‘A streak of wild imagination runs through my family and I have always chosen to ignore it,’ Mr. Rakshit said. ‘But – this last time – when Bongo went missing,’ he swallowed the words.
‘It had just gone dark. And on the other side of the Khoai in that grey light, I swear I saw a – a lion – silhouetted against the dusk.’
‘A lion? Here, in Santiniketan?’ asked Samaresh in frank disbelief. ‘Impossible. Foxes, now – that’s believable. Besides, it would be seen.’
‘I know you doubt me, Mr. Chatterjee. And yet, I have heard it roar at night.’
‘What – here? Oh come now, that is surely your imagination speaking. You’ve been traumatised by the loss of your dogs, you see. Tell you what, come over for the picnic tonight. Face the Khoai again, so you know it’s an illusion.’
Mr. Rakshit demurred, then agreed.
Samaresh’s mood did not improve on returning to the bungalow. The artistic young man was leaning across the gate, speaking to Somlata with half closed eyes. His wavy hair shone golden in the sunlight. Somlata’s face was flushed. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he was Subra’s friend and gay, I would have thrown the fellow out forthwith, he bristled inwardly.
‘Oh there you are!’ beamed his wife, a trifle breathlessly. ‘Narasimha was just asking me to sit for a few portrait photos near the Khoai tonight. The moon will be simply magnificent, my dear,’ her bosom heaved as she said the word ‘magnificent’. Goddamned gigolo, preying on older women, thought Samaresh. He was as fond of his wife as a man could be after twenty years, but even he noticed that Somlata needed to lose a good twenty kilos.
When Subra drove up in his jeep that afternoon, Mr. Rakshit was already in the car. Samaresh and Somlata squeezed in with their picnic baskets, both puffing with the slight exertion. Rather pointedly, Samaresh sat next to Narasimha. Somlata was wearing her most diaphanous chiffon and he didn’t want that blighter, gay or not, too get too close.
‘Ah, I’m glad you got the food sorted, Somlata,’ said Subra. ‘My strict vegetarian fare would not have appealed to any of you, I fear. Narasimha here has to step out most evenings for his food.’ Narasimha sat with his camera slung around his neck and said nothing. He was looking intently at Somlata, not taking his eyes off her. Samaresh noticed that Mr. Rakshit was staring almost as intently at Narasimha.
It was a short drive to the Khoai and there was still some light as they set up the picnic, although the orange had almost gone out of it, leaving mostly grey. Samaresh lit a cigarette as it got darker; Mr. Rakshit was bending over, looking for something. Pug marks?
Dusk. Narasimha looked at Somlata with his unblinking gaze. She turned to look at him as if mesmerised. Samaresh pulled harder at his cigarette and looked the other way. If she wanted to make a fool of herself …
‘Mr. Chatterjee!’ shouted Mr. Rakshit as he ran towards Samaresh. ‘Quick, man, where is your wife?’ It was dark now.
‘She’s gone for that – that damned photo shoot,’ he said between gritted teeth.
‘What?’ He clutched at Samaresh’s collar. ‘But you don’t understand, he – he is the lion – he alternates – he is Narasimha – look!’
A woman’s scream rent the silence.
As the silver moon rose above the horizon, they saw a lion silhouetted against it. In the lion’s maw was a woman’s entire arm. The lion turned to look at them once, then turned and disappeared in the darkness of the jungle.
Nothing was seen or heard of Narasimha or Somlata again. All that Samaresh found was a tattered chiffon sari, the camera and Subra’s pendant in a nearby bush. Mr. Rakshit has kept a fresh litter of boxer pups. Subra no longer brings models home.