Shardul


Venkatesh was an introvert and hardly talked to anyone. No he wasn’t a sociopath, neither was he suffering from depression….he just liked the peace that solace gave him. Far from the maddening crowd if you will. This ensured that his social circle was nothing to brag about. He lived alone in a large farmhouse in a village on the outskirts of Calicut city near the suburb Kuttiyilthazham, in Kerala. He had served in the British Indian Army, later joined the Indian Army and was a known marksman.

The sound of silence echoed through the night; fires were lit and men in groups stood guard with sticks and spears in hand. Since the last couple of weeks, a number of goats and a few dogs had disappeared. Pug marks of a feline were spotted in the area.

Animal attacks are rare in the northern part of the state, which was another reason why everyone was tense. A loud shout and a roar broke the dead silence of the night. The leopard had been spotted.

“Venkatesh! Venkatesh!” a boy came running to his door. Venkatesh had been expecting this call.

“Calm down kid. Have some water. And now tell me, where is the leopard?”

“Ne…near…the …Wes…..Western….Gate…..” the boy replied while taking huge gulps from the jug of water.

Venkatesh grabbed his gun and rushed to the site. Three men with sticks and torches tried to corner the beast but it slipped through them and tried to run away. Venkatesh and another villager rushed after it. Venkatesh took a shot in the dark. The gunshot boomed through the night. A thud! The beast had been brought down by a single shot.

They went towards its lifeless body. The animal looked beautiful; its yellow-orange fur with clouded spots displayed the artistic skills of its creator. They inspected the carcass, it was a female and she was a nursing mother. Her body was still warm.

A small voice called from a bush nearby. The men went there to inspect. A cub around 15 days old and it still had his eyes closed. It was a male. He called out to his mother again. Without her he wouldn’t survive a day. Venkatesh deeply regretted his action. He had never felt so much guilt before. He didn’t want to kill the leopard, his intentions were to scare her away but due to fear and in the heat of the moment he had committed a murder.

He once owned a dog, a female German shepherd, who had fallen ill and he had had to put her to sleep. He had owned many before but she had been his favourite. The pain was too hard for him to bear and he had vowed that he would never get another pet. But the cub was too much for him to resist. He picked up the little quivering body and brought him along to his farmhouse.

Venkatesh boiled some milk, added an egg and mixed it thoroughly. He poured the concoction in a bowl. He took a clean piece of cloth, dipped it in and then held the dripping cloth in front of the cub. The kid was hungry and sucked on it greedily.

“You have a voracious appetite little guy.” Venkatesh smiled, “you will grow up to be one of the strongest kings of the jungle. I shall call you Shardul, resembling a tiger.”

Shardul sneezed and little droplets of milk covered Venkatesh’s face. He laughed out loud, and Shardul seemed to smile in glee, as if proud of himself for playing a successful prank. Venkatesh looked at the cub and realised that he hadn’t felt this happy since the day his dog had died.

After Shardul had burped, Venkatesh cleaned his mouth.  He wrapped the cub in his arms. After a few minutes, Shardul was sleeping contently, without a care. Venkatesh didn’t move a muscle, lest he would wake up the little guy.

Shardul was fed this way for the next 1 month. Venkatesh fed him about 8-9 times a day. Shardul had begun to use his teeth and had a lot of fun gnawing on almost everything. His little canines were sharper than a needle and he needed the exercise to develop the strength in his jaws.

“SHARDUL!” Venkatesh came in waving a half-eaten pair of slippers, “This is my 3rd pair of slippers you have destroyed in 2 days. I am going to teach you a lesson you will never forget.”

Shardul left the leg of the dining chair and tilted his head towards right, like he always used to and stared at Venkatesh with his large moist eyes. His face was covered with little bits of wood. His expression conveyed that he was sorry for the damage, but he was helpless, the soft rubber was too big a temptation to resist.

“You little devil. I can never remain angry with you for long, not when you have that expression which can melt a rock.”

Shardul let out a short purr and continued chewing the leg.

Shardul was growing stronger by the day and Venkatesh understood that the farmhouse, though spread over a large area, was too small a playground for him. He needed the open air; he was the son of the wild.

He was now 6 months old and it had been 20 days since he had learned to climb a tree. Leopards are natural climbers and feel more at home on a tree than on ground, in fact they prefer to have their meals while perched up on their watch tower. They can climb even smooth barked trees with ease. Venkatesh had built a separate shed for Shardul, though most of the nights he preferred to sleep on the branches.  Venkatesh had had his fence redone to prevent Shardul from being the party pooper at night.

It had been 4 months since Shardul was having red meat, roughly around 5% of his body weight, 5 days a week. He was usually fed at night. Things were going on fine. Venkatesh heard a noise at around 2 A.M. and went to investigate.

