Thursday, August 25, 2011


August 26th is celebrated as National Dog Day through much of the first world. Dogs that have saved lives, dogs that have brought smiles and dogs that are waiting to be euthanised because there’s no one waiting to give them a home, are all recognised and celebrated for the space they share with us humans in our lives. On such a day, here’s a story from the vault to remind you of your responsibilities as a pet owner

It was a grim afternoon at the Sharma residence. Little Sahil was inconsolable. He refused to eat and was just sitting there on the floor, cradling Asghar’s tired little head on his tiny lap. Sneha and Rahil, Sahil’s parents and good friends of mine, were cursing the doctor’s tactless remarks when I entered… Asghar, their 8-month-old Saint Bernard puppy, their son’s best friend, was seriously ill and the vet had rather insensitively decreed the inevitable in little Sahil’s presence... “before we could prepare him”, as they put it. The adorable little animal had been a bundle of joy during my previous visits. Asghar’s naughty hazel eyes could melt any heart, and one just had to give him a cuddle when his little wet nose nuzzled up to you. He was the darling of the neighbourhood, something of a mascot for the kids in the area, as he tumbled and trotted behind them. That chubby little brown and white fur-ball was quite simply the star of the evening in the neighbourhood park, for while it joined the children in their games, Asghar also gladdened the hearts of evening walkers and senior citizens with his antics… indeed this was sad news for many…

“Sahil! Sahil!!” Rahil called out… “... idhar aao beta… and get Asghar. It doesn’t matter what this doctor says, we’ll go to a better doctor… Asghar’ll be fine in … right, Asghar?”, and gave a pat each to the pair. Sahil, all of seven years, tried to wipe his tears away and Asghar wagged the tip of his tail and put his head on Rahil’s knee, as if to say, ‘I know you’ll do your best… I understand’. It wasn’t easy to keep a dry eye at that moment… Sneha went over, put her arms around Sahil and led him and Asghar to the verandah. Rahil turned to me, and he spoke with a tremor, “Thanks for coming over. I need your help. You’ve seen how Sahil is about Asghar… he’s heartbroken. And it’s not just him. Asghar’s such a darling… even I can’t bear the thought of losing him. But the doctor seems to have given up… he says Asghar’s immune system is very weak and now he might have this liver disease that could prove fatal… Asghar might go anytime…” Meanwhile, I was trying very hard not to get into the ‘I-told-you-so’ mode when Rahil interrupted, “I know… I know… you told me I shouldn’t pick up a puppy from that pet store but he looked so cute, so adorable… and the place seemed clean, the proprietor was friendly… how’d I know that things could be this bad behind that pleasing façade…?”

Just before they got Asghar, Rahil had mentioned that they’re thinking of picking up a puppy from a pet store to add to their sweet little family and I’d suggested that maybe picking up a puppy from a breeder might be a better idea. Rahil obviously didn’t think much of it and picked up Asghar from a pet-store a week later. Evidently, it wasn’t a good idea.

Yet, most people looking for a pet would head for the nearest pet-store and pick up a cute little puppy of their choice from there. The friendly store manager, the bright and colourful décor, the cute little puppies and the manager’s repeated assurances with respect to the pup’s quality and lineage make for a heady cocktail — irresistible bait for most. Not many return empty handed. Most, like Rahil and Sahil, go back with a puppy in one arm and packets of feed and bedding in the other — unwitting patrons of one of the cruelest industries on the planet — it’s called the puppy mill industry.

Most pet dogs in most households are unhappy products of this industry. Let me take you back to how the puppy comes to be in the store… Far away from the brightand shiny pet-shop, probably in a derelict shed or backroom of a cramped apartment, these unscrupulous backyard breeders ply their trade, where they keep pairs (or at times only the female) of popular breeds like Labrador and Golden retrievers, German Shepherds, Pugs, and the like… The dogs are kept in cramped squalid quarters, given barely enough food to survive and are usually caged for life. Their world, from birth to death are the four sides of a wire-cage or the walls of a room and they hardly ever experience a kind word or touch and usually don’t live for longer than half their normal lifespan; especially the brood bitches (usually coming into heat twice a year after their sixth or eighth month. Though they shouldn’t be bred from before their second year or fourth heat and then too only every other year, puppy mill breeders or PMBs start breeding from them from the first heat onwards and in every heat, wringing the poor animal dry even before she reaches its prime). These unhygienic conditions lead to disease and neurosis in the animals. What is worse is that these puppy mill operators, in their bid to make a quick buck, breed mothers to sons, fathers to daughters and brothers to sisters. This rampant inbreeding and over breeding ruins not just the immediate litter but also leads to congenital weaknesses that become embedded in the line and make the progeny unsound, both of mind and body.

