“Guess what, Tilak!” his mother said, a week after they had moved into their new house. “I’ve discovered that one of my old friends lives nearby and her son is your classmate at school. Isn’t that nice?”
“What’s his name?” Tilak asked.
“I think he is Sudhir,” said his mother. “Isn’t he your friend?”
Tilak shook his head. “Oh! Sudhir? That chap isn’t good at games or anything. He keeps reading some old books all the time.”
Tilak was the skipper of the school cricket team and was also good at football, hockey, and gymnastics as well.
“Well! Perhaps he is more interested in other things than games,” said his mother. “You might also pick up a new interest from him. We’ve invited his parents to tea this evening. Of course, he too will come.”
When they came, Tilak took Sudhir to this room while their parents remained talking in the drawing room. The two boys did not have much to say to each other. Tilak knew Sudhir was not good at games, and he did not bother to find out Sudhir’s interests. So, both felt quite relieved when Sudhir got up to go home.
Though their mothers visited each other often, Tilak and Sudhir never did. They just did not have anything in common.
One day, while playing football, Tilak fell down and fractured his leg. This meant that he had to miss school for about six weeks.
Lying immobile in bed, Tilak felt very lonely and sorry for himself. ‘What a rotten time to break a leg,’ he thought, ‘just when the inter-school cricket match is round the corner.’
During the first week, his friends came over every evening to cheer him up. But as the date of the match approached, they had less and less time to spare from cricket practice.
One evening, Tilak was feeling unusually depressed. His friends had visited him, full of excitement about the impending match. One of them had been selected skipper in Tilak’s place.
“What a shame you can’t play!” they said. “We’re really going to miss you.”
Tilak smiled bravely. “Never mind,” he said, “but we must give those Modern School boys a real fight.
When his friends had gone, Tilak tried hard to fight his tears. He had never felt more disappointed and lonely.
Suddenly his mother came into the room. A visitor for you, Tilak,” she said. It was Sudhir. He came forward shyly and sat down on a chair near Tilak’s bed.
“I’ve brought you a book to read,” he said, “you must be getting bored lying in bed.”
Tilak picked up the book without much interest. He didn’t feel like reading. But the cover caught his eye. It was the picture of beautiful, snow-white cheetah, called Pippa. He opened the book. It was full of glossy photographs of Pippa and her cubs. The little ones were seen climbing trees, playing, even enjoying a cold drink out of a bottle, with a straw!
“It’s a good book”, Sudhir said, “I think you’ll like it”. He then got up to go.
“Don’t go so soon,” said Tilak.
“Tell me about the book.”
Sudhir sat down again. He told Tilak the story of Pippa from the time she was a cub till she had little cubs of her own. “When Pippa was only a few weeks old, she was presented to a couple called George and Joy Adamson.”
“Who were they?” Tilak asked.
“George Adamson was the warden of a game sanctuary in Africa,” Sudhir told him. “The Adamsons brought up Pippa. And it is Mrs. Adamson who has written the book about her.”
“It must be fantastic to have a cheetah for a pet!” exclaimed Tilak.
“They had a lioness, too, as a pet,” said Sudhir.
“Really?” said Tilak.
Sudhir nodded. “Her name was Elsa. Mrs. Adamson wrote a book about her too. It’s called Born Free. It became a best-seller, you know, and it was even made into a film.”
Tilak was fascinated. “I wish I had seen the film,” he said. “Do you have that book too, by any chance?”
“Yes”, said Sudhir, “I’ll give it to you, and two others as well that Mrs. Adamson wrote later. These are Living Free and Forever Free, and in them she tells you how Elsa went back to the jungle but brought her cubs to the Adamsons to be looked after.”
When Tilak’s mother peeped into the room an hour later, she found the two boys engrossed in conversation. She was very happy. “You must come more often, Sudhir,” she said, “Tilak gets very lonely by himself.”
Sudhir came the next evening and the next. Gradually he began to drop in every evening and Tilak started looking forward to his visits.
Sudhir was deeply interested in Zoology and in wild life. He used to visit the zoo every weekend to watch the animals. The keeper of the lions’ cage had become friendly and occasionally allowed him to fondle the lion cubs. Tilak was really stunned to hear this. He was also amazed to discover that Sudhir had quite a collection of pets at home — two cats, two dogs, a baby owl, and a baby monkey.
Sudhir brought the monkey with him one evening to Tilak’s house. His mother got the shock of her life when the monkey suddenly poked its head out at her from behind a curtain. The boys had a good laugh.
Six weeks passed quickly and almost before he knew it, Tilak was out of bed and on his feet again.
In the evening, after his first day at school, Tilak went over to Sudhir’s house. Sudhir was feeding his pets. The baby owl was perched on his shoulder. Tilak helped him.
“I’ll be going to the zoo on Sunday, Tilak”, he said, “would you like to come along? Perhaps my friends there might let us play with the lion cubs for a while.”
“That would be great”, said Tilak, his eyes sparkling at the thought.
“How strange that Sudhir’s mother and you should have been friends, and now Sudhir and I are pals!” Tilak said to his mother when she came to his room to say ‘good-night’.
His mother smiled. “You must thank your poor, broken leg for this friendship,” said she.
“I know,” grinned Tilak, “but I hope I don’t have to break a leg each time I make a good friend!”
First published in the National Book Trust’s Bulletin, May-98