In the “Tiger in the Tunnel,” Ruskin Bond captures many complex relationships in just a few pages: between father and son, man and wild, and boyhood and duty. I’ll discuss how all these relationships play a part in ridding Tembu of fear. As the story opens, twelve-year-old Tembu and his father Baldeo are in a hut near a tiny railway station at the edge of a thick forest. Right after the station, a sharp cutting leads into a mountain tunnel that trains pass through. The forest, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, is a haunt of wild boar and panthers; the night is pitch-dark and moonless and the “deathly stillness of the surrounding jungle was broken only occasionally by the shrill cry of a cicada.” Thus, Bond builds up an eerie, foreboding atmosphere from the get go.
Baldeo’s job at the station is that of a khalasi, or a railway watchman, "responsible for signalling whether or not the tunnel was clear of obstruction." Baldeo's manual signal - a lamp - stands before the entrance to the tunnel. "At night it was his duty to see that the lamp was burning, and that the overland mail passed through safely."
As the time for the night train approaches, Baldeo leaves the hut with his lamp. Tembu asks if he should come along, but Baldeo tells him to stay in as it is very cold outside. Baldeo heads out towards the tunnel.
On entering the cutting with its sheer rock walls towering high above the rails, Baldeo could not help thinking about the wild animals he might encounter. He had heard many tales of the famous tunnel tiger, a man-eater, which was supposed to frequent this spot; he hardly believed these stories for since his arrival at this place a month ago, he had not seen or even heard a tiger.
However, things turn ominous when Baldeo hears a low grunt resounding from the top of the cutting. Familiar with the ways of the jungle, Baldeo immediately knows this is the characteristic sound of a tiger. He is alert in an instance, grasping firmly the small axe his own father gave him. Baldeo is afraid the tiger might head towards the hut where Tembu lies asleep, but before he can react, he sees the huge animal enter the cutting.
Before a minute had passed he made out the huge body of the tiger trotting steadily towards him. Its eyes shone a brilliant green in the light from the signal lamp.
Baldeo knows trying to run out the tiger is useless now; besides with his axe he is poised for a good fight with the tiger. The tiger, a habitual man-eater, pounces at Baldeo, but Baldeo manages to injure it badly with his axe. Disastrously, the axe gets stuck in the tiger’s shoulder and the animal gains on Baldeo, ripping apart his body. In a few minutes, everything is over. Yet Baldeo has managed to hurt the animal before his death, and the tiger stops to lick its wounds. Meanwhile the mail train is fast approaching the cutting. To escape it, the bewildered tiger enters the narrow tunnel, and gets trapped between the train and the tunnel's walls. The train runs over it, and the tiger dies too.
At the next station the driver slowed down and stopped his train to water the engine. He got down to stretch his legs and decided to examine the head-lamps. He received the surprise of his life; for, just above the cow-catcher lay the major portion of the tiger, cut in half by the engine.
Significantly, the part of the tiger’s body with the axe stuck in it has been left behind.
Back at the cutting, Tembu has come out in search of his father. Finding Baldeo's body, he cradles it in his arms, sobbing bitterly. Yet he is afraid no longer. One, because Tembu now has his father’s axe, the same axe that wounded the tiger. The axe is a symbol of their relationship, as well as Tembu’s relationship with his ancestors. The small but deadly axe is something their tribe has always carried, and wielded when needed. It is now both a useful weapon for him, as well as a talisman of ancestral protection.
Two, the tiger who killed his father is also dead. Thus, the forest gods have righted a wrong. In its propensity for human flesh, the tiger was violating a fundamental law of the jungle and nature has punished it for that transgression. Here, Bond also highlights the complex relationship between wild animals and communities living in the wild. To someone living in the city, a tiger represents an endangered creature who must be saved at all costs. However, for forest communities, a creature like a tiger can be a real threat. That is why even animals need to maintain the balance of nature. In Bond's story, now that natural balance has been restored, Tembu is afraid no longer.
Lastly, Tembu cannot afford to be scared for too long. As the older son and only male of his family, he has to assume his father’s responsibilities. He has to leave behind his boyhood for the call of duty. To support his mother and younger sister, Tembu takes on Baldeo’s job and is back at the station after three nights, unafraid, softly singing to himself in the dark.