Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jungle Tales

How My Aunt Escaped a Leopard Attack

It looks as though the wild is reclaiming the little hill-station of Coonoor where I spent my indescribably idyllic school-days; a sort of gradual descent into those dark and savage pre-British days before the English partially tamed our country. It seems improbable to those who now live in the great cities of Mumbai and Bangalore and even Cochin and Coimbatore, but once upon a time, the beasts that find a place in the books of Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett used to roam the land, monarchs of their own little kingdoms.

My story is set in a day where the only wild animals we've seen are in zoos or national parks, living under the aegis of care-takers and naturalists, and stared at by camera-holding tourists in brightly coloured clothing and sunglasses. It begins with a deluge, and ends with a deliverance, and while the title might not be quite grammatically accurate, you will see the reason for it soon enough.

Owing to recent torrential rains in the Nilgiris, there have been 54 land-slides along the road from Mettupalayam to Ooty. Forty-two people were killed, either by the collapse of their homes, or by drowning in the fierce mountain streams that over-flowed their banks and devoured near-by houses. Villages have been obliterated, literally washed off the face of the slopes. The roads between the hill-station towns are mostly impassable, some cracked clean down the middle, and the government estimates a year of work before repairs can be completed. I say this only to paint a picture of what once was a neat, quaint little English colonial town to all intents and purposes (where a mere 65 years ago, the Club house bore a notice saying "No dogs or Indians allowed.")

So now imagine if you will, four days of darkness, howling wind and an unceasing tempest of rain so heavy that visibility was zero. Many heroic rescues were carried out that we will probably never hear about, by people we've never heard of before - the kind of bravery that is least glorified and most terrifying to saviour and saved alike.
The working class in Coonoor live in small houses high on the mountains, isolated little pockets of humanity amidst rolling tea estates. My aunt Geetha (yes, the one of "House of Four Women" fame) heard from her milkman that most of his village was swept away. On one of the four nights, he was startled out of restless sleep by a cry of "Help!" from a neighboring hut.

Now, to go out in the black dead of night, in a rain strong enough to wash your house away, requires no mean degree of courage. And I don't think I, or anyone I know here would - even could - have done it. But go out the men did, in that downpour and darkness, and saved an old man who had woken up only to find the water level in his crumbling house up to his neck. He and his family were lifted out through the roof - there was no other way - but this is only one incident among many during those dark nights, and there were enough attempts that didn't have endings quite as happy.

The rains stopped eventually as all rains do, even Biblical ones as Noah discovered; and the people had to get up and get out and face devastation. The lucky ones whose houses had not suffered had still been imprisoned inside without light and sleep, or electricity for that matter.

My uncle and aunt belonged to the latter class of people. Geetha mema, who is probably the world's most restless woman - she suffers from insomnia and obsessive house-keeping on good days - was afflicted with a touch more cabin fever than the rest, and therefore resolved to go on a walk that afternoon. Coonoor is a great place for retired people who like going on walks, and my aunt has her own group of old women who took these daily constitutionals.

On that day, she and an elderly aunty (whom everyone calls Ammachi and who is 69 years old), decided to take the road less taken, a beautiful winding path through the estates that they normally tended to avoid because of its profusion of wild bison. These bison were beautiful animals, accustomed to humans because of the estate workers, and hence no real danger, but on occasion, herds of them block the roads and not even a brave man would risk passing through them.

Rumours of leopards and bears abounded, but were largely discounted by stern, practical and firm-minded women like my aunt and her friends. They briskly meandered (an intentional oxymoron; even briskly, at 52 and 69 the best you can hope for is a fast-paced saunter) through that lovely estate, and it must have been truly lovely - you've never really seen natural beauty until you've seen a hill-station after a heavy rain, blushing and glowing like a young bride.
On their way back, aching muscles called for a short stop, and a small stone wall beckoned invitingly. They were resting there, delighting in the warm sunshine after the rain, little thinking that something else was enjoying the sunlight too, when a man driving by on a bike halted and called to them.

Roads, or paths, through an estate are narrow, constructed one below the other and divided by rows of tea bushes. Seated where they were, Ammachi and my aunt were looking down at the man on the road below them.
"Yein inge ukkararingo?!", he called out. (Why are you sitting there?!)
"Mele chiritha irukku!" (There's a panther above you!")

And so saying, he sped off.

Exactly what Geetha mema and Ammachi were feeling at this point, I leave to your imagination. It wasn't due to old age that they got up slowly and with quivering knees, and turned slowly around to look at what was facing them.

A couple of roads above and behind them, on a big jutting boulder, lay a leopard, sunning itself and licking its paws, looking for all the world like a monster cat who'd just caught a sparrow.
From their position, only its head and shoulders were visible, and as they turned, the leopard looked up and right at them, right, in fact, into my aunt's eyes.

I think for a minute the world must have stood quite still, holding its breath. And then slowly, very slowly, still with its eyes on them, the leopard lowered its head and continued licking its paws.

Ammachi and Geetha mema backed away, as quietly as they could, from that terror among the tea bushes, and kept walking until they turned the curve of the road, whither there was a mad silent rush back to my aunt's home, a scant 0.5 kilometres away. Whereupon they collapsed and thought exquisitely prayerful thoughts of gratitude. Also penitent thoughts of how maybe the bears weren't just a rumour either.

I regret to say that this hasn't stopped them from taking their walks, although I doubt they'll make their way through that particular estate again in this life.

Now you realise why the title makes sense - I did say that my aunt escaped a leopard attack - she did, very narrowly, and providentially, escape being attacked by one. And one that wasn't in a zoo. Or even a national park.
Because it isn't every day you can look a leopard in the eye, and walk away with no more injuries than an increased heart-rate and worn out soles.

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