Kaalu, the feared leader of his gang, kept twirling his nasty looking handlebar mustache between his fingers, waiting eagerly by the wild bushes. His other hand clutched the lethal, fully loaded AK-47 Rifle. “C’mon, baby!” he whispered with malice. The trap was ready.
In the pale moonlight, the wilderness of Kaziranga National Park -wild trees, murky bushes – appeared as ghostly figures. The winds whistled, the trees swayed, the shadows danced. The Forest seemed eerily alive. If you happen to be in the velvety dark forest, it would surely unnerve you. Well, for Kaalu, you could say, the ‘jungly’ jungle was his home sweet home, his source of livelihood just like the other wild denizens residing there.
Forty Feet ahead of where Kaalu was hiding, was a deep pit that had been dug out and covered with bamboo branches, twigs and leaves. Near the pit was a dirty pond – a natural lick – for animals. Kaalu’s cronies were hiding in different positions as lookout for any approaching forest guards. If the bait was trapped, Kaalu would warble in bird’s voice to call them.
An owl hooted three times nearby. Then, something stirred in the bushes near the pit and Kaalu nearly jumped in excitement like a child who had seen something worth thrilling. He waited, holding his breath, for he knew what would happen next. And surely enough, there was loud thud, followed by a helpless grunt. And then, silence.
Kaalu walked slowly, cautiously towards the pit, holding his rifle firmly in his hand. This was his seventh hunt, and his spirit soared high as he thought boastfully about the feats he had in his kitty. Those glorious killings! One more one horned rhino would be dead within minutes and the precious horn would be his. An irony always amused himself: how, on earth, such an ugly creature like rhino would carry such a beautiful organ on its snout: the priceless horn!
“Hmmm, you pretty ugly baby…” Kaalu murmured morbidly, nearing the pit, “No worry, No hurry! I’ll put you in a deep sleep; don’t you mourn, I’d hack off your horny horn! Ha, ha, ha!”
As you would expect, Kaalu approached the trap, and aiming the rifle, looked down into the pit, ready to shoot, a greedy smile on his lips.
Well, the shoot never came even as his smile faded. No rhino. The pit was empty. Someone had removed the branches and the twigs covering it.
Kaalu looked sideways, perplexed. What the hell? I heard the thud, the grunt! He thought even as a suspicion crept in –It’s a trap. The police, the guards, the bas##rds! How? He couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was wrong tonight. He turned around, his rifle on the ready lest anyone attacked. Then, he saw a huge figure in the shadows.
One second, he imagined the shadowy figure as a burly looking guard, next second all his wits got scared out of him! He gasped. An unmistakably brawny, beefy, hefty being with a horn on its snout, its tail flicking, stood before him: A Rhino. The rhino grunted angrily as if it knew Kaalu. Kaalu didn’t understand why the Rhino’s eyes had a look of accusation –
“Trap me? Eh?”
Kaalu blinked as an electrifying shock numbed him. The Rhino spoke!? He had seen its ugly jaw move! Kaalu shook his head, he must be hallucinating. With trembling hands, he readied the trigger-
A blur of flash, a spasm of pain…someone had hit him hard on his chest and snatched the rife off his hand, and before Kaalu could absorb the shock, another surprise awaited him. Standing beside the rhino, holding the rifle in its clawed hand, was a grey, furry, grizzly wolf!
“AAAAaaaaa!” Kaalu shouted, staggering backwards, eyeing the wolf (which stood like a human on its hind legs!) with disbelief.
“Stop howling, you two-leg-crap!” the wolf howled, its elongated face and sharp yellow eyes bearing a smug expression. “You dare run, I’ll pounce you, Omen!”
“You should’ve acted more quick –grunt-grunt-” the Rhino grunted to the wolf.
“Whatever! The Omen is trapped! Ooooowwwww! You made a nice ‘thud’ and ‘grunt’,” the wolf howled wolfishly, punching its paw playfully on the rhino’s back. The Rhino grunted with satisfaction.
