The Leopard

The author forged an unlikely friendship with a big cat—but did it come at a price?

October 11, 2018 Updated 16:25 IST
2018-09-27T16:19:01+05:30
The Leopard Illustration by Titas Panda

I FIRST SAW THE LEOPARD when I was crossing the small stream at the bottom of the hill. The ravine was so deep that for most of the day it remained in shadow. This encouraged many birds and animals to emerge from cover during the hours of daylight. Few people ever passed that way. As a result, the ravine had become a little haven of wildlife, one of the few natural sanctuaries left near Mussoorie. Below my cottage was a forest of oak and maple and Himalayan rhododendron. A narrow path twisted its way down through the trees, over an open ridge where red sorrel grew wild, and then down steeply through a tangle of wild raspberries, creeping vines and the slender ringal bamboo. At the bottom of the hill, the path led on to a grassy verge, surrounded by wild dog roses. The stream ran close by the verge, tumbling over smooth pebbles, over rocks worn yellow with age, on its way to the plains and to the little Song river and finally to the sacred Ganga.

It was early April and the wild roses were flowering. There were still yellow and blue primroses on the hill slopes, saxifrage growing in the rocks, and an occasional late-flowering rhododendron providing a splash of crimson against the dark green of the hill.

I walked down to the stream almost every day, after two or three hours of writing. I had lived in the cities far too long, and had returned to the hills to renew myself, to get rid of some of the surplus flesh that had gathered about my waist and to write a novel.

Nearly every morning, and sometimes during the day, I heard the cry of the barking deer. And in the evening, walking through the forest, I disturbed parties of khaleej pheasant. The birds went gliding down the ravine on open, motionless wings. I saw pine martens and a handsome red fox; I recognized the footprints of a bear.

As I had not come to take anything from the jungle, the birds and animals soon grew accustomed to my face. Or possibly they recognized my footsteps. After some time, my approach did not disturb them. A spotted forktail, which at first used to fly away, now remained perched on a boulder in the middle of the stream while I got across it. The forktail’s plumage blended with the rocks and running water, so that the bird was difficult to spot at a distance, but the white ‘Cross of St Andrew’ across its back eventually gave it away, its sharp, creaky call following me up the hillside.

The langurs in the oak and rhododendron trees, who would at first go leaping through the branches at my approach, now watched me with curiosity as they munched the tender green shoots of the oak. The young ones scuffled and wrestled like boys, while their parents groomed each other’s coats, stretching themselves out on the sunlit hillside. But one evening, as I passed, I heard them chattering in the trees, and I was not the cause of their excitement.

As I crossed the stream and began climbing the hill, the grunting and chattering increased, as though the langurs were trying to warn me of some hidden danger. A shower of pebbles came rattling down the steep hillside, and I looked up to see a sinewy orange-gold leopard poised on a rock about 20 feet above me.

It was not looking towards me, but had its head thrust attentively forward in the direction of the ravine. It must have sensed my presence, though, because slowly it turned its head to look down at me. It seemed a little puzzled at my presence there; when, to give myself courage, I clapped my hands sharply, the leopard sprang away into the thickets, making no sound as it melted into the shadows.

I had disturbed the animal in its quest for food. But a little later I heard the cry of a barking deer as it fled through the forest; the hunt was still on.

The leopard, like other members of the cat family, is nearing extinction in India, and I was surprised to find one so close to Mussoorie. Probably deforestation had driven the deer into this green valley; the leopard, naturally, had followed.

It was some weeks before I saw the leopard again, although I was often made aware of its presence. A dry, rasping cough sometimes gave it away. At times I felt almost certain I was being followed. In May and June, when the hills were brown and dry, it was always cool and green near the stream. The hill station’s summer visitors had not discovered this haven; I was beginning to feel that the place belonged to me, that dominion was mine.

The stream had at least one other regular visitor, the spotted forktail, and though it did not fly away at my approach, it became restless if I stayed too long, and then it would move from boulder to boulder uttering a long, complaining cry. I spent an afternoon trying to discover the bird’s nest, which I was certain contained her young, because I had seen the parent bird carrying grubs in her bill. The problem was when the bird flew upstream I had difficulty in following her rapidly enough, as the rocks were sharp and slippery. Slowly making my way upstream, decorated in bracken fronds, I hid myself in the hollow stump of a tree, at a spot where the forktail often disappeared. I had no wish to rob the bird of its young; I was simply curious to see its home.

By crouching down, I was able to command a view of a small stretch of the stream and the sides of the ravine; but I had done little to deceive the forktail, who continued to object strongly to my presence so near her home. I summoned up my reserves of patience, and sat perfectly still for about 10 minutes, when the forktail quietened down. Out of sight, out of mind! But where had she gone? Probably into the walls of the ravine where, I felt sure, she was guarding her nest. So I decided on trying to take her by surprise, and jumped up like a jack-in-the-box, in time to see—not theforktail on her doorstep, but the leopard, bounding away with a grunt of surprise! Two urgent springs and it had crossed the stream and plunged into the forest.

