One possible theme of Ruskin Bond’s story “The Tiger in the Tunnel” is that existence is a cycle of inevitable life and death. Even the strong must die, but life must also go on.
Ruskin’s story describes a poor Indian father, Baldeo, who works as a watchman at a remote rural train stop in India. His special job is to make sure that a tunnel, through which the train must pass, is unobstructed. The signal that no obstruction exists is a lit lamp, which Baldeo must ensure remains lit after he first makes sure that the tunnel is clear.
One night Baldeo’s small son, Tembu, has accompanied his father to the station. While the boy sleeps in the station’s hut, his father makes his way toward the tunnel as the train approaches. Although he has heard legends of a man-eating tiger who lives near the tunnel, he doubts that the tales are true. Besides, he is carrying with him his trusted axe, which he has used before to fight and kill animals.
When Baldeo hears a peculiar noise near the tunnel, he knows at once that the sound must have come from a tiger. Almost immediately the tiger begins to make its way toward him. Yet Baldeo is confident, since he has his axe. He manages to inflict grievous wounds on the tiger, but ultimately the tiger kills him. The tiger himself, however, is soon killed by the approaching train. Its severed body is found attached to the train at the next stop. As the story ends, Tembu has taken over his father’s job, and he also has come into possession of his father’s trusted axe, which he now knows how to use.
Ruskin’s story is an unblinking depiction of the harshness of life. Although the story momentarily leads us to suspect that Baldeo will prevail in his combat with the tiger, the story lacks a fairy-tale ending. Baldeo is killed, but the tiger dies as well. Each is overwhelmed by a superior force. The story shows that death – often violent death – is an inevitable part of the cycle of life, even for creatures (such as Baldeo and the tiger) who are strong, brave, and skillful.
In one of the most memorable moments in the story, the narrator describes the confrontation between Baldeo and the tiger:
Baldeo, however, was ready. With a marvellously agile leap he avoided the paw and brought his axe down on the animal’s shoulder. The tiger gave a roar and attempted to close in. Again Baldeo drove his axe which caught the tiger on the shoulder, almost severing the leg. To make matters worse, the axe remained stuck in the bone, and Baldeo was left without a weapon.
The tiger, roaring with pain, now sprang upon Baldeo, bringing him down and then tearing at his broken body. It was all over in a sharp few minutes. Baldeo was conscious only of a searing pain down his back, and then there was blackness and the night closed in on him forever.
Both the tiger and Baldeo are strong, agile, and determined. The reader might first assume that Baldeo will prevail. After Baldeo dies, the reader might then assume that the tiger, at least, will somehow survive. Instead, both creatures die, but, at the end of the story, Tembu is able and ready to assume his father’s responsibilities. Life goes on, partly because living things are determined to make sure that it does. The story seems to suggest that although overwhelming forces can destroy individual lives, life itself is far more difficult to extinguish.