And as for Kaalu, he had kneeled down, half-fainted; clutching his spinning head with both hands, thinking he had gone nuts (you can’t blame him!), uttering and stuttering prayers – “God help me..It’s a dream, a dream, a foul, bad dream! No, No, I am drunk, oh yes! Yes! The drugs are screwing me…”
“You aren’t dreeeming, Omen” the Jackal scowled smugly, “Get up! Limbs up! And mooove! Our Raaja is waiting for the justice!”
“Wh-What! Raaja!” Kaalu stammered as he got up. Even in his madness, he could fairly figure out who the Raaja would be? The fate had indeed a cruel sense of humor. What the hell was happening? Ghosts would have been alright, but talking animals! Unthinkable!
“Moove!” the jackal threatened, its bushy tail wagging behind its hind legs.
And so, the Jackal holding the rifle, and the Rhino led Kaalu through the forest, deeper and deeper in to the treacherous woods. Kaalu had got dazed and disoriented, hoping for his minions to rescue him, wishing that all should turn out a dream. But it all felt so unearthly real. The forest appeared not only alive but talking, too! Even the whistling of the winds sounded like excited whispering as if rejoicing that Kaalu was caught!
And then suddenly, out of the blue, came into view, an open clearing. A large banyan tree stood in the center. And around the tree was a gathering, not of two-legs, but of four-ones – the crowd of creatures, and Kaalu couldn’t help seeing that they all had an air of intelligence about them, and were standing and acting, and, undeniably, chatting like humans. They had their eyes on him, some looked furious, some angry, some growled and barred their teeth, clicking their claws and beaks, some looked solemn and calm.
And then, his eyes came to halt on the One sitting on the on a stone slab under the Banyan Tree, and Kaalu wished nothing more than to let out a scream of terror, to run, to hide inside a rabbit hole but the horror of what he was seeing rooted him to the spot. Their Raaja– majestic, magnificent, royal and imposing – the Lion, the king of the Jungle was seated (like a human, of course!) carrying an aura of arrogance and dignity. He’s shiny, golden, flowing mane around his neck cascaded down impressively from the strong shoulders to the waist. Upon his head rested a crown carved from bones. His bulky paws and sharp claws promised to tear any one from limb to limb; his whiskers, sleek and straight, put Kaalu’s moustache to shame. The King rested his fearsome eyes on Kaalu for a while (Kaalu trembled), then looked around haughtily –
“Roaring deed, Mr. Rhino, and Mr. Wolf!” the Raaja Lion roared in praise. The Rhino and the wolf bowed. The other animals clapped their paws, clicked their beaks.
“Let the trrrriaaal BEGIN!” the king roared with authority, baring his sharp teeth.
A green parrot swooped down from a nearby tree and settled in front of the king. Its talons held a leaf and, cocking his head importantly, it began to read in shrill tone from the leaf:
“Name of the accused: Kaalu; occupation: professional poacher; specie: Tow-legged known as “Omen”; Experience: 5 years; no. of Rhinos to his credit: six; Ever caught? : never; License to poach: None; Extremely dangerous specie, holding a metal bar with a hole at end, metal stones come out of the hole at freaking speed faster than our Mr. Cheeetah!;
At this, all the animals, including the King Lion, gazed at the Gun now held by the Wolf. Kaalu noticed that all of them including the King Lion looked apprehensive and fearful as if the Gun was something nobody could hope to compete.
“Let my civilians speak,” The King growled.
“My King-Hiss-Hisssss,” a long, thick, slippery Cobra slithered from somewhere, its eyes red with anger, “Iffff you allowww, I can sssstrikee this Omen dead with my ssssalivaaaa, Hissss,”
Hoot-Hoot-Hoot; an owl, among the other animals, came forth, flapped its wings, looked owlishly around and said, “Forgive, my lord. First of all, this two-legged is called Human and not Omen! Let us conduct the trail with equality and logic, rather than by our anger; Hoot-Hoot-Hoot.”
