Written by Priya Ranganathan | Illustrated by Kshiti Mishra

Listen along to an audio version of this story HERE

Landour sparkled in the pre-dawn mist, the snow-capped Himalayas a perfect, silvery backdrop to the lush deodar and oak forests that crowded the lower Garhwal range. A goat bleated plaintively, its voice cutting sharply through the silent air, and a rooster crowed doubtfully in response. 

Ten-year-old Ananya knew every rock and pebble on the dirt path leading up the hillside to Three Sisters Bazaar. Her feet, clad in worn cloth slippers, trotted quickly, and her jet-black hair was tightly bound back in a headscarf, protection against the cool wind. Landour was nippy in the early hours of the day! 

Ananya swung her cloth bag as she trudged up the path. As she reached the dargah, a shrine to a Muslim saint, at the fork in the path, she suddenly heard a low growl. It came from the low mulberry tree to her left. The little girl froze and slowly pivoted to face the tree. 

Two golden eyes stared at her from the dense leaves, pinning Ananya where she stood. She saw inky fur and a low, sleek body poised tensely on the thick branch. A black panther! Ananya could not remember ever seeing a black panther before. She had seen many leopards in the hills – it was hard to avoid leopards in this part of the Himalayas – but one as beautiful as this midnight cat had not yet crossed her path. 

What do I do now? Ananya wondered, feeling slightly unnerved by the cat’s piercing gaze. She suddenly remembered the advice her father had given her when she was a small child – never turn your back on a predator. So, she slowly took a step backwards, never turning her back on the panther. The cat continued to watch her, until she had retreated up the path. Only then did Ananya turn and run towards the market, half-expecting the panther to chase her. 

But nothing came after her. 

A month passed and Ananya did not see the black panther again. But one night, when she was lying on her thin mattress trying to fall asleep, a gunshot rang out, echoing around the hills. 

“Papa!” Ananya cried, jumping to her feet. She rushed to the door, where her father stood, looking outside. “What was that?” she asked, clutching his arm. 

“A gunshot,” her father replied. He flagged down a young man who was jogging past their house. “What happened?” he asked the man. 

“They’ve killed a leopard up by the ridge,” the man replied excitedly. “I’m going to see the fun.” 

Ananya’s eyes were as round as saucers. “They killed a leopard?” 

“A black panther, they’re saying,” the man said, nodding wisely. “I heard it was hard to catch. They finally cornered it by the dargah and put a bullet through it.” 

Ananya clapped her hands to her mouth, horrified, and her father waved her inside, muttering irritably to the young man about scaring children with such stories. When he shut the door, he put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. 

“Why did they kill it, Papa?” Ananya asked sadly. “Don’t the leopards deserve to live freely too?” 

“It’s just a leopard, beta,” her father said calmly. “There are many more in these hills, and there will be another one to take its place soon enough. At least now I know that you won’t be attacked on your morning walk to the market.” 

Ananya said nothing, but deep down she knew that some part of the mountain path’s magic was now gone. 

The next morning, Ananya trudged up the path gloomily. There would be no panther sightings to look forward to. As she neared the market, however, she heard a loud commotion. Four large dogs were snarling and barking at something in their midst. Ananya heard a faint mewling sound. 

The dogs must have caught a kitten, she thought, rushing over to help the poor thing. The dogs reluctantly moved aside as she shoved through the pack. 

To her great surprise, a tiny black leopard cub stood on shaky legs in the middle of the pack, its thin tail sticking straight up and its teeth bared. When it saw Ananya, the cub wailed again. 

“Oh, you poor little thing!” Ananya exclaimed. Then she bit her lip. If the villagers see the cub, they will kill it, she thought to herself. Maybe I should take it away from here.

She crouched down and offered a hand to the cub. It mewled again but inched closer. When it was close enough to sniff her fingers, Ananya gently petted its soft head. The cub jerked back, but after a moment of staring at the girl, nudged her fingers for more petting. 

Ananya heard voices approaching and made a split-second decision. She picked up the startled cub and bundled it in her shawl, taking care to hold it securely. She then scampered off in the opposite direction from the village, towards the unused Tibetan shrine where wandering monks occasionally paused to pay their respects. No one was at the shrine, and after looking right and left, Ananya slipped inside and unwrapped the leopard cub. It gazed up at her with big golden eyes and she rubbed its ears, murmuring softly to it. 

“I’m going to keep you here,” she told the cub firmly. “You’ll be safe, and no one will even know, but you can’t keep crying loudly, okay? I’ll come and stay with you in the night, but in the daytime, you’ll have to be quiet.” The cub, almost as though it understood, rubbed its head against her chin. Ananya wondered what to feed it. Perhaps milk would be a good start. She left the leopard sniffing around the shrine and dashed off to the nearest milk stall. When she returned with a packet of milk, the cub was standing by the entrance to the shrine waiting. “No, no, come back inside!” Ananya hissed. She tore open the packet and allowed the milk to dribble over her hands. The cub enthusiastically licked at the milk, and then greedily began drinking from the packet. When at last the packet was empty, the little panther had a round belly and was almost asleep. 

