‘Tiger Boy,’ A Story For Kids In Which India’s The Star
There wasn’t much Indian children’s books to read when I was growing up. I read a lot of Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, so I was well acquainted with the ins and outs of being a teenage sleuth in the English countryside and suburban America. But life in other parts of India? Not so much.
Mitali Perkins’s Tiger Boy is the first children’s book I’ve read that is not only set in India, but also features the country as a character. Tiger Boy is set in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal, and the location is integral to the story and characters.
Tiger Boy is the story of Neel, a young boy who lives with his parents and sister, Rupa, in the Sundarbans. Neel loves everything about his home and never wants to leave it, but Headmaster has his hopes pinned on Neel to win a prestigious scholarship to study at a boarding school in Kolkata. Neel’s family encourages him, but Neel just isn’t interested in leaving the Sundarbans or learning maths.
The action starts when Neel hears that a tiger cub has escaped from the reserve and is on his island. Greedy Gupta – the most evil man in the Sundarbans – has offered a reward for the cub, so he can sell it on the black market and make millions. Neel decides to find the cub himself, but must do so without arousing the suspicion of his parents or Headmaster. The determined young character sets himself to stymie Gupta, learning a lesson or two about himself along the way.
There is much to praise about Tiger Boy. It’s a story for kids about good versus evil, standing up for your beliefs, spreading your wings, and changing antiquated customs. Perhaps the most compelling reason Neel has for saving the cub is that he knows the cub will feel safe only once home in the reserve, much like Neel himself feels about the Sundarbans. Neel is too young to see the opportunities of life after boarding school, but he does realise he has the possibility to bring change. Neel realises his world can be unfair to his sister, who stopped going to school after class 4; who isn’t considered for boarding school, as the Sundarbans schools have never sent a girl to compete for the scholarship; who serves Neel and the men first and eats only when they’re done; and who, with their parents, is expected to pay a dowry when she gets married. It’s a testament to his character that the change he envisions isn’t just about a good job or money for himself at the end of the scholarship, but rather it’s about using such things to to take care of his family and help Rupa go back to school for the education she deserves.
There are multiple plots – Neel’s mathematical struggles, the tiger cub hunt, his family’s financial woes – that may confuse a less advanced reader, but Tiger Boy is well written and suitable for kids aged 12 and older. Perkins paints a colourful picture of life in the Sundarbans while creating characters with whom children anywhere will identify. After all — does anyone want extra maths tuitions?