Tina Mohandas is an Indian musician, academic, and animal rights activist. When she is not traversing the globe, she splits her time between editing her seemingly endless science-fantasy novel, working towards her PhD, and writing about social norms and those who defy them. You are most likely to find her walking a chocolate eclair, a sugar-dusted marshmallow, and small-ish black stallion who all insist they're dogs.
The Watcher in the Tree
A harsh midday sun swirled overhead, casting a golden glint against two determined amber eyes. Maliha crouched furtively amidst the tall grass, biding her time. A primal growl escaped her snarling lips. It rumbled low and deep, burning with the ferocity of a mother’s wrath. Across the parched landscape of the forbidden Other Side, the natural world recognised its implications. Birds halted mid-song. Critters steered clear of the once-lush grasslands. Nature knew what was to come.
Sheltered from the blistering Indian heat atop my favourite mango tree, I raised a paw and began to lick, my grumbling stomach protesting Maliha’s intrusion. Her decision to break the rules and venture into human territory had cost me my afternoon siesta, and, consequently – lunch. If she found out that I had been secretly creeping onto the Other Side to study the villagers, steal their scraps and spend my afternoons lounging on a tree, I would be shunned across the forest. Not wanting to risk discovery, I settled into my perch, its jagged shadows enveloping me in a cool embrace.
On the ground, Maliha continued to stalk her prey. She was smaller than most, yet her size made her a swift huntress. Dark, solid rosettes formed striking discs around her eyes, and her milky underbelly and spotted golden coat reminded me of her little one, Raka. Only months ago, I had observed the wee cub – from a distance, of course – and chortled at what a resourceful hunter he would grow to become.
A familiar pang reminded me that little Raka was no longer… no longer… I couldn’t bring myself to think it. As I struggled to suppress the wave of memories that washed over me, my gaze strayed to the steep hills and foliage that underlined the busy village. As cubs, Maliha and I had frolicked in these territories. Now, the humans had taken over. Manmade walls divided this once-teeming forest with crude brick borders.
My lips curled. As daft as the dogs they love, these humans.
Abandoning my half-hearted grooming session, I craned my neck to watch the scene beneath unfold.
Hunched barely eight feet from my vantage point and oblivious to our presence, TwoLegs hummed away in one corner of his field. Other humans called him Prafool. Not for the first time, I chuckled at his mother’s foresight.
Another ten feet to the east, Maliha watched him through withering blades of grass, her white-tipped tail curled elegantly beside her. Even from this distance, I could sense a rage as ancient as our species gurgling within her, boiling in steady anticipation of her mission. Truth be told, I wasn’t surprised to find my former friend here this afternoon. As we came of age, Maliha and I had adopted polarizing ideologies. While I had made every conscious effort to avoid my kind, she, on the other hand, had been blinded by love. As she stalked her pot-bellied prey now with narrowed amber eyes, I understood what this grieving leopardess sought.
A guttural scream pierced the oppressive afternoon air. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
“B-B-BIBATAAA!” a terror-struck TwoLegs was pointing at Maliha.
Maliha’s features betrayed alarm, but she stood her ground, snarling at the human.
I swallowed hard. With Prafool’s powerful lungs, soon enough, scores of humans would descend upon the field. If there were ever a time to slip away, this would be it.
The leopardess didn’t budge.
As predicted, Prafool’s comrades flocked to his side. He barked instructions at them, beating his chest as his ancestors would. Some of them waved thick wooden sticks above their heads, while others simply watched with horrified interest, drawn by the pandemonium. One human brandished an enormous net.
“Sura!” Maliha called suddenly, her sharp amber eyes trained on my tree.
Instinctively, my claws unsheathed. I dug them into a branch to secure my grip, startled at having been discovered. How long had she known I was here?
“Come down and help me,” she implored.
I waved her plea aside with a swish of my tail, irked that she had somehow sniffed out my sanctuary. “It is not my business.”
Even as I said this, a small part of me objected: We were friends, once…
I scoffed at the memory. While it was true that we had played together as cubs, grown leopards prefer a companionless existence. Besides, what was the point in intervening? In an effort to settle a score, Maliha would snarl and hiss, scare a few humans senseless, and flee to fight another day. In spite of her near-blinding wrath, it was impractical – inconceivable! – to engage in combat with the species. If I leapt to her aid now, the only result to come of it all would be the discovery of my beloved mango tree – and then where would I take my afternoon naps?
The crowd of villagers was growing thicker with each passing second, the sandpaper sounds of their grating tongues rising with the hot afternoon air. Over the years, I had grasped a fair bit of Human, but I didn’t need this knowledge to glean what was being said now. I understood Fear and Hunger all too well.
“Please, Sura!” Maliha beseeched again, her ears flat against her head. “They took my cubs!”
My heart sank. Barely a moon ago, when TwoLegs’ sadistic cubs had stolen three of Maliha’s precious ones, I knew it was only a matter of time before more blood would spill. Despite the centuries of indoctrination – Humans are superior; let them take what they will; never venture to the Other Side – I recognised that Maliha’s cause was just.
