A pregnant woman was down in the field one day looking for some fresh vegetables. She spotted a large gourd that seemed like a good lunch for her and her husband and still to be born child and was about to pick it up when a tiger roared beside her. ‘This is my gourd,’ he said. ‘What were you thinking, woman?’

The tiger caught hold of the woman and was about to kill her when she pleaded with him. ‘I am pregnant,’ she said. ‘Spare me, and I promise I will give you my baby when it is born.’

The tiger thought for a while and happy with the bargain that he had made, he let the woman go. The woman gave birth to a daughter in due time but she kept her hidden, not wanting to keep the promise she had made to the tiger. Every time the tiger enquired, she tarried. Until one day she could keep the secret no longer and she told the tiger about her daughter.

Eager for his share of the bargain, the tiger wanted the girl. She would be his wife, look after him and bear him children he said. But my child is too small, the woman said. Let her grow a bit, she can then serve you well, carry wood from the forest and wash your home for you. The tiger agreed and went back home. But he did not forget. In a few years, he came back. And then again and again until the woman and her husband had no choice but to arrange for the marriage.

Her parents wept till their eyes were sore but the wedding took place and the young girl went off to the tiger’s home. There she spent a happy year, at the end of which she gave birth to a daughter. The child was full of smiles and always happy to be carried in her mother’s arms. But whenever she was left with her father, the tiger, it was a different story.

Curious to know why her child cried every time she was with the tiger, the young mother hid behind a tree to spy on the two. And what she saw, shocked her. The tiger would knock the baby’s head against a rock until a few drops of blood fell on the ground. He would lick these drops off and go away, satiated, while his daughter wailed. The mother was horrified.

After that day she knew that she had to run away. But whenever she tried to leave the tiger and the baby to step out alone, her husband would not let her. I will come with you, he said. When she went to the market, when she was off collecting wood and even when she wanted to go get some water or tend to the fields. Things went for a while till one day the girl told her tiger husband that she needed to go down to the spring to wash her baby’s clothes. The tiger followed her and waited with their child while the girl ran down the slope. No sooner did she get there, she got her friends, the flea and the louse to start making a ‘chuckchuck’ noise while she fled.

The tiger waited a long time, mistaking the sound for his wife’s labours and also because it would have been un-husbandly to jump down to the spring, in case she was washing herself and her clothes too. But he grew impatient and finally made his way down to the spring too. Realising the trick that had been played on him, he grew furious and he killed the louse but the flea escaped.

Tiger was saddened by what his wife had done. She was happy he told himself, he had fed her and given her the choicest pieces of meat from his share and they even had a child together. Why would she do this to him? Unable to find an answer, he went after her, asking everyone he met on the way for her whereabouts. None knew, except the sangalia creeper who pointed out the way the girl had run.

Tiger followed the path and found himself at the doorsteps of the girl’s parent’s house where she stood distraught, banging down the door because her mother and her father refused to believe that their daughter had come back home. ‘I am your own daughter, mother, whom years ago, you hit on the head with the pigs’ food ladle. Do you not know me now?’ As she said this, she began to squeeze her way in through the small opening in the door that dogs let themselves in through. Her mother, now convinced, started to pull her in but the tiger seized her legs. In the tussle that followed the girl split into two.

The tiger took his half home and kept watch over her while he wept. He did not let even a fly sit on her body as he sobbed over the loss of a wife. Meanwhile the girl’s mother and the tiger’s mother-in-law came over to his house and seeing him thus, consoled him. Nothing could be done anyway now that the girl was in two parts, she said. So the tiger should eat his half just as she had done. The tiger baulked at the suggestion but eventually gave in. And so the story goes, this is how tigers got their first taste of human flesh. And they have loved it ever since.

Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta

Source: The Lhota Nagas by J P Mills

Location: Nagaland

Image: Wikipedia