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A Prowl of Leopards

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By Ganesh Saili

Ek khabba! Teh ek passa!’ (One left! The other sideways!) said Brahm Dev, the doyen of Dehradun’s photographers to his household help as he gave her tips on photography while she took pictures of the gathering at his home.

Earlier in the 1940s, Brahm Dev and his brother Raj had arrived in Dehradun after being uprooted from Rangoon during the Burmese disturbances. Starting from scratch they built R. K. Studio on Ashley Hall, very close to where Ruskin Bond had spent his early days writing The Room on the Roof.  We had met at a book release and it was well past midnight when Ruskin and I found ourselves driving along the thirty-four kilometre road back home to Mussoorie in my rinky-dink Maruti.

Little did we know that it would be a night to remember. Rounding a curve above Kothal Gate’s Shiv Mandir, we saw puffs of dust as if something caught in our headlights was trying to escape. Turned out they were three panic-stricken leopard cubs scurrying for cover.

‘Keep going Ganesh!’ mumbled Ruskin. ‘The mother must be prowling around! At this hour, we are intruders.’

Going past above the Galogi Power Station there lay another solitary leopard warming its belly on the sun-baked parapet wall. I slowed down, it twitched its rosette tail as if to say: ‘Go away! Leave me be.’

‘Ah! That’s that!’ said Ruskin.

Or so we thought until I slowed down to take the sharp bend below Sher Garhi, another nocturnal feline larger than the rest, lunged across, missing the car by a whisker, and perched briefly on a boulder before being swallowed by the undergrowth.

Nothing on either side was said.

‘If either you or I were to write about it,’ I said, breaking the silence. ‘Who on earth would believe us?’

Stories of the plenitude of wild animals abounding in these hills led to the birth of this hill station. It is the reason why our pioneers like Frederick Young and John Shore scampered on goat tracks in 1823 and it is the reason why the interned Afghan ruler Amir Dost Mohammed asked to be in Bala Hisar in 1852. In Oak Grove in 1913, a large leopard was shot by Mr. Gibbs in 1913 and in 1924, another feline lost its life to a hunter, Mr. Weldon in Barlowganj.

A recent CCTV grab of a leopard prowling at mid-night along Camel’s Back Road went viral sending shivers down many a spine. This one minute video shows a feline strutting around undisturbed by the honking of car horns in the background. What a glorious sight to see this solitary wanderer in its elements. It knows no haste, going past the Parsi Aramgah next to the lychgate of the cemetery, before swinging through the railing and going back to the forest from whence it had emerged.

Strangely enough, the Landour Cemetery’s burial register records a single entry where the cause of death is ‘mauled by leopard’. In the winter of 1949, on January 8th, a thirty-three year old Clarence Thomas Wyatt was ‘accidentally’ mauled by a panther in Maryville Estate below the old bridle path to Rajpur. He returned to the place where he had shot a leopard at sundown the previous evening. Apparently, the wounded animal attacked Clarence, latching on to his head and despite his brother’s valiant attempts, it ended his life.

Sadly, no leopard bothered Ratti Lala, a moneylender from the 1970s, whose IOUs bore the scribbled signatures of his desperate victims, including many a doomed schoolteacher, trusting headmaster and lonely widows. Personally, I don’t think he would have dared enter a popularity contest.

‘Chunakhala in Jharipani! A bagh’s been lurking there,’ he grinned at Bhola Singh Rawat, the Chairman of the Municipal Board, who once worked at Hakman’s Hotel and was a sure-shot shikari.

‘Let us go, you and I! My car! Your rifle!’ Lala ji gushed. ‘Imagine driving on the Mall Road … the bagh spreadeagled on my car’s roof. It’ll scare the living daylights out of my loan defaulters!’ The good news is that the leopard decided to go on a walkabout. It never did show up.

(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.)