During my visit to Ranikhet (a beautiful small town set amidst the Great Himalayas in India at about 6000 ft. above sea level) last summer, I met an old watchman, who told me how people live in the mountains. He said that he travels about 6-8 miles a day just to get to work through the mountain trails that a common person wouldn’t reckon with.
I had a loose idea for a story after that meeting, which I’m presenting below. My father, who is an expert in editing short stories, is curently working on refining it, but here’s my raw version.
Sukhia and the LeopardSukhia settled in for the night with his lantern, which kept him company on his nightly vigil around the old guesthouse. He came from a family of watchmen. His father had been a watchman in the times of the British. He had merely continued the family custom. The guesthouse had stood the test of time and its stonewalls bore an imperial identity. The tall pine trees along with oaks and deodars surrounded the hillside where the guesthouse was located.Sukhia had never known the city life and seemed content to live in the hills where he was born. He knew that’s where he would die. The place had shown some signs of wear over the years, but Sukhia had nothing to worry about. Who would want to venture into an old and languishing guesthouse in the middle of nowhere? Even the owners barely visited anymore.
The clock had just struck 11 and Sukhia tried in vain to find the moon. It was another moonless night with nothing but the darkness around. Somewhere down the hill, village folk sang their songs by the fire. He took a deep breath and set out for his rounds.
A puff of wind whistled through the deodars rustling leaves in its trail. He passed the monkeys who were unusually out at this hour. As he neared the outward wall, he saw two eyes shining in the dark. He took little time in determining that only a Leopard would venture out at such hour of the night. In all his time at the guesthouse, however, he had never before seen a Leopard. He stood still for a while at a loss of thoughts. He knew that as long as he did not disturb the creature on the prowl, he had nothing to be scared of. A Leopard would never trespass strange human territory unless he had a strong reason of self-defense.
The monkeys had sensed the Leopard’s presence and Sukhia could feel the uneasiness in their sudden squealing. After a while – the eyes in the bushes disappeared and Sukhia knew that the Leopard had retreated. The night passed without any further excitement. A stray thought kept him awake all night. He thought about the Leopard – and other things.
He did not see the Leopard again for several weeksï¿½ before the sleek creature paid a visit again. It was again a moonless night with some stray puffs of wind blowing through the trees. The sound of rustling leaves was as clear as ever. Sukhia was passing by the front wall when he saw those eyes in the bushes again. Shining like diamonds with brightness piercing into the dark. Now Sukhia had grown up in the hills and had never known a thing such as fear. But the mysterious Leopard staring from behind the bushes had started to give him chills. He again froze for a few moments before the eyes disappeared into the dark. The trend continued for next few days. After a week had passed, Sukhia knew there was only one person who could help him solve this mystery.
Next morning, he found himself waiting for Das at the post-office. No one knew how old Das really was. He could have been sixty or even eighty. He had been the postmaster ever since the Britishers had left and he was still there. Perhaps he had taken roots like the old Deodar trees.
Das kept quiet after Sukhia told him about the strange Leopard. Perhaps he had gone back in time.
And then he lifted his gaze and spoke. Sukhia listened and he listened well. By the time Das had finished, Sukhia’s jaw was half open in disbelief.
No one really knows what Das told Sukhia, but the local version goes like thisï¿½
There had once been a Leopard that was killed by a young British hunter. Some say that the hunter took the dead Leopard with him and disappeared over-night. But the popular version claims that the Leopard came back from the dead to hunt the hunter down. Some even said that they found the young hunterï¿½s body a few days after he disappeared. It was lying by the river. There was a gun by his side and he still had his hunting hat with him. There were no injury marks, and whoever killed him was not interested in looting him. The only thing missing were his eyes. Instead, there were two empty sockets that looked more like holes in clay….
….A local guide who knew the hunter swore it to the people that the Leopard had turned into a devil and taken its eyes. No one ever found the dead Leopard nor was the hunter ever seen again. People say that on moonless nights, the Leopard roams in the forest still searching for something. Some even claim to have seen two eyes shining behind wild bushes in the forest.
Sukhia brushed the rather interesting story away and decided to solve the Leopardï¿½s mystery on his own. But he knew he had to wait. He had to wait until there was a moonless night. He had never encountered the Leopard during any other time. Some days passed and he forgot all about the Leopard. For he had a guesthouse to look after. Even though no one ever came, he still had a job to do. A job that had to be well done.
Several nights passed and then the moon melted into the skies. It was a moonless night again. There was no wind and it was unusually quiet. Not even the sound of a pine needle. Sukhia felt thankful, for he preferred the calm of the night. And thatï¿½s when it happened again. He heard the monkeys squealing from a distance. A soft wind had suddenly started to blow. The scattered leaves were rustling as if someone walked over them. Sukhia clutched his stick and raised his lantern. Monkeys were still causing havoc as he passed them.
Right by the front stonewall, he saw the brightest pair of eyes hidden behind a wild line of bushes. All his resolve faded away and he heard his heart beating like a drum. Suddenly, he found himself inching back towards the guesthouse. Then the eyes started moving towards him. He knew he had to get away, yet his feet froze to the ground. He just wanted to get away – away from those eyes. Forever!
Farther in the distance the village folk sang and suddenly the night was awake.
Sukhia was never heard of again in the valley. No one ever found him. Not even a trace. The police did their formalities and closed the case. A person like him was hardly the cause of any official’s concern. Some said he eloped with the daughter of a local merchant. The others, who knew the valley well, believed the Leopard had come back again. But this time it wasnï¿½t just the eyes. It was more than that. It was Sukhia himself.
The Leopard has not been seen since. Officials like to brush it away as nothing but a village-tale. But even though the Leopard has gone away, some claim that Sukhia still looks after the guesthouse. Even though the owners shut it down long ago, he knows he has a job to do. A job that needs to be well done.
So what if he can only come out on moonless nights and his eyes sparkle like a diamond piercing into the dark!
14th March 2006