Once upon a time in India, before natural habitats had been invaded by man for his own selfish needs, there were dense forests with lush green foliage stretching into endless carpets and canopies aplenty. These studded forests were shelter to diverse flora and fauna, many of which are unheard of in the present day. It was the time when man and animals, they each had their marked territory and neither stepped into the territory of the other. The jungle had rarely been intruded by human presence. To the men who were tenacious and had plucked courage enough to tread into the forbidden jungle, the shades of green interspersed with blotches of color had been a sight more beautiful than anything they had laid their eyes upon. It had been a feast to their eyes. Sadly, they could not relish it for long as they soon became feast to the wild beasts of the jungle. In their final moments however, they had witnessed heaven on earth before proceeding to the literal heaven.
Our story unfolds in one such forest in India. Like in any other forest, there was an alpha lion called Alparslan who was the king of the jungle. With the help of his lioness, Leandra, and his pride of lions, Alparslan ruled the forest. Alparslan was massive and menacing to look at but had a heart of gold. His eyes oozed out warmth and his words and actions, kindness. He was a loyal friend to his fellow lions and valued their opinions. He was a role-model to the smaller animals and gave them sound advice when they needed it. Above all, he loved his wife more than anything in the world. All the animals from the rabbit to the elephant agreed that Alparslan and Leandra were the noblest rulers of the jungle yet.
While everything appeared perfect on the outside, there was one thing that worried Alparslan. Although he loved Leandra dearly, he had not been able to give her a cub and the forest an heir. He knew he had to do something about it before it was too late. He called his best friend, Kefir to his cave. Kefir was the smartest lion and his most trusted friend. Kefir had always guided him rightly in times of conflict.
“You called me, Alparslan?”, Kefir asked in his deep throaty voice from the entrance of the cave.
“Kefir, my dear friend. Come in, please”, he smiled.
The smile on Alparslan’s face however did not hide the creases of worry on his forehead making him look older.
“What is it that troubles the King?”, Kefir asked as he made his way towards his friend.
“You are a good friend, Kefir. You know me well. There is something that I have been losing my sleep on. I do not wish to pass my worries on to Leandra. The only person I can talk to about it is you, my dear friend. You are the smartest lion I know and if anyone can help me, it would be you.”
“I am wise only because I have been foolish”, Kefir replied modestly. “Go ahead; share the cause for your concern. I’ll do everything in my capacity to ease your pain.”
“Kefir, it worries me that I have not been able to give this forest an heir to continue after I’m gone. I’m getting old. I can feel it. It’s time for someone to take over. But who? Help me, dear friend.”
Kefir listened to his King patiently and replied, “I understand your concern. You could anoint one of the younger lions of our pride as your heir to the throne. However it may lead to fall outs within the pride. In my opinion, the best solution to your problem would be for you to adopt. It would make the adopted cub your legal son and our future king.”
“It does seem like a good idea”, Alparslan mumbled, contemplating what he had just heard. “Very well. Leandra and I will consider your valuable advice, Kefir. Thank you.”
As Kefir bowed and left the cave, he noticed his King engrossed in deep thought.
“What is it, dear? Why have you brought me here?”, Leandra asked as she treaded cautiously in an unknown territory.
On one hand, it looked beautiful. She was met with emerald green leaves thickly covering the branches of tall trees. Flowers of every color smiled back at her. The forest felt like a great reservoir of silence as the only sound that touched her ears were their own footsteps against the grass. An earthy smell fused with the fragrance of flowers filled the air. On the other hand, it was a part of the forest that was alien to her. Her senses had instinctively become sharper. She had to be cautious.
