Assam–Arunachal Pradesh border. North-east India.

The hunter lying in wait in the fork of the tree trunk raised his head, suddenly alert. There was a faint downward breeze from the forested slope behind him, and he had picked up a familiar old smell, a mix of damp fur and rotting meat. He waited patiently, his eyes fixed on the grassy patch below him along which the tiger was sure to pass. He wiped each hand in turn on his threadbare jeans and gripped the AK series rifle firmly. Years ago, as a teenager when he had accompanied his father in these forests, they would only have a double-barrel shotgun or an old Czech rifle with them, sometimes just a bow and arrow with aconite-tipped poison arrows. Still, having the AK was a comfort.

If the tiger decided to jump up at him, he had protection. The weapon had been given to him by a member of a group from neighbouring Assam; they sheltered here in the forests of Arunachal as well, but didn’t bother the hunter’s people. The skin and bones the hunter would harvest at the group’s camp in the forests – his tribe weren’t supposed to kill the tiger as it was supposed to be their kin, but he needed money, for himself and his family, and those stories told by the old people in their village meant nothing to him. The boys from the group would probably eat the meat, but the hunter would draw the line at that. What would happen to the skin and bones after he’d been paid for them he didn’t know, but he had an idea that the leader of the group in the area would be passing it on to someone else.

The hunter had heard that there was great demand for things like that in China. Maybe after this he could kill a bear: how much would they pay him for the bile and paws?

A deep, low growl made him forget whatever he was thinking of. For a moment he felt panic, then he calmed himself. He was high up on the tree with an automatic rifle in his hands. A few seconds later the immense bulk of the tiger passed by below, its muscles rolling within its striped skin as the legs moved smoothly and quietly on padded feet. In spite of himself, the hunter felt his panic returning. Then he took a deep breath and cocked the rifle. The tiger stopped and turned his head to look up; the hunter raised the weapon and took aim.

Tezpur, Assam. North-east India.

The couple had reached the town on the banks of the Brahmaputra earlier that day in a Sumo taxi from further up the North Bank region, and now, as evening fell, they waited in a tea stall near the ASTC station for their night bus to Siliguri. They were a young couple, the boy with a crewcut and the girl in a new sari, and anyone asking the boy for his ID would have been confidently shown one that said he was a member of a paramilitary organisation which guarded the country’s Himalayan borders.

They came from two villages on either side of a river running down to the Assam plains from the hills of Arunachal, and they had seen the forests disappearing along the foothills as they had grown up. Their forefathers had migrated long ago from parts of north India and Nepal, but they spoke only Assamese now and that was their sole identity. Beside them on their bench were two pieces of luggage: a suitcase and an airbag, both worn with use.

The boy’s uncle, who lived in a nearby town and who supplied sand and stones from the river to contractors, had been clear on that point: take your parents’ old luggage so that it won’t attract attention. The uncle had arranged it: following a phone call from someone in Guwahati, he had been contacted by a youth from the armed group in the forests. A gunny sack had been handed over and a few bundles of soiled notes had exchanged hands.

And now the contents of the sack were in the suitcase, wrapped in plastic and covered with clothes. A risk, but the boy wanted the money, and he knew his uncle to be a careful man, not one prone to shooting his mouth off. They were to stay the night in a hotel in Siliguri where a Bengali man would be staying too: he would collect the packet and money would be transferred online into the boy’s account from Guwahati. It would go into the nest egg for his own house, supplemented by whatever extra he made from smugglers operating up on the border.

As he sat drinking tea from a chipped glass in the tea stall, the boy wondered where the package would end up. Kolkata, and then? He had heard there was high demand in places like Hong Kong and China for that kind of stuff. Like the fungus the smugglers hired villagers near the border to dig up from the high meadows during summer. In his wife’s village there was a poacher who paid people
for the keku xap or tokay gecko, and it was said he boiled pangolins alive to take out their scales – and later ate their meat. Anyway, where it ended up was none of his concern, only that he would get paid.

“Do you want anything to eat?” he asked his wife. “A chop? A paratha?”

She shook her head. “I’ll have dinner when the bus stops for the night.”

He nodded. She would return alone by the same bus after he left for his posting up in the mountains. On a sudden impulse he reached across the narrow table and squeezed her hand.

“Two years, three at the most, okay? Then we’ll have our own cemented house. And a child too, to keep you busy.”

She giggled and looked down, a smile on her face, and he felt an ache in his heart. A bus drew up nearby and the conductor started shouting. He looked outside, then got to his feet.

“Our bus has come,” he said to his wife. “Let’s go put our bags inside.”

Excerpted with permission from Tears of the Dragon: An Arjun Arora Mystery, Ankush Saikia, Speaking Tiger.