Thursday, July 28, 2011


I don’t remember the place. Maybe it was a highway running through the forests of the Western Ghats, a grey ribbon hopping and twirling around cones of mossy green spires that peer into the clouds. But it could just as well have been the Shivaliks. Actually it doesn’t matter where it was because… Ah well, let’s save the because for later….

So there I was driving through the highway, tailing a truck when it suddenly stopped dead right in front of me. I tugged at the wheel and swerved out of the way. I muttered a silent prayer that merged with a curse as I pulled up alongside the trucker but he wasn’t listening. He was staring, eyes wide and white, and his mouth agape at the sight in front of his eyes.

And you wouldn’t believe what I saw. An elephant was standing in the middle of the road, staring straight into the eyes of the trucker and then like striker gathering rhythm before a penalty strike, it jogged up to the truck and rammed its head right into the wind-shield and smashed it. Then it turned towards me and trumpeted out a screaming challenge. Then that five ton behemoth waddled up toward my car and challenges be damned, I thought. I abandoned my car and ran towards the forest. The beast screamed again and gave chase. I hopped and skipped and ran for dear life while the elephant, a beast amongst the biggest of its kind, bulldozed through the undergrowth and the lantana as its beady eyes searched for me. I turned back to see if he was gaining on me and remember noticing that his tusks were rather small, mere tushes, for bull this big. I kept struggling through the brambles and before I knew it I had reached a clearing. Behind me I could hear the earth being torn up, trees crashing to the ground and the kind of general mayhem that reminded me of the Earth Song.

If I hadn’t been coughing up my intestines out of fear, shock and sheer exhaustion, I should have been more than a little surprised to notice that this clearing wasn’t just a clearing but a little village-town. Dung cakes drying on ochre walls, stone cobbled streets and clothes clipped to clotheslines, bright blues and vivid pinks on open rooftops and then a dry step-well surrounded by a boundary wall right in the middle of where the village-town square would have been. I ran up the streets and down the alleys and what do you know, the persistent pachyderm just wouldn’t relent. It chased me up and down the lanes past every heavy wooden door I knocked on and yet no one opened the door. The place was empty. Turned away from every latched door, I ran towards the step-well. I jumped over the walls and slid down the stairs and hoped that the elephant wouldn’t notice. The animal walked around the wall, its proboscis hoping to catch wind of his quarry and then my eyes met his, and for a moment we both froze. And then with frenzied fervour, the massive domed head started beating down the wall as it rammed it with all its might. The tremors that shook the wall travelled along the village floor and shook me up like a pea on a beating drum. There seemed to be no escape. There was nowhere to run.

I heard a branch snap and then another, and I wondered which way the sounds had travelled. The elephant was knocking down a wall so who was snapping those branches? I heard sounds. Whispers, human voices… and a sense of urgency. But there was no one here. Then whose voices did I hear? Was I dreaming? And if I was, then which was the dream and which one reality? But the tremors… they ran through both my worlds as the earth trembled under my feet. I woke up with a start.

The window was open and the cotton curtains were sashaying in rhythm with a rather stiff afternoon breeze. Whoever had been whispering outside my window had disappeared by now. But the earth still shook and yonder in the bamboo forest, branches still snapped and crashed onto the forest floor. I went up to the window for a closer look and saw two men hiding below the sill. They looked up at me and said “Yannai! Yannai!! Mad… Yannai… mad!” they mumbled and pointed toward the woods that had gathered a few hundred yards away from the hut, like a large shaggy dog on a leash, glowering menacingly at all that lay beyond its reach. Oh, by the way, Yannai is the Tamil word for elephant and my cottage was one amongst twenty others that made up this eco-resort on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border where the teak forests of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve hailed out to the bamboo groves of Mudumalai National Park.

This stretch of the forest was famous for its elephant herds and I had travelled all the way south because I wanted to capture a few photographs of this region’s famed elephants and especially the magnificent tuskers. I had been fantasising about chance encounters with these forest giants ever since I boarded the flight to Bangalore and it was perhaps my overactive imagination that drew me into that crazy dream I began this story with. Anyway, as things stood, I had thought I would put my feet up and unwind on day one but since the elephants had come calling, I grabbed my camera and the longest lens I had and hurried off towards the edge of the woods. The two men who had been hiding under my window ran behind me and asked me to stop. I did, and turned… “Yannai mad! Very mad….sorry stop… but danger… very danger.” I smiled and showed them my camera and tried to explain to them that the 400mm lens on my camera would ensure that I maintained a safe distance between my subject and myself. The two men however seemed unconvinced.

I did not have the time to invest in building popular consensus with respect to how I might have wanted to spend my afternoon and so I left the two of them jabbering away animatedly and jumped across the narrow brook that separated the wild groves from the resort. I took a few test shots to check if the light was right. And then I heard that sound again, like thunderclaps, of yet another tree being dismembered. I balk at the thought of entering the bamboo grove all alone, rubbing elbows with these wild elephants. But I could not turn back now, and so with a prayer on my lips and a camera in my hand, I entered the portal into their world… but that’s a story I will complete in the days to come. Until then beware of elephants in your dreams and give them a wide berth. They can give you quite a workout even as they chase you around in your own mind.


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