The Cobra hissed at this but did not object. The owl resumed hooting:
“We all know-hoot, hoot, hoot– the humans top in our most wanted list; They hunt us for their joy, for their food, but above all they hunt our Rhino friends for their pointed bones or what they call- ummm Hoot- hoot- Oh yeah, Horns! Weirdo! Let us hear what the Rhino has to say!” The owl took off and perched itself on the back of the Rhino.
The burly Rhino, Kaalu had met, grunted, “My Sire, Mr. Owl speaks Truth. These Omens are Bad-
“Humans, not Omens-” The owl piped up.
“-they have killed my siblings. Grunt-Grunt– I am disgruntled, they dig large holes in earth, trap us, tear our horns, I know not why? I’ll crush this Two-Legged insect-” The Rhino suddenly turned its humongous head angrily towards Kaalu, who gave a squeak of horror, recoiling back.
“Silence!” The Raaja Lion roared, holding out a paw, “The Justice shall be done, Mr. Rhino. Let us hear all.”
“Forgive, my Lord,” The elephant trumpeted, flapping its ears, “But the Omens hunt us too for our teeth! I’ll trample this Omen underneath my feet!”
“The Omens should be kicked- bray-bray,” the donkey protested.
And, all of a sudden, the forest buzzed with brays, yelps, trumpets, howls, roars, grunts and all other kinds of cacophonies (Kaalu covered his ears with his hands).
“Holy Cow!” suddenly the Cow mooed over the din, “Moo-Moo– Omens aren’t as bad as you think, my dear friends! There are Good Omens, too; Moo-Moo!”
The animals stopped their protests and looked curiously at the Cow. Kaalu felt fleeting rush of unbidden gratitude towards the cow.
“Omens have always cared for us,” The Cow mooed, flicking its tail, “They rely on us for our milk. They give us hay to eat, water to drink; they love us-moo-moo– and even worship us – ”
“And that’s why you’re crowing about the Omen’s goodness-crow-crow!” a black crow crowed, swooping down from a nearby. With a supremely disdainful look at Kaalu (Kaalu was visited by a sudden desire to snap off that smugly crow’s neck!), the crow cocked its head smugly and addressed the King –
“My Lord, these Omens are the most unhygienic, stinking breeds I’ve ever seen my life! Oh yes- crow-crow– I live near them. If you happen to visit their place, my sire, you better watch out. No trees! No bushes! No Green all Grey! Yet these Omens only crow about their false victories! Crow- Crow! Their homes – if you could call their houses as homes – are hard as stones. They have piled up stones upon stones everywhere they call it as “Bill-Dings”! They’ve cut down all trees, dirtied the waters and what not? They bind us all, cage us in metal bars, and treat all the animals as puppets. They enjoy watching us in places called Zoos! And what is more – ”the crow crowed with a falsely terror-stricken voice, “Your own cousin, My King, your own cousin Tiger – Mr. Bagh-Nath – is held by these Omens in their awful cage –”
“Enough!” The Raaja Lion growled, and then looked murderously at Kaalu who flinched. “Do I look like a Puppet, you foul Omen?” The King roared ominously.
Kaalu, speechless, shook his head vigorously, thinking what bad omen had befallen him.
Bow-Wow! A dog suddenly barked. The crow crowed grudgingly, fluttered its wings and flew off angrily onto a tree’s branch.
“I would like to bark something, My Sire,” the dog said, wagging its tail to and fro, “Indeed there are both bad omens and good omens! Barking of the Good Omens, they consider us as faithful-Bow-Wow- My big brother, Labrador Dog, as you all know, is trained by Good Omens as a spy! The Good Omens call him as Johnny! My brother spies for them, helps them in catching the Bad Omens. In fact, because of the good ones, our place, our woods is famous in the animal kingdom around the world. We all know they have even named our place as –Cosy-Run-Ga–
“Kaziranga!” the owl corrected.
“Whatever,” the dog continued, “They care for our place, for our survival in the Eco system, my Sire. Of course, there are bad Omens like this two-legged, tail-less –”The Dog sniffed Kaalu, wrinkled its nose in disgust and snarled at him – “that disturb our peace for their ill motives; Bow-Wow!”
