A tiger at twilight
For three long days and nights our lonely little valley was churned by a violent gale and heavy downpour. The frequent claps of thunder that echoed in the surrounding hills seemed to be playing hide and seek; sometimes they made such terrific noises that I plugged my ears and shut my eyes and imagined myself trapped in a desolate and dreary wasteland, its last blade of grass licked away by incessant lightning. At relatively sober times, the rumbling of the thunder was like the anxious cries of a brood of lion-cubs lost in the hills, yearning for their mother.
The heavy downpour and dark clouds either blotted out the world beyond my window, or revealed it only in fragments, inspiring me to fill up the blank spaces with my own ideas of the state of things. The good old meditative hills were metamorphosed into fantasies, sometimes looking like a colonnade of the citadel of the gods, its roof invisible above the clouds and, at other times, like primeval giants in a conference.
In the still of the night, the wailing gusts sounded like incantations of a demoness who, in a state of frenzy, rocked and swung the valley. I was afraid of looking out too long into the night lest I should catch a glimpse of her weird face. In fact, every flash of lightning across the clouds threatened to reveal it – a colossal visage with a sinister laugh, even though the golden raindrops, whenever flashes of lightning showed them, looked like falling dust of stars knocked down by thunderbolts.
The intensity of the tempest began to wear off on the fourth day. When not engrossed in a fairy tale – the stuff I enjoyed reading most – 1 had little to do except sit close to the window and gaze at the woods and at the distant hamlets appearing and disappearing like mirages, depending on the density of the rain, and leaves and tiny branches caught up in updraughts shooting high and then spiralling down.
During one of those days of confinement I stepped into my twenty-fifth year. But there was no one to remember my birthday now that both my parents were dead. I passed the day quietly immersed in nostalgia. One of my earliest memories bore the imprint of a storm. A mere child of four I had suddenly found the sky growing awfully dark and clouds crowding in an ominous way and dashing against a stubborn peak and breaking into turmoil. That had been followed by a deafening boom that sounded capable of shaking the very foundations of the good earth. I had made a beeline for my mother and dived into her lap.
I missed my mother.
‘Horizon’, the mansion I had now come to own, stood on a hill four thousand feet above sea level. Behind it stood a mountain, bearing the name ‘Nagdev’, a barren peak raised like the hood of a cobra, looming protectively over my mansion. On moonlit nights, the ashen peak radiated a bluish hue. Fairies played on it, asserted a native legend. On a full moon night when it looked particularly resplendent, I would watch it for long, in the hope of stealing a glimpse or two of those supposedly charming beings. I loved to believe that they would peep out of the peak or the clouds surrounding it any moment.
Except at times when I brooded over or resented my loneliness, I relished my status as the master of the mansion. With an extensive forest to its west and a river to its east, its location was enchanting. A rocky road meandered for fifty kilometres or so through innumerable rocks covered by greenery and tribal hamlets hiding from one another, linking our valley, Nijanpur, with the headquarters of the district, Samargarh. Before India won freedom and the princely states were liquidated, Samargarh, now an ordinary town, was the capital of the small principality known by the same name. Unlike some of the bigger states ruled by ambitious or progressive princes, Samargarh had hardly any link with the world beyond its borders, most of its inhabitable areas tucked in jungles and nooks of hills and half of its population consisting of different hill tribes. I doubt if, barring the last of the Rajas, who lived somewhere far away, and his father, any earlier ruler of the dynasty had ever stepped out of his territory and the nearby territories of their close relatives.
Some primary and so-called ‘minor’ schools remained scattered over wide areas and a very few students reached the only high school in the state, situated at Samargarh proper. There was a dispensary in the town, but no hospital. There was neither a college nor any printing press. Nobody felt the absence of such institutions to be of any consequence.
The situation of course had begun to change. The authorities had lately founded a hospital and also a college at Samargarh.
But hardly anything had changed in my good old valley.
My joy in becoming the owner of a mansion here was tinged with pride. Designed by an English architect who was supposed to have studied the landscape well and, in his plan, had achieved some kind of a synthesis between the Greek and the Indian architectures, it had been built by the young and the last Raja of Samargarh shortly before his state was lost to him. It stood on a spacious elevation and was large and imposing, an acre of green lawns surrounding it. The site was always breezy, but seldom beyond a certain measure, for the fierce wind was always checked by the guardian-like Nagdev.
