We were in a bookshop overlooking blue hills; the late afternoon sun giving the hillside an extraordinary sheen and texture. I was in the wildlife section as usual, and my uncle was calling for me from the other end of the shelf; he had found what I was looking for. He lived in a town located on the edge of a vast forest, animals everywhere; the birdlife rich and mammalian fauna thriving. This was one of the primary reasons I would visit. I come from a big city far away, so my appetite for nature was never quite satiated.
Exiting the shop, purchased book in hand, we made our way back to his jeep. It was parked near a path that led to the municipality’s dam, a concrete structure in the middle of the forest. With ample time till uncle’s high tea, we ventured in for a wander. The tree cover shaded us from the sharp Sun and with each step, the fallen dry leaves and twigs on the forest-floor cracked under our heavy steps/ treading. Streams of light fell through the canopy shaped like little golden islands. As we trudged along, making our way up a declivitous slope, I stared in to the shrubbery gazing at the many critters that existed along its fragile branches. A light sweater was required being on the hills, and many a time the excess thread from mine was caught, entwined in some outstretched offshoot that somehow seemed to reach out and stop me in my tracks.
We emerged in to a clearing when an asphalt road crossed our path. It was a road taken by plantation workers of a tea estate not far off. Upon crossing this road, we reached the dam. A long narrow lane connects one end of the dam to the other, leading in to the dense wilderness for miles thereupon. By the forest stood a quaint hut with a thatched blue roof where a watchman resided. The door was padlocked but the area seemed well maintained. The watchman presumably slept here overnight and returned to the comforts of the town during the day.
There was a sheer vertical drop on the waterless face of the dam. A giant squirrel, fawn in colour, gripped the vertical bark of a massive tree, clinging effortlessly, almost floating in mid-air. She was so close that I could practically reach out and touch her. She hardly flinched, still as stone.
As dusk inevitably drew near, the trees became agog with a noise so distinctive of this forest. An overpowering silence did gradually pervade however, creating an eerie tranquility. Walking along the river heading East from the watchman’s hut, we were enveloped by a strange coolness. The temperature progressively dropped and all was quiet, motionless. Ahead, the forest grew darker, quieter. Every now and then I felt as though I was being watched, looking over my shoulder ever so often, finding nothing. The once flourishing forest now seemed barren, desolate and unwelcoming.
We halted, standing idle peering at the water, mesmerised by its emerald-like verdant shimmer, the final rays of daylight reflecting microscopic clusters of algae. I sat down, my uncle standing. We hardly spoke, hushed in solitude. The stillness was unique and it refreshed me. I temporarily forgot where I was till I stood up, noticing the rapid emergence of nightfall. We had no torches and had come unprepared.
As we returned, I, marginally ahead of my uncle froze and gestured for him to stop. Like snowmen we regarded what lay before us. In the clearing of the watchman’s compound lay a leopardess and her two cubs. They looked healthy, the cubs playing whilst their mother eagerly surveyed the cover towards our extreme left. We decided to make ourselves scarce and crouched, slowly lowering ourselves inch by inch avoiding any sudden movements that would otherwise attract unwanted attention. Just then, a large male black panther appeared. I was beaming with uncontainable excitement. My uncle and I exchanged looks; a combination of utter fascination and bewilderment. A curious sense of unease transpired within me then – no deer, langur nor bird had made any alarm calls and the forest mysteriously remained mute.
I mistakenly adjusted my footing and clumsily snapped a twig under my weight. The panther, now also sitting, immediately directed his attention towards us, scrutinising the odd, rather round figure of my uncle and me squatting in the distance. His amber eyes penetrated the thin veil of confidence I still possessed.
A slight flip of his tail and a subdued hiss and growl followed. Thereafter, a startled leopardess eyed us and we met the couple’s gaze. We sat motionless. Fortunately, as objects of interest, we were barely passable and altogether boring, for the couple diverted attention to their progeny.
I had to squint ever so often to maintain focus. The panther was now almost invisible, melting in to the engulfing blackness of twilight. The family stood up and ambled along the path which led towards our jeep! Their footsteps were muffled, soundless like ghosts. We steadily arose and followed them, maintaining a safe distance where we could still make out their shapes in the darkness. It was odd that neither of them left any pug-marks. The sandy surface they occupied lay unblemished. The cubs cut right towards the road leading to the backside of the plantation. The parents followed, but the panther intuitively turned back for one final glare. His eyes like fireflies watched our incapable figures saunter awkwardly, inexperienced.
It was now entirely dark and the cats were nowhere; they had vanished, evaporated. In the distance I could faintly see the glow of some light. The Moon was full and by now, shone radiantly, helping us navigate back towards our path. We scrambled downhill. Although we seemed to move in an opposite direction to the felines, we nevertheless felt an oppressive sense of being examined from afar. The forest remained static, almost paralysed and uncharacteristically drained of emotion. With every step, I looked right and left, but nothing was apparent, even the leaves appeared undisturbed. It was a windless night.
Approaching the end of the path, the familiar sight of tarmac and the jeep were immensely comforting. As uncle started the car, I imagined shadows in the undergrowth of protective parents shielding their young. I dreamt of strange apparitions and forest phantoms that night.