A Cat In The Fields

9 min readMay 10, 2024

The women sat around a fire in the dead of the night and kept vigil for the men to return who had all gone out at the sound of the whistle that signalled a possible leopard sighting in the fields on the other side of the hill. Sometimes the men were out for just an hour or so, time enough to reach the fields that jutted out from the side of the hills, scare the leopard away with their torches and shouts and the clanging of the plates with the steel tumblers that they would pick up on their way out. But sometimes they would be out longer, at times even tottering on tired legs and bloodshot eyes from a night of chase and drop dead on their beds waiting for the sun to come up and for the women to bring them their teas and rotis soaked in milk and sugar. They would avoid looking at the women in the eyes, because they knew they would be swimming in waves of gratitude and concern and looking at that could easily bring out their own guilts to a point that it would become visible to the women who were all keen observers of such things, and that would be the end of the tradition that the men of the village had lived with for so long.

The difference lay in the length of the whistle that the man whose duty it was that night to guard the fields and the crops blew. A short whistle meant there really was a leopard, spotted or suspected, and the men hurried from their resting positions and ran down the hill, not really bothering with the plates and the tumblers because the torches and their screams were enough to push the cat the other way. But if the whistle was longer in duration, they would jump out with as much speed, but would never fail to pick up the utensils so they would all have plates for the chicken and the tumblers for the rum. The chicken and the rum would be sourced earlier in the day and only by someone who was visiting the distant town on some work. The chicken would be cooked on a bonfire under the tin roof which was set up to give shelter to the person whose turn it was to guard the fields and the crop. The rum would be dug out of the fields, having been buried there earlier in the day at the far end where women on their day time visits to harvest or tend to the vegetables would stay away from. The rum and the chicken did not take long to polish off, but it was important that the bones be disposed of far away or it would attract the leopard, and the bottle even further for it would arouse the suspicion of the women should they discover it closer to the fields. That walk, and then allowing for some time for the smell of the rum and the chicken to disperse and for the women to disperse from their post around the fire meant they had to stay out longer than they needed to. But the walk back was worth it, for they did look every bit tired after a night chasing the leopard and the undisturbed sleep they were allowed after it made the plan just perfect.

The night that Pilua was asked to keep an eye out for the leopard was on the day when Rammu had visited the town to get his top left molar extracted. On the way back he had picked up two kilograms of chicken and a bottle of rum from the money the men had pooled in and kept in a tin box near the shelter for this purpose. He had taken the afternoon bus back and got off at the bend near the fields, walked over to where the bottles had to be buried to be exhumed later, and took the chicken over to Balkum’s chai shop where it would be kept safely along with the required spices, oil, and the pot in which it would be cooked, along with the ladle with which it would be stirred and served. The entire operation was a well-oiled one, perfected over many years of trials and surprisingly little errors, at least none that would make the women suspicious. And all Rammu had to do was follow the script. Rammu did follow the script, tracing the path from the bus stop to the burying spot to Balkum’s chai shop that was at the end of a happy skip and jump trail, where the shack with the stoves and a bench and jars of colourful treats stood, the resting place for the chicken till it was time to cook it under the cold, starry night with the rum warming them from inside and their hushed tones punctuated by their shouts to make the women think they were still putting their lives at risk to save their fields and homes. Balkum welcomed him with his special sugary tea with cream on top, reserved for those who brought back things of value from the town. It was after this point that the script veered off the defined path, but it wasn’t all Rammu’s fault.

The whistle and the torch and the blanket that the person appointed for the night’s vigil was kept in a room at the school. The night’s appointed guard would pick these up after his dinner, walk part Balkum’s chai shop, and pick up the chicken and the spices and the cooking pan and the ladle, the news of the night’s plan shared among the group when they all met for a game of cards around sunset. With these supplies, the man would walk over to the shelter where he would light up a small fire just outside the shelter, and settle in for the night on the loose cot that stood inside the room behind the walls fashioned out of stones, bricks, and mud. The fire an occasional sweep of the torch all over the fields kept the leopard away, but any movement in the tall grass or the shrub around would make the guard focus the torch beam in one place and if an intrusion was suspected, a quick blowing of the whistle would rally the troops. The monsoons had just retreated and the ponds in the deeper jungles at the far side of the hills were full, making it easy for the cats to get to the water and also to easy game that would come drinking. For the past month or so, not one leopard had been spotted, and the whistle had been called to action just twice, and both times because the pan was on the fire and the bottle of rum had been dug out.

