Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Aru cleared the undergrowth with his trusty staff while Shilpa trudged along behind him, her threadbare slippers sinking in the slush with every step. “Come on,” Aru had told her, “interesting things always turn up in the jungle after a storm.” So she followed him (like she always did) on this treasure-gathering trek through the jungle surrounding their village. It had been a furious storm, lasting days. Shibu Uncle had lost his roof; all the men of the village (except old, grumpy Kranthi of course) were currently rebuilding it.

So far, Aru had found a dead snail, a stick of coral, a slab of prettystone that had flecks of gold on its shiny green interior and a rusty key. He was exultant. He promised Shilpa he’d give her half the prettystone. Still they trekked on; Shilpa’s ankles were beginning to ache but she didn’t want to complain. They were just beginning to have an argument about who could get to keep the key (Shilpa didn’t want the snail anyway, and corals were prickly) when they heard the first rumbleroar. They quietened instantly and flattened themselves against the nearest tree. The wet bark rubbed uncomfortably through their thin shirts.

When the roar had subsided, Aru turned to Shilpa with the most unfathomable look of excitement. Shilpa wanted to run in the opposite direction, but of course she followed Aru towards the roar. He held her hand tightly. They cleared the brush cautiously, and walked in the direction the sound had come from. They were a bit lost when the creature emitting the sound helped them out with another one. Shilpa couldn’t decide whether it sounded anguished or angry.

They soon rounded the bend that had shielded the creature from their view and Shilpa had to shove her fist in her mouth to keep from screaming. A massive, shaggy, black bear lay splayed out in front of them, trapped by a tree trunk that had fallen upon it. It trained its eyes on them as soon as they came into its field of vision and let out another roar that thundered through their ears. Anguish, definitely anguish. It was absolutely pinned; it couldn’t move anything about.

Aru turned to Shilpa. “We have to help it, Shil!” This time, Shilpa protested. “Are you mental, Ru? This thing will eat us up! Let’s GO!” She tugged at his arm and began pulling him away.

Aru dug his heels in the slush and stopped Shilpa in her tracks. “If we rescue her, she isn’t going to eat us, Shilpa.  Come on! She’ll die out here.” So now it was a she. Shilpa wanted to leave Aru and run back to the village, but she knew he would get eaten up if she left him. She didn’t want him to get eaten up without her. For the millionth time, Shilpa rued the day she’d allowed herself to befriend this crazy fool.

Together, they warily stepped closer to the bear. She seemed to understand that they were trying to help her, and didn’t roar. She let out a peculiarly pathetic mewl instead. Aru and Shilpa positioned themselves on one side of the tree trunk and pushed with all their might. It didn’t budge. They tried again, and slid further into the sludge, the trunk making no headway.

Then Aru had the bright idea of coating the bear’s fur with the slimy mud so the trunk would get lubricated enough to move when they pushed it. Shilpa wasn’t very approving of this idea because it’d mean actually touching the beast, but she nodded reluctantly. They spent the next hour scooping up the mire and dumping it on the bear, allowing it to slide under the tree trunk. The bear sat through this without complaint, snorting gently when the mud dripped down to her nose. They tried pushing again, and this time the tree trunk moved ever so slightly. The bear whimpered in excitement and tried to wriggle free. Her movement combined with the efforts of the duo resulted in the bole sliding slowly down the bear’s body and landing with a squelchy thud on the ground.

Aru cheered, and Shilpa gripped Aru’s hand, ready to flee. The bear stood up clumsily, towering over the children’s heads by about two feet. She let out a low rumble of thanks and then shook herself heavily, spraying the already grimy pair with more mud. She padded off slowly into the wilderness and Shilpa sank back on the ground, her thudding heart letting out a whoosh of relief. Aru looked at her, his ivory teeth (the only clean part of his mud-encrusted face) gleaming in the biggest smile she had seen him sport. “That was awesome!” Shilpa couldn’t help but return the grin. That had been pretty awesome. She couldn’t believe they wasn’t in the belly of that giant bear yet.

They began scraping the dirt off themselves in an attempt to avoid the slew of questions their Ammus would ask them when they returned. Suddenly, they were startled by the entrance of the bear. It returned slowly, carrying something in its mouth, which it deposited at their feet. It was a dead fish, its entrails oozing out of its rent stomach. Aru laughed. “Thanks, bear, but you eat it.” He put out a foot and gently pushed the fish back towards the bear. The bear let out a mew of puzzlement and then wolfed the fish down its throat.