The young raja had christened the mansion Heera Mahal in honour of a young lady named Heera, somewhat of a legend and an enigma during that era, when gossips had an uncanny way of circulating over and over again and yet remaining green and rarely reaching the ears of those who figured in them. Heera was the subject of many a gossip, some juicy and some fearsome.
Our Raja’s father, on a visit abroad, had acquired a mistress who had just ceased to be a European nobleman’s consort. The Raja, if he was in a decent mood, declared that he had lawfully wedded her; but very few had heard it directly from him. She lived in the Raja’s bungalow in a distant city and was never seen at Samargarh. Heera, born to her in undue haste, was declared to be the old Raja’s daughter, though nobody took her official genesis seriously.
Even before the old Raja had passed away, Heera was found to be exercising an ever-greater influence on the prince, the heir to the throne, older than her by ten years. The prospect of the colonial rule over India coming to an end or the hoary feudal system collapsing was not yet in sight. Hence, as was the custom, on the death of the old Raja, the young prince ascended the throne amidst the traditional ceremony.
It was on that festive day that Heera was first seen in public at Samargarh. She dominated the scene with her dazzling gaiety and glib tongue and proved a far greater attraction than the hero of the event, the carefree Yuvraj in the process of his transmutation into a Raja, a ruling prince.
There were even people who steadfastly held on to the belief that she was a fairy child, trapped by the late Raja from the clouds once while aboard a plane. Later he had tamed her with the help of wizards and trained her in human lifestyle. My father’s old personal attendant swore that his brother-in-law had seen milk instead of blood oozing out of her toe when a blade of grass scratched it.
Soon the fairy seemed to have captivated the new Raja who did not take much interest in the affairs of his state and spent most of his time in the cities in accordance with the whims of the restless fay.
Those who had seen Heera agreed that she was charismatic. But those who had not seen her were more effusive about her charisma and some of them attributed a certain supernatural quality to it. That way it was easier to explain her hold on the young Raja who was otherwise known to be intelligent, level-headed and prudent.
I had never seen Heera; but her portrait stared me in the face when I entered Heera Mahal for the first time. It was an oil painting executed by a gifted hand and it looked so lifelike that when I ordered my servant Subbu to remove it, I felt guilty of forcibly dislodging a lady from her proudly held base.
The Rajas had an old castle at Nijanpur, a massive stone structure containing several suites, a big hall and spacious corridors. It lay forsaken, looked after by a lone watchman.
The Raja’s ancestors were accustomed to passing their summers at Nijanpur. They did so not so much for the beauty and excellent climate of the place as much for the ancient deity, Vaneswari, a representation of the primeval goddess, housed in an old temple on a small lake behind the castle.
Once upon a time Vaneswari had been the family deity of my forefathers. Though they were rulers over a tiny territory, they were proud of their ancestry, which they traced to an illustrious sage who fell in love with a princess, consorted her and inherited her father’s kingdom. When, generations ago, a ruler of Samargarh usurped our land at the culmination of a long-drawn conspiracy he had hatched in collaboration with some other feudal lords, the deity’s wrath struck his family and death began to claim its members in several odd ways. Many died inexplicably – one of them in horror of his own shadow which he saw stalking him headless!
The then Raja of Samargarh did everything prescribed by his priests and astrologers to propitiate the deity, but to no avail.
One moonless night, the chief priest of Vaneswari knocked on the doors of the Raja’s bedchamber. The palace guards had not dared to stop him – so obvious was it from his appearance that he was not himself, but was possessed by some awful power. He whispered something in the Raja’s ear. The Raja sat up, stunned. One or two confidants, who had followed the priest into the bedchamber and who had overheard a few random words from his strictly private message to the Raja, stood horrified. The priest left the palace, laughing and shrieking wildly, leaving a stupefied Raja behind.
What the priest had conveyed did not remain a secret for long. If Vaneswari was to be mollified and the dynasty is to continue, the Raja must sacrifice one of his sons at her altar and must leave an edict for the following generations to continue the practice.
Needless to say, the priest was believed to have been possessed by the deity’s spirit. But I remember my father saying, “It was neither Goddess Vaneswari nor, for that matter, any other goddess who possessed the poor chap, but some fiendish vampire!”
The Raja was in a fix. Of his nine sons, seven had already died in quick succession. He must either sacrifice one of the remaining two and save the other, or be prepared to see his dynasty come to an end.