“There is something I want to talk to you about.” He hesitated. Just as he was wondering how to tell Leandra, he heard a noise in the bushes. Instantly his ears perked up and he jumped protectively in front of Leandra, facing the bushes. They heard the noise again, this time louder and closer. Just as he was ready to pounce, he saw where the noise was coming from. It was a young cub. The cub looked lost. While Alparslan’s first reaction was to take a step back, Leandra took a step forward. The cub looked like nothing they had seen before. It had the color and face of a lion cub but it didn’t completely resemble a lion cub. It had a hint of stripes on its body, like a tiger. Though it had the face of a baby, it was bigger and heavier than an average lion cub. The cub took one look at the big cats, purred and ran to Leandra. It rubbed its head against her and made playful growling noises. The instinctive ‘mother hen’ in Leandra came to the forefront and she began licking the cub. They seemed to have formed an instant connection. Leandra and the cub continued fondling and playing as Alparslan looked on with an amused expression on his face.
“Darling, can we take him back with us. I can’t leave him behind. I promise to raise him like my own son”, she looked at her husband with pleading eyes.
“But Leandra, he’s…different. While he has our face, he also looks like a tiger. You know how the other lions would feel about having a tiger in our midst. They’ll never accept him.”
“I’ll talk to the other lions. They love us. They love you. They’ll understand. Besides, he’s not a tiger. He only has their stripes. Please Alparslan, this is my chance of becoming a mother. And I know I’ll make a good mother”.
The cub peeked up at Alparslan from behind Leandra and purred.
“Alright”, he said after some thought. Adopting had definitely been on his mind. Wasn’t that why he had brought Leandra there? To talk to her about adoption. Finding a cub there just seemed like a sign from the universe. “Let’s take our son home”, he said with more conviction.
Leandra rubbed her face on Alparslan’s neck with affection. She loved him.
“Raion”, Leandra called out to her son. “Where are you off to?”
“Uhh..I was going for a swim, mom. Can you please not tell dad?”, Raion requested his mother as he disappeared around the corner. He knew he could trust his mother.
“He’s growing up fast, Leandra thought as she saw her son leaping away. In two years, he had already reached her height and weighed more than her. He had started showing signs of a growing mane, but his stripes had become more prominent too.
Her thoughts drifted back to the day when they had brought Raion home. The news of the arrival of the new prince had spread like wild fire. Everyone wanted to get a peek at him. However when Alparslan had introduced Raion to the jungle, Leandra had felt the mood suddenly change. Everyone seemed to observe that Raion looked different. She had felt an unspoken tension filling the air around her which Alparslan seemed not to feel. He was careful with his words, though. He had made it clear to the other animals that Raion was their new prince and the heir to the forest. The animals said nothing and bowed in front of their King and their new prince to show their respect. They loved Alparslan too much to say anything. However, Alparslan had still been careful with Raion. Raion was a softie and loved to swim and play. Alparslan made sure Raion didn’t go to the river to swim. He did not want to give the other animals something to talk about. Afterall, lions did not swim in water. So Raion sometimes sneaked to the river without telling his father.
“Hon, there are some men in the forest. I need to go now. Stay here and take care of Raion. I’ll be back”, Alparslan interrupted her thoughts as he took a minute to tell her before sprinting away.
The lines on his face and the restlessness in his movements told Leandra that the situation was grave. In the split second that she saw him, she noticed how old and weak he had become. He had a limp in his walk and his reflexes weren’t as good as they used to be. She couldn’t let her husband go alone. She had to go with him.
“Wait for me”, she shouted as she sprinted after him.
Raion was as big as most fully grown lions by now but he was still a cub at heart. He was splashing happily in the river when he heard the sound of scampering feet. He instinctively stopped splashing and ducked low, careful not to make any sound. He saw a pack of jackals talking all at once in hushed tones. They looked horrified and smug and restless and excited all at once. Raion did not know what to make of it but he didn’t dare to come out of hiding. After a nervous discussion, the jackals parted ways and went in different directions. Raion decided to wait for a few more minutes before coming out of the water. Just as he was stepping out, he heard a voice behind him.
“Look who we have here. Prince Raion. Pardon me, I mean King Raion”, came a jackal’s drawling voice from behind Raion.
He quickly turned around to face the jackal. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I am Anubis. Your father knew me well. He was a good king. But forget that. What are you doing here? Everyone is looking for you. Haven’t you heard?”
