The two boys stripped off their school uniforms and jumped into the pond. Their heads bobbed as they wrestled and dunked each other.
“Race you!” called Ajay.
Neel swam behind his lanky friend, feeling as sleek and fast as a river dolphin, even though he was sure to lose. It had been much warmer than usual for January, and it was three o’clock, the hottest part of the day. I should be home studying
, he thought. Teacher was concerned about how behind Neel was in his preparation. The big exam was in April, and Neel’s math skills weren’t getting better.
The pond was a short detour from the path around the island, about halfway between school and home. How good it felt to drop his heavy satchel, unbutton the starched white shirt, tear off those stiff school shorts, and jump into the refreshing water!
This pond was freshwater, but most of the creeks and rivers in the Sunderbans were salty and muddy. Neel didn’t mind—he loved the tang of salt on his tongue and the squish of mud between his toes. Home for him was the hiss of his father’s boat as it slipped through the deltas, golpata
branches swaying in the monsoon rains, and the evening smell of jasmine flowers near his house mingling with green chilies and fresh ilish
fish simmering in mustard-seed oil. Neel had climbed all the tall palm trees, waded in the creeks, and foraged for wild guavas in every corner of the mangrove forest.
Ajay was already stretched out on the muddy bank at the far side of the pond, pretending to be asleep. He lifted his head and smirked at Neel.
Neel’s feet touched bottom again and he waded to the bank. He didn’t really mind losing to his friend. Ajay had always been fast and agile in ponds and on the cricket field, but that didn’t seem to matter much in their village. Boys were supposed to do well in school, not on the sports field. Ajay’s father taught Class Two, despairing that his own son was one of the slowest to learn inside a classroom.
“I miss Viju,” Neel said, plopping down beside Ajay. “I beat him once, remember?”
“When we were four years old,” said Ajay. He dodged to avoid the scoop of mud Neel flipped his way.
“I thought he might start going to school again now that his father’s back from Chennai.”
“Me, too. Maybe they’re fishing together.”
Neel sighed—fishing all day sounded like bliss compared to wearing a hot, scratchy uniform and struggling with math problems. “I’m sure he’s getting good at it. Do you think he’s inside the reserve?”
“No chance. It’s too dangerous for someone our age to go behind the fence.”
“I think he is,” Neel said. “There’s not enough fish left anywhere else, that’s for sure. Not since the cyclone hit. When Baba takes his boat into the reserve, he comes back with plenty. And honey, too.”
“But the tigers are hungrier now,” said Ajay. He was right. Villagers like Baba ventured behind the nylon-mesh fence into the reserve at their own risk. If a man—or boy—was seized by a tiger, he would be dragged off into the forest and eaten. Tigers had already claimed five victims from their island this year.
“I don’t see why Viju’s father needs to fish anyway,” Neel said. “He’s making all that money working for greedy Gupta.”
Gupta was a newcomer to the Sunderbans, but he acted like he owned the entire island. The bad news was that these days he almost did. After the cyclone hit, many of the men and older boys, and even some of the girls, had left to find work in faraway cities. Viju’s father had come back, but others had never returned. Sometimes their families didn’t hear from them again and were forced to sell parcels of land to Gupta.
Ajay stood up. “One more race? I like beating the smartest kid in school at something.”
“Pretend a crocodile’s chasing you,” Neel said. “I’m in no rush.”
He pushed away the thought of the math assignments in his satchel, floated on his back, and watched wispy white clouds chase each other across the wide blue sky. “We named you after my favorite color, Neel,” Ma often said, pointing at the horizon where the blue of the sky met the blue of the water. Humming one of his mother’s favorite songs, Neel imagined what it would be like to venture deep into the reserve to hunt for honey, or to pole a boat into an inlet where tiger tracks lined the muddy banks. Baba had never taken Neel to the reserve. “Too dangerous, Son,” he answered whenever Neel asked. “We have to protect that smart brain of yours from claws and teeth.”
“Well, what about your brains, Baba?” Neel always responded.
“Mine isn’t as good as the one in here,” Baba would say, gently rapping Neel’s skull with his knuckles.
Suddenly a familiar shout came from the golpata
trees. Lickety-split, a boy hurtled to the pond, stripped to his underwear, and leaped into the water. It was Viju! Immediately Neel and Ajay pounced and pushed him under.
After a minute or two, Viju pulled away from the scuffle. “Let’s dry off. I’ve got some big news.”
“Huge catch of fish, maybe?” Ajay asked.
Neel felt a twinge of jealousy. “I bet you saw a tiger!”
“I’ll tell you everything—don’t worry. I need your help, in fact.”
The boys swam to the stone ledge where they’d left their clothes, climbed out of the water, and squatted in the sunshine.
“Well?” asked Neel.
“Actually I did see a tiger, but that’s not my news,” Viju said.
“In the reserve. It was just a flash of orange and black through the trees. I was alone; my baba
hadn’t come back yet.”
“Behind the fence? Weren’t you scared?” Ajay shook his head so that drops of water flew everywhere. “I’d have fainted dead of fright, right then and there. One quick tiger snack—that’s me.”
“What did you do?” Neel asked, trying to imagine himself in Viju’s place.
“Dropped my net, jumped into the boat, and rowed out as fast as I could. I’m glad I don’t have to try that again now that my baba’s
back. I’m helping him these days—he’s making real money.” Dirty money, you mean,
thought Neel, but he didn’t say it aloud. Gupta paid his workers stacks of rupees to threaten tenants who fell behind on their rent. He hired others to cut down rare sundari
trees that grew on the uninhabited islands of the reserve. Sadly, these days even Neel’s father needed the extra income. After fishing and foraging in the mornings for the family, Baba was doing carpentry for Gupta in the afternoons. Neel was sure, though, that his father would never do anything like demand money from widows who used to own their land.
“Want to hear my big news?” Viju asked, lowering his voice and glancing around as if he were afraid someone might be listening.
“Well, what is it?” Ajay asked.
Viju hesitated. “You have to keep it a secret. Do you promise, Ajay?”
“Neel?” Viju asked.
“Yes, yes. Hurry up and tell us.”
“One of the new tiger cubs has escaped!”
Copyright © 2017 by Mitali Perkins (Author). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.