For the longest time, Jalal only had eyes for me even though there were 20 khasah cheetahs in his park. I was his chosen companion on deer hunts. I was the first to be paraded in court. I was shown off to important foreign dignitaries. And I ruled over my pack with an iron paw. My platoon knew what was expected of them. They focused on their training. They obeyed the rules. They hunted as if their lives depended on it. And they kept rank. Khasahs in front, the trainees in the middle, the novices at the rear.
No one messed up the discipline in the coalition. There was order and peace.
Until Madan Kali appeared. I will never forget that day – 16 April 1571. Jalal was hunting in Pakpattan (now in the modern-day Punjab province of Pakistan) when a local tribesman came and told him that several cheetahs had been trapped in one of the pits dug by them in the jungle. Jalal, in his excitement, rode off immediately to inspect the cheetahs. There were six of them in the pit that afternoon, but there was only one Madan Kali.
Ferocious and temperamental, Madan Kali caught Jalal’s eye immediately. She was the first from the six trapped that afternoon to start training. Jalal had never had much trouble “breaking” a cheetah before, but Madan Kali tested his patience like no other. For days she refused to obey simple commands, and had to be blindfolded at all times.
She tried again and again to breach the walls of the cheetah park, and scratched, growled and snapped at every other cheetah that tried to approach her. It took her keeper over 16 weeks to tame her enough to allow her to join us in the deer hunt. And even then, she was the first to break rank and shoot away before the drumroll announced the start of the hunt.
I was furious. Madan Kali was a disruptive part of my platoon and I had to discipline her – harshly if needs be. Except, at the end of the hunt, she returned triumphant not only with 15 deer but with an injured fawn trailing her as well. Jalal was stunned. No one could figure out why the prey would follow a predator that had just killed several members of its family. Madan Kali was garlanded and immediately promoted to trainee status.
Of course, I growled my disapproval, but Jalal completely misunderstood what I was trying to say. “My Samand Manik is feeling jealous – don’t worry, the new cheetah is not a patch on you,” he teased me. “At least not yet.”
Over the next six months, Madan Kali continued to break every rule in the pack, but strangely Jalal never lost patience with her. She was quickly promoted to khasah rank, then offered her own dooly and then her own horse litter. Jalal even had a jewelled collar made for her. In the pack, she would challenge my authority with sly abandon. She insisted on befriending the injured fawn that had followed her home, and Jalal was so intrigued by this strange friendship that he allowed the two to live together in their own enclosure!
I hated the idea of a deer living with us in what was our territory, but Jalal had made it very clear that the deer was to remain unhurt. So that was that. Madan Kali was turning the old jungle rules on their head – predator and prey were never meant to be friends, but what did she care for these norms? Worse still, her behaviour was encouraging insubordination and indiscipline among the other cheetahs. I was beginning to lose command over my own platoon.
I tolerated her insolence for a year before my patience finally wore out. I knew I had to teach her a lesson if I wanted to retain hold over my platoon. I waited for my chance for well over a week, marking her route in the park after sundown. Finally, one night, as she made her way back to her enclosure after her evening stroll, I ambushed her.
I could have killed her that evening, but I didn’t want to risk Jalal’s anger, which, I had seen, could be terrible. So I flung her about a bit and scratched her hind. It wasn’t fatal; it just sent out my message loud and clear.
The next day, Jalal was heading off on a hunt to Rajasthan. Madan Kali’s condition was serious enough for her to be grounded for the next couple of weeks. I had expected that, but what I didn’t expect was that Jalal would somehow suspect it was my handiwork. He was so furious with me that he left me behind as well and took another member of the cheetah-i-khasah, Chitranjan, instead. As it turned out, this made things even more difficult for me.
Chitranjan had never done anything remotely spectacular on a hunt before. But that day, he shone like pure gold. While chasing a deer, he came upon a deep ravine, about 25 yards wide. The fleet-footed deer leaped across and Chitranjan followed suit, clearing the ravine and outrunning the deer on the other side. He came back triumphant, clutching the deer in his jaw.
Jalal was so thrilled that Chitranjan was immediately declared chief cheetah, a rank that made him my equal. He was also awarded a drumroll, his own liveried servants and an elephant litter. Madan Kali made a great spectacle of showing him obeisance behind my back. Meanwhile, the rank and file began gossiping that I was losing my hold over the pack and that Jalal was no longer as fond of me as before.
Excerpted with permission from The Blue Horse and Other Amazing Animals from Indian History, Nandini Sengupta, Hachette India Children’s Books.