How does buying puppies born to such mothers aff ect you, the buyer? Well, to begin with, these inbred pups have genetic defects. Secondly, the pups should’ve stayed with their mothers for at least eight weeks because mother’s milk builds immunity and littermates teach them essential social skills. Instead PMBs usually force-wean the puppies and send them off to pet stores in the fourth or fifth week, thus saving on feeding costs. Also the puppies survive on nothing but a trickle of milk from a weak and starving mother. And since the puppy mill business runs on volumes, PMBs compromise on cartage, cramming as many puppies as possible while transporting them. Some always die in transit, but it doesn’t really matter because what they save on transportation costs more than makes up for the loss. In essence, for PMBs, the puppies you so lovingly buy are just commercial goods, just like chickens and goats meant for slaughter, and every time you buy from such breeders, like Rahil did, you end up supporting these heartless criminals and their cycle of greed. And that isn’t all. If you’re lucky, then like Asghar, these cute roly-poly puppies you buy from PMBs are likely to fall ill with debilitating diseases within the first few years and become far more expensive (vet bills, medicines, time spent in care-giving) propositions than what you might have budgeted for. But if you’re unlucky, these pups with weakened bodies and temperaments could become unpredictable and dangerous and might need to be put down. Either way, it’s almost always a sad, painful and short life.

So what can one do about this? Perhaps unknown to you, worldwide, animal rights groups have been clamouring for a legislation that puts a stop to this cruel trade but not much has come of it. The only way to stop puppy mills is to stop buying from them. Like I told Rahil, “If you really care about animals and their welfare, neither you, nor anyone you know should ever buy a pet from a pet store. ” But then Sneha’d said, “God forbid but if Asghar goes, we’ll need to get another pup to help Sahil get over his pain. We’re hoping you’ll help us find a better pet store…” She almost begged…

“Sneha, there are no ‘better’ pet stores. Pet stores are commercial units where a bag of dry feed worth eight thousand will find better treatment than a pup with a going price of five thousand. If you really want a pedigreed dog, you should go to a breed specific breeder who unlike the PMBs has dedicated himself to a particular breed or two of his choice. Such breeders breed dogs with the specific aim of improving the breed and don’t sell puppies to people they deem incapable or unsuitable as pet owners. Be prepared to be interviewed thoroughly before being ‘allowed’ to buy a puppy from such a breeder. For instance, a well known Tibetan mastiff (a large mountain dog for the uninitiated) breeder refused to sell me a pup because I don’t live in a farmhouse (because the breed in question needs the space). And breeders who care will never sell their pups to a pet store. So choose the right breed and be prepared to pay at least three times more than what you’d pay at a pet store. But at least you’ll know that the puppy you’re buying is happy and healthy (many breeders provide insurances and guarantees) and its parents, instead of being unhappy, tortured, inbred curs, are, in all likelihood, pampered show winners.” And if all of this seems too much of a hassle, I suggest you go to an animal shelter and pick up a mongrel pup. You would’ve given the orphaned animal a home and it’ll cost you nothing to buy and very little to maintain (most strays are very hardy creatures).

PS Just in case you were curious, Asghar has pulled through his illness and for now is happy and healthy, bringing joy and light to the Sharmas and their neighbours… but beware, not every family is as lucky.


Thursday, August 18, 2011


Bring out the shroud while the rain drops drone The king has fallen from his throne Down the pitch rolls the mighty crown Where the victor waits to wear it to town It is too late to be clutching at Strauss For isn’t every Duncan destined for a tragic cause Bruised and battered the champion lies Are we applauding the winner even as he dies? Or is there hope; will he live… yet again will he rise?

And to that I say, of course India will rise again. And soon. But would it be soon enough to win at the Oval and salvage pride, hope and a final scoreline that at least leaves the bylanes of shame and despair and gets somewhere close to the highway that leads to respectability? More importantly, would we be good enough to bounce back like world beaters, reclaim the top spot and keep it for a while like the West Indians or the Aussies ? My money says we would, but for that, a few things would have to change.