After some hesitation, he took the agonizing decision to honour the priest’s message. A month later, upon the recurrence of the moonless night, under some pretext, the meeker and milder of the two princes was led into the temple and was frankly informed that unless he was sacrificed, not even a kitten belonging to the Raj family would survive the deity’s curse.
The prince was beheaded before he could react. But the horror reflected on his face even after his head had rolled off his neck so overwhelmed the priest that he went crazy and began confessing his terrible deed to all and sundry. No wonder the Raja was obliged to dispatch him too!
“And that was the last bit of fun the diabolical power that possessed the priest enjoyed,” my father, a staunch believer in the manifold occult forces at work in our life, would comment.
The rulers of succeeding generations continued the practice, but in a modified manner. They would not sacrifice their sons, but would adopt an infant, generally an orphan, pamper him as a prince and perform the accursed ritual before the boy had any guess of the fate that awaited him.
The rite was practised in absolute secrecy and the priests seem to have grown bolder than their ancestor who initiated the rite. I do not know if they relished their status as performers of such an exceptional function, but the people who knew – and practically all the adults knew – dreaded them.
We do not know how and at which point of time the original curse was lifted, for the dynasty did not become extinct; but the anguish and bewilderment of its victims must have ripened into a different kind of pest that assailed the family of the priests. Heirs were born deformed consecutively for a few generations. The last of them was not only warped, but also paralysed in his adolescence. The practice ended.
That must have been a century ago. Then a Brahmin continued performing the minimum daily rituals of the deity for some years. That too had stopped for decades now. The Raj family had lost its awe of the deity.
Between the castle and the temple was a small lake that remained ice-cold for a greater part of the year. It was said to be the abode of a Yaksha, one of the demi-godly guardians of the buried treasures of the earth. Each Raja, after his coronation at Samargarh, would pay a visit to Nijanpur, offer obeisance to Goddess Vaneswari and throw a piece of gold or silver into the lake as his tribute to the Yaksha. In return, whenever a Raja faced a pecuniary crisis, the Yaksha would come to his aid: the Raja would stumble upon a jarful of gold ingots or a box filled with gems or jewellery. Since Vaneswari was no longer worshipped, probably the last two Rajas had not followed the rite either.
My forefathers, even when bereft of their realm and authority, continued such ceremonies that characterized a princely family till the time of my cynical father who terminated them. Among the Kshatriyas, our line ranked higher than that of the Rajas of Samargarh. The erstwhile nobles held us in esteem mixed with the kind of pity a felled elephant inspired. Had they not been poor, they would have restored our affluence to us, if not our lost authority, with liberal shares from their own resources.
After years of ineffective hostility towards the Samargarh Raj, our sires had reconciled themselves to their fate. But they would not tolerate any show of sympathy from the descendants of the enemy. The Rajas of Samargarh were ready to grant us numerous favours, including an indefinite lease of prosperous estates, only if we agreed to a marital alliance with them. But my proud patriarchs refused the offer.
The downward trend in the fortunes of our family which had touched the point of penury by my great-grandfather’s time was at last arrested by my grandfather, who had the singular luck of marrying into three noble families, each one of which had only one daughter as its heir. Thus he became the sole inheritor of three properties. His only child, my father, had been able to effectively shake off the feudal hangover. He was enterprising and had succeeded in consolidating his father’s gains. But I had overheard him telling my mother more than once, “The ghost of our past may spare me, but it is doubtful if it will do the same to our son.” He must have detected in me an atavistic appearance of the signs of indolence that had plagued our illustrious forefathers!
The Raj family of Samargarh had fallen into bad days years before their state merged with free India. And, with his state gone, the young Raja found living among the people who had overnight ceased to be his subjects a painful experience. He sold to the Government his ancestral palace that stood as an imposing backdrop to the small town of Samargarh, and dismissed his personal staff and dependants awarding each of them a generous gift in cash or kind. The Provincial Government, as provided for in the Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union, absorbed his officers in its own administrative structure.
After putting his affairs in order, he left for some undisclosed destination. His nearest kinsmen were two cousins neither of whom lived in Samargarh, and we seldom heard of his whereabouts.
My father, though friendly with the Raja, had been quite pragmatic in his dealings with him. He lent a substantial sum of money to the Raja with Heera Mahal pledged to him as security. The Raja hoped to receive a sizable compensation in lieu of his forfeited state, but what he got, after the Government had deducted its dues from him on several accounts, fell far short of his expectations. He was unable, or did not care to, recover Heera Mahal by the specific date. The mansion became ours.
