She was five days old when Vikram found her, hidden among the tea bushes in the cold climate of January.
Her mother had abandoned her seeing that she was a weak little thing with no chances of survival. Vikram took her to his parents who immediately called the doctor. The doctor’s prognosis was grim too. She had no chances of making it.
“All you can hope for”, said the doctor, “Is to give her a warm environment, feed her warm milk. But I don’t think she’ll make it beyond a week.” And that was why he left her under their care, knowing she wouldn’t live for long anyway.
But Vikram wasn’t to be deterred. He tried feeding her warm milk from a bowl, but the poor little thing couldn’t swallow. So, Vikram and his mother started dipping a kerchief in the milk and letting her suck on it. She was never let out of their sight. All the servants, several workers of the Tea garden, and even Vikram’s father, Mr. S. had forgotten all their duties. hovering day and night over the baby, sometimes with worry, sometimes with elation when she would finally finish the bowl of milk after two hours continuous feeding.
After ten days, she opened her eyes and let out a soft mewl. It was a day of celebrations. They named the new addition to their family, the pampered and already loved leopard, Princess.
Princess was their third child, Mrs S. says it even today, and the most loved one. Her eldest, her daughter was married and lived in the city with her husband. Her son, Vikram was an engineering student who was with them for the winter when Princess was found.
Mr. S. was the manager of a tea-garden in Assam. He was probably the most enthusiastic when it came to adopting Princess. Their bungalow was situated at one end of the garden had a huge flower garden surrounding it, tended and kept well, and the whole lawns were canopied with huge, tall trees marking the perimeter. Just beyond the low walls that separated the manager’s bungalow from the rest of the garden was the narrow road and a shallow moat. After that was the vast expanse of the tea bushes, glittering green in the sunlight, yet saved from the glare of the sun by the thin and tall shade trees growing in a dizzying pattern.
The green and yellow of the Assam tea garden is something to behold. Ever continuous with bonsai tea bushes, all nurtured and maintained at the same height, the narrow road for cars and tractors spiraling between the sections of the garden, the entrancing shadows cast by the shade trees made an indelible impression of the shadows playing hide-and seek with the sun. And amongst it all, the workers with the sun-hats and baskets on their back working, plucking “two leaves and a bud” made the view picture-perfect.
And Princess could have had no better place to grow up.
From the day she was adopted, she was spoiled by every person who used to come inside the bungalow. At a few weeks old, she could growl and started walking about. And she needed much more nutrition than cow’s milk. On the doctor’s orders, Mrs. S. started preparing boiled vegetables and half a kilo of mutton for her.
Princess’ best friend, strangely enough, was the S.’s pet Doberman, Rocko. Rocko treated Princess as his daughter and was overly protective of her. Wary of most people entering their bungalow, as Doberman’s usually are, Rocko became even more protective when Princess came to live with them. Running about, upending and breaking things Princess was also strictly monitored and controlled by Rocko. And it was fun to watch them in action. Princess started emulating Rocko, and had a lot of fun chasing people on bicycles entering the premises. Only Rocko’s was nevertheless just a bark and Princess’ a growl that had most of them running for life when they saw the black spots on yellow chasing them. Even poor Mrs S., an amateur interior decorator of sorts had to put all of her treasures under lock and key, or very much out of reach. But even that ploy failed.
After Princess was a few weeks old, one day Mr. and Mrs. S. coming home from a party, couldn’t find Princess anywhere in their bungalow. They were looking for her all over their place when suddenly, Mrs. S. heard a plaintive and scared cry from their kitchen. She ran with her husband into the kitchen to find Princess looking fearful atop a pelmet in the room. She had probably managed to jump, only as a leopard can, 7 feet above but being the baby she was, she couldn’t climb down. She had had the fright of her life, till Mr. S. himself got her down. That night she had snuggled like a puppy in between Mr. and Mrs. S. in bed, something even Rocko had not ever been allowed.
Vikram as an engineering student could come home to the tea gardens only in the holidays. But Princess was his baby. He called almost every day to learn about her new antics and progress. And unlike before, he would try to go to Assam from Delhi even in the long weekends. Mr. S. was who Princess was scared of, like we are of our Dads, revered him and loved him the best. As Princess grew, Mrs. S. wasn’t as comfortable with feeding Princess anymore. Princess might not have known that she was a wild leopard but Mrs. S did know. So even though she prepared her food, kilos of mutton, rotis or milk, Mr. S. had the responsibility to feed her, and Vikram when he was home. Several other frequenters to the S.’s bungalow also stopped coming except for a few servants who had been there when Princess had come and were on friendly terms with her. But Vikram was Princess’ best mate. And she listened to him, as she found out that Vikram was one person whom she couldn’t intimidate.
In fact, it was Vikram who had climbed up the huge tree in the garden to bring Princess down, when she had been crying, unable to get down. It was Vikram who had to climb up and down the trees in the garden just to teach Princess how to do it. Once Princess slapped Vikram with her front paw, after she’d gotten really angry and Vikram slapped her right back. Vikram earned his respect with Princess by showing that he wasn’t someone to be cowed by her. Vikram being very fast on his legs, used to run with Rocko and Princess on his heels, but later he reverted to using a bicycle as the trio covered miles.
But keeping a leopard is not an easy feat in the real world. Stories of Princess, exaggerations, and all of them not nice, spread like wild-fire in the neighboring gardens and areas. And it wasn’t long after when the Forest Division Officers came calling. Princess was then seven months old.
Too Long For a Single Read. Hence. To be Continued………………
N.B. Another true story. G.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. ~ Mark Twain