Needless to say, I was as astonished as the leopard, and forgot all about the forktail and her nest. Had the leopard been following me again? I decided against this possibility. Only man-eaters follow humans, and, so far as I knew, there had never been a man-eater in the vicinity of Mussoorie.

During the monsoon the stream became a rushing torrent, and the friendly murmur of the water became a threatening boom. I did not visit too often, but it was always worthwhile tramping through the forest to feast my eyes on the foliage that sprang up in profusion.

One day I found the remains of a barking deer, which had been partially eaten. I wondered why the leopard had not hidden the remains of his meal, and decided it must have been disturbed while eating. Then, climbing the hill, I met a party of shikaris. They asked me if I had seen a leopard. I said I had not. They said they knew there was a leopard in the forest. Leopard-skins, they told me, were selling in Delhi at over a thousand rupees each! Of course there was a ban on the export of skins, but they gave me to understand that there were ways and means …

I thanked them for their information and walked on, feeling uneasy. The shikaris had seen the carcass of the deer, and they had seen the leopard’s pug marks, and they kept coming to the forest. Almost every evening I heard their guns banging away; for they were ready to fire at almost anything.

“There’s a leopard about,” they always told me. “You should carry a gun.”

“I don’t have one,” I said.

There were fewer birds to be seen, and even the langurs had moved on. The red fox did not show itself; the pine martens, who had become quite bold, now dashed into hiding at my approach. The smell of one human is like the smell of any other.

And then the rains were over and it was October and I could lie in the sun, on sweet-smelling grass, and gaze up through a pattern of oak leaves into a blinding-blue heaven. I thought no more of the men. I had seen them as their species Homo sapiens, and not as individuals. My attitude to them was similar to the attitude of the denizens of the forest. They were men, unpredictable, and to be avoided if possible.

On the other side of the ravine rose Pari Tibba, Hill of the Fairies, a bleak, scrub-covered hill, where no one lived. It was said, in the previous century Englishmen tried building their houses there, but the area attracted lightning. After several houses had been struck down, the settlers had moved on to the next hill, where the hill station now stands. To the hill-men, it is Pari Tibba, haunted by the spirits of a pair of ill-fated lovers who perished there in a storm; to others it is known as Burnt Hill, for its scarred and stunted trees.

One day, I climbed Pari Tibba—a stiff undertaking, because there was no path to the top and I had to scramble up a precipitous rock face. But at the top was a plateau with a few pine trees, their upper branches catching the wind and humming softly. There I found the ruins of what must have been the houses of the first settlers—just piles of rubble, now overgrown with weeds, sorrel, dandelions and nettles.

As I walked through the roofless ruins, I was struck by the silence that surrounded me, the absence of birds and animals, the sense of complete desolation. The silence was so absolute that it seemed to be shouting in my ears. But there was something else of which I was becoming increasingly aware: the strong feline odour of one of the cat family.

I paused and looked about. I was alone. There was no movement of dry leaf or loose stone. The ruins were for the most part open to the sky. Their rotting rafters had collapsed and joined together to form a passage like the entrance to a mine; this dark cavern seemed to lead down into the ground.

The smell was stronger when I approached this spot, so I stopped again and waited there, wondering if I had discovered the lair of the leopard, wondering if the animal was now at rest after a night’s hunt. Perhaps it crouched there in the dark, watching me, recognizing me, knowing me as the man who walked alone in the forest without a weapon. I like to think that he was there, that he knew me, and that he acknowledged my visit in the friendliest way: by ignoring me.

Perhaps I had made him confident—too confident, too careless, too trusting of the human in his midst. I did not venture any further; I was not out of my mind. I did not seek physical contact, or even another glimpse of that beautiful sinewy body, springing from rock to rock. It was his trust I wanted, and I think he gave it to me.

But did the leopard, trusting one man, make the mistake of bestowing his trust on others? Did I, by casting out all fear—my own fear, and the leopard’s protective fear—leave him defenceless?

Next day, coming up the path from the stream, shouting and beating drums, were the shikaris. They had a long bamboo pole across their shoulders. Slung from the pole, feet up, head down, was the lifeless body of the leopard. It had been shot dead.

“We told you there was a leopard!” they shouted.

I walked home through the silent forest. It was very silent, almost as though the birds and animals knew that their trust had been violated. I remembered the lines of a poem by D. H. Lawrence; as I climbed the steep and lonely path to my home, the words beat out their rhythm in my mind: “There was room in the world for a mountain lion and me.”

 

Excerpted from A Time For All Things: Collected Essays and Sketches by Ruskin Bond, written over a period of 60 years; published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi 2017

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