It was close to 4 in the evening. The summer sun was on us and after having streamed along the dusty veins of the jungle for about 2 hours, straining our senses to discern the bronzed hide or the sounds of snapping twigs or the feral scent of the King, a somnolence had crept over us and we were lumbering along just watching the forest running away from us when with practiced casualness our guide patted the driver's shoulder signaling him to stop.
"I think its a Lioness" he said, his voice down to whisper, with a slight frown on his face and his nostrils flaring trying to breathe in more of that bestial odor.
One thing that can instantly sharpen your numbed senses is the news of a wild beast prowling about in your vicinity.
"Where?! Where is it?!!" I asked, almost managing not to cry out aloud while gesticulating frantically with a bobbing thumbs-up.
He looked in the approximate direction, his eyes narrowed in concentration trying to isolate a feline figure from the thicket.
"There! But It’s a… it’s a Leopard!!" He cried out in a hushed tone, his finger pointing in the direction. I followed his finger with my eyes. I saw nothing.
"Where is... "My enquiry was cut short by a slight fluid movement.
10 meters away from where we were, flashing its lurid spotted coat shimmering in the light, relaxed yet watchful, stood the Leopard.
It is simply magical how such a brilliant body could merge itself with the green to near invisibility. I just stood there looking at the spotted beauty. The fine head which dipped with such delightful grace from a thick neck, a conduit stuffed with steel bands, attached to an elegantly undulating torso supported on limbs carved out of iron, rippling under the brilliant sheath, made an undeniable statement of power. What struck me as the most remarkable aspect of this fine animal is how it carries so great a power with such grace and moves with such fluidity that it could as well be a part of a Bach's Legato.
"Strange! I thought I smelled a Lioness" said the guide broodingly.
"She’s beautiful..." I said, sounding like somebody in love.
He flashed a smile at me and said, "You should see the Lioness. It is the kind of beauty which demands respect and inspires fear but not.. not love."
"Why is that?" I probed even though he was looking away from me. It seemed to me as if he was looking at nothing in particular. "You will know when you see her" he said without stopping to look at me.
Meanwhile, the Leopard kept more or less still and was just shuffling her feet from time to time as if she was speculating something of great gravity. We got busy capturing the moment, goading the leopard silently to pose for the camera.
After a while, we decided to leave the girl in her private moment and move on. Just when our driver stepped on the throttle and the jeep strained forward, we heard a deafening roar. A thunderous cry almost splitting our ears. For a moment I was lost envisaging the pharynx in operation that could produce such an insufferable din. It seemed as if the jungle resonated in unison with the vocal chords, producing an amplified effect calculated to annihilate any and all eardrums in the vicinity. The jeep was halted and all heads turned in the direction of the roar. I saw nothing. I looked at the spot where the Leopard was standing a minute back. I saw nothing.
I turned to see the Guide. His face strained with concentration and expectation of action.
"Look!" cried the guide pointing a little further off the Leopard spot.
I spotted the Leopard just as she was lunging for the tree trunk. Her thick neck bulging with strain and her powerful paws gripping the tree trying to haul herself up. The muscles of her fore and hind legs rippling under her skin at every lunge and kick. Even though there was so much power involved in every step of her ascent, the whole act was executed with an unrestrained fluency. With just three calculated leaps, all performed within a fraction of a second with practiced efficiency, the Leopard was on the topmost bough. I don’t know whether my aural adaptation had kicked in or it was the effect Leopard's sublime grace had on me but I hadn’t spotted the Lioness until she threw herself upon the tree, not too far behind the Leopard, making sure she was being heard by all of the jungle. She scraped the bark of the tree with her iron claws and bared her teeth and chewed on the trunk. She kept at it as if she was determined to bite the tree off its stump. She took breaks to look up at the Leopard and snarl at her and the Leopard too bared her teeth in a low rumble which didn’t do much to hide her fear even though she knew that the tree was too high for the lioness to scale.
This fantastic falling-out between two giants of the cat family was so engrossing that only after some peace had been restored in relative terms that the intrigue in it gnawed at me. Why would a Lioness chase a Leopard? What did the Leopard do to upset the Lioness? I was baffled and I communicated my curiosity to my guide.
"Lions and Leopards have been sworn enemies since the very beginning" he said, with an air of an old tribal chief about to relate a legend about his favourite god. "Lions have their territories whose borders they guard with great ferocity. But still the only intruder that Lions can never tolerate is a Leopard because it is the only animal which has the audacity and foolhardiness to hunt down a Lion cub." He continued, with his eyes still fixed on the cats "This Leopard has made a great mistake by entering the Lioness' territory especially when she is with her cubs. It will be lucky to get away alive today."
Meanwhile, the Lioness had stopped mauling the tree and started circling it looking up at the Leopard, roaring and waving her paws in the air and digging up the ground beneath her feet. That is when it dawned upon me what the guide had meant when he said "Respect, Fear.. not Love". The sheer size of the animal was intimidating and add to that the ear-splitting roar and the muscular construct sending tremors through the ground with each contact.
When her majesty was totally sure that the tree-dweller had gotten the message rather clearly that she was to leave immediately and not to return ever unless it was her death wish, she ambled away from the tree still watching the pensive Leopard from the corner of her eye. We were watching intently, to and fro, at both the cats, the furious Lioness and the sheepish Leopard. I looked at the Leopard looking down from the tree for a moment and I looked at the Lioness ambling away in her olympian gait and I looked back at the tree again. The Leopard was gone. Disappeared. She had made her exit from the tree with the same blinding speed at which she climbed it. All we could catch of her departure was the sound of twigs snapping and leaves rustling under her feet. The Lioness looked back, held her gaze for a while and carried on with the satisfaction of a good lesson taught.
"It will never dare to come back again." said the Guide.
And then, it happened. The Lioness. She stopped for the briefest of moments and turned her head in my direction. I was looking straight into her eyes. Anger, aversion and admonition. All fused into one single look. My fear, it seemed to me, had caused the air around me to solidify and provided it with a firm resolve to smother and crush me to a point. Despite my struggle to retrieve myself from the giant fist closing on me, I couldn’t help admire the power she wielded. I couldn’t help envy the natural grace and beauty of what we call a beast.
It is only when we get out of our plastic world, totally devoid of nature and its beauty that you realize how vain, vile and vulnerable we really are.
Written by Pravin Yedla
Captured by Manish Patel