At 3:00 AM every morning Gopal Gaitonde would diligently answer to natures call. He believed the nocturnal hour was the ultimate to empty one’s internals of faecal waste. On missing this specific moment, his bowels would go bonkers for the rest of the day. Failing the sacred potty hour meant a day of total commotion for Gopal, one could say.
Gaitonde was a security guard at the Govardhan Vatika Housing Complex, a massive gated apartment community in the western suburbs of Mumbai city, located right on the edge of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, better known as the SGNP among the locals of the region.
The reserve forest shared its borders with the Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary in Palghar district and Yeoor Range in Thane district of the Maharashtra state. Spread across an area of 103 square kilometres and sandwiched between the eastern and western suburbs of the Mumbai metropolitan covering one-sixth of the city’s geography, the wildlife sanctuary in the year 2020 was home to 47 leopards and their 8 cubs in the Indian subcontinent.
Apart from the leopards the SGNP and its neighbourhood, which included the Aarey Milk Colony and Film City, was home to more than 35 species of mammals, 80 varieties of reptiles and amphibians, 107 kinds of butterflies, 275 genera of birds, 1,300 classes of plants and several sorts of fishes.
The Panthera pardus or the leopard of the five extant species in the genus Panthera, a member of the Felidae, however, was the top predator, ruling the landscape in this urban-jungle domain.
Being a cocktail of forest, slums, bungalows, and housing complexes the area was the ultimate breeding ground for human-animal conflict, a classic example of man encroaching on nature in the name of development.
Leopard activities have been reported from various unlikely locations in the city and the outskirts of Mumbai region. They have been seen on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and inside the bungalow of the famous actor-politician Hema Malini even. In a survey carried out by Nikit Surve in 2015, it was found that domestic prey contributed 43% of the leopard’s diet in SGNP, with stray dogs accounting for 24%.
Eighteen years had passed since a six-month dreadful phase of 2002 when leopard attacks on humans peaked in the region with more than twenty-five reported incidents. In the human-animal conflict of 2002-03, several people lost their lives or were injured, leaving the State Government rattled.
A lot of measures had been taken since then by the Maharashtra Forest Department (MFD). The then chief conservator of forests Sunil Limaye and his successors Vikas Gupta and Anwar Ahmed set into motion a series of programmes to create awareness among the general public to tackle the problem. Limaye’s focus was clear: “You cannot teach the leopard, but you can surely teach human beings,” he had said.
Another key initiative was ‘Mumbaikars for SGNP’ and its campaign ‘Living with Leopards,’ monitored by leading ecologist Vidya Athreya, which involved many stakeholders, with locals being the focal point. It continues to engage in awareness activities even today.
Gopal had survived those dreadful leopard attack days of 2002-03, and over the years had emerged as the prime storyteller and local custodian of the leopard tales in the region.
Some believed his sagas while some said they were products of his super-imaginative brain. Whatever the case it was dam interesting to listen to the night guard’s hair-raising stories of leopard attacks, on any given instance, especially during cold winter nights, huddled around an open fireplace.
A lot of Gopal’s wildlife knowledge came from the National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet, and similar TV channels, which were broadcasting in the regional Hindi language to his advantage. The night guard would spend the maximum of his twilight hours soaking nature and creature content from his fourteen-inch Onida box-colour-television-set, a throwaway gift from the cat-loving Mrs Talpade of flat 14A.
It was the ghostly hour of 3:00 AM on the morning of 15 November in 2020, the day after the ‘Festival of Lights,’ Diwali had been celebrated. Gopal was up, en route to the terrace loo of the community-centre building in the Govardhan Vatika Housing Complex to engage in his bowel-cleansing nocturnal ritual, which he would never miss, come what may.
The washroom on the community-centre terrace was Gopal’s favourite. First of all, being a four-storeyed building, the climb was easier, compared to the other highrises in the complex. He did not like lifts and refused to use them. Further, the particular terrace lavatory had a broken roof, through which Gopal liked to gaze at the dawning sky while relieving his bowels.
He did not like to use any of the ground floor support-staff lavatories; they were too claustrophobic, he said. He actually avoided them as they were right at the fence too close to the forest and irrespective of all his big talks and tall stories, the night guard was actually dam scared of leopards on any given day. All his fables were a mechanism for him to cope with his inherent fear of the predatory feline that he somehow managed to hide away.
The community-centre rooftop was a real maze of mountains of discarded and spare furniture and fixtures, plumbing and sanitary wares, some abandoned, some packed, waiting to be installed somewhere. There were piles of old and new doors of plastic, aluminium, and wood, window frames, glass sheets, rebars and tons of other stuff too.
Hundreds of old iron sanitary and drain pipes of various diameters that were replaced a year ago from the entire complex also found themselves littered all over the place, which created a mosaic of pipelines, across the terrace.
Mischievous children would beat these pipes with sticks and iron rods to create a most annoying cacophony of metallic noise that resonated through the entire building, amplified by the placement of the pipes, some touching each other, some connected, and some protruding into noise pockets.
The network of pipes on the terrace was just like a mega amplified boombox system. Speaking or shouting into one of the pipes would resonate into a much amplified and deafening noise, very different from what it originally sounded.
On the whole, the terrace had become a jungle of material waste, a dumping ground of things, which perhaps had some value and could be reused on some future date.
