Leopard Road

In Issue 59 by Ethan Steers

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Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

There is a road that follows three miles along the banks of the Ganges, leading through the village of Chatwapipal and on to Tibet. From 1918 to 1920, a man-eater dubbed the Man-Eater of Garhwal devoured thirty-seven people on that road, plucked from their carts and pilgrimages like coconuts from a tree. The leopard ruled with an iron fist until being killed by the Anglo-Indian hunter Rao Whittaker with the help of his friend Sayyad. Chatwapipal has never forgotten, and to this day when pilgrims pass through the village, they see the shrine dedicated to their memory and the memory of the beast they put to sleep.

The legend goes like this:

He arrived just as the sun set, carrying a .577 Nitro Express Rifle and a 1917 Colt Model American Pistol. He wore what he would later describe to Sayyad as shorts and a brown-billed hat, but even in the setting sun’s pink light the villagers could see that although he walked like an Englishman, his skin was brown like theirs. He trudged his muddy boots along the road and the people came to greet him.

“Please. The man-eater killed my only son. Let me help you. Do you need food?”

“Sahib, my husband...if you find him, please burn his body. I can give you all I have.”

Some hid behind their doors in fear of inciting the wrath of the leopard by welcoming its adversary, yet still looked out in curiosity at the hunter. Other men have come through before promising salvation and left with bitter disappointment, discovering that the poor of India were not easily swayed to change, nor able to accommodate it.

When Rao finally arrived at the Patwari’s temporary hut, he found the local official already engaged with a Sadhu. Rao knew Sadhus were holy men, yet their place in the caste structure he did not know. A full colorful beard sat on the man’s skinny chest, and he had powdered his skin with orange and blue.

The Patwari greeted Rao and ushered him to enter, offering him the hookah and some milk and jaggery. The taste was unbearably bitter, but the Patwari emphasized there was not much to go around.

“My name is Sayyad,” the Patwari said, sitting down and leaning against the hut’s back wall. The door remained closed despite the unbearable heat. Flies buzzed in the corners of the Sadhu’s eyes. “You’ve come to kill the man-eater and you believe you will do this when so many have failed before you,” Sayyad said. “I mean no offense, of course.”

Rao shook his head. “My only purpose is to save the people of Chatwapipal. If that is too righteous for you, I am being paid a heavy sum by the British government.”

Sayyad smiled. “Not for the glory of the Raj? Not for the glory of the hunt? Just money?”

The words seemed to pierce Rao and he shook his head. “No,” he said as his eyes glowed yellow from the burning embers in the hookah. “There is no glory in what I do. I am an exterminator. I am no different than the butcher or the poor soul who euthanizes unwanted dogs. I’d rather document the creatures than kill them, but sometimes there is the need to put down a rabid animal harming the ecological balance, and if I have the skills to assist, I must.”

Sayyad took a moment to hit the pipe. “That is not the answer I was expecting,” he said with a smile. “Yet I am encouraged. I wonder, though...why?”

“Why?” Rao challenged.

“Why must you?”

Rao looked at the two men. Sayyad leaned in, ready to listen to what Rao had to say. The Sadhu, on the other hand, sat completely motionless, unbothered by the flies landing on the cracks in his face or the tales from a British rat.

“I want to be able to answer that,” Rao finally said. “But I’m afraid I am looking for the answer.”

“Is that why you have come here? In search of why you do the things you do?” Sayyad asked.

“No, it is you who have spun this philosophizing. I am here to learn about the leopard and kill it.”

Sayyad let out a laugh. “You have caught me there, Sahib.”

“I would think the color of my skin would save me from such interrogations,” Rao said. “But I suppose at this stage in the timeline nothing can be assumed. I was born here. I am not a tourist.”

A look of surprise painted the two men on the other side of the room.

“India does not scare me,” he continued. “Nor does the fact that I’ve lived most of my life in England affect my abilities. I know the real India.”

“Do you now?” the Sadhu asked in English, his first contribution to the conversation.

“Where were you born?” Sayyad inquired further, brushing over the insult.

Rao addressed him curtly. “Nainital.”