“I was just…Heard what?”
“There were humans in the forest. Your father and mother tried to scare them away and save us all. But those humans had something like a stick in their hand. The next thing we heard was a deafening noise and then there was blood everywhere. And then, they just went away. It was horrifying. Raion, your father and mother are dead. The King is no more.”
Raion felt a searing pain in his chest when he heard the news. The words spoken by Anubis felt like thorns piercing his heart. He felt a giant lump forming in his throat which was growing bigger and bigger until it started hurting. He felt the forest go dark and felt trapped in the darkness. The trees around him appeared taller and he started to feel small and lost. He saw his dad’s face, the face that had never shown a hint of fear. Raion had always known that nothing bad could happen to him when his father was around him. He had always felt protected under his father’s shadow. Only his father could make him feel like a safe little cub and a strong brave lion at the same time. Who would he look up to and admire? He saw his mother’s face, the face that was an embodiment of kindness. He had always been a momma’s boy right from the first time he had set eyes on his parents. She had been his friend and his secret keeper. She loved him more than anyone else in the forest. He did not remember much from his days before he met his foster mother and father. He had tried jogging his memory more than a few times and had seen flashes of another lion, a lion whose eyes did not have the kindness of his father, and a striped animal he didn’t recognize. ‘Why did he have stripes on his tail like the strange animal?’, he had wondered. He had seen flashes of running and hiding from hyenas. He remembered feeling lost and lonely. The next thing he remembered was seeing the love on his mother’s face and running to her. The lost feeling had vanished in seconds. After all the years, he felt lost again. The feeling of loneliness seemed to engulf him.
“Raion, Raion are you even listening to me? This is important.” He heard Anubis’ voice coming from a distance. “Listen to me, Raion. Your father, the king is no more. You are no longer a carefree cub. You are the king now. This jungle is now your responsibility.”
“What?”, Raion was instantly brought back to reality. “But..but I’m so young. How can I rule this forest? Can’t Kefir be the king?”
“It doesn’t work like that. You are the heir to the throne and the king of this forest now. No one can change that”, Anubis explained. “But that is not it. Pay close attention. The jackals have been scheming against you. They want you dethroned.”
“But you just said that was not possible.”
“Yes, but they are spreading word that you are, well, different. They are telling the other beasts that there had been a mistake and that could not you be accepted as king.”
Raion looked at himself. He was bulkier than most lions. He did not have a mane as majestic as his father. He had dark stripes on his body that he had not seen on any other lion. Maybe he was different. Maybe it was a mistake. He just wanted to curl up in his cave against his mother’s thick coat of fur. Instead, he asked, “Why are you telling me this, Arubis?”
“Beacause I respect King Alparslan more than anyone and have faith in his decision to choose you king. He could not have made a mistake. You are the chosen one. You can’t let them get to you. Now hurry back to the cave.”
While Raion’s legs walked in the direction of the cave, his mind was elsewhere. As he approached the cave, he saw and heard more animals, birds and insects. He felt all eyes upon him as he made his way to the cave.
He was relieved to see Kefir waiting at the entrance of the cave. He had a million questions running in his head. He needed answers. If he could trust someone to help him, it was Kefir.
“Kefir, what’s happening? What is this I’m hearing? Where are my mother and father? What happened to them?”
“Raion, your father and mother are the greatest people I have ever known. But their time on this earth is over. It’s time now for you, their son, to take their place”. Kefir consoled Raion. “Meet Kimama. She’s the queen butterfly. She saw what happened to your parents.”
He turned to Kimama. She was a beautiful little butterfly with a medley of colors and shapes on her tiny little wings. “Kimama, would you please be kind enough to tell Raion what you saw those humans do?”
Kimama nodded to Kefir and bowed down to Raion. “I was fluttering around the wild flowers in the jungle outskirts when I saw two humans. They had big rods in their hands. I immediately flew back to Alparslan and reported what I had seen. The next minute, he informed Leandra and ran to the spot. I don’t know what came over Leandra, but she ran behind her husband. I followed them. Alparslan stood in the way of the humans and roared. The humans however went for Leandra. They pointed the rod at her. But the fearless Alparslan jumped in between the rod and Leandra. The next thing I heard was a deafening noise and I saw blood everywhere. Then, a second shot and both Alparslan and Leandra lay there, next to each other, still as a rock.”