Meanwhile, Nijanpur had tended to gain in importance. The range of hills around the valley was identified to be rich in mineral deposits. Added to that an age-old spring with a natural pool was found to have contained several beneficent mineral properties. An Englishman, a retired member of the British Indian Civil Service, who camped in the valley for some weeks, fell in love with it and, before leaving for home sent his prophecy to a newspaper saying that Nijanpur was the prize resort of the future for the seekers of health and tranquillity.
It dawned upon me that I could take advantage of the situation. I entrusted my lands and house in our village to a benevolent elderly uncle and moved over to the Mahal. It was exciting. I changed the mansion’s name to Horizon and advertised it as an ideal cottage for nature-lovers, the health-conscious as well as holidayers. My staff consisted of a cook, a servant and a gardener, with myself geared up to act as the manager-cum-clerk-cum-receptionist.
But tourism was still a far-off concept. We received guests rarely, but they were enthusiastic about the place and promised to return with their families or friends. I ran the establishment, subsidizing it with the income I received from my property in the village. I had nothing better to do.
“Are you happy?” my uncle once asked me.
“Well, I have never thought about it,” I fumbled.
“That means you are happy. If you ask a fish what water is, it will not be able to tell you,” observed my uncle, pleased with his deduction.
Four days of vigorous rinsing and scrubbing by the tempest had given the valley the elegance of an autumn star. The silence that always pervaded the place but of which I became aware only after the storm, made me feel as though the valley had really been flung into some remote region in space – indeed akin to a lone star.
It was late in the afternoon when at last a sleepy sun resumed shining over the valley. The hilltops and forests looked like exchanging meaningful smiles at one another.
Coinciding with the arrival of the Raja of Samargarh at his desolate castle at Nijanpur, a man-eater had become a menace. The residents prevail upon the Raja to kill the beast. Included in the Raja’s party is a Sharma-ji, object of fun for Heera, the intriguing half-sister of the Raja.
It had been taken for granted that I would join the expedition. Much against my will, I sent the Raja’s watchman to fetch my gun. A Kshatriya hailing from a feudal family was expected to be keen on hunting. My father had been a skilled Shikari and had given me several chances to prove my interest in the pastime. Had my response been positive, he would have arranged to train me. My lack of inclination for it, I am afraid, was one of the reasons for his losing whatever interest he had in the game.
I was nine when one summer morning my father first took me out into the forest. He and his friends shot down a number of birds and a couple of deer. Since we could not have consumed all of them the same night, some wounded ones were preserved for the next day. Among them was a Kochilakhai – the Indian hornbill.
We camped in an isolated house on the western edge of the forest that belonged to a timber merchant named Vasant Singh. Outside the camp-house was a small, picturesque lake. We relaxed on the porch enjoying the cool breeze rolling in from the lake.
My father and the others soon fell asleep. But I could not. A huge bird circled the lake again and again and from time to time dived close to the courtyard of the house. Suddenly, a little after midnight, the wounded Kochilakhai got loose and struggled out into the open. It was heading towards the lake, flapping its bleeding wings fitfully, when a servant got up and ran after it and struck it with a lathi. It fell dead, but almost instantly the bird circling overhead swooped down upon the servant and, with its sharp beak, tried to gouge out his eyes – or at least that was the motive the elders attributed to its resolute attack. The bird then flew away into the forest shrieking differently, probably with a touch of satisfaction, leaving his victim behind to bleed. The second phase of the expedition, planned for the next day, was abandoned.
Although they made light of the mishap, I could understand how small the party felt because of the humiliation a mere bird had inflicted on it.
Only once had I witnessed a beat and that had been organized by Vasant Singh, because a tiger had been raiding his estate regularly and decamping with sheep and cattle. Probably the menace was due to Vasant Singh himself and others of his ilk felling the trees, destroying large tracts of the forest at great speed and depriving the tiger of its territory and sabotaging its usual supply of food. It was not a large beat like the ones the Rajas used to organize, with over two thousand people participating. Vasant Singh managed to collect only two hundred tribals and placed them under Father’s command.
The beat commenced early in the morning. The beaters, who had furtively made a semi-circle covering the area within which the tiger was expected to be lurking, began beating drums and shouting at a signal. They slowly pressed forward towards the opening where father sat on a machan ready with his gun. I sat on a taller and safer machan designed for witnessing the operation, with a servant by my side.