The Sadhu blew out smoke and smiled wryly. He then spoke in his own dialect, knowing that Rao would understand him. Or perhaps he didn’t care.

“You wonder why we cannot kill the leopard ourselves. Unfortunately, it is not a matter of ability. Empire surely believes this to be the case, but I assure you it is not. We’ve lived with the holy spirits of the forest for centuries, and usually we can bargain with them. Yet this demon is made of the souls of countless Spanish flu victims and cannot be bargained with no matter how many times we have tried. Our grave mistake was not burning all the victims of the plague, so a single burning coal was put into their mouth, and they were heaved into the gorge. That is where the leopard became possessed as it fed on the souls. That is why we cannot kill it ourselves. It is beyond our reach spiritually to do what needs to be done. I was just discussing this with Sayyad, since he is unconvinced of this fact and believes such thinking to be holding us back from succeeding in defeating the spirit.”

Sayyad took a hit of the hookah and absolved himself from having to elaborate on the Sadhu’s crypticness.

“They are scared of me,” the Sadhu continued. “They believe it is me. That I transform and take my vengeance. What I am avenging, I do not know. What I must be angry at, I know even less. If I could transform into a leopard, I would run very far away from the place I am unwanted. Why destroy the people when they do not even understand the reason for their hatred? My home is here. My family died here. I am one of them. Yet they do not see past their own losses.”

“That makes sense to you and me,” Sayyad said, putting his hand on the Sadhu’s shoulder. “And I’m sure our new friend feels the same. And after he kills the creature, you will still be here, and all will see the truth.”

“Let us just hope he does so soon,” the Sadhu added. “For fear that he becomes another tourist after all.”

Rao chose to ignore the comment. Many men have come through India and ruled through dividing, conquering and subjugating. Through promises, they commanded the leopards of imperialism to unhinge their jaws and devour all who stood in their way, leashed by the English and their desire for more jewels, more money, more gold. It only made sense the two men were apprehensive.

“What have you tried so far?” Rao asked, taking a sip of the milk and jaggery, doing his best not to flinch at the bitterness.

“A broken gin trap gifted to us by the Deputy Commissioner,” Sayyad replied. “That managed to only trap the leg of one of the beaters.”

Rao sighed and shook his head. Most injuries on a hunt were to the hunters themselves. More specifically, the local beaters that were inexperienced and only there to make some money on the line. They could not be blamed, though, for their role was vital when driving out the animal. It was just a shame Rao was not called after the first victim, or the second, or even the third. It took thirty-three Indian lives for the Commissioner to ask for help.

“What does one man think he will accomplish?” the Sadhu asked. “I apologize if I doubt, but know it is not your abilities I doubt, only your understanding that the leopard is not of this world.”

“Yes, thank you,” Sayyad said, quieting him down.

“I will sit up tonight,” Rao said. “Please instruct the villagers to remain in their homes.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Sayyad said, taking a large hit of the hookah and creating smoke rings.

“Why not?”

The Patwari looked at him with new eyes. “Do you know what terror is, Sahib?”

Rao suspected he did.

“At night the people in this village, along with every hut and shelter on the pilgrim road, shut their doors and huddle in the corner. No one sleeps. No one talks. And even then, even when every eye is on every door and window…the leopard still comes and takes its meal. No one knows who is next. No one knows if it will be them. I heard a story, told to me by another Sahib hunter like yourself. He was hunting a leopard in Rudraprayag. A group of travelers met him on the road, and he told them, ‘People, there is a man-eater in this area. You must find shelter at once.’ They reluctantly agreed, not having enough terror, and huddled together in a small shack up the road about two miles. Most of the group were men except for two women, so they put the two women in the middle of the group to ensure their safety. Eventually, they all fell asleep and at one point in the night one of the women screamed and said something scratched her. The men told her to quiet down, but then they realized the other woman was gone. When they found the Sahib the next morning, the hunter told them what must have happened. The leopard killed and picked up the one woman and accidentally scratched the other with its claw as it retreated. No one heard a sound. No one saw a thing. Even indoors we are not safe. Locked doors and barred windows do nothing. Do not worry about the people of Chatwapipal. We are terrified.”