As he heard Kimama’s story, Raion felt grief-stricken. The pain in his chest was unbearable. He thought of the courage his parents had shown and found himself thinking if he could ever be brave like them. He thought of the love his parents shared for each other and found himself wishing to find love.
He forced his thoughts back to the present. “So I guess I am the king now. But what’s all the noise I hear?”
“There is one small problem”, Kefir explained. “The animals all believe that you are not the rightful heir to the throne. I will calm the animals and set the stage for you, but beyond that, it will be your show. You are the son of the great Alparslan. You need to show them that you are powerful, brave, kind and just. Prove them wrong. Prove it to them that you are the rightful heir. Do you hear me? Do this for your father, will you?”
Raion saw a fire in Kefir’s eyes and took some courage from it but he still didn’t feel very confident.
Kefir went up to the entrance of the cave and faced the animals.
“Listen all. Listen carefully. Alparslan is dead. The rightful heir and your new king is Prince Raion. Henceforth, we shall all refer to him as king Raion.”
At this point, there was an uproar. The animals stomped their feet and shook their heads in disagreement.
“Silence”, Kefir thundered.
No one had seen Kefir get angry. They immediately stopped displaying their disagreement and turned their attention to Kefir.
“I’m going to say this only once so listen carefully. Alparslan was the greatest king I have known. He lived his life for this forest and he sacrificed his life for this forest. He sacrificed his life for us. So when he chose Raion as your next king, I believe he knew what he was doing. He believed in Raion and I think we should too. It is the least we can do to pay our last respect to the greatest king this jungle has seen.”
The entire forest was silent. The only sound that could be heard was the blowing of a gentle breeze. The breeze seemed to be mourning the death of Alparslan as well. All the animals had their eyes glued to Kefir.
“And now I present to you for the first time, King Raion.” Kefir announced and bowed as King Raion made his way to face the rows of animals standing below. The animals followed Kefir’s lead and bowed to King Raion.
“What do you think about the new ‘king’?”, Ofra the deer asked her friend Niabi.
Niabi’s nickname among the deer community was ‘gossip queen’. No one knew how she found the details but she always knew the latest gossip about everyone. She had her contacts everywhere. Ofra was a young deer who liked to stick around Niabi. She followed Niabi everywhere and did what was told to her. Niabi enjoyed the attention and let Ofra in on some of the juicy gossip when she felt like.
“Well, honestly I feel he’s not a bad lion”, Niabi started in her high-pitched know-it-all voice. “But it’s like he’s trying too hard to get accepted. Unfortunately for him, no one sees him as a good fit to be King. While trying to project courage and confidence, he actually emits fear and incompetence. The animals only follow his orders out of respect for Alparslan. They have no respect for him. I have no respect for him.”
“Poor baby”, Niabi continued in her shrill mocking tone.
Ofra joined Niabi and they had a good laugh.
Two years had passed since Raion had been crowned king. Although on the surface, everything seemed calm and peaceful, there were undercurrents of distrust and doubt in everyone’s minds. They bowed to Raion and followed his orders but spoke low of him behind his back. They always treated him like an outsider, he was different after all. It had not been an easy journey for Raion. He had not received the support and respect his father had. However, he was not one to give up easily. He had considered the barriers on his way as learning lessons and had grown lightyears as a lion in these two years. The shy, frightened cub in him had died somewhere along the way. He had learned to block out the negativities surrounding him and fulfill his responsibilities the best that he could. He was now a fully grown lion, almost double the size of other lions.
He had provided the animals with food and water. He had resolved the age-old quarrel between the hare and the tortoise. To everyone’s surprise he had swam adeptly in the deep river and saved the baby giraffe from drowning. He had always shown respect to each of the beasts, birds and insects. ‘To gain respect, you need to give respect’, his dad had told him. In his difficult times, Kefir had always been there to guide him in making decisions just as he had seen Kefir help his father.