Still, another part of me reasoned, our customs discourage interference. If one is careless enough to provoke the humans, we do not follow the fool to our deaths. We steer clear of conflict!
And so, I ignored Maliha’s plight. Worse, still: I watched.
Sticks in tow, the humans advanced. White cotton shirts contrasted with bleary red eyes and tobacco-stained lips. Even the young ones wrapped smooth, callow fingers around stones. Maliha’s eyes widened at the realisation that she was severely outnumbered. Even so, the obstinate leopardess refused to budge. Sunlight rippled across her muscular torso as she steeled herself for battle, and I noted with growing horror that Maliha was incapable of turning away: vengeance called to her louder than reason ever could.
TwoLegs charged, announcing his attack with a bellow. Maliha dodged the stick with one impressive leap, twisting back around to sink her teeth into his flesh. He howled with agony. Frenzied cries followed as a hundred others looked on, their appetites excited by the prospect of violence. The man with the net tore through the unruly crowd, shouting orders as he pushed past the villagers. Within seconds, a furious mob descended upon the lone leopardess. Maliha yelped, her body contorting with pain.
“SURA!” she screamed before the mob swallowed her.
Unable to see her anymore, panic and shame began to engulf my chest. How could I have brushed her pleas off so easily?
Our customs… My mind offered, but my heart shoved these thoughts aside. I could no longer simply watch.
Damn our customs. I snapped into action.
Abandoning my post, I vaulted over the crowd, landing nimbly in the center of TwoLegs’ trampled field. Horror, shock and wild screaming greeted my unexpected arrival. Stones were hurled my way. I ran blindly, rising hysteria quickly besieging my task.
“Maliha!” I cried out. There was no answer. “Where are you? Maliha!”
Swallowing my fear, I scanned the area for her stubborn hide, my paws smarting as they hit hot earth. Axes, sticks, spades, and stones obstructed my path. One human attempted to strike from behind, but I was far too skilled for such a tactless attack. I spun around, locked my jaws onto the cane, ripped it out of its owner’s hands and continued to sprint. After minutes of running blindly through the rabble of angry villagers, I felt my strength begin to falter. I wanted to escape; to bolt right out of this cursed village and never return. As much as I wanted to run to the safety of the forest, however, I couldn’t bring myself to turn away. To flee now would mean abandoning Maliha to a barbaric death. The villagers would never let her escape with her life.
Once, this had been our home. Now, it was a battlefield.
There! I dug my claws into the earth and skidded to a halt. Pressed against the edge of the settlement’s northern wall, Maliha roared in defiance. Prafool recoiled at her ferocity, but the man with the net was unstoppable.
“Maliha!” I raced towards her. I’m sorry! I wanted to shout. I should have helped you. I won’t betray you a second time! “I’m coming, Maliha!”
A stone caught me in the hind leg. I scarcely felt it, yet there was no mistaking the crimson that now coated my fur. I faltered, swaying slightly as my mind tried to comprehend the injury. Limping towards the northern wall, I concluded that we would have to jump over it. There was no other way. Now, if only I could free Maliha and guide her here before —
Another stone hit me in the back. This one hurt.
I turned, somewhat shocked but mostly irritated. Beady, ravenous eyes and wide grins bore down on me. Too many, I realised, fear coursing down my spine as I took a step back. I cannot fight them all!
The mob overpowered me, driving me away from Maliha and pushing me through the dilapidated walls of a worn hut. I crashed into the abandoned home, panting harder than ever before. Scrambling to my feet, I backed away slowly, my grumbling stomach forgotten. In this moment, all I could fathom was panic, terror, and the resonant thud, thud, thudding in my heart.
I slid under a rickety cot, growling and hissing at the elated mob. I hid for what seemed like hours, burying my rump like a coward. As my wounds bled onto the floor, so did my pride. The villagers rapped their canes against the floor in an effort to draw me out, bellowing in their abrasive tongue. One little human scampered in, shouted alien words at me, and then fled the scene, her bare feet kicking up dust as she scuttled away. I should have listened to the elders: Leave the blasted humans alone.
When Maliha screamed again, I found my opening. A dozen villagers ran out in pursuit of the more sensational contest. I followed on instinct, jumping nearly two meters into the air before securing a foothold outside. Shouts and mayhem followed while I bounded across the barren land and took refuge inside a mound of hay. As more humans swept my trail, the crowd parted to reveal her: amber eyes burning with agony, a crude web holding her captive. The man with the net had won.
The little human raced into my line of vision again, curiously unafraid in her demented mission to… what? Was she trying to communicate with me? Distract me?
Get away from me, tiny one! I let out a warning hiss as I abandoned the hay and circled back around to Maliha. I moved quickly and cautiously, my heart pounding with the knowledge that she was running out of time.
When I finally reached the leopardess’ side, my wounded back partially concealed by a wild harsinghar bush, I was just in time to –
I froze. Paws damp with sweat, my throbbing wounds and hammering heart all but forgotten, I gaped hopelessly as the final thrust of a spade tore Maliha from this life.
