We were spending Christmas in the small village of Chekadi at my younger sister Gita and her partner Murli’s house. This was a few years ago but, the memory of that one fateful night, that changed everything in our lives forever, still haunts me. I cannot seem to forgive or forget what had happened there and that is why I write about the curious turn of events when, I realized, just how much I loved my family. The others thought I should be voted drama queen of the year. But it is only you, dear reader, who can judge dispassionately that night the puli came home. I was going to lose my family forever. Well, almost!
But before we welcome the puli, let me set the scene that was to witness that eerie night. Chekadi, (District Wayanad]) is a small village in Kerala inhabited by the adivasis of that region. They are farmers but also keep a few goats and cattle in their homesteads. Many of them are simply poor sharecroppers. There is electricity in the village but there is no light in their small homes because as Gita says, most of them cannot afford the bills. But all their children go to school. They only speak Malayalam.
Gita and Murli’s house is unique! It is just one, huge room and every corner has a function. In one corner there is the kitchen, the other has the dining room and one has the cots placed together. Usually when there are many people in the house, the guests or the hosts sleep in hammocks on the terrace or on small blankets thrown on the floor. Past the front yard, populated by many varieties of fruit and flowering trees, the land ends abruptly on the narrow bank of the Kabini river. On the other side is the Bandipur National Park in the state of Karnataka. Elephants have been known to swim over from the other side, looking for fruits and sugarcane in the harvest season, and their footprints, almost three inches deep, made in the monsoon, were still visible in December.
That year there were five of us women staying together in their house, for a period of about seven days. Murli was the occasional male who visited some nights to share a drink or bring in provisions like bread, butter and eggs from town. He felt very left out most of the time in our familial anecdoche, as he called it. A disease that the Rao family suffered from, where everyone talked all at once and no one really listened.
So, there was me, my daughter Medini, my seventy-year-old mother, my sister Gita and her French friend, Amandine altogether in Chekadi when the puli struck. Amandine was not family, but we all liked her immensely. I had heard horror stories from Gita about how the French were nasty to Indian travellers who spoke English. And that they didn’t bathe for days on end. Gita had told us very little about Amandine. And one of the first things I gleefully remarked about was that we could have some fun at her expense by talking in Hindi. I even volunteered to teach her some cuss words in Hindi. She just smiled benignly. Gita put an immediate stop to the teasing by announcing that Amandine’s PhD was on Bollywood, of some specific period that I have now forgotten. It was like someone had seen our dirty linen and was going to report on it!
She knew all the famous Bollywood dialogues perfectly. She knew the gossip too. That really broke my heart. Is there no justice in the world? Do they have to steal our last bastion of secular nationalism too from us! Though the French were a sneaky race of people, Amandine was tutored in the Bollywood ‘bahu’ mode. She didn’t cook, so she washed. And she washed after every meal. No complaints. For all the seven days. And when we started painting birds on the walls of the house, (Gita’s idea. Murli got home one night and gasped. He had just painted the house! Gita gave him a stern look that said, what if someone reacted like that to Michelangelo when he was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?) she even went and emptied the dirty water and brought back fresh water every hour. No one had ever done that for us. Not even our own countrywomen. Not even in Waccham where we had painted birds on the walls of Lal Singh’s teashop. No, Amandine was special.
Even though she wasn’t family, I didn’t want the puli to eat her that night either. I haven’t really found out what a puli actually means. That day the word morphed from a leopard, to a tiger and lastly to a great big feline. And it traversed many languages, cultures, even nations if one comes to think of it. But fear knows only a universal tongue. And that tongue is a respectful, hushed silence when the big cat is around.
Before reaching Chekadi, Bela had given me Jim Corbett’s entire collection on the man-eating tigers and leopards of Uttarakhand. I had happily gorged on the volumes, vicariously living the thrill of the hills and the tigers with Corbett. Technically, I knew a lot more than the others in that house, about the big cat. But nobody listened to me!
Well it all started one day at around noon. I had been bird watching till late that morning. Gita and mom were cooking lunch. Suddenly I saw a number of people rush to the riverbank, running through the narrow path that passed through Gita’s property. Some squatted on the bare earth, while others perched themselves up on a bare tree. I just managed to reach the scene when there was loud roar. (I don’t remember hearing it though. We city people don’t hear too well.) I saw all of the locals who were there, run back the same way they had come. I ran too. I ran to the house, and they ran to theirs. After about maybe ten minutes, everybody returned to their positions on the ground or in the tree. I didn’t know why I ran. But that’s what they do in India. When one runs, the entire crowd follows. I learnt to run on the railway platforms between Churchgate and Borivli in Mumbai.
I asked one of the locals what the matter was because by now a similar crowd had gathered on the other side of the riverbank. Another group of men and women were squatting or perched up on a tree. And when that group ran, this one would too. Most suspicious running, I must say, on two sides of the same river. When they answered my questions, I couldn’t understand anything. Everyone there spoke only Malayalam, not a word of Hindi or English. One old woman took pity and muttered several times, “puli, puli, puli.”
“Yes, yes, I got the word puli, but what does puli mean?”
She looked exasperated but finally obliged. She began scratching her right arm with her left rather violently, as if tearing her flesh apart. So, I looked at her and said “Bear, puli is bear?” I don’t think she understood me at all. She gave me a look that said, “Bloody illiterate!”