The sky was overcast and the chilly wind somehow heightened the alarm in the atmosphere. But as the ring of the beaters came closer, the excitement mounted. A number of smaller creatures made a beeline towards the opening, but neither father nor his assistants shot at them lest the tiger should change its direction and jump the beat in its despair.
The beating of drums and the shouts of the beaters grew louder and more frightening. They were enthusiastic because their toil was coming to an end. Suddenly the tiger sprang from a bush and headed in our direction at great speed.
Father must have remained extremely alert all the time, for he shot at the beast instantly. My escort on the machan saw the beast roll on the grass, but the next moment it had steadied itself and bolted out of the forest at the speed of an arrow.
Father and some more experienced members of the party tried to track down the wounded tiger. Drops of blood and faint stains on the grass led them up to the emerald paddy fields beyond the forest. Thereafter the marks were no longer discernible.
“It must be hiding in the paddy fields, waiting to die,” suggested Father, and that was some comfort for the party. The beat ended – difficult to say whether in success or failure.
Vasant Singh was busy till late in the afternoon, feeding and paying up the beaters. Tired, he then entered his bedroom overlooking the lake.
Two or three of his employees who were on the porch heard a groan and rushed into Vasant Singh’s room. Singh had fainted, holding onto his door. On his low rope-cot lay the tiger.
The employees hurriedly dragged Singh out and bolted the room from outside. Father was summoned. Through a window, he fired another bullet, this time right into the tiger’s forehead, though he was sure that it was already dead.
Vasant Singh took some time to regain consciousness. His joy knew no bounds when he realized that he was alive while the tiger was dead. He fell in love with that rope-cot, so much so that he would carry it to his home at Samargarh and bring it back when he came to his camp. He would not sleep on any other bedstead. Years later, he died a natural death on the same bedstead and was cremated along with the cot. I do not know whether that was done in deference to his own wish or because his family thought it proper to dispatch the spirit of the cot along with its master’s to the world beyond.
Partly out of some respect for the tradition and partly to break away from the monotony of life, I used to go hunting once in a while, but never for any big game. However, my poor record in that discipline reached its finale the day I shot a doe, unaware of her suckling her two fawns then. I fell into a deep remorse. I brought home the fawns one of which survived, nurtured by Subbu and our gardener, and began to waltz and frolic in and around the mansion with abandon and learnt to climb the stairs and trot on the roof. It grew up into a pert and healthy doe, christened Princess.
It was after more than a year that I was in the forest, if not against my will, not with any enthusiasm either. We were on our way to the spot where the tiger had struck. The relatives of the victim led the way. The Raja and the two Sardars followed them, but Heera tended to lag behind. As a courtesy, Rao, Sharmaji and I slowed down and walked escorting her.
“I hope Mr Dev realizes that his is not a mansion, but an intoxication – an irresistible passion!” Heera commented, turning round several times to steal glances at Horizon which seemed to stand helplessly blushing in the mellow sunlight two furlongs behind us. If it was her design to embarrass me, she did not quite succeed, but I felt awkward at the thought that she should have any such design at all.
A narrow rill had managed to carve a permanent passage for itself over the rocky ground, perhaps through a thousand years of modest but relentless effort. The rill separated the forest from the valley with its small locality.
“Your Highness, all this was once yours!” said Rao, walking up to the Raja and throwing his arms wide in a burst of sudden fervour. He lost his balance on the mossy boulders rising over the small stream. The Raja, however, acted promptly to steady him and said, “Alas, but the woods look poorer though now they belong to the nation!”
The Raja was fully justified. The forest had been and still was mercilessly plundered by timber-merchants. They did so partly legally but illegally for the most part, no doubt, in collusion with the officials appointed to protect it. They did a lot of poaching too.
An enterprising travel agency had sought to make the forest its regular market, where it could bring its affluent customers and give them the thrill of Shikar. It had taken Vasant Singh’s camp house on lease, renovated it and hired local hands to assist in the project, “Babu, they are ready to hire or bribe even animals to fall to the Shikari’s bullet, if practicable,” Subbu had commented.
But the enterprise came to an abrupt end, when the very first adventurer brought by the agency shot at a tribal youth instead of a beast. It was an error of judgment, but a rumour spread that the agency intended giving its especial customers the thrill of manhunt. There was a ferocious attack on the company’s camp. Its officials fled, narrowly escaping a shower of deadly arrows from tree tops.
