This is the concluding part of the story Princess. I request you to read the beginning before you continue with this one. Happy Reading!
Mr. S. wasn’t the reputed manager that he was without being clever and practical. He knew that every day without the Forest Officers coming knocking on the door was a boon. But he was prepared to face them when the time came. Princess was seven months old, and huge, when they finally parked their officially stickered Gypsy next to Mr. S.’s white Gypsy in the bungalow’s portico.
Their belligerence was made short not so much by the presence of a well-built leopard than it was by the sight of imposing Mr. S and Vikram each standing over six feet tall, calm and composed. The proof that tales of Princess had spread wide and far was the presence of the Director of the Forest Division himself. He was not really an unreasonable man, much to the relief of the S.’s. But the tirade did not stop.
But they hadn’t expected people, the ones who had known Princess from when she was a baby to put up any defense. The doctor who had been the first to tend to Princess as the almost dying cub was there to bear witness, and staunchly back the S. family as the officers threatened to arrest Mr.S.. A confusing ruckus ensued.
It was then that the Director stepped in. He suggested that all charges against Mr S and his family be dropped as it was obvious they had rescued the leopard rather than trapping her to keep as a pet, and even though she was on a leash behind the bungalow, it wasn’t an example of cruelty to animal but rather protecting the guests in the bungalow. But before Princess’ family at the tea garden started to rejoice overmuch, the Director put up a hand and said, “But I cannot allow you to keep the leopard any more. It is against the law to keep any wild animal as a pet. Especially under Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960, you will have a problem on your hand if anyone sues.”
Mr.S. had had known that this would be the probable outcome, and had warned his son and wife too. But when it actually happened, it hurt much more than they all had expected.
The big, strong man remained inside his room behind locked doors the next day after the Officers came and took away Princess. Mrs. S. also didn’t go. But Vikram did. Princess was really strong by then, and she only willing went into her cage because Vikram was there. But when the vehicle started moving away, Princess looked wonderingly at the shrinking figure of Vikram standing at the gates of the bungalow, face streaming with tears, then started clawing at the bars of the cage and let out a growl that turned into a howl. It was as if Princess knew what was happening and she was not showing her displeasure, she was crying. Vikram couldn’t watch any longer. But Princess’ howling could be heard long after the vehicle couldn’t be seen anymore, as the vehicle waded its way across the tea garden. The echo of her keening cry reached every ear in the bungalow, which was the only remnant in the house as all activity came to a stand-still.
That night, the ever efficient staff had lost their impetus to work. Mrs S. also had no heart to ask them or work herself. Mr. S. went on his usual survey but barely spoke any words beyond the unnecessary. The workers kept up their working rhythm in the gardens but something was missing in their everyday actions Vikram wandered mindlessly in the well-tended lawns of the bungalow, and beyond till late in the evening all by himself. Rocko had been put on leash and tied near the servants’ quarters for even if Princess had been fooled but Rocko had understood the implications of the Jeep with the cage, and had been frantic to keep Princess from getting on to that. That night, tired from madly barking all day, Rocko lay down in the open where he was tied, and refused food even when coaxed by Mrs. S. herself.
The next morning everyone was up and went for their respective work at 5 am garden-time, as was the norm but they were visibly lacking their usual vigor. Mr. S. silently rode his white Gypsy with the assissant manager of his garden surveying the on-going work, stopping once in a while, when required to talk to the employees. Mrs. S. went about her morning chores, as she directed the servants around the house. Vikram, usually a late sleeper was also woke up in the wee hours of the morning and went running. There were signs of life everywhere but the sounds of it were all missing.
It was noon, when the military-green Jeep with the cage entered the tea garden premises. A shiver passed through the workers in and about the gardens, every one of them paused in their strides to watch the Jeep pass slowly. The punctual Mr. S. had just gotten back home for his lunch. The servants were helping Mrs. S. set the table when the Jeep pulled in.
The Director himself had come back. With Princess.
