All the Way to the Tigers by Mary Morris

ALL THE WAY TO THE TIGERS: A MEMOIR, by Mary Morris, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 240 pages, $26.95, available Tuesday, June 9

Is the tiger nearer than you think?

Becoming impatient with this book while also loving this book is a distinct possibility, fair warning. It includes exasperating statements made by a person of some privilege along with enlightening observations about nature and the animal kingdom made by the very same person, often when she is in a stressful environment, with equal frequency. The former come under the subhead “Brooklyn” or “New York” and the latter under the subhead “India.” Travel awakens the author’s powers of mindful observation and astuteness.

For instance, in the privilege department, at home in New York City, Mary Morris may see someone doing the New York Times crossword puzzle on a Thursday and say, “so I’m impressed,” because Thursday’s puzzle is orders of magnitude more difficult than Monday’s; or she may casually mention her education at Harvard and Columbia universities, or that a friend’s been “working on a Fulbright in Hyderabad.” Even her diction hints at a relatively upmarket existence, as when, while tracking a tiger by way of closely listening to the wild, Morris calls her Indian guide Ajay Bahare “some kind of sommelier of sound.”

But the author’s respect for Ajay’s ability is immense and genuine; she admires his depth of knowing, something that she herself seeks. When Ajay asks whether she can hear a particular intonation, she responds, “I’m not sure what I hear. It sounds like a squeak that may be miles away.” But he says, “That is sambar deer warning spotted deer. The tiger is near.’” What they each can hear comes to reveal what they each know and do not know.

Connecting the wild to her own life. Morris tries to understand the world through the tiger’s surroundings. She will note: “Tigers have no natural enemies, but they fear anything white. White does not appear in their dense jungle world. White is emptiness, blankness. They have no camouflage against it.” After this contention, which she supports well, Morris offers a parallel biographical detail: “I’m standing outside with my nanny who is dressed in white — a whiteness that is blinding.”

The result is that Morris offers a travel memoir about two distinct journeys: her recovery in home territory from an accident that occurs while ice skating and also a visit to India to seek a spiritual awakening that she hopes will manifest an encounter with a Bengal tiger in the wild. In both cases, meaningful or terrible things happen when Morris is tired. The twain meet when, in recovery from her injury, she’s brought up short by a statement in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: “He would go on a journey. Not far. Not all the way to the tigers.” It is at this moment, after reading these words, that Morris decides to bolt past all her comfort zones and seek a tiger in the wild. This is also when the author’s defiance, dishevelment, and hopefulness make it gratifying to root for her.

Parallel challenges. Much like her experience growing up with a difficult mother and angry father, India almost defeats Morris. In little ways and big ways. Early on, she says, “Mostly I roam to get away from my mother. She and I have a fractious relationship even when I am small.” And the author’s way of being seems unsettled by life in India. For instance, she can’t cross a busy street in Delhi to pick up food even when hungry because she fears the wild traffic patterns and apparently meaningless red, green, and yellow lights. She “stands like a nonswimmer before the sea,” and Morris “can’t bear the humiliation of arriving in India and dying on my way to eat a bowl of curry.” She is also often uncomfortably cold and suffers through some viral illnesses while traveling. “The minute I arrive in Delhi, I know I’ve packed the wrong clothes.”

The discomforts Morris experiences on her travels — no hot water in the shower, a cold room at the inn, a fever, bumpy jeep rides, hot water bottles whose warmth quickly fades — are nothing when compared to the miseries people on the streets endure, and she’s conscious of the disparity. In fact, Morris tends not to complain about her tourist world. Whatever physical discomforts happen while traveling, “I feel safer on a mountain pass, in the snake-infested jungle, or sleeping on a straw mat in some funky border town than I ever did at home.”

Silent is an anagram for listen, she notes. Morris learns from her guides how crucial listening is in her search: the sound of different birds’ wings, the manner in which deer run. “ ‘You don’t look for the tiger,’ Ajay tells me at one of our stops. ‘You will never find her. You look for the signs of the tiger.’ ” Understanding insights such as these influence whether Morris will in fact ever come upon what she seeks. No spoilers here, but the armchair traveler who accompanies her may find both journeys — the harrowing one at home and the far-flung, hopeful one abroad —well worth taking. — Patricia Lenihan/Special to The New Mexican

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