Apart from security guards on their daily patrol, maintenance staff searching for something useful, prankish children playing terrace games, or teenage lovers looking for secret intimacy; no one had any reason to visit this rooftop-junkyard of waste. Gopal though was a regular visitor at 3:00 AM every day.
On that particular dawn after Diwali, as Gopal stepped on to the terrace, his internals rumbled, signalling him to hasten towards his favourite toilet. Years of habit makes the human body work like clockwork, and at that dawning hour, Gopal’s was signalling him to relieve himself of his intestinal contents.
Wrapped under layers of clothing topped with a covering of an itchy quilt of felt the night guard wobbled through the maze of apartment rummage on the junkyard-terrace. Just at a bend ten feet from his favourite potty place, Gopal saw a flash of lightning-fast fleeting-shadow zip-pass before his drowsy-eyes, waking him to dead-alertness, shaking every ounce of sleep away.
Gopal froze still like any other piece of lifeless junk on the terrace. He was unable to think or move from the place. Once again, the shadow appeared for a split second, this time dashing past somewhere behind his quilted frame.
Terror shot through his bones, as he remembered the many tales, some gathered and some fabricated. Whatever the case, he had never actually come across a leopard faces-to-face. All his scary stories were nothing compared to the real horror of an apex predator looming in the darkness.
He cursed himself and regretted saying all those false fables and prayed to Lord Krishna to save him this day. With clasped palms shivering in fear, he promised to his God, never ever to spin a false allegory again.
At that moment, Gopal was certain that there was a ‘Leopard On The Terrace.’ It could be hiding anywhere in the heaps of junk and waste. It could pounce at him any moment to take his life away. He remembered watching on the Animal Planet, how leopards were one of the stealthiest of hunters, whose attack could not be detected, till the very last moment.
His fears kept on surmounting as he remembered how a Leopard could run more than 60 kilometres per hour, leap more than 20 feet horizontally and 9.8 feet vertically, how they had a more developed sense of smell than a tiger, and how good a climber they were, able to descend down a tree headfirst in an instance.
He remembered hunt scenes and viral videos. He remembered statistics – in the last 160 years from 1875 to 2020, leopards had killed more than 11,909 people in the Indian region. In other words, he was sure, that day his life would certainly end. He was sure to be the 11,910th victim of the Panthera pardus in the Indian subcontinent.
At that very moment in the face of death, Gopal’s tummy rumbled signalling him to clear his bowels. Years of potty habit funnily helped him break his frozen stance, which had nearly paralysed him to death. His stomach churned, indicating the sacred potty hour ebbing away. Pushed by an urge to dump, the night guard moved ahead. Overcoming all fear, he dashed into the terrace loo with a broken roof, covering just ten feet of a seemingly impossible distance.
Entering the toilet, jarring the flimsy plastic door, he sighed a moment of relief. Forgetting the leopard, overpowered by natures call, as he was about to apply pressure to relieve himself, the night guard was rattled with the most terrifying growl resonating within the thin walls of the claustrophobic terrace toilet. It felt as if the roar traversed through the entire building, shaking its foundations away.
Gopal was sure that it was the end, he was certain, that a leopard was about to jump on him through the broken roof, through which he loved to watch the dawning sky while relieving himself. Unable to take the trauma anymore, engulfed in a frenzy of terror and shock, shaken and dizzied by the roar of the predator, Gopal felt his heart stop and saw the light before his eyes fade away…
Then there was silence, Gopal knew he was dead. It felt like many hours had passed away. Was it a heart failure or had he been eaten? Why was his spectre still so dizzy and disoriented. Maybe that’s how the moments after death felt. Then he heard an ascending commotion and then there was a bright light. Ah! heaven’s doors must have opened or was it the glow of the fiery pits of hell.
At that instance, Gopal felt a hard slap on his face and two hands firm on his shoulders, shaking him to consciousness. Gopal opened his eyes and saw Taware the gardener his bosom friend. The night guard realised he was not dead; he had just fainted in shock, yes! that must be the case.
“Where is the leopard that moved in the darkness and growled terrifyingly a moment before I lost consciousness. Why did it spare my life, did you save me Taware, did you chase the leopard away,” asked Gopal Gaitonde with much anxiousness?
“What leopard you fool, it was Mrs Talpade’s cat Machli from flat 14A, who was perhaps hunting a mouse when you came to the terrace. It must have been his shadow that you saw prancing in the darkness,” said Taware with a burst of uncontrollable laughter across his broad face.
The gardener went on to say that chasing after a fleeting rodent the cat blindly jumped into a broken pipe headfirst and got its caput stuck, unable to free itself. At that moment it screamed wildly in terror of being perpetually stuck and fearing never being able to free itself again. Machli’s sudden terrified scream through the old iron pipes, amplified itself sounding like a leopard’s roar, was that which must have caused Gopal to faint.
There was a considerable crowd, now gathered on the terrace. Mrs Talpade was pulling Machli catching the felines hind legs. The terrified cat had stopped screaming and knew that it was being saved.
Gopal requested Taware to give him some space, and that he would come out in a moment. Jarring the plastic door of the terrace toilet, the night guard sighed a long breath of relief and promised never again to spin any leopard tales, and applied pressure finally to clear his bowels for the day.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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