Aru gave the bear one last look before they turned to leave. They began walking back to the direction of the village when they heard the crush of underbrush behind them. The bear was following them. Shilpa began panicking. “Oh my god, it does want to eat us.”

“Don’t be silly, Shil. It had plenty of opportunity to eat us back in the clearing. Maybe she wants to come home with us.”

Shilpa looked at him like he was mad. Which he was. “Come home with us?”

Aru grinned. “Come on, let’s just keep going. We’ll see what she wants to do.”

They reached the outskirts of the village and the bear (Aru had taken to calling her Bonnie) still hadn’t left. Now Shilpa was panicking for a different reason. “What do we do? Ammu will kill us…”

“Maybe Bonnie doesn’t have a family, Shil. Maybe she can stay with us!”

Shilpa rolled her eyes. She bent down and picked up a stone and snarled at the bear. “Get out of here!” She mimed throwing the stone at the bear, but it didn’t flinch. She threw the stone inches away from the bear’s foreleg, but it still didn’t move. Aru meanwhile, was scouting around for some string, which he presently found among the wreckage from the storm, and looped it around the bear’s great neck. “Now it will look like I am leading her, and people won’t get as scared.”

Now Shilpa was really out of patience with Aru’s stupid ideas. She gave him one last withering look and stormed off. He could do what he wanted with Bonnie. She had just reached home, and was in the process of trying to explain her filthy clothes to her mother when a huge uproar went up in the village. Shilpa hurried with her mother to the scene of the commotion and found Aru holding on to the bear and protecting it from brandished knives. “No, no. I can explain! The bear isn’t going to hurt us!”

Shilpa couldn’t believe Aru had actually brought the bear back to the village. Bonnie looked scared, but trusting of the tiny boy’s hand on her mane, she didn’t make a sound. Aru was dangerously close to getting stabbed. Sheila had to help him. She slipped free of her mother’s grasp and subsequent squeal, and wriggled to the front of the crowd. “Wait, WAIT!”

Sheila’s yell attracted a little more attention than Aru’s futile attempts, and she calmly explained the events of the morning, ignoring her mother’s shocked cries. “Aru believes that the bear isn’t going to hurt us because we helped it.”

“I’m going to keep him!” Aru cried joyously, undoing all the calm that Sheila had managed to bestow on the crowd. “You are absolutely NOT!” Aru’s mother made her way angrily to the front of the crowd and twisted his ear painfully. “Let go of the bear at once.”

“Fine. She won’t leave my side anyway.” Aru defiantly took his hands off the bear and the makeshift leash fell uselessly to the ground. The crowd squealed in terror and clambered several steps back. The bear, however, stood its ground.

For an hour more, the village debated what was to be done with Aru and the bear. Kranthi Uncle demanded they banish both the boy and the bear to the jungle and forbid him from coming back to Tonupur. Keshab Uncle volunteered to build a cage to capture the bear and then sell it to the government (you could sell anything to the government). At this, Aru protested so passionately that the motion was laid to rest. Aru begged the village to let him handle Bonnie. She wouldn’t misbehave. If she did, they could go ahead with Keshab Uncle’s plan. Finally, the village agreed to the 13-year old boy’s ridiculous demands, and Aru received several sharp slaps from his mother for his capers.


It had been five years since that monsoon. Bonnie had settled into Tonupur’s daily life quite comfortably. She had begun walking on two legs, and had even begun speaking the human tongue in her strange, bear-accented growl. Even Kranthi had stopped brandishing his knife at her. She would help the masons with their building, often propping up a roof for hours together, while they built the wall before her. They’d begun paying her a minimum wage, which she’d sometimes trade in for a fish at the market instead of going to the river to catch some for herself. When Aru accused her of getting lazy, she would merely produce her low-throated chuckle. Aru’s Ammu entrusted her to take care of Aru’s baby sister Tia. Bonnie would curl herself around Tia and submit herself to Tia’s endless fascination with her tough black fur.  

Once Bonnie had learned to speak, she’d told them about the time leading up to her discovery by Aru. She had been on her way to a hunt when she’d gotten trapped under the freak tree trunk. None of her family had come to look for her; they’d left her for dead and moved on. She’d gone back to that clearing many times since, but had never encountered her family. She assumed they had moved to a different home.

