another kind of sighting

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.


    • Dusted Off, it is pretty wow, isn’t it? We did see one years earlier too, on a trek in Lonavala, a cub, once again crossing the road.

    • Sanjana, in fact, even so in a city like Bumm-Bumm-Bhole-Land, the wild is not far away. There are stories every year of panthers in the national park area, attacking domestic animals or children.

      • I knowww! It still amazes me that Delhi has as many monkeys as they do! I remember, when I was living in Hauz Khas, my friend was telling me I needed to be careful of the clothes I put out on the clothesline as the monkey would mess around with it!πŸ™‚

  1. A real leopard! Wow!
    I only saw a herd of ‘deers’ in Borivali National Park. They nearly trampled me to death, they were as much afraid of me as I was of them!πŸ˜‰ That was in the rainy season, last July and I wandered off the road to collect some plants and they passed by make a huge noise. I might have seen a ‘cheetah’ but they have such a good camouflage, that I wouldn’t be able to see one if it was standing in front of me. I have this thing about animals called animal blindness.
    Good thing about city slickers going to the countryside to photgraph the mountains and the villagers coming to the city to photograph the skyscrapers.
    It is the same story of Indians going to Europe to photograph the beautiful rich buildings and the Europeans going to India to photgraph the poverty. I once told my friend that it would be a good idea to make a coffee table book on poverty in Europe and affluence in India.

    • Harvey, re. ‘animal blindness’πŸ™‚
      I suppose the first thing that strikes us when we travel is how different things are from our own environment. It’s only when we stop being tourists, that we start seeing that life everywhere has the same complications and the same wonder.
      I’m not a big fan of travelling, as you may guess.πŸ™‚

      • “I’m not a big fan of travelling”
        That is not a bad thing at all. It is very eco-friendly.
        Some friends were planning to visit Egypt next week, but have cancelled it.

  2. Banno.. you are such a lucky girl! Got to spent so much time with the leopard, and lived to tell the taleπŸ˜› Seriously, I would’ve been really scared. And you driver is very aptly dressedπŸ˜€

    • Violet, we were inside the car, and the leopard just looked at us, bemused. If we had been walking on the road, it would have been a different matter.πŸ™‚

  3. Wow – what luck! Envying all of you in the mountains looking at the scenery and breathing that air – not to mention running into leopards who actually wait for you to turn around and come back for a second look.

  4. my luck has been limited to fresh paw prints only…haven’t seen a live cat after having visited Corbett a million times. but the one that got me the most was on our trip to Domunda – a small fishing spot, way in the interiors and where the park ends, where we were assaulted with its smell. a couple of us went for a hike into the hills and ten minutes into it, we felt like we were in a zoo surrounded by countless cats – the smell was THAT strong, overpowering, basically indicating that we weren’t far aware from a group. the guide, Anith, a young but very experienced lad, immediately made us turn around and head back. i still get shivers when i think of it.

    • Wow, Sukanya, that must have been quite scary! I can imagine being on foot, and being surrounded by the cats. No wonder you get the shivers even now.

  5. Well’ I’m impressed. Leopards are not part of my holidays away and your mountains sound wonderful. Almost every sentence had something totally and completely different to my experience, and all written in your own inimitable style.

    Have a great time in the mountains.

  6. Ha, ha. Enjoyed the narrative. I must make a visit to Bum Bum Bhole Land someday. A couple of Russian girls we met at a wildlife sanctuary, here in Goa, were very concerned about being accosted by wild animals. They wanted to know all about Cheetahs, snakes and wild elephants. So we told them that if they repeated a Hindu mantra when they saw one, they would be safe. Oh, great, what is the mantra, they wanted to know earnestly. So, we told them, and made them repeat after us: ‘Bachao, bachao!’ They thanked us profusely.

    • Thanks, Salil, for dropping by. I enjoy your blog so much. I am sure the Hindu mantra did keep the Russian girls safe.πŸ™‚

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