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Who would have imagined certainly not I that one day I would have to make a phone call to my mother in Siliguri to ask her to keep the gates and doors of her house locked for fear of a leopard getting in? This is exactly what I did in the early afternoon of 28th January this year. When she did not answer my call, I worried about her, a strange new worry that had never struck me in my thirty-eight-year-old life as a daughter. At last, when I managed to get through to my brother on the line, my first words were, "Why isn't Ma picking up the phone? I heard there's a leopard roaming the streets of Siliguri. Please ask her to lock the gates". I'm sure my brother would pass his version of my phone call into family lore, another addition to stories about my eccentricities.
"Don't worry," my father assured me, always the third person on my speed-dial, "the leopard's been caught".
And then all the information, which always came to him third-hand, tumbled out. The leopard had first been sighted at 9:45 am in Atul Prasad Sarani in Hakimpara. This is about 12 kilometres from Baukunthapur forest, 1.5 kilometres from the Kanchenjunga Stadium where the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, was to inaugurate the Uttar Banga Utsav a few hours later, and only a kilometre from the residence of Gautam Deb, the minister in charge of North Bengal Development. The leopard first entered Tapan Talukdar's house and later a bedroom in the house of Gopal Ghosh, where it remained trapped for nearly four hours until it was drugged and taken to the nearby Mahananda Sanctuary in Sukna.
The leopard alert had come to me from a school friend. There was less worry and more excitement in his text message: "Leopard roaming the streets of Hakimpara". I was in the car, on my way home from Jalpaiguri. I thought it was a poor prank and yet the premise of the joke seemed so outrageous that I gave in to the temptation of believing it. A call to him and the one bit that would stick to my memory was his mentioning that the leopard had been spotted in a place called 'Shanti More'. The irony of that name made me laugh.
Until we managed to get home, my driver and I discussed different possibilities, one ruling out the other's silliness. Had it escaped from the African-Russian Nataraj Circus group that was visiting Siliguri, I asked. Animals are no longer allowed in circuses, he said. At a traffic signal, when I rolled down the windows, I heard a pillion rider remark on its size: "Even eight men together could not control its movements".
I noticed cars being diverted and then panic struck. By now I was certain that the leopard was flaneuring the town. I imagined deserted streets and locked doors and suddenly worried for the traffic sergeants. I called my husband who said he was in an important meeting. Nothing could be more important than talking about a leopard taking over our town, I wanted to say. Instead I found myself repeating to him the daily horoscope that my cell phone operator had predicted for my sun sign: 'Avoid wearing black today'. Why did I have to wear this pair of black jeans today? I cribbed.
When I gathered the courage to ask a traffic sergeant why cars were being diverted through another route, he looked at me with all the pity an overworked policeman could spare. "The chief minister is here. There are other VIPs too. It's the inaugural day of the Uttar Banga Utsav," he said.
That I'd completely forgotten about the North Bengal Festival, organised by the Trinamool government.
There was a beep on my phone. A text from the same friend who'd first alerted me. "Now the chief minister will say that this leopard is also the handiwork of the Marxists, a conspiracy by the CPM."
I forwarded the text to my father, a great patron of topical jokes. To return the favour as it were, he sent me one about the leopard being a human in disguise, as in the fairytales. "Don't worry. The leopard's actually Gobinda Roy, the former Forward Bloc MLA from Jalpaiguri who's been absconding because of his alleged involvement in the Potato Scam." It took me some time to remind him that the symbol of the Forward Bloc was the lion, not the leopard.
By the time I got home, I had news that the leopard had indeed been caught. It was from a schoolgirl passing by our house. We were strangers but perhaps the piece of news had overwhelmed her. "The leopard's been caught, our art teacher said," she reported, laughing.
I laughed too, several times in the late evening. First, when my mother, a priestess of the detailed reportage, gave me names of three acquaintances who had gone to see the leopard, one of whom had shown it to her on her cell phone video recorder. She did not leave it at that. For the leopard, she became a supporter of the underdog: "We've taken over their land, don't you see? The forests are gone. See what's happened to Baikunthapur Forest". And so she continued about elephants that were killed by trains in the Dooars, about elephants that ransacked tea gardens for food, about picnickers and their loudspeakers chasing animals out of the wild. She was not wrong, I knew, and yet, one grows impatient with such conversation. In your head, it's the spam mail from your conscience you delete it without reading it.
That night, when I sat watching television, the incident turned into a headline, it was her words that annotated my viewing experience of watching the scared woman whose arms revealed wounds caused by the leopard's paws, her face marked with fear, the forester's matter-of-fact acceptance of the situation (as if a time when tigers would become domesticated animals wasnt too far away), of the ministers' rhetoric, and the multitudes who had come to watch a 'live circus', as one bystander called it. The police had been forced to lathicharge. It was a miracle, my mother had said, that no less than two thousand people had gathered to watch a scared leopard, trapped in a room, who had perhaps only lost his way. Imagine one man surrounded by two thousand leopards, she said.
We heard many versions of the story, all except the leopard's. The District Forest Officer Dharamdeo Rai said, "It has regained consciousness on the way to Sukna. We have kept it under observation in an enclosure at Sukna. It would be released in the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary tomorrow". The woman who'd been injured said that the thick blade that had been used to keep the door locked for an hour until the forest department officials arrived would forever remind her of this day, and that she'd keep it as memorabilia. The leopard had destroyed all the furniture in her room, the television set lay broken on the floor. The DFO promised compensation. Shuvankar Mondal and Uttam Dutta, the two young men who'd been hurt, had been hospitalised. My favourite quote however came from Hiten Barman, the forest minister: "A leopard has no sense of time or timing. So please don't look for a message in this".
Being humans, and prone to finding patterns in events, my husband and I spoke about the coincidence of the appearances of leopards in Siliguri town. A leopard had been spotted on 19th July, 2011, when Mamata Banerjee was in Siliguri. A day earlier, she had signed the Memorandum of Agreement of the creation of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration. We said the same phrase together, quoting from William Blake's famous poem, 'The Tiger': 'fearful symmetry' ('Tiger tiger, burning bright/In the forests of the night;/What fearful hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?').
Before I went to sleep, my cell phone beeped a text message. It was from my father, the tireless collector of forwarded jokes. "In September 2012, Mamata Banerjee had said this in a speech: Know that as long as I live, I shall live with my head held high like a tiger".
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Sumana Roy lives in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.
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