But why did India lose the way it did? Popular opinion would suggest that India’s bowling is toothless and wouldn’t really dent a batting line-up as powerful and varied as England’s. They say that without Zaheer Khan, India is just not good enough to bowl out teams twice. But if that were to be the case, India would never have reached as high as it did in the Test rankings. One good bowler would never make us the world’s top Test team. We had a Kapil Dev once, and New Zealand had a Richard Hadlee, but neither India nor the Kiwis came anywhere near world domination in the 1980s.

And don’t you go about trying to fling Harbhajan Singh’s name at me and trying to suggest that he is the other reason why we managed to consistently run through sides around the world over the last couple of years. And that’s because I can’t remember the last time the turbanator turned it on, or in for that matter, to play anything more than a supporting role with the ball. Why, his batting has been spinning more magic than his doosras for a while now. Now, you must understand that I’m not being critical of the man’s recent performance. I’m just saying that he has been pulling his weight without being exceptional and so he isn’t necessarily ‘the other reason’ why we have been doing so well as a unit until this series.

I would go so far as to say that our bowling looks fine, even without a Zaheer or a Harbhajan. I am not saying that we don’t need them. I am just saying that even if both happen to get injured, we have enough options available to fill those big boots. However Amit Mishra and S. Sreesanth are perhaps not those options. Here’s why…

Cricket is a game that is perhaps more cerebral than all other athletic pursuits put together and as the ‘experts’ insist, is played as much between the ears as it is between the wickets.

Just look at Lasith Malinga. He knows that he can’t really swing or seam the ball. But does he still try and bowl reverse-swingers like Waqar Younis? No. Instead he develops that mindbogglingly accurate toe crushing yorker and teaches himself how to vary his length and pace to keep the batsman guessing. On the other hand what does a Sreesanth do? He opens his spell believing he can blow the batsman away. And while he has delightful swing and can touch the low 140s, he is hardly express quality. But I guess if you try telling him that, he’ll send a screaming bouncer your way as well. So every 15 overs, he would bowl a real peach which might or might not get him a wicket but the rest of his stuff get clobbered all over the park. Then I guess he ends up feeling like it’s yet another ‘just not his day’ day and his spirit drops low and his pace drops lower. Then he tries bouncing Alastair Cook while trundling in at 130 and gets clobbered some more. The ball swings all day, but swings wide and wider. There is talent but there’s no thought.

Here’s another example of ability without attitude. Amit Mishra can turn the ball a mile while Anil Kumble couldn’t. But while Kumble planned and plotted the downfall of entire teams with his marginal movement and incisive thinking, Mishra turns his arm over with a childlike wonder and wonders “What’ll it do now… ah a perfect leg spinner. Darn, too bad it missed the edge, the wicket keeper and the pitch. Ok… let me see what the next one’s like… OMG! OMG! It’s a googly… but why is it flying to the stands… bowled it too short, did I? golly.. let me try a flipper next… or maybe a top spinner...”

It’s a pity that we have a man who thinks like Kumble, bowls the same way with limited spin but is aided by limitless creative and consistent ideas, has succeeded in all forms of international cricket that he has played in and yet hasn’t been blooded into Test cricket yet because he is an off spinner. Ravichandran Ashwin is too good a bowler not to have played for India yet just because Harbhajan Singh is an off spinner too. Play with both if they are your best bowlers I say. Did Clive Lloyd ever say I wont pick a Michael Holding because I already have one express quick in Andy Roberts? Did anybody ever say we shouldn’t pick VVS Laxman and let’s pick the left handed Hrishikesh Kanitkar instead because we already have two very good right handed middle order batsmen in Dravid and Tendulkar?

As for the rest of the attack, Ishant is a proven match winner. He just needs direction, in his bowling and in his thinking. And Praveen Kumar might not have the pace, but he has both the talent and the spirit of a future champion. I spent some time thinking about medium fast bowlers who achieved greatness at that pace and though up quite a few… Alec Bedser, the English medium-pacer made a man no less than Bradman his bunny once. Then there was Terry Alderman’s out swing at a little above medium pace which won Australia a pair of Ashes urns and made Australia the kings in waiting through the early 90s. And last but not the least, PK needs to look no further than the last cricketing knight, Sir Richard Hadlee who every batsman, from Desmond Haynes to Sanjay Manjrekar claimed was the best bowler they ever faced and one who was better, though slower at 35 than he was at a nippier 25. What PK needs to learn is not to pack on more pace but how to make his swing work against world class left handers. As for the third seamer, between Jaidev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav and Verun Aaron, we will find the man we need and something tells me the last named is most likely to be the one, because he seems to think like a winner even before he begins to bowl like one.