“I fought in the war,” Rao said. “And it is not unlike what you describe.”

“Then you understand intimately what we are going through,” the Sadhu added.

Rao nodded. He then requested a machan, a four-legged structure composed of bamboo that stood high enough for the predator’s claws to be just out of reach if it attacked. Rao only hoped they had already constructed one, for the sun was setting and the clock was ticking.

“Yes,” Sayyad said. “We have positioned one inside a tree that hangs over the road. If you need a more traditional one, I’m sure we can build one quickly.”

He moved to get up, but Rao lifted his hand to stop him. “No need. The tree will do fine.”

“It was where we found the last victim,” the Sadhu said, his eyes full of an empathetic sorrow unique to the spiritual.

“Did you leave the body?” Rao asked.

“No,” Sayyad replied shamefully.

“Then I will need a goat or a buffalo.”

“A goat has been provided.”

“Excellent.”

Rao took this moment to take a hit of the hookah and relax his mind.

“Will you sit up tonight? When you are so tired?” the Sadhu asked.

“A tiger will kill in the day,” Rao said. “A leopard will kill during the night. Yes, I am very tired, but every night that passes is another person’s life potentially lost. That burden is now laid upon me. I’ll spend the remaining night sitting up with the goat. Please make sure the road is closed, and no one comes through. Alerting the leopard is the last thing we need. And please...stay in your hut until I return.”

“That will not be a problem,” Sayyad added. “No one travels at night.”

“Very well.”

“And as far as your reward…” Sayyad began saying before being cut off again by Rao.

“I will accept no reward from you. If you must think of it, treat my reward as the hospitality you show me. All rewards I get from my employers will go straight to your village.”

The two men nodded and glanced at each other, a deep approval in their eyes.

“They say the English are evil,” the Sadhu said. “They say even Anglos — they are only here to profit off of us. But you…you accept no payment, no reward. You denounce your countrymen and say you have come here only to save lives and that, my friend, gives me much to think about.”

“Yet, here we are,” Rao added, taking another hit from his mouthpiece. “On opposite sides of the hookah.”

Sayyad and the Sadhu looked at each other and smiled. “Then let us change the dynamic,” Sayyad said. “And catch a man-eater.”

*****

Rao set himself upon the machan and situated his back, so he comfortably lay in the curvature of the tree. The base of the machan was laid with a greatly appreciated blanket, yet there was not much leg room. He had to scrunch up tight, and he knew after a few hours the cramping would prevent him from staying still.

The tree itself stood about thirty feet tall, the machan at about the fifteen-foot mark. The farthest reach of the branches hung over the dirt road, which was gutted by two drain ditches that flowed downward towards the river.

He had tied the goat to a stake, and it bleated pathetically from the shadows. If the night was to go according to their plan, the leopard would appear from the other side of the road, slink across it and claim its prize as Rao sighted his shot.

At one point two babblers flew across the road and Rao suspected the leopard was near, but after twenty minutes the forest fauna returned to a state of calm.

Hope was not lost, though, for around midnight the leopard began slinking through the rose bush below the tree, a favorite hiding spot for the big cats of North India. It was not the convenient location across the road that he had hoped for, but any appearance was a good one. He would just have to figure out how to aim without making a sound.

This was the apex of Rao’s discipline. It had taken years to master the kind of quiet one must make not to disturb potential prey. Noise was the number one reason why a sit-up failed, and he would not make the same mistake so many others, including himself, have made in the past. Such a small factor was what kept him from allowing companions, for they always seemed to disappoint him. They shifted their weight when cramped and spit and sniffed — all enough to cripple a hunt.

The leopard amateurly shifted its weight and a twig snapped. The goat started screaming, but the stake held tight. Out of the bush the creature appeared, keeping its body low to the ground. When it came into view, Rao noticed the mangy dirty coat. This was expected. No leopard turned into a man-eater because they were young and capable hunters. This one was most likely very old and, as Rao was sure to find out, sick.

