After a longish day at University, which ended with a phone call to Spain regarding a forthcoming volume on Beckett, we decided to take Nimbus out for a ride. It was around 6:30 pm, and instead of going out the back, we decided to ride through campus and go out the main entrance, towards Nahan.
For the first time, the guard didn’t ask us any questions as we rode out the gate, which was a pleasant development, as we were growing rather tired of being asked questions every time we stepped out of campus.
Initially, I rode Nimbus rather slowly, as I was habituated to the speed limits of campus. But then I slowly picked up. We crossed Macher in no time and headed straight along the Giri River. After around 5 minutes or so of winding lush mountain scenery, all of a sudden, a large animal crossed the road right in front of us. The bike’s lights were not on high-beam, therefore, we could only make out a dark shape, but its eyes flashed back at us with a cat-like glow. It took its time as it crossed the road so that for a second I thought it was a calf, while my pillion believed it to be a large dog or a jackal. But within fractions, we realised that we were both wrong. The animal was in fact… a leopard.
There it was – a wild leopard looking straight at us
“Hey, look! Leopard!” I shouted, and “Leopard!” was the only word that came simultaneously from behind. The animal’s cold nonchalance and stately gait instantly frightened us to the core. As we crossed the spot where it had sauntered down the mountain, we tried briefly looking down and seeing if it was still there. I didn’t stop Nimbus, of course, but slowed it down a wee notch, ready to accelerate again if it suddenly appeared out of the bushes below. But it had disappeared as abruptly as it appeared. We were totally stupefied, as a leopard in such close proximity to Macher and Baru Sahib was not something we had expected.
For the next few minutes, we could do nothing other than think aloud and talk about the animal. Was it a leopard? Or was it a tiger? Wasn’t it too big to be a leopard? Could it have been a snow-leopard? It had a majestically long tail. But its glowing eyes really caught my attention! Wasn’t William Blake spot on when he wrote: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night! In what distant deeps or skies. Burnt the fire of thine eyes?” What was it doing so close to people? Weren’t the domestic animals and the people in danger?
Never imagined to bump into a leopard in our neighbourhood
After another five minutes or so, we saw a family of three: father, mother, and a girl of around 10 walking down the same road. We were in two minds about whether to warn them about the leopard or not, especially since they had the little girl with them. Then we thought that they were locals after all, and knew much better than us about the wildlife around. So we let them be and rode on, still talking animatedly about the animal we witnessed.
Since it was nearing 7 now and getting rapidly darker by the second, we decided that it was time for us to head back. As we turned the bike around, the first observation that Su made was: “What if the leopard is still at the same spot waiting for us?”
Our heartbeats had clearly not returned to their usual tempo, and although I said that this was highly unlikely and that the leopard must have already travelled a mile or so by now, I wasn’t fully convinced of my own words. We were all the more apprehensive because it wasn’t very long back that we had come jogging down this same road, turning back to campus only a couple of hundred meters before the place where we spotted the leopard. And that was also around 6:30 pm. We decided that walking or running in this area was definitely not happening again in the future, particularly in the evenings.
The fear and excitement heightened our senses
Suddenly, there appeared two animals that were walking rapidly down the road towards us. I had kept the high-beam on this time so that in case any animals did appear, we’d at least be able to spot it well in advance. Our heart-beats stopped for a moment, but we soon realised that they were, in fact, two cows hurrying down the road. We felt pretty convinced though that the cows looked fairly stressed, for it’s rare to see them walking at such a fast pace on their own in these mountains. They must have sensed the presence of the leopard, and that’s why they were making a beeline for their home, we thought.
As we neared the bend where we had seen the leopard, we kept saying aloud, this is just around the place where we saw it, and every rock that we crossed took on the shape of a crouched animal in the semi-darkness before us. Until… the final bend.
We just couldn’t believe our eyes
As we turned the corner to the place where we had seen the animal, we both gasped for breath: “No way!” Dead ahead of us was the hypnotically spotted animal. Only this time, instead of moving towards the valley, it prowled to the other side of the road, towards the mountain, and it hid the front half of its body behind the bushes. Its tail curled right out into the road. There was now mountain, leopard, road, then valley, in that order.
The serpentine ghat lane was way too narrow to make a quick U-turn, and coming to a halt was totally out of the question. There was nothing else for me to do, but to ride straight past the leopard and hope that it didn’t pounce on us. It could have either killed us on spot or sent us plunging down the valley. I desperately hoped that it would be scared by the engine and the headlights and the fact that we were human and not sitting livestock. Only a desperate or injured animal would attack humans.
I turned the accelerator to its maximum, and we zoomed past the animal. Only this time, we got the most hair-raising view of its golden yellow body, from flank to tail-tip, and the dark black spots. Even with a cage in between, we had hardly come as close to a leopard as we did today. We could feel the electrifying thrill of being so near to a wild animal in every strand of hair standing up in our bodies. Its unpredictability made the experience incredibly unsettling. The sight was indeed hypnotic: we couldn’t take our eyes away from this wild body with the bright fur, simultaneously captivating and extremely terrifying.
The beast was right in front of us
Luckily, it was clearly not us that the leopard was after. It kept its face hidden in the bush. As we went passed it, my eyes shifted from its shiny fir to the rear-view mirror. I tried to check whether there was any sign of it following us from the back. But it was too dark, and our rear-light was only a dim red that revealed a couple of meters of the night’s shadows. We had no idea whether the leopard was charging at us from behind or whether it was about to pounce on our shoulders and snap our necks in two. I just rode on and did not let go of the accelerator until there was a good hundred yards or so between us.
“What a stupid animal,” I finally said aloud, breaking the panicky silence and trying to sound courageous, “It thinks that hiding its head is enough to keep the rest of its body out of sight!” Su gave a nervous laugh. I did not dare imagine how scary it must have been for her sitting at the back, closer to the leopard once we crossed it, and without any headlights in between.
We had by now traversed the dangerous territory. And after another 500 metres or so, we saw a man walking on the road towards the direction of the leopard. He did not have a torch on him, and he was speaking on an old mobile phone. This time, we stopped before the man, and told him, “Bhaisahab, don’t go walking further down this road, as we just saw a leopard on the way.”
Himachalis are the perfect embodiment of the word ‘chill’
Surprisingly, he grinned back at us, and asked, “Where?”
“Down the road!” we chorused. “It’s definitely not a good idea for you to go alone, like this.”
“Oh,” he replied, “Koi nahi, koi nahi. No worries.” And he continued walking straight towards the leopard, as we shook our heads and sped towards the comforts of our campus.