Translated from the Hindi by Vishaal Pathak
Much like the modern-bod conservative-at-heart, a Nazar-Battu , hangs from the top of the grand entrance gate to the posh colony.
Kids underneath, with heavy schoolbags, are hopping on board the AC bus to their public schools. Their modern homemaker moms in capris and t-shirts position the dupatta atop as they see the kids off. Cars are rolling off to offices. Their owner, in backseats, hooked to their phones, barely notice the guards’ salute to them. Barely-teen maids are being eyed by security guards while on way to work.
On the highway, across from the colony, nascent sunrays are blooming in the thicket, marred by clouds of dust. On the other side, the colonizer’s machinery is transporting the last standing forests into level ground. Two tall signboards earmark either side of the highway: Under-construction Neel Jungle City, Newly constructed Neel Jharna City.
One wonders why birds perched atop the glossy palm trees by the colony entrance have abruptly stopped chirping; all else seems about right though. The housewife in the third bungalow in the second row has sent the kids off to school, and the man off to work. She has placed the glossy glass jar full of water in the bedroom upstairs and is now feeding boiled meat to their two German shepherds . She seems quiet and glum. People in this country love a woman who gives, gives, and only gives; and stays quiet in return. Wake by the crack of dawn and prepare for everyone else’s day, once they’ve left—do their dirty dishes, wet towels that have been forgotten on the bed, soiled clothes—and a grand welcome when they’re back, tidy up in their absence; acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives wide and far, all cite this housewife’s example to their own.
Gardens, parks in the middle of the covered campus colony, flower-laden bonsais dotting the silky-smooth streets, and nature at large waits at once with bated breath; all else seems about right though. The elderly couple in the first bungalow in the front row is seated on their balcony. They speak with their sons on their recently-gifted smartphones, in voices loud enough to reach Australia , Norway , London —wherever they’re based.
A Persian cat has begun wailing even though its old, retired and lonely boss lady is in the park nearby, jogging under the Sacred tree; the same trees that were once spared for their artistic crookedness.
Having spent her entire life in a manner classy enough for her liking, the successful woman is left only with the Persian cat to keep her company. Tired by the largeness of her own body, she sits down to do some yoga and concludes she’d take the cat to the vet today.
Like a gust of wind, something goes unnoticed in front of a duplex. There’s busyness in this house. Their newly married daughter returns home for a reunion. There’s seemingly more preparation in place for welcoming the son-in-law. The father left early morning to fetch flowers. The mother wouldn’t tire of cooking the many delicacies and the younger brother is stepping outside with a bucket full of firecrackers. He’s never told his sister though that he reveres her as much as he does his mother.
The wind comes to a halt, as if an invisible being’s breath may have stalled it; all else seems about right as usual. In the second bungalow in the second row, the young working mother is late for the office again; her maid had come in late yet again. Handling the tiffin, laptop, and files as she runs to her car. Her preoccupation gets the better of her again as she forgets to turn around and wave to her ten-month-old daughter, looking on while in her nanny’s arms. Born off a live-in relationship, this offspring that she’s decided not to get married ever for—in favor of her upbringing—she believes it’s the noblest of causes there can be.
As if someone’s around, so it seems; someone undaunted by human might. Something’s about to happen, shrieks the ecology mutedly; all else seems about right as usual about the colony. The two boys in the neighborhood who’ve got the day off due to the school’s annual function, are plugged into their phones, gaming online; breakfast having been served, they’ve even returned the mother from the doorstep… their assertion of the right to privacy deters even parents from counseling them.
Life here is so drunk off its own urgency that the power of intuition has been laid to rest. Nothing, at all, can be sensed. Drowning in their false sense of security has had people turning negligent in their daily duties. The guards at the entrance gate salute a familiar visitor in his limousine, whilst smiling cheekily.
Like an everyday affair, the posh colony seems absorbed in its opulence.
In a fancy bedroom of a duplex, an eleven-year-old house-help is using the vacuum cleaner. The corner by the sofa is adorned by a stuffed deer; her eyes fall on the leopard sitting right behind it. Before shoving the vacuum cleaner towards it, for a moment she fancies playing with it—has the owner’s sons gotten a corpse or a toy in place of a decorative delivered home this time? Or a toy carved out of a corpse? The adolescent craves to play with it, but her mother has instructed not to let greed get the better of her at the workplace.