Colors flashed in the dark and although dim, the moonlight mercifully glowed directly on where the leopard perched on the neck of the goat. In mere seconds the leopard had snapped its jaws around the goat’s shoulder and neck, crushing its right front leg and subsequently the sternum, piercing its heart and killing the animal instantly. The leopard ripped at the skin and pulled at the stake in the ground to no avail. This naturally caused the creature to become suspicious. It looked around, panicked, and lifted its head to listen to the jungle sounds.

All the while Rao was using this as an opportunity to lift the .577, and when he finally had the leopard in his sight, he fired. The shot echoed through the sky, sending grapplers, golden plovers, and wagtails to shoot out of the trees like they had been blasted from a shotgun. The leopard bounded back into the rose bush and Rao slid down the trunk of the tree to examine the trail. Although tempting, it would not have been prudent, let alone safe, to follow it. The leopard was now injured and afraid, and all Rao could hope for was that his aim was sufficient, and the leopard would be found in the brush during the next beat. He had seen too many hunters chase after a kill, only to be gutted by a terrified and cornered predator. It would simply have to wait.

A man came running down the road waving his hand. It was the Patwari, Sayyad.

“We heard the shot,” he cried. “Did you do it? Are you alright?”

“I managed a shot. No thanks to you, you fool. What are you doing running out here like this?”

The man lost all color in his face. “I’m so sorry, Sahib. Please forgive me.”

“You say you are terrified. You give me a whole story on terror, yet you run towards a gunshot in the middle of the night like a fool. Are you not afraid? Why did you not do as I said?”

“I am afraid, of course I am,” Sayyad said, moving out of the open road. “But I was afraid for you, Sahib. If you needed help, I had to come. How could I stay hidden when a friend might need assistance? No other hunter has even managed a shot yet. I just had to come.”

Rao deflated. Although this man had only known him for one night, he cared enough to indeed run into the night when he heard a gunshot, a foolish act by any reasonable thread of logic. Yet it seemed such boldness was not a defect, as Rao had instinctively thought.

He patted Sayyad on the back as they looked upon the slaughtered goat. “It’s okay. Next time do as I say, though, and don’t play the hero. You were almost the demon’s next meal.”

The goat’s blood oozed out of its gashed flesh.

“Please don’t say that,” Sayyad said, taking note of the blood trail into the thorn bushes. “Only that Sadhu believes in such superstitions. He believes that the leopard is a demon. A demon! We both know this is not a demon. Or the souls of the plague victims. More so than running into danger to help our fellow man, what has kept us truly back is our inability to let go of the fantasy that all people of the world are inherently good and that all beings who wish to harm us are evil. Some things just are. That is the Hindu way of thinking. Not to obsess about mysticism. It is no more wiser than to believe in fairy tales.”

“The English believe in fairy tales,” Rao said. “My father used to say religion was the best way to hold back a nation.”

“Your father is a wise man,” Sayyad said.

“Was,” Rao corrected.

“I’m sorry,” Sayyad said, again begging forgiveness.

“He was killed on a hunt. But unlike my father, I do not hunt for sport. Only to save lives. So perhaps my end will be less gruesome. I hope.”

“I like you very much, Sahib,” Sayyad said. “I believe the end of the leopard’s reign is upon us.”

Rao smiled. “Come, let’s get back to the village.”

As they walked, they discussed religion further and Sayyad again apologized for disrespecting Rao’s ritual.

“We are both here hunting a man-eater that would rather eat us than a juicy sambar deer,” Rao replied. “It’s sick and dying and will probably not last much longer. It seems we three are a pack of fools, the lot of us, fighting to hurry along a destiny that is already imminent.”

“Something else is bothering you,” Sayyad said.

Rao looked at him and saw kind, friendly eyes. “I worry about the Sadhu’s stories from last night. That the flu victims were thrown in the gorge. That troubles me deeply. Is that true?”

“Unfortunately, Sahib, it is. Have you ever been in the throes of a plague?”

Rao shook his head.

