I spurned the friendship offer of a leopard
Ensconced in the Himalayas at a height of 7500 feet, Dhanaulti is a destination of choice for vacationers seeking a retreat far from the madding crowd. On one of those summer escapades from Delhi, many years back, my wife and I, our two children- a daughter, 11 and eight-year-old son- along with my 16-year-old niece were a group that drove to this quaint hill station tucked away in the mountains under a blanket of clouds. When you are greeted by a congregation of friendly clouds that find a way to get into your SUV through its open windows do you realize that you are in the immediate vicinity of Dhanaulti. In a place where the habitation is low, as in Dhanaulti, nature tends to appoint proxies like streams, a cluster of pine trees, a forest or, as in this case, a bunch of friendly clouds to fill in as landmarks. Leaving the crowded hill station, Mussoorie behind, our car covered the ascending 25-km stretch of narrow winding road to reach late in the afternoon the guest house that was to be our home for three nights.
The suite allocated to me and my wife was one among a row of rooms that opened to a verandah overlooking an expansive green patch hemmed by barbed wire fencing. The children were assigned the neighbouring room. A forested hillock a short distance away was part of the immediate topography of the place. After a quick recce of the place, we plonked ourselves on cane chairs in the verandah to soak in the twilight ambience of forest and hills and the nippy air over cups of steaming tea and piping hot pakoras. The affable guest house manager dropped by in a gesture of courtesy to enquire whether we were all comfortable with the facilities and services at the guest house and whether we would like to have our dinner served in our room. “That will be great. We are pretty tired after our arduous eight-hour journey and would really appreciate an early dinner at around sevenish in our room,” I said.
“Not to worry sir- that will be taken care of”, the manager assured in his warm solicitous manner. “If you need anything else please do let us know. We are at your service 24X7”, he added turning to go. Suddenly almost as an afterthought, he turned around to say: “By the way, Sir, there are wild animals like monkeys, leopards and panthers moving around in the nearby forest during the night. Though the guest house compound is secured by barbed wire fencing that is electrified at night to keep wild animals out, we advise guests not to venture out of their rooms at night just as a matter of abundant caution”.
“Thanks for informing us of the wildlife safari prospects in our backyard. Hope we will not be billed extra for it”, I quipped with mock humour, adding by way of assurance “Don’t worry we will follow your advise”. The Manager left with a smile after wishing us a pleasant stay.
The Manager was a man of his word. A hot steaming multi-course dinner was served on the dot at 7.30 pm in our suite. Hill stations conventionally tend to retire early. The logic of late dinners, favoured by inhabitants of big towns and cities in the plains, do not quite appeal to hill folks. And convinced by the wisdom of the adage “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, I allowed all roads of customs and habits “to lead to Rome”, in a manner of speaking. Dhanaulti was no exception to this principle though the early dinner there on day one was prompted as much by the subjectivity of hunger as by local norms.
The long drive and the nip in the air had, in fact, whipped up monstrous appetites and found us hungrily devouring the sumptuous spread laid out on the table. Dinner was accompanied by conversations on life in a hill station, in general, and the myriad attractions of Dhanaulti, in particular. Dinner over, the empty plates were removed outside the door of the suite for the room service staff to collect later. The children retired to their neighbouring suite while I settled with a nightcap on an easy chair in the comfort of a rug to watch an old Hindi movie beamed on one of the TV channels. Incidentally, a bottle of single malt is my constant companion on outstation holiday trips and I lean on it as an ally that helps me unwind and get into relaxation mode as a precursor to a perfect holiday. A couple of drinks and a little over an hour later, within which time the remnants of the movie had run its course and the soreness of limbs from the journey had dissipated largely, I dozed off.
I do not recall how long I had slept but was woken up by what I felt was a gentle knock on the door. In a trance, accentuated by heightened sleep-drenched grogginess that was oblivious to time and the dimly lit ambience of the place, I shuffled gingerly across the room to the door, stumbling on a carelessly kept suitcase enroute. With the security chain in place, I opened the door as much as the short chain would allow and peered, half asleep, into the darkness (for some strange reason, none of the lights in the verandah were working). A pair of red eyes glowed at me from barely a couple of feet away even as I heard a faint but unmistakable growl. The object moved, coming squarely into a shaft of moonlight that fell on the verandah. In that misty light, I went into momentary deep freeze as the five- foot frame of a leopard, complete with spotted coat, sharp canine fangs and gingerly wagging tail, emerged from the shadows, emitting an overpowering foul odour. The leopard crept forward, trying to position one of its paws almost playfully into the space created by the partly open door. Unable to prise the door open, it let out a frustrated growl before retreating a few steps apparently to reconfigure its strategy of gaining access to my room. It was precisely at that moment that a mixture of desperation and presence of mind jolted me out of my stupor. In one swift reflex motion, I slammed the door shut literally on the face of the animal.
For a moment, I stood still wedged between the reality of what had transpired and the possibility of what could have happened if the door chain was not in place. And then my legs just buckled as I sank onto the carpeted floor. There was no question of catching up on my sleep. I sat still on the sofa waiting for daybreak. Dawn kept me waiting for what seemed an eternity but when its signature red streaks finally appeared on the horizon, it brought with it an immeasurable relief.
A little later, human steps were heard approaching the door. The doorbell rang, announcing the arrival of room service staff with bed tea and biscuits. The man could not restrain his curiosity as he poured the steaming tea into our cups. “Did you hear anything unusual outside your room, sir? You see, we had half an hour power failure at night when the barbed wire fencing around the property was not electrified. Though such power outages are rare, in such cases, animals can stroll into the guest house compound for a visit”.
Yes a tendua (Hindi for leopard) had dropped by late at night and made an offer of friendship that I spurned after almost calling him in for dinner. The man looked at me with a puzzled expression, apparently trying to gauge whether I was being plain sarcastic or nursing the remnants of a hangover. The reality between these two possibilities quite eluded him as he shrugged and left. For me, however, the night at the Dhanaulti guest house overlooking a secluded forest had left an audio-visual legacy that I was not likely to shrug off in a hurry.