“Mr. Dog is right, my King.” The owl said, “Hoot-Hoot-Hoot – This omen is the root for all unrest. If we kill him, what difference will it make between them and us? His other cronies are in hiding. I propose him to hand over this Bad Omen to Good Omens for whom Mr. Dog’s brother – Johnny – is spying. The Good omens will catch not only this two-legged but his other cronies! The verdict – hoot-hoot-hoot-shall of course be yours, My King”
“Do you have anything to say, Omen?” asked the Raaja Lion with an air of finality.
Poor Kaalu, who was still clinging to the belief that this was all a nightmarish dream, knew not know what to say. What madness is this? Kaalu thought desperately. Why I ain’t waking from this filthy, damn dream?
“Answer me, Omen!” the Raaja Lion roared. Kaalu gasped timidly.
“Owwwww! He might not be able to, My Lord,” the wolf grinned slyly, “He’s in an utter shock that we can talk!”
The animals laughed and jeered.
“Hmmmm…” Raaja Lion pondered, stroking his mane with his claw “what Mr. Owl said seems a good and roaring decision. Tell our spies to inform this Johnny Dog. All the Bad Omens of “Cosy-run-ga” must be preyed upon and punished.”
The animals shouted their approvals. Only few of them looked unhappy with this judgement. The Cobra hissed resentfully as if a delicious dinner had been cancelled.
As the animals rejoiced, Kaalu looked surreptitiously at the wolf that was standing just few feet beside him, holding the gun. An idea seized him – If only he could snatch the Gun, he would shoot all of these talking bullshits and end this absurdly horrendous dream. C’mon, man! Let’s end this hell!
Driven by a sudden impulse, he knew not why, Kaalu launched himself sideways towards the wolf not caring what would happen….he managed to snatch the Gun even as a thunderous roar echoed through the forest. Next second, Kaalu found himself thrown, his face up, by the wolf. He looked up and saw the mighty Raaja Lion- feral and ferocious – leaping high into the air, seconds away to pounce upon him…
Kaalu woke up screaming and sweating.
“Dada! Dada!” the anxious voices of his cronies buzzed in his ears. Kaalu looked around, panting. He was lying on a make-shift tent dimly lit by some candles. His Rifle lay leaned against the tent’s wall near the entrance. Outside, it was dark and cold. His gang members were around him.
“Wh-…What- I…” Kaalu’s voice trailed away, the alcohol he had taken made him dizzy.
“You were shouting, wriggling in your sleep like anything, Dada!” they sounded anxious.
“I’m good, I’m good, no worry,” Kaalu said, waving his hands. It had indeed been a nightmare: Talking animals…the rhino…wolf…the Lion…leaping at him.
“We should move, Dada. We’ve stayed here for too long. No Rhino got trapped tonight.” One of the members said.
“Yeah…” Kaalu was on his feet, still pondering about what he had dreamed. It had felt so real. “Let’s move and – ”
Bang! A bullet exploded through the night.
“Hands up! Don’t Move! You are surrounded!” a commanding voice shouted, even as a dozen forest guards stormed inside the tent, holding guns pointed threateningly at the poachers.
“What the-” Kaalu gasped, even as something stirred in his memory like a distant voice: Bad omens caught by the good ones…
Within minutes, the forest guards had the poachers handcuffed and their weapons seized. As Kaalu, cursing his fate, was being taken through the forest, he saw a trained Labrador amongst the guards.
“Boy, good Boy, you did a great job, Johnny!” a forest guard cajoled jovially as the Labrador Dog stood on its hind legs and licked the guard’s hands playfully.
Johnny…Kaalu thought, not believing what he heard. His head spun painfully. How the helluva can this be? It was just a damn dream! No, it can’t be. Am I still dreaming? No, No! I am awake; but then…
Well, as Kaalu kept racking his brains for this inexplicable piece of puzzle, somewhere nearby, an owl’s call rang clearly through the forest: Hoot-Hoot- Hoot!