“Wow! This looks so much like a real one!”—Vacuum cleaner in her hand, no sooner does she move forward than the leopard begins to appear more lifelike… and then right before her eyes, assume an attacking stance, which is when it dawned on her that the toy indeed is a leopard.
The adolescent maid, almost dropped dead for a moment; then ran out without a care in the world.
“Leopard! Leopard! Somebody, help! There’s a leopard in the house!” Her mother has taught her that when caught in trouble, attempt to run and scream. Her frantic cries for help echo through the otherwise dignifiedly silent colony.
“Leopard! A leopard inside! A leopard!”
The idling citizenry stumbles, caught in the suddenness. Every hand has a phone, yet none figure they could use it. They pace—all of them—in the very direction the leopard has been reported.
The adolescent maid has fled the situation. A crowd starts to gather in front of the duplex while the elderly couple remains stranded on the upper floor; the leopard ought to be on the lower. The crowd deliberates on how to help from afar.
“Somebody dial 100.”
“Not the police, no. Call the Forest department.”
“Call up their kids, someone.”
The elderly couple exchanges their new phone between them a few times, hands trembling. What they cannot grasp though is which of their sons to call in this situation. Otherwise, parents of three tremendously successful sons, the duo, in the heat of the moment, drop the phone as it falls to pieces below the balcony.
“Naw; Australia— that’s where the eldest is.”
“Neither London nor Norway! Australia neither! The elderly couple on the balcony above, and a wild cat below—that’s the undeniable reality at present.”
In the ten minutes they’ve been here, the gathering hasn’t sighted a leopard yet, so its presence is becoming a thing of folklore. In fact, someone’s even proffered about the young maid that it isn’t really unbecoming of the poor to go to extremes just to attract some attention.
Nevertheless, the guards were mobilized. The trio dares to peep in through the door, but the leopard’s nowhere to be found.
“We won’t step inside.”
“What are you guys for then?”
“For the salutes! And to fend off beggars. That’s what the Builder Sahib asked us. We weren’t hired to catch a wandering leopard.” The young and untrained guard who came to town last month retreated.
“We cough up so much society maintenance in your name!”
“Sahib, our guns are not real—they’re airguns!”
Aghast—the crowd! To think that the safety of their lives and stock lay in the hands of these untrained unequipped amateurs so far.
The bride’s younger brother had flung in a string of lit firecrackers in the drawing room. A wave of panic broke out amidst the crowd… as the leopard emerged from inside.
To find a live, uncaged, wild leopard among them had caused people to lose their senses. As the leopard prowled and then pounced towards them, the bawling, terror-stricken crowd in their attempt to flee, fall over each other like a stack of boxes. A man who’d fallen face-down, had, on his balding head, writing on the wall scraped, save with his own blood as the animal pawed him over… an obese man who the leopard barely ran behind next suffered an asthma attack. Where’s the nebulizer now that’s always taped to the heart, his breaths are getting rarer. The leopard might just kill him in anticipation. Another woman scampering for life ran into the leopard itself and howled to the skies, unhinging the animal further. Only when someone aimed a flower pot at it from somewhere did the leopard let go of her neck that its jaws were about to slit open. In a colony where no one had ever spoken in a loud tone, their shrieks were reverberating today. Healthy and injured alike go stumbling about but cannot cover any ground. Duly organized for everything under the Sun, these people had never anticipated a run-in with death. Even with death staring her in the face, the bewildered loner lady boss is looking for her Persian cat. The cat’s nowhere to be found, but the lady frantically goes on.
The leopard now takes two steps forward, ten steps back. All around is a sea of flower pots or streets or grass; having lost its sense of direction, it can find neither the jungle nor its den.
The animal dashes into a duplex.
“Baby’s inside. The baby!”
The nanny’s bawling. She’d forgotten to fasten the door when she ran out amidst the commotion. The ten-month-old infant is napping inside her crib.
