Takeaway

The spectre of Surajpur

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on November 27, 2020

Leopard, leopard in the wild: A glimpse of the Surajpur predator in the golden light of the dusk   -  SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

A leopard that strikes fear in a Himalayan valley and awe in the heart of a visitor

Dusk comes early in the valley here. Especially on wintry Himachal evenings like this, when the sun withdraws its warmth silently from the thin stream and its gold from the ghostly gum and mango trees. Long before it is done for the day, the narrow valley is a washed-out beige while the sky and trees on the low ridge to my left are bathed in bronze.

The cold seeps up, like quicksand from the ground. Up from the soles of my muddy shoes, through my stiffening legs and under my shirt till it sings in my ears and stings my eyes. My mind wanders back to the warmth of the afternoon earlier in the day, when Papa had hesitated on the scrabbly path down from the ber trees while I looked for button-quail — a small ground-dwelling bird related to the partridge and quail — in the grass below.

The grass moved too much, he had said, probably his forest ranger’s senses tingling. He moved to a steeper path that led away from the grass and my wife followed him, sure-footed. Like father, like daughter. At the base of their path we had come across the pungent, softly steaming scat under the reeds. Bits of hair sticking out of it. Hare, perhaps?

I have been waiting since then. Alone. Not exactly sure what I am waiting for. It’s the kind of wordless, nervous wait where you can feel the contents of your stomach churn. When you aren’t quite sure whether you want to go to the nearest bush and answer a certain call.

The actual wait had been much longer, though. It was 18 months ago that we found the remains of a young langur in the stream bed. His black face was frozen in terror at what happened to the rest of him. We sat there on a rock, my wife and I, while Fluffy, the shaggy sheepdog, checked out the carcass nervously.

The band of Himalayan langurs, usually boisterous, huddled in silent mourning on the barren gum trees — Sterculia urens, locally called kateera/ bhootiya (ghost tree) — above; hanging like large fruits from the stark white branches. We all sat there, frozen by fear, and trembled to the echo of a rough, grating sound like someone taking a blade to wood. Arrrrrhh! Arrrrhhh!

From then on, the owner of that voice would haunt Surajpur — a small village in Solan district, nestled between Barotiwala and the famous Gurudwara at Haripur. His deep-throated call sawed through the silence. He was a rumour stalking in the shadows; a spectre haunting the stream. A missing goat here, a dead dog there, a pile of peacock feathers under a bush, and, once, chillingly, signs of a nap taken in a shed behind the house.

The forest grew closer with him around, the goatherds and grass cutters scarcer. Even the number of barking deer and sambhar frequenting the stream became smaller.

Once during the monsoon, I smelt something unforgettable under the great mango tree that marks the end of our fields. That slightly revolting smell that lingers in malls and movie halls, of popcorn toasting and butter melting over hot boiled corn, with a hint of musk. So strangely familiar and yet so alien, because, here, the grass was tall and the bamboo impenetrable. I knew enough from the hair standing on end on my neck to hurry away from the scene. Google later confirmed my hunch.

It was many months since my foolishly brave friend, the white dog Bully, had gone missing. He had not one cautious bone in him and his line’s fighting blood ran hot through him. As I always feared, he sought out the menace that reigned in the valley. Goatherds saw him go down in flames on the rocky ridge; scrapping and growling to the end in the very grass he loved to roll in. Lydia’s litter was taken and then she disappeared. Fluffy alone, wise and strong, survived with a scar running through his deep tawny fur from behind the left ear to below his eye. He refused to go down to the stream alone now.

***

By the time a softly stinging breeze comes rippling down with the stream, the sun is a solid sweet orange hanging just above the ber trees. The first red patchwork goat appears on the ridge with a tinkling of bells. Then another, and another. The faint voice of the unseen bearded goatherd calling to the rest of his herd follows them from somewhere on the sharp path behind. I wonder if the goats can crane their necks out and take a bite out of that big warm fruit.

A lone Eurasian sparrowhawk meanders above the mango trees in the eastern corner. Other than her and the red-vented bulbuls diving in and out of lantana bushes, there aren’t any other birds around me. The long tassels of the choond grass sway in the breeze, glinting burnished gold amidst the incongruous spines of date palms. How far did these palms travel before taking root in these Himalayan foothills? Was it some wandering pir baba from the dry west or, more innocuously, a flock of parakeets?

I don’t know what made me look away from them to the slope just above. Was it the hair standing on my arms or the grass rippling in a wave? A short breath later, a tawny head appears from one side of the clump and turns to look down at me. A big, square golden head with hair in the ears and a pinkish nose. The last gleam of the day twinkling off long, dandy whiskers. Bold, brooding, hazel-flecked eyes looking straight down at me. Not a hint of fear or panic, or even curiosity in them. Only cool, calm appraisal. And then he turns away and his sinuous speckled form flows into the next clump. He is gone.

The goats are in a lemon sun now and the camera hangs limp at my side. The breeze is quiet and the day’s last embers have died in the grass. My legs have forgotten they can walk. I am still here, waiting now for the thumping in my chest to subside. The twinkle of the Haripur Baba’s lights beckons from the hills.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

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Published on November 27, 2020
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