I stood there for a moment that felt like eternity, gazing at my fallen friend as a shockwave of fury and sorrow ripped through me. As if on cue, a small group of uniformed, bespectacled humans rushed to the scene, seeming to berate the villagers for having murdered the leopardess. Like me, they had watched in silence before their conscience had gotten the better of them. Like me, they had been too late.
As I ran, my heart wept uncharacteristically. The proud leopardess’ deafening screams would haunt me for the rest of the night; the torment in her eyes would tug at my soul for months to come. Guilt wracked my very being at the knowledge that, had I intervened sooner, perhaps she would still be alive. Oh, if only our kind had been taught to resist rather than conform, perhaps her cubs could have been rescued from TwoLegs and his ruffian offspring! Even better, had we resisted the tyrannical species decades ago, this forest would still be ours to claim.
What if! I scoffed bitterly, white-hot rage coursing through my veins like liquid fire. If only! Images of the hundred-odd humans that had looked on in voyeuristic anticipation flitted through my mind. Should have! Could have! The ramblings of fools and weaklings – yet I am far worse. Maliha asked for my help, but all I did was watch, cruel and indolent in my inaction.
Then again, what else could I have done but watch? Why should the heavy burden of Change fall on my shoulders alone? How was I, an unaided and solitary creature, to overcome centuries of oppressive conditioning? No. It was impossible. Driving these thoughts from my mind, I pushed my powerful legs to run faster, eager to find shelter as far away from the village as possible.
“I see the moon and the moon sees me” by Attiya Shaukat. 2016. Tea wash, Paper tape, Silver leaf & Gouache on wasli. 8.2 X 10.2 inches.
“AAHO!” a shrill call, distinct from the bloodthirsty shouts of the villagers, glided up to me. The unmistakable tinkling of payals accompanied the light thudding of two feet.
It was the little human again. I stopped short, more confused than scared.
“Itta! Itta bagha,” she exclaimed, cradling a thick blanket. Two oiled braids bounced above her shoulders, the little red ribbons in her hair coming undone as she jogged up to me.
Go away! I spat.
She came to an abrupt halt, the menace in my warning apparent. The ribbons in her hair fluttered gently with the wind as she gawked at me in silence. Satisfied, I backed away and headed for the forest, distraught at the thought of having to explain Maliha’s brutal fate.
Almost as soon as I had turned away, however, the human had resumed her shouting. “Aaho, THAAAMB!” she cried again, her anklets jingling as she circled around to face me.
My head began to throb. Clearly, this one wasn’t going to leave me alone. I cocked my head to the side, straining to string together my broken understanding of the villagers’ tongue.
“We thought they were kittens,” she was rambling, red-faced and gasping. “I found them on the riverbank. My brothers starved the other two, but this one —” my eyes widened at the bundle in her arms — “I hid this one, see? Gave him milk and food!”
Raka. My whiskers twitched as I wrestled with the ensuing emotions. Oh, you little warrior! You survived!
While one part of me swelled with joy, however, the other sank. How will I tell Raka of his mother’s demise?
“Please,” the human continued as she thrust a squirming leopard cub in my direction, “I am sorry for his mother. Please… you take him home. OK?”
My face fell. Take him home? I wanted to demand. We have no home left, thanks to your kind!
I eyed her angrily, baring my teeth. Every fiber of my being urged me to lunge at her and avenge Maliha’s death; to punish this foolish human for her people’s transgressions.
As flashes of my friend’s passing darted through my mind, however, I swallowed this instinct, choosing instead to extinguish my rage and nod in quiet understanding. This human’s kindness had left a cavernous hole in our dogmas.
Perhaps, I mused, the way forward is not in resistance with the Other Side, but in harmony.
Gently, I nudged a petite but healthy Raka with my snout. The cub was still dazed from his adventure, but he followed me nonetheless.
Under the light of the looming sunset, I suspected that we made quite the sight: one tiny, pigtailed human scampering back to her village, a grin the size of a half-moon on her face; I, the defeated leopard, limping away from her; and a rosette-spotted cub waddling beside me, his warm blanket forgotten in the wind.
The wound on my back no longer stung. My hunger had evaporated, the emptiness gone. For the first time in years, my heart and mind merged to a clear purpose.
Tomorrow, things would resume their natural course. TwoLegs the Fool would forget about me in his glee at having slain a grand leopardess. The course of life would ebb and flow to humankind’s disruptions, and nature would continue to bend to their whims. Turmoil would reign, depravity even more so, and one thing would forever hold true: this was no longer our home.
And yet, some things would change.
With the dawn of a new day, Raka will wake to find that he can choose his own path, just as his mad, fearless mother had. When the upper edge of the sun peeks over the horizon, we shall tell others of Maliha’s tale, and of that peculiar little human and her immeasurable kindness. And, as the early rays of sunlight greet the world – human and leopard alike – I shall vow to banish indifference, embracing rather than muffling my true self. Never again shall I remain a mere watcher, and never, ever again would I return to the comfortable lull of my mango tree.
I am now, for better or for worse: awake.