“Shardul? Is that you?”

A grunt came along with a cracking sound. Venkatesh pointed his torch in the direction of the voice. Shardul’s green eyes gleamed. His face was covered with blood and the remnants of a bird were lying on the ground. It was his first kill and he seemed to be feeling proud of himself.

Venkatesh was feeling a bit uneasy now. He had grown fond of his spotted feline but he knew that the time to say goodbye will come soon. Goodbyes are never easy, especially if it is someone you begin to care about a lot. Venkatesh always kept his soft side in wraps but Shardul had managed to bring it out. But he knew he could not keep the beast forever. Moreover, the villagers would not be happy having a leopard living with them.

A leopard though smaller than a lion and a tiger is still more deadly and more feared than the two of his larger cousins. Because it is fiercer, braver, more intelligent, has far keener senses and can survive on almost every terrain; from deserts to rain forests, from rocky mountains to plains. It is a master sleuth and is able to see quite easily in pitch dark thanks to its extra-long and over sensitive whiskers. Pound for pound leopard is the strongest cat in the world, capable of hoisting a carcass more than its own body weight up a tree.  It is an excellent swimmer and can leap over 3m high rocks without breaking a sweat. Its deadly arsenal of weapons and strengths make it the ultimate assassin of the cat family and is also the most successful amongst the big cats of the world.

A week had passed since Shardul made his first kill. Venkatesh had taken further precautions to prevent him from going on a hunting spree in the village. But, Shardul was a wild animal and dead meat was not fulfilling his appetite for the hunt. He needed live mutton. This time it was a rabbit.

The only saving grace was that he had been hunting small animals; rodents and birds were the only items on his list. Most of the day was spent wandering around exploring his surroundings. Shardul was naturally curious and had to investigate everything. He had taken a liking to eating flies for snack while Venkatesh had his cup of coffee in the evening. He snapped frequently at the fast flying food, though his kill rate here was nothing to boast of.

He was now 11 months old. Life in the backyard of the farmhouse had never been so exciting. Venkatesh made sure that Shardul’s stomach was full, and Shardul roamed in his private paradise, trying to make sense of the bird songs.

The peace was broken by a loud growl from inside the house. Venkatesh went inside to look. It was Shardul; he was staring at something threateningly. He let out another roar, his long tail swaying from side to side indicating his space had been threatened and he wanted it back, his hind legs were bent, back arched, eyes fixed on target, all his senses were active, his body shivering with rage. Venkatesh crept steadily and was shocked, it was another leopard, and then he smiled.

“You sweet fool, it is just a mirror. You have been hurtling abuses at your own image.”

He covered the mirror with a curtain.

“See! The invader has gone”

Shardul spent some time sniffing the area behind the mirror, trying to fathom the mystery of the sudden appearance and disappearance of his challenger.

Since his last adventure Shardul had become quite vary of mirrors. He treated them like a source of evil magic. His body always quivered in front of one.

He was now one year old and was able to fend off for himself, but it would be almost another year before he would leave Venkatesh to find his own place in the wild. The nights were usually filled with Shardul’s territorial cries, which sounded like a bark being sawed. He didn’t have a mother to teach him the nuances of hunting, so he had learnt everything by making mistakes. In the wild these mistakes would have cost him his life, but in Venkatesh’s backyard, Shardul could afford to make a few. He hunted small prey like rabbit and birds for practice as the majority of his diet was provided by his foster parent. Mice and rats were not much for practice though as a single swipe of the paws was all that was necessary to have them playing the harp.

Night had fallen over the village. The bark of the street dogs broke the silent of the night.

“They must be fighting again,” grumbled Venkatesh as he shifted on bed.

Next day, he went to check on Shardul. He was greeted by a friendly purr from the bushes. Shardul stretched first his front legs and then the rear ones, before finally releasing his lethargy with a yawn that would have made any hippopotamus proud. The half-eaten carcass which comprised the meal last night was neatly packed on a tree branch.

“On a diet, are we?” questioned Venkatesh, while cleaning Shardul’s personal water pond. It was a daily chore and one that Venkatesh didn’t mind doing.

He went out to get some supplies for the household, leaving Shardul snoring in the shade of a tree. Life in the village was quiet and without much adventure. He bought all he needed from the village grocer and started back. He took the shorter way back home through the green patch. A strange smell greeted him, it was a dead mongrel.

It wouldn’t have been anything of big concern except for the fact that the creature had bite marks on the neck. Venkatesh dropped the bag to perform a quick autopsy. There was a bite through the back of the neck that had destroyed the spinal cord and another had crushed the trachea. Furthermore, there were feline paws imprinted on the terrain nearby and the ground revealed that the body had been dragged to the point. It was a leopard kill.

