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    -Vinod Rishi

    Shafts of golden sunlight lit the green vault of sal forest behind my house. Summer was at its peak, and sal trees had been shedding their leaves. The forest floor wore a yellow-brown carpet of dried leaves. Through it snaked a vague deer path. Wary of making noise, I advanced, treading softly on the path. My ears caught faintest of the jungle sounds – the buzzing flight of a bee, the scrape of a lizard’s claws, and the faraway flutter of wings. Even more than my ears and eyes, I was alive to the spirit of the forest – I could feel the forest.

    Suddenly, through the corner of my eye, I saw a small patch in the pattern of shade and light on the ground, fifty feet to my left, ruffle for a moment. I thought I might have imagined it, but I wanted to be sure; for one must not ignore small messages and little signs the forest gives to the one who wants to be there. I froze. I did not turn my head for a better look, waiting for it to happen again.

    Moments, stretched out like minutes, beat past my heart. It happened again; a spot of light in the dappled leaf bed twitched. I slowly turned my head to have a better look. There she was: a leopard suckling her two cubs as she lay on her side with her back toward me. I could see her through the thin screen of a lantana bush in which she lay. Filtered down through the green canopy of leaves the rays of sun etched out her youthful form with a golden sheen. Her flank rose and fell rhythmically as she slowly drew in and let her breath out. The heads of her two cubs were just visible over the curve of her body. It was the little white spot at the end of her long tail that had caught my eye as she twitched the tip of her tail in contentment.
    A wave of fear and surprise shook me. I did not expect this part of the forest to be inhabited by a leopard; there wasn’t enough prey in it to sustain a leopard. People had killed and eaten away most of the wild animals that a leopard hunts for food.
But there they were: a mother and her two cubs. I know a mother can fearlessly face any threat to her children; and here was a mother armed with razor sharp claws and dagger-like fangs. I feared that she would resent my intrusion. It is different when you watch a leopard in a zoo. You watch it from the safety of a viewers’ gallery. But if alone and unarmed you meet her on her ground with nothing to stop her charge, you do not want to catch the attention of a loving and caring mother leopard with her cubs. Pound for pound, a leopard is said to be the strongest of the big cats of the world. You would rather enjoy the sight of a beautiful spotted big cat playing with her cuddlesome babies in a zoo.

One of the cubs happened to peer over the reclining body of his mother. Its eyes locked on me. I might have made some movement that had caught his eye. It stopped feeding. The mother stood up and turned a reproachful eye toward me. For a fleeting moment she drew her ears back, flat against her head; and cast an appraising glance at me. Her mouth slightly ajar, a faint growl came out of it; but her eyes said she was not alarmed. Without wasting another look at me, she turned and led her cubs away from me; deeper into the lantana thickets, and was out of my sight.

I turned back; elated and content at the beautiful sight I had just witnessed in the forest behind my house. I felt I should take a chance to see them again early next morning. But I did not get my chance.


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