.
When I had asthma attacks and couldn’t sleep, he whispered the story of the time he went into a haunted house and saw a ghost-cat. They were alone, my father and this servant boy, in an old house on a rainy night in a remote village. The wind tipped the kerosene lantern over, blew out the flame. The cat had jumped out at them from the shadows, fierce with occult power, cloaked in darkness. The servant boy had sliced at the animal with his knife in a frenzy, felt the blade part flesh and fur. I imagined a creaking staircase, a branch scraping against the window in the attic, a long-drawn yowl, an abrupt silencing.
And yet, when they got the match lit, its shaky light showed nothing on the floor, no blood on his knife, no sign of the cat.
Our family took trips from Chandigarh to Kerala, spent three days in a dusty train that crawled slowly down the country’s spine. Within the first few hours, my father made friends with everyone in the compartment, then spent sleepless nights smoking out in back with a new buddy. Once in a while, he would make his way back to his seat to report his discoveries to us : See that man in the corner? The one wearing that saffron shawl. He says he can levitate, says he does it after his morning chai. Imagine that. Dutifully, I would stare at the man, asleep on his bunk mouth hinged wide open, build a house around him and fill it with his children, make all twelve rise into the air with him, zigzag off the ground in sunlit orchestrated flight.
My father always had a story waiting for me to trip over. As a child, I believed that since my father was a journalist, he got the news delivered to him direct, faster than lighting, faster certainly than the rest of us. That every word he utttered was true.
One night, he insisted a tiger had escaped from the local zoo. He suggested that it was on the loose, roaming the city, even hiding under my bed. I spent the night terrified, curled up into a ball, my legs drawn up from the edge of the bed.
That tiger stayed hidden under my bed all these years. I grew up, went to collegein America, got married and had a daughter of my own. Then one day, it slipped out and sauntered into a story about this girl called Maya.


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