She was quite happy in this new life though. Her loyalty to Aru and Shilpa was ferocious, and the three of them would spend hours together every day, ambling along the village. Shilpa had confided in Bonnie about how deeply in love with Aru she had fallen, and Bonnie would whisper counsel while Aru pranced about ahead of them, oblivious to the clandestine conversations his two best friends were engaging in that centred purely around him. Bonnie would wrestle with them occasionally, the lanky couple pitting their combined strength against the hulking bear in an attempt to pin her to the ground. She would indulge them for half a minute or so before gently tossing them to the ground with a shrug, their faces streaked with dust and consternation.

Bonnie was a happy bear. She did choose, however, to keep her chance meeting with her brother in the forest a secret from her two best friends.

Bonnie had been on a hunt in the jungle about a week ago. She was ambling through the wilderness, looking for an unsuspecting rabbit or raccoon, when an all-too-familiar rumble was heard. Bonnie stopped short, before bounding full-speed towards the direction of the growl. She came across her brother gnawing on a leg in a sunshine-spotted dell. “Brother!” Her brother turned to look at her and let out a surprised bark. Too late, Bonnie realised she had cried out in the human tongue. She quickly switched to bear.

“Brother! I can’t believe I found you!”

“Sister, you’re alive? We thought you were dead!” He bounded over her to embrace her before halting abruptly. “What’s happened to you? Are you hurt? Why are you on two legs?”
Bonnie dropped heavily on all fours, and murmured something unintelligible guiltily that sounded suspiciously to her brother like ‘humans’.

“Humans? You live with humans? Is that why you walk like them?” He let out a snort of laughter. “And what’s that in your hair? It’s called what? A bow?”

Pretty soon her brother was rolling on the jungle floor in laughter. Bonnie flushed deep red behind her tough black hide. She attempted to accuse him of leaving her behind for dead and never bothering to look, but he was too mired in his mirth to feel any guilt whatsoever. “Do you drink tea from those ridiculous little cups too? Do you have a name? You do! Oh dear!

He started prancing about absurdly in the glade, yelling “Bonnie! Bonnie!” Bonnie tried to explain how she had been rescued by these humans but to no avail. She’d eventually stalked off in despair. Right before she’d disappeared, he’d yelled to her that he would bring their parents here tomorrow to meet her.

She’d been meeting her old family and friends for the last seven days. She didn’t want to cause the panic that had occurred upon her arrival to the village five years ago, so she didn’t tell any of the humans how close her kind was. They’d certainly been asking some panic-inducing questions, like how tasty human flesh was, and whether she’d tried any of it. She’d tried to deflect these questions politely, saying animal meat was quite enough to satiate her appetite, and she’d never needed to taste the humans, but she’d shortly be drowned out by calls of “Bonnie, the human bear!” mocking her.

Oh, she’d been smart enough to leave behind her human persona when she came to meet her family the second day. She’d roughed around in the mud a little so her fur wouldn’t be shiny from the bath Ammu had given her the day before. She’d discarded all her little trinkets in Shilpa’s jewellery box – the bow, the bracelet and the string around her neck with a key on it (Aru had given it to her as a present. He said that it had led him and Shilpa to finding her). She’d practiced her bear so there was no human inflection in her accent. But none of it was any use; her brother had spread tales of her humanoid gait and speech to the entire bear community.

It was great meeting them, but by the third day Bonnie was a little tired of the constant ridicule. None of them seemed at all guilty about the fact that they’d left her to die without a second glance, preferring to hear tales of her life amongst the humans. When she was going to leave on the third day, she heard one of her cousins whisper rather loudly—“Is she going to keep going back to them?”

It had never occurred to Bonnie that they might expect her to leave the humans behind and come with them. She had become so comfortable in the human life that she barely ever remembered she wasn’t one of them. But now she’d found her old family, and she wasn’t sure what to do.

On the sixth day, Bonnie had lost her temper at the continual gags at her expense. She felt her bear coming out as she lunged at her brother, swiping his cheek with her claws. She heard encouraging growls all around her as her friends saw her finally lose her human-like inhibition. Her brother tussled back, wrestling to get on top of her. Bonnie’s blood felt afire, and she snarled at him and snapped her slavering jaws dangerously close to his muzzle. The cheers of the audience thundered in her head as she wrested control back from him and punched his stomach so hard that he doubled over. Her brother sprung towards her, roaring angrily, and Bonnie met him blow for blow, until she finally sent him reeling on ground. She placed her paws on his chest until he conceded defeat. The victory felt powerful. She let out a massive roar, asserting her dominance over her brother and the echo rang for several moments.

