The daily hour and a half journey to Rudraprayag from Ghimtoli was accomplished in the dark. I was not car sick this time by virtue of sitting extremely still in my seat, and looking into the far distance, as Teja advised. Makar in the front seat had his eyes glued to the road, and looked unhappy most of the time. Sikander’s mischievous prattle and childish demands for ‘bhang’ did little to comfort him. Sikander may have been stoned, Teja thought, but he was a good, safe driver, nevertheless.
The road into Rudraprayag descends parallel to the river, where I look out of the left hand side window, carefully keeping my eyes averted from the looming cliff beside my own window. Our car’s headlights head towards the lights of Rudraprayag. The last 15 minutes of the car ride seem the longest. Suddenly, I see the cat’s head, peeping above the edge of the road, coming up the cliff on the side of river. “Cheetah!”, I scream, as the car moves ahead.
Later, Dhanno would admonish me patiently, “Mom, cheetahs are extinct in India. What you saw, must be a leopard.” “I know, I know”, I say, “but you know, I saw the cheetah through Teja’s window, not even my own.” I go on and on about the cheetah for a few more minutes, until she says, “Enough, Mom, with your cheetah stories.”
At the time, however, Sikander, Teja, Makar understood what I meant by ‘cheetah’. Sikander did a quick U-turn, a feat on the narrow hilly road, and headed back to the spot. The cat was still sitting by the edge of the road. Sikander switched off the car, but kept the headlights on. We looked at the animal for 5 minutes or so, and the animal looked at us. Another car passed us by. Sikander took the car ahead and did a slower U-turn to head us back to the hotel. When we came back, the cat was still there. We stood there again, and looked at it for a few minutes, while it looked at us. Sikander said, “It must have gone to the river to drink water, and now wants to go back home. It’s waiting to cross the road.”
Both Sikander and Makar were keen that Teja take a photograph of the animal, but Teja was reluctant to waste time getting his camera out, and adjusting the settings, when he could be sitting in the silence, just looking at the cat.
Makar, who is only a token villager, having lived in the city for the last 30 years, moved to throw some tissue paper at the ‘cheetah’, in a bid to make the story more dramatic, and increase TRP ratings. Teja scolded him, and decided it was time for us to move on.
A couple of motorbikes passed us (and the ‘cheetah’) while we exchanged looks, and we wondered at their safety. Righteously, we stopped a man crossing the road with a lantern, and informed him that there was a ‘cheetah’ on the road, and he should be careful. He nodded, and said, “Oh, OK.” He did not seem very worried.
At the hotel, we told the manager we saw a ‘cheetah’ just outside Rudraprayag, and he said, “Oh, OK.” He did not seem very excited.
In Ghimtoli, earlier that evening, an old man made me lemon tea, and said, “It’s good you big people from the city come here to the mountains.”
I asked, “And what makes us big?”
Kailash, Makar’s brother, who is not easily intimidated by generalizations, said, “Kaka, don’t we go to the city too, to look around? So what if they come to the mountains?”
Another young man pipes in, “We go to the city and feel fascinated by the rotis made on gas, because they are so soft. They come to the village, and like the rotis made on wood fire, because they smell different. But in the end, we all eat rotis.”
The difference of course, is that in the city, we have the means to earn our rotis and more, and in the village, they don’t.
The young man says, “Everyone leaves. Once they get a job in the city, they take their families. Only old men like these, who feel they cannot leave their land, stay on.” But more about this, in another post.
For us, seeing the leopard by the side of the road was an event. For a villager from the hills, seeing the local train is. Or the sea.
And we say to each other’s excitement, “Oh, OK.”
In the meanwhile, in absence of a photo of the leopard, here is a photo of our driver, Sikander, who I thought was very fashionable, and except for the pink, quite appropriately dressed for the jungle.