If the story had been related by someone else, we would have dismissed it right away. But Rom has known Santosh Mani, a tea estate manager in Munnar, since the latter's school days. When he said he saw the creature twice over a period of five years at the same spot, we paid attention. It was a cat almost as big as a leopard with a long tail but it had no spots. It wasn't in the thick jungle, but crossing the road from one tea field to another, and he had had a good look.
I suggested that, perhaps, Santosh saw a leopard after dark. Dull light creates an optical illusion: the leopard's spots disappear, making the animal look more like an American mountain lion. (Remember that the Vandalur leopard was initially claimed to be a lioness?) He said he had seen it in broad daylight in the early afternoon. He made enquiries with the local tribals, the Mudhuvans, and, of course, they knew about it. They called it the Pogeyan Puli, “the smokey cat”, and clearly distinguished it from the leopard, tiger and jungle cat.
A few weeks later we ran into another friend, James Zacharia, a Kerala Forest Department official who had also seen the Pogeyan. He had been climbing up a hill slope in Eravikulam and pausing in his exertions, he had looked up to stare straight into the eyes of Ole Smokey who had been lying on a rocky ledge looking down at him. Then quietly it vanished like only cats can do. James had seen it from even closer quarters than Santosh.
Rom wrote to various institutions and cat experts urging them to investigate the creature but there was no response, and we left it at that.
Then Sandesh Kadur, a wildlife filmmaker, said he had seen one at Eravikulam too. It was daylight, and he had watched the cat calmly walking across the grassland. “Why didn't you get a picture?” I demanded. “I was afraid that it might run away if I moved. So I just stood still, memorising every feature of the Pogeyan,” he replied.
A few years later, he was commissioned by BBC to make a film about the cat. He set up camera traps hoping to get the evidence that he had so narrowly missed the last time. Local elephants took umbrage and destroyed one camera trap, but of the cat, no hide nor hair.
Since we had let him down, Santosh sought out interested people in cryptozoology circles. One evening I got an excited call: “I found it! I found it! The Asiatic golden cat!” My jaw dropped.
The golden cat is found only in Southeast Asia and nowhere on peninsular India, but when I looked it up our mammal book I had to admit that it matched his description of the Pogeyan. I stuttered: “Bbbut, that's impossible!” He wasn't listening, after years of his story falling on deaf ears, he had finally found an explanation, a closure.
In the meantime, Sandesh thought it may have been just a large jungle cat. He said: “The illustrations don't do justice to the length of the jungle cat's tail. It is not as short as a bobcat's, but quite a bit longer. What else could it be?” Perhaps, like some other animals, jungle cats grow larger in cool higher elevations. Santosh however, wasn't buying it.
Sandesh may have seen a jungle cat, but the animal he saw, he claimed, was much larger than any jungle cat, but smaller than a leopard. Besides, the Mudhuvans also know the difference between the jungle cat and Pogeyan Puli. So, even in this time of environmental doom and gloom, I celebrate this mysterious large cat that appears and disappears like the mist hanging over the grasslands of Eravikulam and the tea bushes of Munnar.
(A fortnightly column about life on the edge of the jungle with Rom Whitaker. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)