The process of plundering the forest, however, had continued. The Raja felt that some tigers had been obliged to come away to the part of the forest close to the valley, because the other part had grown thin. One of these refugees had somehow tasted human flesh and had developed a taste for it.
We were near the pool where the tiger had bagged its prey. On the muddy slope between the natural embankment and the water the pugmarks were still discernible. Particularly the imprint of the beast’s paws fashioned while it took the deadly leap was distinct. The victim did not seem to have offered any resistance. He had been caught unawares, immobilized and dragged away. There was a drizzle of blood on the grass.
Sunlight had erased the fear from the surroundings; but not completely, for it still lurked in the dusky interiors of the bushes and thickets. This part of the forest was more or less familiar to me, but the situation was no longer the same with a tiger hiding somewhere, probably close by. In the throbbing silence of the moment I had the reverential feeling that it was the tiger who must prevail here, not we the interlopers.
The Raja warned us against making the slightest noise. He and Heera, alternately, paved the way for us and we followed them as noiselessly as possible. I was amazed to see Heera feeling as much at home in the forest as a squirrel in the bush. The deeper we went, the brighter she grew. She was certainly much more her natural self here than in the castle. I later learnt that though she had never explored the forests in this region, she had never failed to accompany the Raja on his hunting expeditions elsewhere. Perhaps it would be accurate to say that the Raja was seldom out for Shikar without her.
The tiger’s trail became totally indistinct after a furlong from the rill. We had then to depend on the Raja’s experience distilled into intuition. For him both silence and sound – even a movement made by a tiny creature – had a message. We had failed to notice a large cobra slithering round an anthill only a few yards ahead of us, but the Raja stopped us in time to let it take the course of its choice before we could choose ours.
Beyond a range of anthills thriving over a few stumps of dead trees stood a cluster of thick, thorny bushes and clumps of tall grass. Following signals from the Raja, we slowed down before coming to a complete halt. His gesture indicated the presence of something significant inside the well-knit hedge in front of us.
I could see a piece of soiled cloth clinging to a forked twig which protruded from a shrub. The ground under our feet was slightly higher than the small turf enclosed by the hedge. Carefully following the Raja’s gaze, I saw the tiger crouching at the foot of a tree, its back towards us. It was totally engrossed in devouring some stuff, its head buried between its forelegs. Patches of light playing on its stripes imparted a dreadful vivacity to it. Heera noiselessly tiptoed closer to the Raja who raised his gun, brought it to position in extremely slow motion and took aim. His finger was closing in on the trigger.
But there awaited us the veritable bolt from the blue.
Till then Sharmaji had been coping with the party awkwardly, following Heera literally step by step, for I had observed that his attention was rarely swayed by anything else. For a while he had fallen behind us, I suppose taking out a thorn that had pierced his canvas shoe. He was too deeply immersed in his own world to reflect on the possible cause of our dead halt. But coming closer to Heera and following her concentrated vision, he had suddenly spied upon the tiger. Involuntarily he burst into a cry of horror.
The tiger leapt up and spun around. Its eyes spouted fire for the lightning moment it surveyed us. Then, in one bound, it disappeared from sight. Its answer to Sharmaji – a growl of disgust – came from some distance.
A troop of monkeys on a banyan tree, quiet till then, began jumping and whooping. They were obviously amused.
The Raja took some time to lower his gun. I could imagine his shock and anguish. But the severe scowl on his face melted once he had cast a contemptuous look at Sharmaji who was still in the process of absorbing the impact of his own discovery. In fact he was shivering.
“Tiger!” he muttered, trying some gesture with his almost paralysed arms. Thus ended the tense silence.
Heera peered at him, a mixture of boiling anger and utter frustration in her eyes.
“Indeed, Pundit, to scare a tiger away was no joke!” she spoke through clenched teeth.
Sharmaji grimaced. Could he have grown so very dull as to feel uncertain about the import of Heera’s observation? I wondered and chose to remain uncertain about it.
In no time the Raja reverted to his usual mood of detachment and stepped into the cover deserted by the tiger. We followed suit. The remains of the victim were a gruesome sight. Any violent destruction of a form built by nature always pointed out to me a kind of defenselessness underlying our existence – and the wrecking of a human body was certainly the most poignant reminder of that reality.