Ananya left it asleep in the corner of the dark shrine and rushed back to her home, where her mother scolded her thoroughly for being so late. All day, she could barely focus on her tasks, wondering how her cub was doing on its own in the shrine. 

The Garhwal Himalaya (Image by Priya Ranganathan)

At night, she returned, the moon her only guide. The shrine was a dark silhouette against the backdrop of the snow peaks. The cub was wide awake, playing in the corner with a dead mouse. Ananya paused, impressed. “Did you kill it all by yourself?” she asked the leopard, who came bounding over to lick her toes. “I’m proud of you,” she told it, picking it up and cuddling it. “Let’s take a walk? Show you the area?” 

Ananya took the silent ridge road, which looked down over a valley of tall trees that faded into the Himalayan peaks. She pointed out the familiar sights of Bandarpuch and the other peaks to the cub, who bounded at her heels sniffing the brush and generally having a good time. As Ananya walked, she sang songs in the language of the hills, her sweet voice carrying on the gentle breeze. The girl and the panther walked for hours until the cub began to whine. Only then did they return to the shrine and curl up to sleep. 

Every day, Ananya worked quickly and tried to finish her schoolwork before the evening set. Each night, she rushed up the ridge road to the abandoned shrine, where she took the cub (whom she had named Saavli, which means shadow) for a walk. Each week, Saavli seemed to grow bigger and eat more. Ananya begged the local butcher to give her scraps of meat, saying it was for dogs, and then smuggled them to Saavli, who gobbled them down and demanded more. Soon, the village folk began to speak of a strange, eerie singing that echoed around the hills at night. Others said that they saw a witch followed by a ghostly panther. The people muttered and guessed that it must be the ghost of the panther that was killed earlier on the ridge road. Families began locking their doors at night and children were told to stay inside, so that the panther’s ghost would not steal them away in revenge. 

Ananya giggled and continued her nightly walks with Saavli. 

And then, one day, when Ananya went to the shrine to find the panther, who was considerably larger now, she found Saavli munching on the remains of a stray dog. 

“Did you kill it yourself?” the girl asked the wild cat, impressed yet disgusted. The panther made no sign of listening, feasting hungrily on the dog. Ananya considered her options. Clearly, Saavli was now capable of hunting for herself. That meant it was time to return the panther to the wild, where she belonged. 

That night, Ananya whistled softly to Saavli, who leapt down from a nearby tree where she was napping and joined the girl on their nightly walk. Ananya was quiet, her heart heavy at the thought of letting Saavli go. But she knew it was the right thing to do. A leopard, after all, cannot survive among humans for long. 

Suddenly, Saavli pricked up her ears and froze, sniffing deeply. Ananya paused. She heard the familiar bark of the muntjac, a strange little deer that lived in the low hills. Saavli made a small sound. Ananya felt the brush of rough silk against her thigh as the panther padded forward, focused entirely on the sound of the deer. The deer called again, and another muntjac responded. Saavli glanced back at Ananya for a heartbeat, and then leapt down the hillside, vanishing into the inky night. 

Ananya ran for her house, forcing herself to not look back. 

A month passed, and Ananya walked the ridge road each dawn, hoping to catch a glimpse of Saavli. But the cub seemed to have vanished, erased from the landscape like a ghostly dream. The villagers talked too. The witch’s song had ended, they said, and the ghost cat had vanished, its need for revenge quenched. They took it as a sign that they had repaid their debt to the dead cat, and life continued as before. As the days passed, Ananya began to take a different route to the bazaar. Saavli was gone, and there was no point in hoping to see her again. Winter descended on the hills and the ridge road was too cold for the little girl to take. 

When the snows melted and new leaves began to grow on the Banj oaks, Saavli decided to take the ridge route once more. The hills were beautiful, pale green with the sturdy, evergreen deodars standing out like dark-green soldiers guarding the land. As Ananya passed the old tree where she had once encountered the old panther, she heard a small huffing sound and froze. Turning slowly, she saw two bright eyes like twin amber coins shining at her. A panther, black as inky waters, stared back at her. 

Was it Saavli? 

Slowly, ever so slowly, Ananya stretched out a hand. The panther purred low in its throat, a rumbling sound, but made no move to approach the girl. Ananya grinned, and the cat turned and vanished as silently as it had arrived. 

The reign of the panther had dawned on the hills once more. 

About the Author:

Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’

About the Artist:

Kshiti Mishra is pursuing a PhD in physics in the Netherlands and occasionally likes to dabble in different kinds of art.