Dog meat is a favourite of leopards. If what Venkatesh was thought was true, then this might be Shardul’s first major kill. He had an eerie feeling. Things were changing and he needed to do something before it went out of control.

A rampaging feline living in the village would not go down well with the locals, especially those having domestic animals and small children. A leopard is like a thief fighting for survival; it would go anywhere, do anything and eat anything.

On his way back he bought some chains. He had decided that Shardul cannot be let loose in the night. He will have to chain him till a permanent solution could be found.

Things went peacefully till one day a man came running to the house,

“VENKATESH! VENKATESH!”

Venkatesh rushed out, “What’s the matter?”

“Your leopard. He has killed one of Surya’s cattle.”

“I am coming with you.”

He loaded his rifle and took it with him.

Shardul was sitting beneath a tree near the fields. He had dragged the kill there and was now gorging on it.

Venkatesh went forward, his rifle ready under his arm, just in case.

“Shardul,” he called

The leopard was busy, his handsome face drenched in the blood of his victim.

“Shardul?”

The leopard looked up but it was not Shardul’s stare that greeted him. It was the stare of a fierce feline ready to defend its kill. The look said it all….it was a warning to back off.

Venkatesh wisely heeded the warning and waited for Shardul to have his fill.

Finally Shardul stood up, stretched himself and cleaned the blood from his face. He went to Venkatesh. It was Shardul the cub Venkatesh had bought home, who now looked at him. Venkatesh paid for the cattle, but knew he had to send Shardul away.

Next day he took his car, loaded Shardul in it and went deep into the nearby jungle. He released the cat when he was about 50 km away from the village. He didn’t look back; it would hurt if he did.

3 days later there was a growl near the porch. Shardul had found his way back.

Venkatesh tried again and again, taking Shardul to different locations at different distances, but he always returned. The villagers were growing uneasy and they had a reason. Venkatesh knew that if he didn’t send Shardul away then, sooner or later the cat might be lynched by some angry mob.

He wrote to the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, which was the nearest to his place. The officials and keepers there would know how to handle him.

Their reply was positive and Venkatesh took Shardul there, which he hoped will be Shardul’s permanent residence.

Since Shardul had spent his life between humans, the officials caged him in a large enclosure. They couldn’t risk putting him the wild suddenly. The transition would have to be gradual. After taking one look, Venkatesh returned.

A week later he got a call from the Sanctuary. Shardul was not eating anything.

He rushed there and went straight to the enclosure. Shardul greeted him with a happy sound. But his body was weak. The stomach was pushing inside. But still he was happy to see Venkatesh and conjured up all his strength to get up for his master. Shardul ate and drank to his fill in presence of Venkatesh.

Venkatesh got up to leave and looked at Shardul. The beast looked back; his eyes betrayed his desire to go home with his master. But Venkatesh couldn’t do it. He leaved with a heavy heart.

A week later he got another call from the officials in the night.

Shardul had fallen ill after another week of hunger strike. Venkatesh made preparations to start for the place at dawn. He reached there the next morning. Shardul didn’t even have the strength to call out, but his eyes betrayed his happiness. Venkatesh went inside and lifted the head gently.  He tried to force the food down but the Shardul spat it out. He licked the hands of his master and his head dropped. The effort had been too much for him. Shardul had died happily in the arms of his master.

Venkatesh was speechless. Tears filled his eyes but didn’t drop. His mouth opened but no voice came out. He went home without speaking to anyone. He sat beneath the tree Shardul had used to hide his kill and stared blankly at nothing.

It was the same feeling he had had when his dog had died. He was broken.

He had no clue for how long he stayed like that. Time stood still.

A boy was going on the road with a pup in his arms.

“Hey! Boy! Where are you taking it?”

“The mother died during delivery. The pup is too weak. Don’t know what to do with it.”

“Come. Let me see”

The pup was no bigger than Venkatesh’s fist. Its body hairless and eyes closely shut. It was vulnerable and called to mum.

A smile crossed Venkatesh’s face and his hands reached his pocket.

“I will buy it from you.”

 

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Comments
5 Responses to “Shardul”
  1. blogwatig says:

    I am a sucker for such heart wrenching animal stories………loved it.

  2. Rickie says:

    Great, engaging story, Shardul. Somehow, a human-leopard love story seemed very apt coming from you!

  3. metherebel says:

    Good one…loved it!

  4. Rachna says:

    Lovely story. Human-animal bonds are so beautiful. I love dogs and have one at home.

  5. purbaray says:

    Hmmm…tears welled up in my eyes by the time I finished reading your story. Evocative and soul stirring. Ruskin Bond in the making, eh?

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