Tonight it was Pilua’s turn. His turn had come after almost three months, the extended period given to him as his wedding gift so that he could spend the nights with his wife. But the older men had been complaining for some time, saying three months were enough, and that the younger men should take on the duty more often because the nights were getting colder. After much complaining, Pilua had agreed. That night he set out, looking forward to a night away from his wife, and also to the rum and chicken. He stopped at the school and picked up the blanket and the whistle and the torch and just as he got back on the trail that would take him to Balkum’s shop for the last of the supplies, he found himself walking into a figure that jumped from behind a tree. He was taken aback, but not scared. Villages in the hills were full of stories of ghosts but somehow everyone knew of someone who had seen one, but no one themselves had. But when Pilua realised who this figure was, he almost hoped it was a ghost instead. In hushed tones he asked his wife of three months what she was doing here at this hour. What if his parents discovered that she had slipped out of the house all alone? What if someone else saw her out and alone at this hour?

The woman just smiled, and instead of replying or rushing back, took the lead and walked briskly to the point from where the houses in the village couldn’t see the path. Unsure of what to do, Pilua followed her. Once they were hidden from view, the woman stood up straight and walked more confidently now. She grabbed the blanket from Pilua’s hands and smiled suggestively. And with a giggle, took the turn towards the shelter, walking past Balkum’s chai shop. Pilau didn’t know what to do. The bag with the chicken and the spices and the utensils was hanging over the counter in plain view. And all he could do was see it recede from view as he followed the swaying hips of this young woman from the town that many of his friends had warned him against marrying. They said she never lowered her eyes even when the room was full of strangers. They said she had openly declared that she would not put a veil on her face. They also spoke to one of her teachers at the town college that she had graduated from and came back to report that she had been suspended twice for breaking rules. But Pilua was madly in love and what others saw as faults in her had only made her like her more. Her friends had argued that all these things didn’t make the girl bad, but just not fit for the village life. And he had just smiled and went back to dreaming of their days and nights together once they were married.

Well, now they were and here he was walking behind her to the shelter with the loose cot where the young woman was headed with the blanket and ideas that could come to no good. And of all nights, on the night when a slaughtered chicken lay hanging over a counter, and bottle of rum lay buried not far from the shelter, and a half-a-dozen men eating little to conserve their appetites for a night time of revelry. These half-a-dozen men at that very moment were already in their respective beds, their plates and tumblers in the line of their vision, and trying to look like the last thing they wanted to do this night was to leave their beds. They pictured the fire that must have been lit, the pot that must have been put on, the water in it that must be bubbling just about now, the spices ground and ready, the chicken being smothered in it, the bottle out and cooling in the late night air. And they waited for the whistle that they didn’t know yet was not going to blow that night. Pilua and his wife were inside the blanket on the cot near the fire, the young woman gazing up at the stars on that moonless night and thinking how this made up for all the other dull moments she would have to spend here before she could convince Pilua to move to the city. And Pilua lay beside her, the whistle in hand and his mind on the bottle and the bag in Balkum’s shop.

It was Rammu who was the first to worry. The medicines that he had been given to help with the pain from the extracted molar was making him feel very drowsy. He tried to find a reason to leave home, find a whistle and blow it himself. Maybe Pilua had forgotten to pick up the whistle, maybe the children who played football in the school ground after it closed had taken it and never put it back? It had happened a few times earlier, but never on nights when some men had eaten the bare minimum to conserve their appetities. The reasoning kept his mind busy for some time but then he drifted off to sleep, dreaming of a chicken plucking at his open jaws and pulling out his teeth one by one. The rest of the men too slept off one by one, hungry and cursing the man and the whistle without which they couldn’t leave home.

Meanwhile near the shelter, the bag had been brought over from Balkum’s chai shop, water filled in the pot from the nearby stream and put on the fire, the chicken dunked in the spices and dropped into the bubbling water, the bottle of rum recovered from its place, and the drink prepared and shared from the one glass that Pilua had brought along. He still didn’t know how he would explain this away to the men the next day, or convince his wife to not share the long-guarded secret with the other women. Just a few minutes before these preparations had started, the young woman had told him how she could never live in the village and that they would have to shift to the town soon. It was too dull and boring here. She had always sought adventure, and there was little of it that this village had to offer. It was then that Pilua had smiled, sat up and asked her to wait for the night to get over, and then tell her again what she felt on the topic.