And I wondered if there were there bears in Kerala. I went back to the house and reported that a bear had been sighted on the other bank. And it is called puli. We were quite amused at the reaction of the locals to the bear. Till of course Gita had to interject with, “But there are no bears in Kerala, aren’t they a Himalayan species?” None of us had a clue where bears came from. So then who was the puli? There was no network there so no Google. We had to rely on real, live people who spoke no language known to us. It was past lunch time and we remained the only people in that village who still didn’t know who the puli was. The villagers had not left for lunch. They had kept their vigil or perhaps had taken turns. They just sat there till past sundown. By midafternoon we were getting very curious, when suddenly Gita had a brilliant idea. She rang Murli and told him to talk to one of the locals and find out the whole story. So, this is what Murli, the only one among us who spoke the language, told us.
“On the other bank of the river, sometime around eleven o’clock, a young boy had gone fishing to the river, when a leopard had attacked him and ripped his right arm apart. He was immediately taken to the hospital but now the people feared that the leopard had turned a man-eater. They didn’t want him entering the village at night and stealing one of the livestock or them. They wanted the puli to go back into the forest away from the village. Therefore, the vigil”, he said.
Ah, so it wasn’t a bear after all, that the old lady was gesticulating about. Silly me. I was told about bears, and how they attacked humans by a friend, while visiting the Pangot sanctuary. And that night, I swear I had heard somebody scratching on the front door of our cottage in the jungle. But now we had a man-eater, which was worse. Gita declared quite authoritatively, “Leopards are not man–eaters. Only tigers become man-eaters. So we need not worry at all.” I didn’t know who I was more exasperated with, the leopard or my ignorant sister. I tried telling her about the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag and how it had killed around 450 human beings before being hunted down by Jim Corbett. But she stuck to her theory as we all squatted beside the locals, armed with more knowledge now than before. We oohed and aahed with them as they narrated over and over again the story of the ripped arm.
By evening they began firing with rifles into the air in an attempt to frighten the puli back into the jungle. We watched with the others. Amandine also squatted like us Indians and she too kept repeating, “Puli, puli is coming.” And then there was another loud roar. I didn’t hear it this time either. But everyone ran. So, we ran too. My mother had already left earlier and stood on the doorstep of the back door just to be within earshot of what was happening. She saw us running back, Amandine and I were ahead while Gita lagged behind. Both of us rushed into the room and shouted at my mom that the leopard was coming. She quickly bolted the door behind the two of us. And I looked horrified. “What are you doing?” I asked her. “Closing the door”, she replied. “But Gita is outside. Do you want her to be eaten by the leopard?” I asked her. ‘Oh damn!’ she thought. Unlocking all the bolts one by one while I kept telling her that by now the leopard would have relished half of Gita. When she finally opened the door, there was Gita standing in her grumpiest worst, muttering beneath her breath. “Now I know why you had three daughters. So, you could feed one to a leopard.” We laughed so much then, but my poor mother was almost in tears. Till today Gita reminds her of that afternoon in Chekadi when she almost sacrificed one daughter to save another.
Night set in and we sat around the table for our drink. As it grew dark, I asked Gita to shut the doors and the windows just to be on the safe side. She wouldn’t have any of it. She had to smoke but wouldn’t go outside because of the leopard. I insisted and she said “Well he won’t come to get us anyway because there are goats and cows out in the open. He will eat them first”, she said. I differed. I told her that when Jim Corbett tied goats or calves as bait for the man–eater, the animal wouldn’t eat them but instead pick out an unsuspecting human victim. A man-eater will often go hungry rather than eat a goat or a cow. That was how it was in his books, anyway.
What a din she made while closing the doors and windows. And now it was really stuffy inside. But I didn’t want the man-eater to come in and get any of us that night. I don’t know why I thought that night one of us would become dinner for the big cat. I had had a premonition of that kind earlier that afternoon. Just then Murli called and asked if he should come over. Gita very politely refused. I begged her to let him come. She looked at me and said “What? a feminist like you, wants a man to defend her from a man-eating leopard, is it?” Shamefaced I whimpered, “No, actually he knows Malayalam so I thought he would be of help.” “For what? To speak to the puli in Malayalam? Mallu leopard so Mallu talk huh?” Why did I have such an impossible sister? I thought.
But the fight in the house wasn’t over. Amandine sided with Gita, that French traitor, and my mother had already rubbed her the wrong way earlier. I was left unsupported. But I had some silent support from Medini. I kept telling them all that if the leopard came home that evening it would pick out the weakest one and that was Medini. I recounted another of Corbett’s stories in which a mother tried to snatch back her child from the jaws of a man-eater but to no avail. Both were found half eaten the next day.
The last fight was about sleeping on the terrace. Both Gita and Amandine wanted to sleep on the terrace and keep the hatch open that led down to the rest of the house. I wouldn’t have any of it. And this time mom sided with me. No one was to sleep on the terrace that night and the heavy hatch was to remain shut. I don’t know how we managed to close it that night. I guess we were all too drunk to be bothered by its sheer weight.
So, we all slept soundly inside the house feeling a bit asphyxiated but happy, nevertheless. At least I was. Gita stopped talking to me altogether. Till of course I made up by painting a few birds on the walls.
The next day Murli called again and gave us a more detailed version of the previous day’s story. Well, the puli in this case, was not a leopard but a young male tiger that was abandoned by its mother, and had to fend for itself. It had attacked the young boy but had got frightened later and had darted away. The forest rangers had done the right thing by firing at it, so that it would always be afraid of humans, and never turn into a man-eater. That meant he would be able to live for many years to come. By late evening it was already in the forest, having a hearty vegetarian meal as was duly verified by some forest officials.
We had successfully protected ourselves from the puli that night, thanks to Jim Corbett of course. But what about all the anecdoche he left behind?
Photos: Nivedita Rao; Elephant photo – Amandine D’Azevedo
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