Blue Sky, White Cloud is the fifth book by Nirmal Ghosh, who is a foreign correspondent, writer, and wildlife conservationist. With beautiful illustrations and rich prose, it is a collection of three novellas that narrates stories from the perspectives of man and beast, showing us that, much like us, animals, too, have extraordinary stories to tell.
This is an excerpt from Blue Sky, White Cloud by Nirmal Ghosh, pp. 69–72.
She came down from the hills through the shifting colours of autumn.
She moved like an illusion, like smoke, or water, weaving soundlessly among the big, dark woody boles of the ancient oaks, their leaves now the colour of copper and rust.
The early fall of the leaves formed a thick yielding carpet on the mountain paths, moist in the morning dew, but drier later in the day, crunching under the heavy boots of hikers making their way up to the high mountains.
She was in her fourteenth year now, and slower. But still, with the soft pads of her feet, she picked her way among the fallen leaves and, undisturbed, they hardly made a sound; amid the grass and flowers she left only the mildest tremor of her presence.
She was in no hurry. Occasionally, she sniffed interesting scents on leaves and trees, and left her own. Once, she cleaned her claws, raking the bark of a tree leaving deep gashes.
Sometimes, her ears would pick up the footfalls of an approaching human, and then she would leave the trail. Keeping low, she would weave among the silent trees, belly to ground, to crouch behind a rock motionless, peering around to watch until the person had passed, oblivious to her presence.
Something occasionally caught her interest—a swinging shoulder bag perhaps. Once, there was a boy with a goat and that definitely caught her interest. She followed their movements intently, her hunting instincts triggered, until they were out of sight, heading downhill where the trail wound into a belt of bamboo taken root by a rivulet that only flowed when it rained.
It had not rained for a while.
The village women on the mountain slopes, cutting grass and gathering fallen branches into bundles, which would be bound with hemp rope and taken back home on their heads, chattered among themselves. They would call out when one of them was hidden by foliage, to ensure they kept track of each other and also signalled to passing leopards and bears and, who knows, maybe even tigers, that they were in the forest.
Bent almost double sometimes with the big loads of grass and wood tamped with a cloth around their foreheads, the wicked curve of their gleaming daratis—wooden-handled sickles, razor sharp, made by local smiths and honed on river stones—tucked into their waistbands, they did not waste time.
Alerted by the chatter, the leopards and bears would avoid them, or sometimes, as she did now, even watch them from a distance, though understanding they were no threat.
Only occasionally there were accidents, especially with bears, which are not as adept at detecting people or are often engrossed in feeding, especially in the summer fruiting season. They don’t move as fast as cats to get away, and may lash out in confusion when suddenly face to face with a person. Just the previous year, a woman cutting grass had been mauled by a bear, barely surviving as she was carried downhill to a clinic, which was mercifully nearby, where they washed and stitched her lacerations and injected her with antibiotics and painkillers.
These days when the wind picked up it became chilly, and the light began to lose its glow and turn thin and brittle. The days were growing shorter and the sun set a pale yellow, not the warm orange of summer.
Soon, it would be winter.
This is where the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates met fifty million years ago and still push against each other today. Their collision created the lofty Himalayas, which continue to rise today. Earthquakes triggered by the implacable movement of the planet’s crust regularly ripple through these mountains, often triggering landslides.
Occasionally, gigantic boulders fall from high cliffs, dislodged after the warm summer sun heats the rocks. Sometimes, they too trigger landslides. It is an unstable living environment; landslides triggered by heavy rain or earthquakes, sweep away entire villages in this beautiful but harsh land, bitterly cold in the winter, subjected to tremendous downpours in the monsoon, and with a brief shiny vibrant spring before a hot dry summer.
The big cat had not eaten for days.
The deer had thinned out.
It had been a succession of cruel summers. There was almost no water left in the hills. The smaller glaciers in the higher mountains had vanished. In turn, in the high meadows, the grass had withered and in the narrow deep canyons below there were only a few tiny remnant pools. The stream that ran through these woods, fed by meltwater from the high mountains to the north, had long run dry. Rain did not help; it had become erratic, there was, sometimes, too much at once and, at other times, too little.
The leopard reached the upper edges of the town and paused. Below the ridge, the lights twinkled through a blue evening haze settled like a veil over the pale blue and grey rooftops. She heard the rumble of distant traffic and, amid it, dogs barking. From somewhere came the faint sounds of a radio playing pop songs, and from elsewhere in the haze rose the sound of a temple bell.
She looked over her shoulder at the slope she had just descended, at the path that led up past eaten-over yellow grass, into the trees and then the oaks, twisting up into the mountains where so many years ago she had been born. Her ears flicked back and forth, taking in a universe of sound but nothing unusual, and her eyes detected no movement on the slopes.
She walked back up through the oaks then, for a few metres, and rolled in a patch of soft dust. Then, she found a flat rock, still warm from the midday sun. Lying on it, she groomed herself, extending her claws and licking her paws clean, frequently pausing to look around. And then, with the soft golden light of the northern sunset illuminating the rosettes on her fur, she slept.
Sometimes, as she dreamed, the white tip of her tail would curl and flick.
She would sleep here, and, much later, venture further in search of water.
And perhaps, she would also find prey.