ON A FRIDAY in November last year, Sita Pagay excused herself from her sister’s home after dinner. She strolled out under the amla trees at the outskirts of Maroshi Pada inside Aarey Milk Colony in Mumbai’s north-western suburbs. The pada, which consists of several drab-looking huts and a dirt path, is where 55-year-old Pagay had lived her entire life, sweeping and mopping the luxury homes surrounding her hamlet in one of Mumbai’s fast-growing suburbs, Goregaon East. It was edging close to 8.30 now, and night had erased the last dashes of red from the sky, blanketing the small, forested community in darkness. Around Pagay, the November air was warm and dry as she squatted to susu behind her sister’s house. She felt secure squatting under the cover of the rustling sheets and hanging clothes, long accustomed to relieving herself in that spot. She never saw the cold, yellow eyes of the leopard peering at her from just beyond the trees.
It is difficult to say how long the eyes of the female cat had been studying Pagay from behind those amla trees. It is conceivable that she had been stalking the area since dusk, hoping to find some canine or a wild pig to kill and eat. More likely, the leopard was simply passing through the outskirts of Maroshi Pada as Pagay strolled into view. It would have been difficult for her to know that the creature she was seeing was even human. Crouched in that squatting position, Pagay could have been any other animal of a similar height—a monkey, dog, possibly even a fawn. But the cat could discern vulnerability, which was all that she needed to know.