Sultana was standing in the open Mahovann forest. There were dead, wounded bodies all around her. She could see her beloved mate Ustaad’s bloodied corpse on one side. Rani and Bahadur’s carcasses were rotting under the sun. The old tiger, Veera, too hadn’t been spared in this ghastly massacre. She was horrified, but what broke her heart were Bijli’s cries.

“Mama, mama,” the youngest tigress called out in agony. “Save me, mama.” There was a big gash on the small tigress’s belly. Sultana cried out for help, but nobody came. She burst into tears. Her entire family was being taken away from her.

As she looked further, Sultana found more battered and deceased animals. Towards her right, just beyond Rani and Bahadur, lay Devi, the brave wolf whom Bahadur had introduced her to. To her left, lay the enormous frame of Sonakali, the elephant who had been so good and kind to her first two cubs.

The elephant was groaning in pain. Jishu sir’s disfigured carcass lay behind her. Sultana spotted Chaandni’s almost-lifeless form at some distance from Bijli. “I’m sorry, I tried my best to win this war for you,” the leopard cried out in pain to Sultana. Just beyond Chaandni lay a motionless Mahadeb, the rhino king of Maneri, whom she had befriended only recently. Her dear foster parent, Bitumba, lay flat on the ground, his wounds still raw and fresh.

The pile of dead animals was endless. There were birds too. Aarabhi and Gati had been dispatched to the heavens. Vultures encircled the decaying flesh of rhinos, gaurs, leopards, wild buffaloes, jackals and hyenas. Sultana recognised Bhoora’s huge, inactive form.

Nobody had been spared. There was death everywhere. Those who still had their last breaths left, were moaning, howling and wailing in pain. Heads had been disfigured, ears had been bitten off and limbs were cut off entirely. Mahovann’s once-fragrant soil had been soaked in warm, red animal blood.

Illustration: Devashree Damodare.

Sultana suddenly heard laughter from among the injury-ridden and immobile bodies. She recognised the sound. It was Taranath laughing at the top of his voice. She moved towards him. He was badly scarred, but alive. There were tiger claw marks all over his body. His hide had been torn open in several places, but death had not reached him yet.

“Ha ha ha. Hoo hoo ha ha ha...” the bear laughed.

“What did you achieve Sultana? What did you get? You wanted to get back at me. You wanted to punish me for my misdeeds. You wanted to win back Mahovann. You won, but at what cost? Who will you celebrate your victory with? All your cubs have been killed. Ustaad too is dead. All your friends and well-wishers are no longer alive. You will live out your victory alone. Ha ha ha…”

As the bear’s laughter tapered off, Sultana found herself standing under the Darakht-e-Insaaf, the very tree under which Veera had passed several memorable judgments. But now, Sultana found herself to be the accused. The animals of Mahovann were throwing all kinds of allegations at her.



“Power hungry.”

“You wanted to rule Mahovann, but sacrificed all our offspring in the process.”

“You should suffer.”

The animals were ready to stone her. There wasn’t going to be a trial. Just instant punishment. The creatures were baying for her blood. Their cries grew louder and louder. Sultana thought her ears would burst. Just when the noise became unbearable, the tigress woke up from her sleep. She was gasping for breath and drenched in cold sweat.

Sultana had dozed off, exhausted as she was by the events of the last few days. She had reached Mahovann in the early hours of the morning. She had walked nonstop from Vallachi over the last few days. She had hardly rested since then. The extended discussion and debate over the right way to rescue Ustaad had tired her out even further.

Then, she was anxious about whether the mongoose pair of Chakeya-Pakeya would be successful in their task. There had been no word from them. As she restlessly waited to hear about Chakeya-Pakeya’s mission, Sultana dozed off and fell into that horrible, horrible dream.

Now that she was awake, Sultana looked around her. Aarabhi, who had been keeping a lookout for Chakeya-Pakeya while the other animals slept, could sense that the tigress was troubled.

“What is the matter, Sultana?”

The tigress didn’t think it necessary to share details about her nightmare with the hornbill. She turned the topic to Ustaad. “Is there any sign of him? Where is the mongoose pair?”

“Nothing yet,” Aarabhi replied, sounding glum. “But we must remain optimistic.”

“Yes, yes. Of course. Let me know the moment you hear anything.”

The hornbill agreed to do so and flew up to the tree from where she had been keeping a lookout.

Sultana stared at the darkness of the night around her. She wondered what her ominous dream meant. Why were there so many dead and wounded animals? What evil had she exposed Rani, Bahadur and Bijli to?

Even Taranath and his forces hadn’t been spared. Ustaad too was dead in her dream, as were Veera, Bitumba and several others whom she knew very well. Surely, she could not be punished any more than she had already suffered?

“War brings with it catastrophic results, even if it ultimately results in some kind of narrow definition of victory,” a voice spoke from close to Sultana. It shook the tigress out of her thoughts.

Sultana turned around to discover Obiki’s saintly presence. The owl, as always, looked calm and serene. “Greetings, oh holy one.”

But Obiki was least concerned about customary greetings at this grave point in time.

“It is for you to decide, Sultana. How do you wish to overcome Taranath – by unleashing all your allies against him?”

“But if I do, would I lose my cubs and loved ones in the fight?”

“There is no one who can guarantee anything. You must choose what is it that you really want – do you want to overcome Taranath or do you want to save Mahovann?”

Sultana was genuinely puzzled now. “But aren’t the two related? Wouldn’t defeating Taranath mean saving Mahovann?”

Obiki smiled at the tigress. “That is precisely the question to which you must find an answer. That alone will determine your next course of action.”

With those profound words, the owl left, leaving Sultana even more confused than before. The tigress continued to stare into the dark night, which still had a few hours to go before sunrise. She waited not only for Ustaad, but also for her mind to show her the right path.

The Tiger, the Bear and the Battle for Mahovann

Excerpted with permission from The Tiger, the Bear and the Battle for Mahovann, Akshay Manwani, Red Panda.