“It is very much like that terrible war you fought in, I imagine. What do people say about it? I heard a Great White Hunter say it...oh yes…‘war is hell, inn’it? We fyte for the good of companies, and dye so that moneh can be passed from one hand to the other’.”

“What a terrible accent!” Rao mocked.

They both laughed but were then quieted by the gravity of their predicament.

“Yet there is no treasure here,” Rao argued, sighing. “Not anymore. Not in the way we think of it. So perhaps the pandemic was not quite war then, but genocide.”

*****

Rao sat up the next night, but the leopard did not return and the road could not be closed for much longer. It branched off a rope bridge that connected each side of the Ganges. The pilgrims who walked the route to Tibet had to cross that bridge and head north up the road past Chatwapipal.

Sayyad informed Rao that morning that he received word some pilgrims were holed up in a temporary shelter nearby the rope bridge. They feared for their lives, yet Rao instructed them to sit tight and not go out at night under any circumstance. Yet one pilgrim did not listen. One pilgrim could not, for whatever reason, wait.

When Rao returned to the village, the people were sitting out on their verandahs, smoking and playing with small children as the sun began to set. A heavy fog enveloped the road and condensation dripped off the Banyan trees. Sayyad was waving at Rao as he walked along the route to his lodging, holding a cup of tea and a blanket. Despite failing, the people held no hatred or frustration. They smiled at him and nodded their heads in thanks. The creature would be slain when it was slain. No sooner. No later.

A small child pointed into the fog and cooed. Rao followed his gaze back to the road from which he had just arrived. A large shadow, larger than any man or beast, moved towards them. Wheels squeaked and ox hooves clopped.

“I thought I said no carts,” Rao said to Sayyad.

“I told them. I told them!”

As the bullock cart moved out of the fog, its ghostly visage became clear, and they found one piece missing from the puzzle. There was no driver. There was the grass laid long, the two oxen, but no driver.

The oxen continued down the road, passing the faces of the villagers until being stopped by a local man, who patted them on the cheeks. He looked up at Rao, who noted his concern. He then looked at the faces of all the others and saw their desperation. This was the reality they faced every day. How many ghostly carts have driven themselves into their village?

This macabre display motivated Rao and he turned to Sayyad with a fervor in his eyes.

“I have an idea,” he said. “And if it works, we will be heroes.”

“I thought you said do not try to be heroes, Sahib.”

“I said do not try to be. I never said do not be one. It’s time to stand up, my friend.”

“Should we not go after the missing person?”

“The best we can do is try to stop the deaths, not go after someone who is surely already gone.”

“How can you be sure?”

“You can never be sure. You must only do what you think is right.”

*****

They recommissioned the ghost cart for their purpose. They were offered a shirt and pants by a woman who had lost her son. They were given blankets by a woman who’d lost her husband. They were given straw and grass by a man who had lost his wife, and they stuffed the shirt and pants so well it resembled a person.

“This will make due for our scarecrow, I think,” Rao said, looking to Sayyad for approval.

“Yes, I agree. Although do you not think the smell will be too different?”

“Perhaps, but it is worth a try.”

The plan was this. The scarecrow would mock driving the cart and Rao would hide under the blankets with his pistol. It would not be the first time that he shot a leopard or a tiger point-blank. At one point he even found himself face to face with a lion in Africa; and if he had not carried a pistol, he would not have survived. A rifle required two hands. A pistol only required one. This way you could hold on to the machan or howdah on the back of an elephant and shoot with the other hand. He had a good feeling that this would be the way, unconventional as it was.

The cart set off and the ox were cooperative, walking gently down the road not too fast and not too slow. The night was bright and full of stars, so there was plenty of light to see by.

They traveled about a mile, counted out by feet in Rao’s mind. He could only see directly to the left and right of him, the grass and blankets laid over his body to hide him. The front was a complete blind spot, but he sensed the scarecrow all the same. He would have heard it thud on the dirt road if it had fallen off, and he certainly would have heard the leopard snatch it.

He looked to the right and saw a golden plover sitting on a branch. It seemed to look him directly in the eye and as if to say, “Good luck, chap,” flew off into the night afraid. Being an experienced hunter, Rao knew what this meant. He gently turned his head slightly to the left and saw what he expected. Along the tree line the leopard gracefully slithered through the shadows, keeping up with the pace of the ox.

What happened next would be something not easily forgotten by Rao. To this day he wakes up in a cold sweat some nights, seeing the image in his dreams. The leopard leapt onto the cart with all its strength, digging its two front claws into the scarecrow and giving Rao a perfect shot at its face. The ox blurted and began walking faster, its hooves sinking further into the muddy road. The cart rocked, but Rao took the shot and saw half of the leopard’s face fly into the night. But the leopard did not fall. Instead, spotlighted by the moon creating a halo around its head, the leopard turned its half-demolished skull at Rao and looked deep into his soul with its single eye. Its tongue slobbered around with no lower jaw to wrangle it, and just as Rao realized what was happening the leopard leapt at the blankets and clawed him in the shoulder, ripping the skin deep.

His hands gripped the pistol, but he knew he wouldn’t have time to fire again. Mercifully, the leopard struggled to stay gripped on the cart and it slipped off, crashing into the road.

Rao sat up and threw off the grass. He pointed the pistol and aimed, yet another shot exploded and the leopard thudded down into the dirt, its twitching head still trying to process imminent death.

Rao slid off the cart and through the fog he saw his savior.

Sayyad stood holding his .577 and lifted it in the air and waved. “Sahib! I have run out into the night to save you. It seems I have done so!”

Rao stopped the ox and ran to his friend. He mimed punching him, but then embraced him with all his might. “I dislike hunting with companions, Sayyad. But I think I will request you for many more to come.”

Together they walked over to the leopard and ensured it was dead, collectively agreeing that shock must have made the creature continue after losing half its face. It was the only explanation. What else could it have been? A demon?

Rao took note of the bloodied leg and located the gunshot from his rifle the previous night. It all made so much sense and was of little surprise. No man-eater in the history of recorded time has killed for the mere pleasure of devouring human flesh. An outside reason always forced the creature’s hand, whether it be disease, old age, or injury. They say it is a demon, but the leopard was no more than a desperate creature trapped in a jungle that enclosed around it closer and closer every day. It was not only a mercy to save the people from its hunger, but also a mercy to put down a beast who had become invasive.

When he arrived back at the village, he placed the leopard in the middle of the road. To Rao there was nothing quite like the wailing of grieving women, yet it surprised him to see them so distraught at such great news.

“I figured they would be happy,” he said to Sayyad as Sayyad washed Rao’s wounded shoulder.

“They are very happy,” he said in return. “Do you see how they wipe their tears with the leopard’s tail? They are wiping away their grief and showing respect to the great being that inhabited the leopard.”

Rao watched as the Sadhu sat next to the leopard and powdered it with the colors Rao did not understand. Not intimately. Yet even though he could not dissect the customs into their separate parts, he could empathize with the spectacle. These kind, respectful, bold, and passionate people were the souls of India, and Rao was yet a guest despite having lived in India most of his life. How could he have not seen the people behind the hunt before now?

Originally unwanted, but now as much a part of India as anyone. An Anglo-Indian born of both worlds, yet only making sense for the first time in his life of one of them. And there was no going back. In the eyes of the people of Chatwapipal, he was one of them.

“I could not have done this without you, Sayyad,” he said, gently gripping Sayyad’s hand.

Sayyad sniffled, and Rao sensed his tears.

“Why do you cry?” Rao asked, gripping his hand harder.

“I am so happy, Sahib. Is it not custom to weep in England when one is happy?”

“No, the English weep when we feel sadness,” he said as he let go of his friend’s hand.

“Well, you are not in England, Sahib,” Sayyad replied, threading the needle that would stitch Rao up, the tears still streaming down his face. “And you are not only English. You are in India.”

“So, be Indian?” Rao asked.

Sayyad put his hand on Rao’s hand. “Be Rao.”

About the Author

Ethan Steers

Ethan Steers has an Undergraduate from Purchase College in Theatre and Performance and is currently in Syracuse University's Graduate program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling.