How a tiger from Kerala found his way into a French school - Hindustan Times

How a tiger from Kerala found his way into a French school

Aug 11, 2023 09:05 PM IST

Claire Le Michel’s book about a royal Bengal tiger named George explores themes of freedom, conflict and connection, and is now in use in French schools.

A gnarly old tiger named George, who once terrorised villages in Wayanad and lived out his final years at the Thiruvananthapuram zoo, is now part of school lessons in France.

(Photo: Dr Jacob Alexander) PREMIUM
(Photo: Dr Jacob Alexander)

Writer and performing artist Claire Le Michel’s The Mysterious Journal of Mr Carbon Crow: The Story of George is fictional, but its key characters are real. There’s the Bengal tiger George, the devoted veterinarian “Doctor” (based on Dr Jacob Alexander, chief veterinary surgeon at the zoo), and the travelling poet (Le Michel) struck by the bond she sees between a kind man and a trapped animal.

The bilingual children’s book, translated from the French to the English by Jerome Gordon and published by France’s Le Verger des Hesperides, was released in January. It was added to the study material of a school in the French town of Parthenay for 2023-24. Fifth-grade students (aged 10 to 11) read it and recorded their impressions in writing and art, as an exercise in comprehension and expression, and as a means of exploring the tale’s larger themes — of freedom, the tragedy of human-animal conflict, and our vital connections with nature. Two more schools in the region have adopted the book for similar exercises too.

Le Michel, 52, first met George while in Kerala on a three-month artist residency, in 2019. “He had the look of a battle-ravaged boxer who has seen better days,” she says. It turned out that he had.

On one of her visits, Dr Alexander told her the story of how George was chased out of his territory by a younger tiger, and began hunting cattle in fields and villages. When he was captured, aged 16, the forest department found that he was also very sick. “He was covered in maggot-infested wounds. He could barely lift his neck. He also suffered from a deadly respiratory infection of the lungs caused by parasites that are the main cause of death in tigers in Wayanad,” says Dr Alexander, who nursed him back to health.

By 2019, George had been in his cage for four years. He spent most of the day lying perfectly still, amid the babble of those who had come to gawk at him. “I visited him several times, wondering what was going on in his head. He had the most expressive eyes,” Le Michel says.

Then the artist returned home, the pandemic hit; and trapped in her home in France, her thoughts returned to the big cat, “who was born free”. “He reminded me a lot of my grandfather who had to live in a special home for the aged,” she says. “Whenever they tried to lock him in, because he tended to wander off, he found a way to escape and find refuge under a tree. Nature always felt like home to him, just like for George.”

In 2020, Le Michel started a blog about the tiger. Not long after, in December 2021, George died, aged 22. That’s when she decided to take his story to a wider audience, with a book.

As with the blog, which contained puzzles and games, the book is experimental in format. The first half, for instance, is presented as the journal of Carbon Crow, a creative character who is funny, wordly wise and, most importantly, free to roam the zoo. He carries nuggets of information between the caged animals, often responding to questions of despair such as, “Why can’t we sometimes be let out of our cages?”

The second half is a tale of love, acceptance and reconciliation. For months after he recovered, in real life, George could not adapt to his new home. He was unhappy and aggressive. “Slowly he came to accept that we were his friends and began greeting me with the ever-so-minimal movement of his tail when I called out to him,” says Dr Alexander. Both man and animal are victims of circumstance, Le Michel says. The book explores this helplessness with empathy.

“I have always been against keeping animals in captivity,” the author adds, “but when I saw Dr Alexander’s unconditional love and dedication, I realised that life isn’t always about concepts that you believe in. It’s also about the connections you forge along the way.”

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    Anesha is a features writer, sometimes a reader, who loves to eat and plan fitness goals she can never keep. She writes on food, culture and youth trends.

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