A Serious Tiger
After landing in Mumbai, we said our goodbyes. Zo Quivver and Quake embarked on one train, an express they hoped would carry them to fame, freedom, and riches. After their twenty-city tour of India, they hoped, they would have not only a band but a name. It was always about the name for them. Being known trumped being great. Who knows? Maybe they would settle for being known over being alive. But while the band attmepted to spread their fame as wide as possible, to leave footprints that no one in India could miss, I slinked onto a train headed for a nature preserve in the Western Ghats. People regarded me fearfully, and I had trouble getting through security checkpoints. The man who took my tickets nearly fainted with terror. People here haven’t heard of me, which is good, but the problem is that they seem to have a greater instinctual fear of me. Once I reach the rainforest–well, I have no idea what I’m going to do. Try to live in the wild for awhile, I suppose. But I cannot imagine where this idea found the strength to possess me so. From what obscure recess of my imagination did this passion for the rainforest spring? I am a white Bengal tiger, a curiosity even among my rare kind.
On the train ride, my mind wandered back to the Coen brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man. This playfully nihilistic parable, a loose retelling of the Book of Job set in the Jewish suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1960s. Its characters wrestle with God’s intentions for their lives, and for the seemingly endless suffering they endure with no real promise of reward. This faithful endurance, an essential part of their ancient traditions, runs head on into the bounteous rewards offered by the consumeristic milieu of the United States at the time. Protagonist Arthur Gopnik, a nervous and overwhelmed but competent physics professor who is up for tenure, loses his wife, his health, his money, and the respect of his family, and desperately searches for the meaning of his deprivations. He consults all kinds of authorities, including supposedly wise rabbis, who offer him nothing but meaningless stories and trite metaphors. When the film ends with several ominous signs, including an oncoming tornado, one cannot help but think that the prophecies of the Old Testament have broken free of their written bonds and are wreaking havoc on this quiet suburb.
While the film offers no comforts, no promise of rewards and only a note that “helping others couldn’t hurt,” we are left on thin ice. Death is assured, life afterward is not. Suffering is assured, reward is not. The film’s universal tone is one of bleakness, and no matter how serious or full of gravitas and dignity you are, you are one car crash away from an unknown oblivion. Yet the film’s characters can attain a quiet dignity in their engagement with community and, yes, by helping others. Opposing the self-centred and desire-driven ethic of American consumerism this film offers something no less ultimately meaningless but at least momentarily meaningful. It is something more than the sum of our petty comforts and pleasures.
I am not religious. I am a tiger. At the same time, I am a tiger who has lived through heaven and hell and come out on the other side. Who knows, after such experiences, what I am anymore? And perhaps this quest is nothing more than me returning to India like a thief, a ghost, pillaging old memories searching for a shred of meaning, a slender thread I can hold onto in this life. I am a Serious Tiger, and maybe I’m hoping this journey will make me a trifle less serious.