This story is by Cecily Ray and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Virendra would be lying if he said he was a lonely lion. In the prime of his youth, he had a good job at the National Park in the big city of Mumbai. He met visitors several times a day at the viewing point where the tour busses stopped. He was proud of his thick mane and muscular body which he kept up by regular exercise. He had friends. And he had … well … he HAD had a good friendship with his childhood friend, the lioness, Roopa, who had been sent with him exactly 5 years ago from a National Park near Bangalore.
Right away, Roopa and Virendra had been introduced to the friendly Raja, a middle aged lion. The other lions they had met were welcoming, but older. Virendra and Roopa were put up in the enclosure where Raja lived. Here the three of them spent time playing ball in the warm afternoons and chatting in the evenings, sometimes with the White Tiger who lived next door. Early mornings they trekked around the Park led by Nandu, their Keeper, and a member of a tribal community inhabiting the Park.
Raja helped Nandu teach Virendra and Roopa how to sit at the viewing point outside his enclosure. In the process, Raja became like a big brother. Soon however, Raja was posted as recreation coordinator for the elderly lions. Virendra, proud of his new job at the viewing point, began to give Roopa less attention.
While Virendra worked, Nandu took Roopa and Raja around the Park. Roopa got to hear Raja tell of his challenging life as a circus star and was greatly impressed.
One evening, Nandu had left Roopa and Raja behind at the shelter for the elderly lions. Virendra began to enjoy his exclusive enclosure and gave little thought to Roopa or Raja. On warmer days he took swimming lessons from the White Tiger in his pond. Some evenings he watched TV through a window in Nandu’s family quarters next to his enclosure.
Much later, on a morning walk with Nandu, in the distance Virendra had seen a lioness with two tiny cubs. Who could they be? Virendra’s heart began pounding. He remembered Roopa and wondered – was it she? Impossible! Roopa was so young and was his friend! How could she be a mother? But further on, Virendra recognized Roopa!
“Uh, hi Roopa!” said Virendra, straining.
“Hello, Virendra!” said Roopa awkwardly. “Long time!” Virendra grunted. Wordless, he felt a twinge of regret for forgetting about Roopa. She then told him matter-of-factly, “These are Raja’s and my cubs, Kumar and Neha, six weeks old.”
Virendra blinked and said feebly, ‘Oh, congratulations, Roopa!”
Then Virendra saw Raja approaching. Reaching him, Virendra managed, “Congrats, brother!” His tongue was now stuck firmly to his palate.
Raja replied, “Thanks, Virendra. We’re going to the stream. See you ‘round!”
“Ah, sure!” replied Virendra. He felt dazed and his head hung as he stared at the happy family. Nandu gently prodded Virendra back towards the enclosure, where he lay flat until work time.
Next morning, Virendra had awoken feeling purposeless, a failure.
“Oh, I am so miserable,” he said to no one in particular. “I hardly meet young lions here. I have no partner. My friend Roopa belongs to Raja and has cubs. I wish I could hunt. I am bored.”
The little field mouse that lived nearby appeared saying, “Sir, I hear you complaining daily. I feel for you, but have you never thought that other animals have problems too? We need someone to tell our troubles to and give us hope.”
“Why,” said the Lion, “What problems could you possibly have?”
“Well,” said the Field Mouse, “I lead a happy normal life, but as I explore, we see what’s going on around the edges of the Park. The forest is being eaten up by housing projects. I and other field mice fear the loss of our freedom, mouse traps and poison.”
“Hmmm, I see,” said the Lion.
“Let’s be friends,” suggested the Mouse. “Maybe we can cheer each other up and help each other out sometime.”
“All right,” answered the Lion. “Let’s keep in touch.” Virendra felt better, got up and went to work. Following this, the Field Mouse would come and greet Virendra each morning, raising his spirits.
Time passed. One day, on morning rounds with Nandu, Virendra met Roopa and the cubs again. She told him Raja was ailing, with some mysterious disease. Virendra empathized and accompanied her to see Raja, where Virendra bowed and touched Raja’s feet. Virendra felt relieved as Raja brightened up.
A large barn owl had started visiting Virendra, to chat about problems faced by animals in the City. The Owl had hoped that this majestic Lion might be of some help in these matters. One day, while Virendra was waiting at the visitors’ point for the first tour bus, two large house crows had approached him to ask a favor. They wanted Virendra to ask the Chief Conservator of Forests – the ‘CCF’ – for official permission to build nests in the Park. Virendra wasn’t sure what to make of this and started consulting other birds, starting with the Owl. The Owl was entirely against this proposal, as crows bullied other birds.
But when the Owl had told him crows were now waging a war on the black kites who had occupied a huge banyan tree in the City, Virendra had not been sympathetic. He had told them, “You have to negotiate the use of trees and learn to share!”
Seasons changed and soon a year had passed since the cubs were born. Suddenly Raja died, leaving Roopa with their cubs and memories. It was a difficult time for Roopa and she sometimes looked irritated when Virendra tried chatting with her. Reflecting, Virendra had realized he was being insensitive.
Today, unlike before, while Virendra sat talking with the Field Mouse, he noticed Roopa approaching the enclosure. “Hello, Virendra, I see you’re talking with a mouse. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing much – The Field Mouse, the Owl, a Squirrel and I are organizing a meeting early tomorrow morning. Will you come?”
“Maybe. What kind of meeting?” asked Roopa, looking doubtful.
“Well, the meeting is to discuss the problems of the Park: crows ganging up on other birds, leopards attacking humans and stray dogs – you know. Many animals will be attending, perhaps some humans too.”
“Oh, that sounds really big! How come I haven’t heard about this until now?” asked Roopa.
“We didn’t want to distract you from your cubs, but we’d really like you to come,” Virendra said cautiously.
“Very well, then, thanks. I’ll be there,” said Roopa. Then she sauntered off down the road, airily swishing her tail.
Next day, at the meeting, Virendra was happy to see Roopa come and sit down with her cubs at the edge of the gathering. Afterwards, Virendra invited her and the cubs to play ball with him in his enclosure. Roopa agreed and they all had fun. When Nandu saw Virendra had visitors, he brought dinner for all four of them. Later he escorted Roopa back to the shelter, where a grandmotherly lioness helped her with her cubs.
Virendra organized several more community meetings during the rest of that year but nothing got solved. More crows were invading the Park, as in the surrounding City, there was little progress on the solid waste management front. Life just went on as usual in the Park and the City.
By the following May, the weather became very hot and soon the whole forest undergrowth was dry as straw. By early June, the leaves of many trees had started falling – something like in autumn in the temperate zone. Many visitors came, especially children, as schools were closed. Mornings, Virendra sat regularly at the visitor’s point and during lunch-breaks rested under the trees, while cicadas buzzed. By evening crickets chirped. Now Virendra began to feel lonely.
During a lunch-break, while Virendra was resting on the dry grass under a large tree with eyes half closed hoping for rain, he thought of Roopa, the golden haired. He nearly fell into a trance with the sprinkle of tiny yellow leaves from above him. He thought he was dreaming as he saw Roopa slowly approaching. She looked questioningly towards him and, as he looked reassuringly back at her, she came over and sat down with her cubs.
Virendra felt solace flowing through him, twinged with excitement. Roopa slowly closed her eyes and looked peaceful and fulfilled. As grey clouds drifted across the sky, a cool breeze blew swirls of dry leaves and scattered drops of rain. Virendra felt the aching empty hole filling up with contentment. In this golden hour he was grateful for the sweet presence of his childhood friend, grown up, tried and tested by life. She had now chosen to be with him. The time had come for love – at least he hoped so. Roopa seemed ready.