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SPELL OF THE TIGER by Sy Montgomery


The Man-Eaters of Sundarbans


Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1995
ISBN: 0-395-64169-1
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

 From the vast mangrove swamp of Sundarbans on the Bay of Bengal, a tantalizing glimpse of the shifting boundary between nature and myth. Hidden among the labyrinthine channels and dense jungle foliage of Sundarbans lives a unique population of tigers. Unlike their cousins in other lands, who avoid humans, these tigers inexplicably hunt and eat people, hundreds every year, choosing their prey from the fishermen, woodcutters, and honey-gatherers who venture into the mangroves. Nature writer Montgomery (Walking with the Great Apes, 1991) traveled to India and Bangladesh to explore the relationship between the deadly cats who are ``worshiped but not loved, feared but not hated'' and the people who must live with the possibility of becoming their next meal. Here, she says, is a place whose human inhabitants have never forgotten that they are ``made of meat.'' Everyone respects Daksin Ray, the tiger god, and no one questions the supernatural acts attributed to the tigers. Montgomery writes lyrically of an alien land where outlines blur, tree roots reach for the sky, cyclones claim whole villages, and chanted mantras keep tigers from becoming angry. It's evocative, but intensely frustrating. Montgomery speaks no Bengali; her guide in Sundarbans spoke almost no English. She taped her interviews and had them translated months later--not exactly conducive to incisive questioning. She sighted a tiger only once, as it slipped from the river into the impenetrable curtain of trees. Instead of a portrait of the mysterious animals, we get a picture of the obstacles in the path of the curious Westerner. Montgomery tries to couch this imprecise investigation in terms of Eastern mysticism: Fact is subjective, there is no one answer. But it feels a lot like fuzzy journalism. Montgomery has found an alluring subject that, like the tigers, eludes her searching gaze.