How a tiger in a Kerala zoo became a character in a French writer’s book

Claire Le Michel’s book, 'The Story of George', comes in French and English, and uses a humorous tone to talk about serious subjects.
French writer Claire Le Michel
French writer Claire Le Michel
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The first thing you find adorable about Claire’s book—and there are many—is the lovely, long italicised font, scribbled it would seem, on pages that are chequered, lined, or blank. These are sometimes peppered with what looks like ink blots or perhaps the claw prints of a crow walking over it. You’d prefer the crow version, for there is one on the title of the book—The Mysterious Journal of Mr Carbon Crow - The Story of George. But Carbon Crow is not a crow (neither a human), and the story he tells is of a tiger called George. I told you, the book is an adorable package. It is in French and English, one half the translation of the other, courtesy Jerome Gorden (who converted Claire’s beautiful French into beautiful English). But the best of all is that a tiger called George, a real one, who lived and died in the Thiruvananthapuram zoo, and a few other inhabitants with him, become characters in a part-fictional, part-real book of a French writer.

Claire Le Michel is a writer and performing artist who travels a lot. In one of her many voyages to Kerala, she met George, that strange old tiger in the zoo who was different from the rest. “Because he was born free,” she tells TNM, a few days after a special event at the Alliance France de Trivandrum to launch her book. Popular children’s author Khyrunnisa A, journalist Cynthia Chandran, and the zoo’s chief veterinary doctor Jacob Alexander attended the launch and spoke about Claire’s book.

Claire can’t say enough about how wonderfully Dr Jacob takes care of the animals in the zoo, both in the book and outside. But she was sure, she says, that the story should not be told by a human. So she invented Carbon Crow.

Book release at the Alliance Francaise with Khyrunnisa, Cynthia, Dr Jacob 

I won’t give away the suspense by writing who or what Carbon Crow is, let him reveal it to you in due course. Let us just say Carbon is free and can come in and out of the zoo as he pleases. That is how he sees George and writes about him. Not just him, but also the other animals of the zoo that he is friendly with—a lioness called Gracie and a white tigress called Malar among them (it is this Malar that made the doctor name the tiger George, inspired by the characters in the popular film Premam). A daring one, this Carbon, going so fearlessly to these menacing-looking animals.

The reader warms to Gracie in the very first pages of the book. She, who had been comfortably roaming about a larger enclosure with her partner, is suddenly locked in a smaller cage and when she was least expecting it, gets the shock of her life from her unknown neighbour—that was George growling, after quite a gap. He had been injured badly when he was found in the forests of Wayanad and could not move a muscle for long. This is the real part of the story. George was rescued and brought to the zoo and cured by Dr Jacob and team.

“George came from the forest, he was getting cured. But he was in a cage, exposed to many visitors besides his caregivers. I would ask my students (in writing workshops) to imagine being in George’s place, taken away from the wild life he was used to and caged in a strange place. For months, he was aggressive, but that was his reaction to the situation. Little by little, he began to adapt,” Claire says.

All of that comes out in the book, which refuses to take a serious tone and continues in the light-hearted vein that Carbon Crow talks in. Claire laughs when she talks about her narrator, who she admits can be very annoying at times, and quite a show-off. In the book, Carbon sometimes has asides to talk to his readers, make his remarks, and say aloud his thoughts. After talking to Gracie, who loves humans and watches over them, Carbon says, “You see, I do not agree with Gracie. Certainly, it is not possible to have a conversation with the hominids.”

Many terms come up for humans—hominids, bipeds, and my favourite, the walks-on-two-legs, reminding you gently of George Orwell's Animal Farm. Claire says she had to rethink a lot to forget all that she knew and the tiger did not. She has divided the book into two parts, the first as a journal of Carbon Crow that she ‘finds’, and the second a conversation between her and Carbon through letters. She laughs talking about the friendships that Carbon forms with George and then with her.

It was when COVID-19 struck and she was trapped in the confines of her home in France that Claire began writing George’s story. At the time, these came out as episodes on a blog, simultaneously translated into English by Jerome. It was Claire’s way of dealing with the lockdown. The blog involved quizzes and games. “In the first few episodes, I do not mention that George is a tiger, so we put out a game, asking readers to guess who or what George is. Only one guessed it was a tiger,” she says, laughing.

Claire's intro to the book

Carbon’s revelation comes much later. By then you may have accepted him as a little show-off, yapping nonstop, and surprisingly possessing psychological insights into human and animal behaviour. “How can you reconcile what seems irreconcilable? How can you make the beauty of a tiger visible to those who suffer from its actions?” Carbon writes at one point. At another, he also admires the quality of empathy in humans, “It’s one hell of a skill. I’m amazed.”

Much later in the book, when he and George get friendly, he educates George about many things, including the tiger’s way of life. George is full of questions—why can’t the animals in the zoo be let out free at least for an hour a day, he asks, and Carbon chuckles. He has by then lost all fear of the tiger. George, in turn, recognises him as an ally, someone who gives him information about the world. Carbon explains to George that the tiger is a predator and will be running after the buffalos in the zoo if let free. Claire’s writing is filled with such easy humour. She has an admirable skill to enter the heads of the animals and see the world anew. But she also drops her pearls of wisdom now and again.

“The lion and the tiger can be neighbours only in the zoo, in real life they live in different places far from each other. Human beings, we change so many things,” she says meditatively. Claire believes in animism, she admits, by which neither animal nor human is separate from nature. That story of oneness comes through her book, reading which you’d wonder—it is really so easy to co-exist, but then why don’t we?

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