When Mary Morris is awarded a sabbatical year from teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, she planned to travel with her husband and adult daughter. A travel writer and novelist, Morris enjoys nothing more than roaming around other countries. But then a freak accident on the ice rink shattered her ankle; her dreams of traveling for a year broke into as many pieces, too.
In All the Way to the Tigers, Morris writes about her recovery and the desire to get away as soon as she’s able to walk again. Tigers appear in her dreams and she notices them in news reports. As soon as she’s able, Morris flies off to India to see tigers in their natural environment.
I am flying from Delhi to Nagpur where another car will meet me, this time to take me to the Pench Tiger Reserve. I’m heading south to the middle of Madhya Pradesh and two tiger reserves. At the airport I’m getting my travel legs back.
Morris takes the name of her book from a Thomas Mann quote, “He would go on a long journey. Not far. Not all the way to the tigers.” But Morris, who felt trapped while housebound after recovering from surgeries to fix her ankle, had traveled to all corners of the world. So why not go all the way to the tigers? She explains the human interest in tigers.
The solitude and wildness of the tiger reaches into our most primitive selves. Perhaps they are a reminder of another time when we too roamed free. Instead of tied down as we are by time and space, by mortgages and jobs and family obligations.
Morris’s memoir is structured in short chapters, some just a sentence or paragraph, jumping back and forth between the past and present, including her dysfunctional family, failed relationships, teaching writing as a young single mother, and remarrying. She also sprinkles in facts and news stories about tigers.
The tiger has been around for more than two million years. Humans have always known the tiger. In Asia there is no place in memory that a tiger does not roam. In the jungles of India or the taiga of Siberia, what lurks out there, what you can hear breathing as if you are the one being hunted, is she.
By she, Morris is referring to tigers; she notes that tigers are indicated in the feminine until it’s determined otherwise. Tigers, she feels, are misunderstood. They are not in fact drawn to kill humans, but rather animals on four legs. So workers in the field, on their hands and knees, are sometimes prey but mistakenly.
Morris’s problems begin before she leaves New York and comes down with a virus that will spiral out of control when she arrives in India. She also encounters an unusual cold front for which even the locals are unprepared. Her guide Girish tries to help.
On the median strip a herd of feral white pigs with piglets grazes. Sacred cows promenade through the middle of the business district. I use the facilities as Girish gets me more cough drops and whiskey, of which I take a hearty swig. Back on the highway a snowy egret smashes into our windshield, bounces into the middle of the road, then flies away, apparently unscathed.
Morris is concerned about poachers, the greatest threat to the tigers’ existence. In India, efforts are being taken to protect tigers and protect them, namely through an organization called Project Tiger, started almost fifty years ago in 1973 to keep the Bengal tiger in the wild, not on someone’s wall. The Indian government has given hundreds of millions of US dollars’ worth of support to oppose poachers and relocate villagers.
The goal is to create a larger buffer zone so that tigers can move freely and, as you can imagine, minimize tiger/human interaction.
And for the most part, initiatives like Project Tiger have been successful. Morris writes that the biggest threat to the tiger population—now that circuses like Barnum and Bailey have folded—is the penchant for tiger parts in Chinese traditional medicine.
In the end, the book, of course, is about the “all the way” part, not the tigers.