“He has grown into a fine lion, like his father. Alparslan would have been proud of him”, Kefir thought one day as he left the cave after talking to Raion. “I hope the animals open their blindfolds and see him for who he really is.”
“Raion, Raion, forest, humans, help”, Aquilina the eagle was flapping her wings vigorously, sounding out of breath.
“Aquilina, my friend, take a breath first and then tell me what you saw.”
Aquilina perched herself on a branch, took a deep breath and blurted. “Humans! Raion, there are humans in the forest. They are the same men who killed your parents. I saw them two years back and I saw them today.”
That’s all that Raion needed to hear. The anger bottled inside him for two years floated to the surface. He roared like thunder and darted like the wind into the forest. The eagle, Aquilina led the way for him, flying as fast as she could.
“I know you are seething with anger right now but mindless anger can blind you. Do not lose your mind, Raion. You need to act wisely.”
But Raion heard nothing. He kept running as fast as he could until he saw the men who had killed his mother.
The men had their guns pointed at a deer. Raion immediately recognized the deer to be Niabi. Her slender body was shaking with fear. She stood as if paralyzed. Her entire body was trembling but her legs won’t move. Just as the man pointing his gun at Niabi pulled the trigger, he saw a huge figure jump in between him and the deer and heard a roar filled with pain.
The next thing he knew, the deer had sprinted into the forest and a lion lay in front of him, blood gushing out of its leg. The man, a little mad at losing the deer, pointed his gun a second time at the lion. This time however, he was stopped by his partner standing behind him.
“Wait”, the second man said placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Look at his stripes. He’s not a lion.”
The first man looked at the animal and saw it for the first time. On observing carefully, he noticed that his friend was right. It wasn’t a lion. It had the black stripes of a tiger on its body. Yet it also had the thick mane of a lion. He looked bigger and heavier than any lion he had ever seen.
“Wait. Do not shoot him. We would be heavily rewarded if we take this weirdo to the city zoo. He would make us rich.”
They loaded the sedated and injured lion in their truck and took him away.
The only news that was floating around the forest for the next few days was of Raion’s bravery. Niabi took it upon her single-handedly to spread the news of how Raion saved her life.
“I was standing there, trembling all over, sure that I was counting my last few breaths. The man was pointing the metal rod at me. I couldn’t move if I wanted to. Just when the rod was about to make the horrifying noise that kills us, Raion fearlessly jumped between me and the rod and shouted to me, “Run!” That was when I came back to my senses and ran. I ran for my life. When I looked back one last time, I thought I saw King Alparslan. I saw kindness in those eyes and courage in his act. But it was King Raion lying on the ground, blood oozing out of his leg. He saved my life. If it wasn’t for him, I would not be standing here.”
Ofra followed the lead from her mentor and friend, Niabi, and told everyone she could of the greatness of King Raion. Word spread quickly and soon everyone was comparing Raion with his father. Raion, like his parents, had sacrificed his life for the forest. They recalled all the good deeds done and all the kind words spoken by Raion. They regretted the disrespect and distrust they had shown him. ‘Why did it matter that he looked different? Did outward appearance matter more than the heart?’, they contemplated. They had shown him hate and he had shown him love. They had found a new respect for him.
Meanwhile in the city zoo in India, the latest attraction that lured people from all over the world was a rare creature that had been spotted in the jungle for the first time.
The sign board outside the cage read “LIGER”.
“Mom, I want this animal. What is it?”, Raion heard a six year old girl asked her mother from outside the cage.
“It’s a liger, darling”, her mother explained. Look how big it is. Look how it has stripes like a tiger and a mane like a lion. That’s because its mother is a tiger and its father is a lion.”
That’s what everyone these days was saying when they looked at him. But in his heart, Raion knew something that none of these humans would ever know. He knew that his mother and father were both lions, the greatest lions he had ever seen.