The petrified nanny dials a number on a loop. The young single-parent mother is busy presenting to her international clients with all her mettle and might. Excusing herself to sip water, she glances at her phone for a fraction of a second. Her daughter seems to be sound asleep in the CCTV footage. She disconnects the maid’s incoming call yet again.
The thirteen-year-old boy hands a friend his smartphone and rushes inside the duplex; there couldn’t possibly be a better chance to be hailed a social media hero for his bravery. Three minutes later, he appears outside with the infant in his arms. The crowd erupts with applause.
The friend asks, “Did you come face-to-face with the leopard?”
“Leopard? Was there a leopard inside? I thought there was a fire.”
The friend stops the live stream.
While everyone’s on the other side, still focused on the leopard, the loner boss lady has found her Persian cat here behind the tiny flower pots. The cat’s overwhelmed with fear; lady-boss-cat-mom sat down with the pet in her tight embrace, unable to balance her weight. The warmth from the embrace travels right into her heart… but is that true still for a malfunctioning heart? Someone’s noticed from afar and is calling for an ambulance; the boss lady has collapsed with the cat still in her clasp.
Somebody ran over to bolt the duplex’s door. Moments later, the leopard leaps from the duplex’s balcony to the next.
The leopard appears in front of them at once. For an instant, the lovers freeze as if the woman’s husband was back home. The duo, more wary of human noise from below than of the animal, who, going by the former’s intensity, seemed to be crowding below now.
A moment ago, who the girlfriend thought was her knight in shining armor, his presence now endangered her more than the leopard. Neither could she run, nor had she the time to clothe herself back up. Lest the leopard should act, the woman scouted around and hurled the fancy glass jar brimming with water.
The leopard either jumped or tumbled down the balcony in its aftermath—between two unleashed German shepherds. The hefty wolf descendants had never been scared of anyone to date. They were lethally trained, brought up on unadulterated flesh. And facing them was a wild cat.
The hounds together declare war against the expert predator from the wild, who’s evidently not at its best. A specially trained duo on one side, and on the other, a talent born and bred in the wild. A talent that from among those abandoned by the mother is chiseled by the jungle like an unforgiving father.
While the trio engages in a bloody fight, there are many in the crowd, standing at a distance, who’s never seen violence outside of WWE and Animal TV. Some bursting with excitement are calling up the fire brigade, the police, the forest department, the media even—whatever contact number they can recall; as if calling for reinforcements. Mothers are running in to drag their straying kids away. The one from the fifth duplex in fact took everyone’s eyes off the leopard. The most glamorous face of the colony—most fashionable too—without makeup, and draped in everyday clothes seem rather ordinary. A tad older too… from the far what seems so magical, so dear; oftentimes appears not as pleasing when near. Colony’s eldest Uncle Ji can be seen flaunting his walking stick, having surfaced after ages. Is life but a race for some trophy, from where you delist waiting only on a permanent exit? As much as the colony seems attractive at the outset, it’s about oddly unfamiliar in equal measure.
After a fierce battle lasting a while, the leopard, soaked in blood, stood up on all its fours—no less than a wrestling world champion. Leaving behind the two hounds on their deathbed, it leaps from the boundary. Right in the middle of the covered campus, and walking through the bonsais, it perches itself on the American grass. People continue to call up and trouble the rescue team on the way for the leopard.
Having crossed the dust storms on the highway, scaring off the birds in the palm trees, traumatizing the Persian cat with its existence, alerting nature around, flying like the wind, and having made its presence felt in the environment to finally reaching here, the leopard now sits silent. The soil beneath the grass soaks up the blood draining from its bruises; the very soil where a majestic river ‘Neel Jharna’ once flowed. The only remains from those times are the two Sacred trees.
The leopard recalls the precise way back—back from quenching its thirst at the river towards the jungle.
It sprints. It leaps and darts and dashes through the colony, the entrance gate, the Nazar-Battu; crosses the highway, and the machinery that’s clamping down the remaining trees of the Neel Jungle and vanishes into whatever’s still left of it.
And while the pandemonium waxed and waned here in the colony, out there in the jungle, no one knows what ensued.