The trained officers had been unable to control the beast. Unable to feed her, move her or make her do anything. She had taken turns to become ferocious and then completely despondent. But there had been no one who could handle her, calm her. In a word, Princess would bend to nobody. She wanted her family, and she had turned terribly wild for a ‘tame’ leopard.
The Director stood before the S. family. “We decided that it is best to leave where Princess herself wants to be, where Princess is happy. With her family. You can keep her under your care for as long as you want. I’ll give you my authorization.”
Vikram cried for the first time in his adult life. Others couldn’t stop smiling. Princess was back.
Princess shot out of the cage into Vikram’s arms the moment the bars opened. It was a happy reunion. Celebrations ensued.
But sadly that was not the happily ever-after scenario. This was real.
Barring Vikram, Princess became mean and rude to everyone around her. Mr.S. also wouldn’t have been exempt if Princess hadn’t learned to fear him early in her life. A leopard’s heart is not like a human’s. Once broken, the S.’s believe, they remain broken. There is only one chance to gain the respect for their trust, and no other.
Princess’ heart had been broken the day she’d been turned away by her family. She only understood that and nothing else.
Rude and mean in a leopard wasn’t the moody way of a human child. It was the hurt transformed into bitter anger. She was angry with Rocko too. The servants she previously doted on turned enemies as she’d take a snipe at them now and again. The frolicking fun chase of men in bicycles could end in biting out chunks of their legs, if not careful. She wasn’t care-free any more, nor would she listen to Rocko. It was difficult to feed or bathe her. No one but Vikram could calm Princess.
Then it was time for Vikram to go back to college. He postponed his trip back, missed classes, as much as he could. But Princess’ black mood showed no signs of abating. Little did he want to understand that maybe leopards can’t forgive. And Vikram had to go back.
It was about a week after Vikram had left for college. Princess had retreated into a sulking mood which was bare improvement from her vicious anger. One evening Mrs. S., the over-protective mother, very aware that Princess had not taken lunch, brought Princess her dinner herself. That night, with Mr. S. away at the garden club, Princess took a swipe at Mrs. S..
Mr S. had come home to find Mrs. S behind the locked doors in their bedroom shivering in fear and with a deep gash across her cheek. It was her who issued the ultimatum. Princess had to leave. And Mr. S. knew it was the right thing to do.
The next day Mr. S. called the Director of the Forest Divisions and asked them to come and take Princess away, with the only request that Princess not be put in a locked zoo. She hated cages.
Princess was with them for nine months till she was taken away and freed in the forests of Upper-Assam.
Vikram for the first time in his life did not come home for the holidays.
After almost three months had passed, as news travels, the S.’s heard that there were several sightings of a leopard chasing, running after white Gypsy-s.
It took the S.’s, all of them, and a few servants, no time at all to pack an entourage and go to the places in northern Assam where the leopard had been seen. Against the rules, they got off their Jeeps and shouted themselves hoarse calling out for Princess. Vikram and Mr. S. ventured further and further into the forests calling her name. But Princess didn’t come.
The strong and resilient Mr.S. who hadn’t cried when he’d given his daughter away, dropped to his knees in front of everybody that day and cried like nobody had ever seen him cry before.
They don’t know whether Princess lives on or she died. Whether she ever learned to feed herself. But they all talk about her in the present tense. They cannot think about the alternative. Their pride, their love reflects in every word they speak about her, and they talk about her all the time. Their house is adorned with photographs of Princess, and an oil too, that Princess had been very disgruntled to pose for. Before anyone can judge them guilty, they hold themselves responsible even though they really didn’t have a choice. But it doesn’t lessen the grief or the regret.
N.B. This is a TRUE story. And I wanted to share it. Any similarity to Born Free the movie, I can’t help it as I have not fictionized a single fact but diligently stuck to the stories as I heard them from Mr and Mrs S. (except their son’s name is not Vikram) If I can procure the pictures of Princess, I will definitely put them up. Love, G. 🙂