My best friend’s cousin, M, kept a pet panther in her apartment in South Bombay’s very posh Marine Drive neighbourhood. The panther was a baby when M’s brother brought it to Bombay — an orphan he’d found shivering in the bushes near a tea plantation in Assam.
M kept it in an upturned child’s crib in her otherwise immaculate living room; when I first saw the panther, he looked like a largish, feral cat, a mottled ball of fur with ridiculously large paws for his diminutive size.
A few months later, when my friend and I dropped by for a visit after school, M’s living room was utterly transformed. The first thing that assaulted us was the stench, the animal fug and ammoniac whiff of piss and shit that nothing could disguise, not the sandalwood M had burning in a silver brazier, not her Joy perfume.
My eyes adjusted slowly to the dim light. M’s living-room curtains were all drawn, their pale yellow silk hanging in tatters off their muslin lining. All the furniture M had so painstakingly designed and had made for this room had been banished. So had the silk rugs, the expensive art, the throws and cushions.
The room was bare. Bare marble floors, muddy, a maze of claw marks in the soft stone. Bare walls, gouged with more claw marks.
M’s spacious living room was dominated by a large, rickety steel cage. Her husband’s steel weight-plates held the top of the cage in place; a cage that didn’t look sturdy enough to confine the glowing, golden-eyed adolescent panther lying on his side, his nose pressed against one end of the cage, his tail twitching against the other as he stared directly at me. A calm, considered gaze.
Looking into his honey-gold eyes was like looking into a mirror, seeing more than you ever expected to see. In his wildness, in the power he kept contained, when a single swipe of his massive paw would have set him free, I found a kindred spirit.
Curiosity kept that big cat in his utterly inadequate cage. For now. Curiosity kept me in my pretence of a child’s life. For now.
Neither of us had much of a choice. For now.
Solidarity. That’s part of what I felt, in the presence of that animal. And immense curiosity about who he was and how he experienced himself and the world. What he thought about living in a cage in the living room of an upper-middle-class couple in South Bombay, instead of roaming the mountains and jungles of Assam that were his home.
I’d known M most of my life; back then, she was both acquaintance and more, but we weren’t friends — the age gap between us was too great. She was married, and lived the life of a Bombay socialite. I was a pre-adolescent school girl, shy and nerdy, far more interested in her panther than in her fabled art collection.
M had abandoned her living room to the panther. She never gave him a name, even after they’d discovered that he was a he. She would not allow anyone else to name him, either. She called him That Thing, with a through-the-teeth fury and an unmistakable side-eye, as though he couldn’t feel her resentment.
That this cute little ball of fur foisted on her by her brother had turned out to be — instead of the sleek exotic pet of her dreams, the one she could dress up in a diamond collar and take with her to all the It parties — this hairy beast that stank up her living room, that would almost ruin her marriage, that had already ruined her social life because he, the panther, could not be left alone or he would destroy the place.
M’s servants were all afraid of the panther and could not be persuaded by bribes or threats to be alone with it, or to take care of it in any way. M said, rolling her eyes, that it was like having a giant, ferociously snarly baby whom you couldn’t take anywhere. Neither could you invite anyone over.
M stayed up until past midnight to take him, the panther, for a nightly walk. On a leash, like a big cat. A leash he’d long had the power to snap or shred but that he never did.
I thought of him often, over the years. He stayed with me through many moves, through marriage and divorce, motherhood and the sometimes trackless jungle of entrepreneurship.
Somehow his story and spirit showed up whenever I needed it, through the next six decades. Not as a metaphor, but as the reminder of a reality that lives in me. It’s a reminder I need right now, of a fearless, fierce, powerful and disciplined spirit.
When I met M’s panther, he was living a half-life that was never meant for him. I heard later that he was rescued by the same brother who’d brought him to M in the first place, who flew him back to be released in the wilds of Assam.
But this panther had never learned how to hunt for his food. He hadn’t learned how to find shelter from the monsoon storms, or how to protect himself from poisonous snakes and other predators.
How would he survive in a wilderness that was no longer his natural habitat?
When you find yourself in an unknown, potentially lethal environment, he murmurs to me when I sit cross-legged in front of his cage, looking deep into his golden eyes — look to the instincts you’ve honed, to guide you.
Since you didn’t grow up with the skills you’d need to live in such a place, find in yourself the strength and courage, cunning and discernment that will help you thrive in the jungle that should have been your home, but wasn’t.
You’re here, he says, with a twitch of his tail — make the most of it.