In Dagshai, a small hill station in Shimla district, where I spent some years teaching at a residential army school, I observed during a late-evening walk in February, not far from the Charring Cross Road, a man looking for something in the bushes. Upon my enquiring, he told me that he had been out on a stroll with his dog when it had become agitated suddenly and started to growl and bark, as if it had picked up a strange scent.
His dog had then broken loose and run down a slope, which was out of its character. While, he was narrating the incident, we heard his dog bark from down in the valley. The man called out repeatedly: "Bruno! Bruno!" but, the pet's barking and growling grew more terrifying. A few seconds later, there was a sudden lull, a dead silence. The two of us looked at each other with frightened eyes. "God, what the hell was that?" the man uttered. Fearing the worst, I said: "Seems like it has been attacked." "But what could it be?" enquired the man.
At that moment, we heard a queer barking sound from the nearby woods. It wasn't a dog at all. Scared, we began running for dear life through the almost dark forest. Neither of us looked back. After a certain distance, I parted ways with the man, and ran non-stop until I reached my quarters. When I woke up the next morning, my fear had found confirmation. The town was abuzz with the tale of a leopard spotted near the Charring Cross Road and the carcass of a dog found nearby.
After a few weeks, the memory of that episode had faded and life had returned to normal, until one April evening, when it was my turn to supervise the evening prep in the school. I was just about to set out when the telephone rang. "Hello," I said. "Rajesh, stay indoors; don't go out!" That was the voice of my neighbour, mathematics teacher and close friend Vivekananthan. "Why?" I said, taken aback. "Because, a leopard is outside your front door," he said. "Ah, I see; just tell me, what day of the month it is?" I asked. "April 1," he replied. "And you're trying to play an April fool joke on me?" I said, laughingly. "No, no! I'm serious, listen to me…" he said, in a supplicating tone. "Nice try, but I'm not buying. See you at dinner," I said, and hung up the receiver.
As I opened the door, there was no leopard outside my house. But as I turned after locking the door, I caught the glimpse of a shadow out of the corner of my eye. Looking up, I saw two shiny eyes staring at me through the dark, the eyes of a full-grown leopard sitting on my lawns a jump away from me. I went numb, not having anticipated the encounter. There was no way I could run away or scream for help; so I just stood motionless against the door, trying to figure out what my fate would be.
Out of the silence, I heard a whisper: "Rajesh, come this way, slowly, slowly." It was Vivekananthan, calling me inside. Contrary to his advice, I dashed to his house as fast as I could and slammed the door behind me.
By lunchtime, the following day, the news had spread across the town that a teacher at Army Public School, Dagshai, had come face-to-face with a leopard and had a narrow escape.
The writer is based in Panchkula and formerly taught French at Army Public School, Dagshai