That night she stayed out late with her family. She had forgotten what being a bear was about. She joked and laughed with them, sharing fish that they had got her from their new pond. The old one was overrun with humans so they’d had to shift base. They made contemptuous remarks about the arrogance of humans and Bonnie heard herself joining in, telling them stories from her experience with them. She laughed as she mocked the people she’d deludedly called her family, her guilt stored too deep within her for her to notice. She hadn’t been a bear in five years.

But old habits died hard; and when her family started to leave, Bonnie started moving in the opposite direction; going back to the very people she had jeered for the past couple of hours. Her brother looked at her with confusion, he’d expected today to be the day that she would cast aside her human life. His look soon turned to contempt. “She is one of them now. She will never be bear again.”

Bonnie heard him as she walked away, her hackles raised. She went back to her human house, ignoring the curious questions Aru asked her about where she had been all day, and falling asleep almost immediately.


Shilpa awoke to Ammu tickling her feet. This had been an old trick of hers to wake her children up, and it annoyed Shilpa every time. She snapped awake. “Aru is asking for you. Go get dressed.”

Shilpa’s heart quickened as she quickly dressed and combed her hair before stepping outside the hut. When they were younger Aru would sneak in, much to her Ammu’s consternation, and wake her up himself. Now of course, they were much older, and had to follow the niceties of custom. Besides, Shilpa would die of embarrassment if Aru managed to see her crusty-eyed and crazy-haired in the mornings. She greeted him as he paced impatiently in her courtyard, waiting for her to emerge. He was one of the best-looking boys in the village, and Shilpa knew her Ammu wanted her to get married to him, despite her being a year older. All the other girls were jealous of their close friendship, and Shilpa would smile with glee. However, she wasn’t sure if Aru even realised she was a girl sometimes; one that was in love with him at that.

“Finally! There you are. Something is weird with Bonnie. She was out all day yesterday, and is still sleeping. She never sleeps in late. And she’s got cuts all over her body. She refused to answer my questions last night.”

They made their way to Aru’s house, to Bonnie’s tent in his courtyard. Shilpa heard her magnificent snores and giggled. They entered the tent and Aru prodded Bonnie with a stick. “Wake up, fatty!”

Bonnie awoke to Aru’s face peering down at her, and jumped up in surprise. Her eyes had a slightly crazed look about them. “What’s going on with you, Bonnie?” Aru laughed as they exited the tent. It was too small for the three of them to stand comfortably.

Bonnie let out an uncharacteristic growl. “Leave me alone,” she said. Shilpa felt a little uncomfortable. “Leave her alone, Ru. She’s clearly not in the mood for your games right now.” But Aru, as always, had other plans.

“Let’s go to the jungle Bonnie. I feel like an adventure! Come on Shil.” Bonnie stalked off into the jungle by her own accord, not waiting for them to catch up. Aru ran behind her. Shilpa wanted to stop him, but of course, she didn’t. She followed him, feeling an eerie sense of déjà vu as her slippers sank into the monsoon silt.

Aru was clearly in one of his irritating moods today; he just wouldn’t leave Bonnie alone. “Come on, Bonnie. Tell me where you were yesterday! Ooh, are you showing us?” He kept up a constant stream of chatter that Shilpa and Bonnie both ignored, focusing on not sinking into the sludge.

Suddenly Bonnie stopped, and let out a little growl, before sliding to all fours. Shilpa felt her fear of five years ago return when she spotted another bear, a little bigger than Bonnie, sitting under a tree a few yards ahead. Bonnie and the bear exchanged a few rumbles, before Bonnie let out a terrific roar.

“Wow, Bonnie’s getting her bear on,” yelled Aru enthusiastically, shouting to be heard above the sound of the roars. “Sometimes even I forget she’s a bear,” he confided to Shilpa, “isn’t she just so human these days?”

Shilpa’s fear reached a paralysing crescendo when she saw Bonnie turn around, on all fours, to face Aru and her. “I am a bear.” Her face was unrecognizable in the fury it displayed. She let out a snarl and lunged at them, the other bear getting up to join Bonnie. Shilpa managed to let out a squeak. “Run!” Aru’s face had a heartbreaking confusion on it. Shilpa grabbed his hand and ran in a blind panic.

Shilpa crashed through the undergrowth in hysteria, the ferns slapping her face as she battled the swampy mud for what she feared was her life. One of her slippers had fallen off and Shilpa felt the mud squelch between the toes on her left foot with every heavy tread. It was only about 500 metres later when she paused, doubled over to take a breath, that she realized her hand didn’t have Aru’s skinny brown paw clasped in it. The tears came unbidden as she realized he had done what she had fearfully prayed against that fateful day five years ago. The fool had gotten himself eaten up without her.

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