I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…”. May be he didn’t deserve it, but choices were bleak in his favour.
I loved him like my own child though we aren’t even of the same species. It was hard to let go, but he had to be taken out. His entire life played before my eyes in those few seconds.
Fate had brought us together on a cold January night about 15 years ago. I was then a newly appointed ranger in the himalayan ranges. In the absence of my colleague, i decided to take a late night stroll by myself. Being an adventurous sort, I ventured into a rather unknown territory and soon lost my way. The place was filled up with massive trees that almost touched the sky. Night time visibility was rather poor owing to the fog. I trudged on carefully, trying not to make a lot of noise, with just a torch in hand that had hardly enough light to see the few metres ahead. It was then that i heard a faint cry of an animal. I walked a little further in the direction of the cry, fully aware that it could be dangerous. I could hear the sound of a small stream that was passing through this area of the forest. The cries were turning to small growls, which were coming from a bush adjacent to this stream. I bent down and uncovered a few leaves and some dirt from the bush and flashed my torch light. What i saw made me smile. It was an adorable bear cub lying in front of me, making all those squeaky growls.
Raja was growing up pretty fast. He was an Asian black bear, having a cream color batman sort of patch on his chest. It had taken us sometime to get acquainted well. When i go to work, he was kept locked up in a room specially made for him. It was more like prison cell, a pretty large one at that, where he could roam around and even wave at other kids through the window. Kids loved him and visited him when they went to school and on their way back. As soon as i returned from work, he would wave at me and then shower all his affection when i opened his cell. Since his claws are non-retractable, we had to get it trimmed lest he injure kids accidentally. When i went for a stroll in the evening on weekend, i would take him along with me and take him around town. Everyone would love his antics and pranks, though i have no idea where he picked it up. He would stand up on his hind legs and wave his hands as if saying good bye. He would growl when someone talked to him in a manner that looked like he was replying. On other occasions, he would hold out the neck tie that i had gifted him for his first birthday and wave at me, showing that he belonged to me.
It was during a rainy season few years ago that i first started hearing of his mischiefs. I had been to work as usual. The town postoffice clerk, who was also my neighbor, came running into my office that noon and shouted at the top of his voice, “Bhaiya, jaldi aao ! (brother, come soon), Raja has broken free from his cell. He is in the market, uprooting the stalls.” I ran towards the market as fast as i could. I could hear the commotion as i was nearing the market. There was a mob gathered outside the postoffice, and Raja was amidst this, enjoying all the attention. As he lifted one stall, people cheered and that made him more happy. He jumped on a table that had fallen off from the stall and waved at everyone, just like a celebrity would. I went near him and yelled “Raja, neeche utro ! Yeh kya tamasha hai ? (get down Raja ! what nonsense is this ?)”. He looked at me for a minute, then got down from the table slowly, sensing that something was wrong and his father seemed upset.
As soon as we got home, i saw that door was ajar and lock was broken. It had taken him these many years, but every time he banged on the metal door, asking for food or demanding to go out, he was weakening it, and it broke loose one fine day. I took him inside the cell, chained him to the other side of the door and then in a sudden burst of anger, whipped him with the belt lying down near the door. Although, it took me a minute to notice, tears flowed from his eyes. I froze where i was standing, looking at him. His head was bent down, as if in guilt. How much human could a bear become ? That was the last time i hit him. He broke free of the chain that very night and wandered into the heart of the jungle where no human dare go.
I hoped he would return to me in a couple days. After all, where could he go, leaving his father right ? Perhaps i was wrong. That human touch was only in his pranks. He was after all a bear. He had to find his real family. May he had found them. May be he was enjoying with his family now. Did he not miss his father ? May be not. May be he did.
I would spend my weekends gazing at Raja’s cell and at the gate. Any sound remotely similar to a growl and i would wake up in the night, only to realize that it was a lorry passing by. If there was any commotion or a mob gathering, i would run towards it, hoping to find Raja, uprooting stalls and dancing on the table. How i wished i could at least see his mischiefs. May be when he comes back, i ll make him a table made of metal and he could dance all he wants. Thinking all this, i would then put myself to sleep, only to dream about him and wake up again.
A few months ago, there was a piece of news in the paper reporting that a teenager had been killed. At first it looked like a normal death, but a word in the clipping caught my attention. “It looks like there were marks of CLAWS on the neck and spine”, it said. My mind started racing. Something made me feel this was the work of a familiar being. I tried to investigate, but there was no evidence relating to any animal attack or any news of spotting a bear. Although i was sorry for the teenager’s family, deep in my heart, i wished it was him, my dear Raja. It had been years since he went missing and i had just begun to forget him. All my lost pain now returned to me. It took me a couple of weeks and few of my neighbour’s intervention to get out from the depression that i went into.
Last week there was another killing of a local. This time it was sure that he was killed by a bear, because there was evidence. The killing was done in day time not far from the town border Three locals had gone into the forest to gather some honey. Just as they were returning, they heard a faint growl. Before they could turn to see where the growl came from, they were attacked. He pounced on one of them and slapped so hard that instantly his rib was broken. The others fled the scene, as the bear completed his kill. The killing repeated again two days ago, this time, he had entered the town and into the one of the houses. There were two kids lying on the floor. Both of them had been mercilessly killed.
Things had gotten out of hand. I was overwhelmed with complaints from villagers of this growing rate of kills. Something had to be done. Actually someone had to be done with. It was decided that, in the night, few folks would take turns surveying the borders for any growls or any other signs of an intrusion. They would then alert the rangers, who would be ready with the guns.
Tonight i would be face to face with my baby after a period of many years, the one who i brought up, the one who i cared for, and yet, it made me grieve badly. It was not a happy ending as in movies. I stood on the terrace of a building near the barbed wire, across the trees where the jungle began. It was getting colder, just as the night i picked him up in my arms for the first time, looking at his glowing eyes. I wrapped a shawl around me and waited.
Suddenly, there was a bird whistle. He had entered the village. I waited, holding my breath. Suddenly from outside the bush, he came out, my Raja, with his unmistakable batman logo on his chest and the red neck tie. Raja was not glowing, smiling or waving today. Instead, he looked ferocious, prowling towards the hut that had lights on, treading each step carefully, watching for any movement.
I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew that time was running out but suppressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven…” I had to wait till he reached the room where the light was on. Only then i could see him clearly enough for the right shot.
“Six, five, four”
I wish i could just ask him, “Why ?”
Why would you do this to me ? Why did you run away from me ? Why did you hurt me ? Did you not love me as i loved you ? Why ?
“Three, two, one”