“The beast had done a clean job of his trophy,” said the Raja after a hurried inspection of the scene.
The victim’s kinsmen collected the remains in a sack. If the tragedy had struck them dumb, the presence of the Raja stopped them from giving vent to their horror. They just looked haggard.
“What now?” I asked.
“We go back,” replied the Raja calmly. “Perhaps yet another man or woman, someone unlucky, is destined to end up in the lucky creature’s jaws. We can then try our luck again.”
We turned back.
“Don’t you remember that Tantric physician’s prescription? Balika should have deer meat as frequently as possible. Can’t we bag one?” Heera asked looking askance at the Raja. Irritation made her walk faster.
“Well, okay, if we see one.”
“We can carry a deer a day to the castle, Maharaja, if you so command!” said one of the Sardars eagerly. The Raja conveyed his thanks through a smile and a pat on his back, but said in a whisper, “The problem is my daughter refuses to touch the stuff. I’ll tell you if she changes her mind.”
Now the trekking proved tedious. The sun was on the meridian and the shafts of sunlight intermittently bursting forth through the trees were unbearable.
It was great relief to me when we reached the rill. Bushes brushing the flow and the rope-like roots of a banyan tree dipping into the water made hundreds of ripples inviting us to look upon them as pearls and pick up handfuls. Beyond a bend, the rill produced a sound somewhat similar to that of bells around the feet of some distant dancers.
At last one of the kinsmen of the tiger’s victim spoke: “Maharaj, but for you we would not have recovered what remained of our unfortunate cousin. Now we can at least perform his last rites in a humble manner, satisfying his spirit.” The Raja brought out some money from his pocket and pushed them into the man’s unprepared palms. They were all in tears. Bowing to the Raja, they moved away with their grisly charge.
We badly needed some rest. The Raja descended to the rill and splashed water on his face. Heera did the same. I sat down on a rock, relishing the bracing coolness emanating from the stream.
Our other companions relaxed reclining against the banyan trees.
A deer was speeding past us like a streak of lightning. Perhaps it planned to leap over the rill but came to a nervous halt confronting us unexpectedly.
I alone held a gun at the time. “Shoot!” shouted Heera. The dumbfounded deer almost offered itself to me. The force of incitement in Heera’s command made me raise my gun involuntarily. However, I passed the stage of reflex action in a moment and lowered it.
“Shoot, will you?”
The repetition of the command struck my ears like bullets as the deer resumed its loping run. Heera shifted her scorching eyes from me and probably swore in a groan. She had been rude to me, but I did not feel hurt. That I did not care to give any apology for my inaction was, I hoped, rebuff enough to her.
But Sharmaji’s conduct was revolting. His angry glances convinced me that had I still been a boy under his tutelage, he would have twisted my ears or slapped me. My audacity in disobeying Heera had upset him terribly.
We walked on in silence. Heera, seething with anger, rarely took her eyes off the ground. But suddenly she jerked her head up and raised her gun. She fired before I had been able to figure out her objective or target.
It took me a few seconds to locate her prey. From the top of a grassy mound I saw my darling doe, Princess, rolling down.
I threw down my gun and ran towards her. She sprawled still at the foot of the mound. Heera’s shot had broken her neck. I lifted her velvet body, now soaked in blood. She was dying. Subbu, who occasionally brought her to this extreme part of the valley and who was picking berries nearby came rushing. He cradled the doe on his lap and broke down like a mother over her dead child.
I looked at Heera. She stood staring at me, but immediately shifted her eyes. I shall never know whether or not Heera knew that the doe belonged to me. But her eyes betrayed the very look she had cast at me the day she learnt that I was the master of her Heera Mahal. Her eyes were like flashes of will-o’-the-wisp. There was no question of her laughing at that moment. But I felt her laughter pervade the air, as if the eerie vibrations it created would scald and singe the greenest of trees. For a moment I forgot that she was a human being and not a vampire. I even looked around for my gun. I had a burning desire to destroy her.
But that was also the moment I realized that I was unable to act. I felt totally crippled. I stood up, but faltered and sat down again with a reeling sensation in my head. In a sudden hallucination I saw the dreary landscape opposite the forest catching fire. The white flames leaped high enough to burn down a solitary pale cloud floating over my Horizon.
The Raja’s arrival has created a lot of commotion in the valley of Nijanpur. For the general election in the offing, the Raja favours an ambitious little man against a genuine politician. Here is a picture of his campaign: