On the pathway of one’s life, there is always something called ‘destiny’. Regardless of all the nonsensical philosophy, I find it downright funny. I wanted to be a martial aviator. Instead I found myself as an engineering student and ended up being a forester by graduating as an honours student of Zoology. So, the same factor was behind, I suspect, in placing me at Barpeta Road headquarters of Project Tiger Manas. This was one of the first Project Tigers when launched in the early seventies.
Tigers are a kind of big cats with orange yellow fur with black strip markings. Our own mother tongue remains enriched with many sayings and adages. One of them says, “One doesn’t need to look at a tiger if one is familiar with a household cat”. I thought, I knew something about cats and reckoned that I shouldn’t have any troubles with the ‘big niece’ of the same.
But it is not so easy depending upon such sensitive species for earning one’s livelihood. Working conditions were Spartan and could be demanding. As the deputy to the big boss who was a legendary forest officer of Assam, I bargained for more than I could handle. Raison d’etre? Destiny again. For a short period, I would be playing father and mother to orphaned wild cats of the same species: Neofelis nebulosa and Felis benglensis. What I learned from them is not related to the feline forms. Thereby hangs a tale.
It was one of those intolerable days of the nineties. The time-line places the story in a bellyful of laughing time when it snail speeded to the middle of the rainy season of 1994.
For some reasons I has missed the bus to the matrimony again that year. I became used to sleeping next to a cocked .315 rifle nights after nights. Ennui stopped bothering me. There was always a catty reason for this; doesn’t matter whether they turn grey in the night or not. In fact, it took a form of black one when one night marched into a fine rain-soaked morning.
Pestered by endless calls of duty in the wilderness of Manas National Park, bothered by lack of sleep, I thought I was lucky enough to have eight hours of sleep. Wrong again! The night-time rainfall had stopped dancing a tap dance on the corrugated iron roof of my ancient Assam-type official residence. The morning air was fragrant. I was vaguely aware of the cadence of retreating drum-rolls of thunder. The landline phone, coloured muted red, jangled. The sleep was shattered beyond repairs.
The OC of the local Police Station was on line. All I could understand with my sleepy consciousness was about a black cat being rescued in the case of a highway robbery case. And the cat, it seems, needed a home of a secure department. So, a call was made to the Project Tiger.
The dark-furred felid meowed pathetically as one of the forest-guards hauled up the small netted cage where the rainwater must have dripped down badly from the CI-roofed shed of the watchpost-cum-check-gate manned by the police. Such structure was a sudden necessity of those unforgettable times. The posse of cops demanded that a ‘custody’ document was necessary for the robbery case. So I wrote down with my horrible handwriting... “Received on custody, a specimen of felid suffering from melanism”...
“Boo! Down! We need to get down from the confines of this bus for the morning loo-business...” jeered the ladies in Sylheti dialect; all draped in the best of silk clothes. But, the investing agency would not budge, till the mystery of the black cat that almost hitched a secret ride was solved. The highway robbers had looted everything from these hapless long distance bus travellers at the eight mile point between Moutupri and Simlaguri. The delay caused by intentional damages to the four rubber tyres snatched the fine moment of betrothal at far away villages on the National Highway inside West Bengal.
The cat grinned in an effort to stifle its constant meowing maybe. The whiskers quivered. Visibly, it had weathered an ordeal and looked very, very tired. Inside the small wire netting cage that was so far its mobile home, the felid was very uncomfortable.
Yeow! The first unprofessional approach to the cat drew blood. The paws were unusually large for a cat of that diminutive appearance. The claws released sharp nails of ‘fight or flight’ response, and sank them while scratching lengthwise on one of my forest guard’s forearm. He was only trying to take it out from the confines of the cage. What a price for being helpful! Then, it dawned on us: the kitty is not of a domesticated one, but quite a specimen of an unknown genus of Felus Felidae.
Whatever it was, it was a cat anyway. So, helpless it was, when the strong hand of the local veterinary surgeon held it by the scruff and brought it outside. The vet surgeon grimaced at the colour decorating his palms as he tried to console and comfort the felid.
My boss, a living legend of that time, was very angry at my latest affair d’coeur with a slinky being. He paid a visit to my residence and understood everything. Like the God above, he delivered me from the predicament. He called up Anindya, an Assistant Conservator of Forests of that time with us. “Deliver that funny kitty to the DFO, Assam State Zoo,” he boomed. Oh! The gluttony of the cat did cost me a fortune. The felid travelled back the way it came: to Guwahati. It comfortably travelled dozing all the way.
Ho hum!!! Days travelled fast, sometimes they snail paced. One day, around an afternoon, I found late Utpal Choudhury, who was the Range Officer of Panbari Range of Project Tiger Manas, in my residence. He was also a nice man and an unforgettable daredevil. In his lap, there purred a pretty Bengal cat. He was secretive about the recovery of this specimen. “Sir!” he intoned, “This will spice up your life as a bachelor”.
Spice up! It really did. What do you do when the cat with that acute intelligence joined me each morning while brushing teeth? The cat would do that by exactly copying my brushing motion with its right paw by wetting it in the running water and actually brushing its teeth!
Rumours were rife and spread at the speed of sound. The rumour was about a young lady from the town of Barpeta who would terminate the bachelorhood of mine in no uncertain terms. I was amused. But, my friends insisted that there was a megaton of evidence in the food I took. I thought for a while. Yes! The disobedient cook of mine suddenly, and for several weeks, was churning out mouth-watering Assamese delicacies everyday. Not only that, the bachelor’s house was transforming into a neat home. Not a single item out of place anymore. A wonderfully sweet smell pervaded all the rooms of the house. A fragrance, that with all my years in the jungle, I could not identify. But I could not suspect anyone’s design in that. One unscheduled early return from jungle solved the puzzle. I found there was a prized Maruti 1000 with AS 15... marking in my compound. I wondered as to what might follow next.
My dash from room to room ended in the kitchen. And behold, a young fair lady of considerable beauty and her mother were cooking! Aroma of the food being cooked nearly brought about salivation!
“Hey, what is this? Barging into a bachelor’s house like this? That too, cooking food for a guy who is not even known to you?” The stunner of first order turned around. Calmly bringing her long dark hair over her right shoulder to the front, she started speaking softly. Now, I identified the source of the fragrance that the rooms were filled with. She fixed her limpid eyes on mind and then shyly lowered them. My heart raced. It was a moment sweetened by tons of saccharine, my dear friends. “I am the owner of the cat,” she said, “Your ranger forcibly snatched away my pet. I cannot be separated from that four-footed friend of mine. What will the cat eat if I do not cook the dishes it likes? What is the fault of mine when a good man like you dearly loves the same cat and care for so well?”
Anyway, there is always that funny destiny. I had to leave for a faraway place and missed the wonderfully-placed ‘permanent invitation’ to their home at Barpeta town, which Utpal told me later, was ‘very cozy’!