As for the batsmen, let me recount a story I heard Ashok Malhotra, former cricketer and selector, narrate on television. He mentioned that while he was a selector, he once saw a batsman tear apart the South Zone attack during a Duleep Trophy match and score a big double ton. So Ashok called up the then chairman of selectors Mr. Chandu Borde about this explosive new find and then walked up to the young man and told him to pack his bags for the Indian team’s tour of Australia. However, in the next match which Malhotra was watching with Mr. Borde, this young man came out to bat against a quick and whippy Zaheer Khan who bowled him a snorter and dismissed him without so much as a how are you. Chandu Borde just looked at Ashok Malhotra and shook his head. That man did not make it for that tour to Australia. His technique wasn’t considered good enough against fast bowlers it was said. Well, too bad I guess for who knows what Virender Sehwag could have done against the Aussies during a series that we otherwise list 3-0.

The point I’m trying to make is that there is no dearth of class and ability in a Yuvraj Singh or a Suresh Raina or even a Virat Kohli and a Rohit Sharma. They just need a long rope which will help them build self belief. Who knows, these could be our ‘fab four’ for the decade to come. Chance, faith and persistence allowed Gautam Gambhir to blossom. These four just might need a bit of the same.

India’s consistency and success has allowed us to mature as an audience, and not tear down our heroes at the first sign of defeat. The calendar and the BCCI have received their due in terms of flak and criticism instead of Dhoni’s house being stoned. But besides keeping faith in proven class, picking for cricketing intelligence as much as ability and spacing out the calendar with enough space for recuperation and preparation, there’s one more thing that needs to be addressed and that is the role of the coach.

The way the team’s fortunes soared with the tenures of John Wright and Gary Kirsten and plummeted ignominiously during the dark days of Greg Chappell’s reign would suggest that the coach plays a vital role in an Indian dressing room and Duncan Fletcher just doesn’t seem to have ‘it’. I’m sure he has the plans but he hasn’t been able to execute or communicate the same to younger members of the team. The bowlers sprayed the ball, the batsmen batted without a plan and everybody, especially during the English innings at Edgebaston, seemed to be at their wit’s end. Traditionally India would start poorly but always got better as the series progressed, even in the 1980s and the 1990s. But here things have only got worse. The thinking just didn’t blend with the team.

Fletcher might be a great coach but apparently, not for this team. Something’s got to give there. Every great team gets a wake up call. The West Indians were shocked out of their pants by pace in 1974-75 and then again were beaten by lowly New Zealand in1980 while the Australian dominance over the last decade or more was punctuated by losses to England and India. Each time these champions learnt from their losses,got back on their feet and hit back harder. Now India’s been knocked down and it’s our turn to rise from our ashes and take wing again…


Thursday, August 11, 2011


In an issue celebrating unsung heroes, I was a little confused about the hero I wanted to talk about. We were celebrating the accomplishments of little known men and women whose work has reached and touched more lives than their names have. Perhaps their time is yet to come. Perhaps tomorrow will know them, recognise them and want to be inspired by them. But, what about a forgotten hero... A hero that lies forgotten in his grave... The dust that whirls around the headstone was perhaps once a man who inspired a whole nation. But today it is just dust blowing in the wind. What hope does he have...? Isn’t this forgotten life an unsung hero too...?

I remember one such.... I spoke of him to you many years ago and yet it is a story that needs retelling, for he is a hero who needs to be remembered... So, I dug through the archives and found you his epitaph, for if he had lived in the memory of his people, they might not be dying the way they do...

Khan Abdul Ghaff ar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, was born in 1890, in Hashtnagar in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of what is now Pakistan, a region that was described by George Molesworth of the British Army in 1919 as one where every stone ‘has been soaked in blood’. I still remember the grainy, black and white images of a tall man with gentle compassionate eyes that flashed across TV screens the day he died. I was told he was a man of infinite peace but it is only now that I realise that he was also a man of infinite courage.

The rugged beauty of the mountains of the Khyber that links the NWFP to Afghanistan is home to the fiercely proud Pashtuns or Pathans. When these fierce warriors are not busy fighting off the British, the Russians or the Americans, they are immersed in their own tribal feuds where blood is the currency and honour the prize. But Khan Abdul Ghaff ar Khan, or Badshah Khan as he later came to be called, had a diff erent vision for his people.

Beneath the veneer of the aggressive, blood-thirsty Pashtun, Badshah Khan saw a race of generous and brave people blinded and disgraced by violence and ignorance. When just 20, he began his mission of uplifting his people by setting up schools for men and women. From that mission evolved the vision of freeing India from British Imperialism and thus was born a loft y philosophy, born as much to faith, as it was to feeling. Khan was a deeply religious man whose interpretation of his faith led him to the realisation that non-violence was a ‘weapon of the prophet’. He started a peaceful movement against the British with 1,00,000 of his followers called the Khudai Khidmatgars (God’s servants), all committed to the principle of non-violence and the cause of the nation. But to the British, the non-violent Pashtun was a confounding anomaly who they brutalised in an attempt to elicit a more familiar and violent reaction. In 1930, in Peshawar for instance, more than 300 Khidmatgars sacrificed their lives when British soldiers opened fire on a non-violent demonstration.

The Khidmatgars, the same Pashtuns who are today vilified as vandals and terrorists, bared their chests to receive the bullets replacing those that fell before them without ever raising an arm in protest (many more would’ve died if elite soldiers of the Garhwal regiment had not refused orders when asked to fire at the unarmed Khidmatgars). But through the torture, the beatings and the pain, the man, the philosophy and the Khidmatgars endured, mirroring a similar movement in another corner of India led by a man he was to befriend like a brother, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. To Badshah Khan, his chosen path of non-violence was only natural. ‘There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence’ for that, he believed, had been the path of the prophet and the faith, more than 1,300 years ago.

Khan dreamt of a unified, secular India and had spoken extensively against the partition of India. When the Congress, of which he was a senior member, accepted the divisive concept, he expressed his sense of betrayal but maintained his close association with Gandhi. The new regime in Pakistan felt threatened by his ideas and repressed the Khidmatgars ruthlessly. And Khan, who ought to have been a national hero, spent most of his remaining years under house arrest. Abandoned by those he trusted, and persecuted by those who feared him, today Badshah Khan lies in a grave in Jalalabad, the man forgotten, his ideals forsaken. If the Nobel Committee had had the sense to celebrate the contributions of this peaceful soldier of Islam, maybe the afterglow of international recognition would haveimmortalised his beliefs amongst his people. And that could’ve changed the fate of one of the most volatile regions of South Asia. But that would perhaps be expecting a little too much of a Committee that awarded a foul-mouthed war criminal like Henry Kissinger with the peace prize and forgot about a Mahatma.


Thursday, August 4, 2011


I crossed the stream that separated the camp grounds from the woods and headed east, camera in hand, towards the darkening gloom. The forest seemed to be alive to my presence, like a wolf pack circling its victim, and tightening the circle like noose around an unsuspecting victim.

But there were no wolves in this patch of green. Of course you could seek no comfort in that fact. These forests were crawling with killers. Snakes that bit and surly pigs, leopards and tigers and drunken bears, they all roamed these woods in search of something to kill, to kill that burning craving in their stomachs. Anything would do... anything slow and unwary, without too many quills or horns or fangs to get in the way would do just fine. And in that entire forest at that moment, nothing, not even a new born fawn, suited that description better than yours truly....

But that thought didn’t stop me. I walked on mesmerised by the sound that now echoed through the forest. Branches snapped and whole trees seemed to come crashing down as the earth shook under the weight of the fallen giants.... Elephants! I wanted to photograph a wild elephant while on foot, like the hunters of yore. The thud and crash of trees and branches was like the song of the sirens... A sound that held the promise of great danger and even greater beauty.

Fear, I reasoned was the companion of every lover worth his heartbeat, for doesn’t every great love demand its share of fear and trepidation. Some die by it but most live to love and share the fruits it bears. So statistically speaking, since most photographers die of old age instead of being killed in their prime (or way before ‘prime’ even considered sauntering into the horizon like in my case) because they were attacked by their models (unless of course you’re shooting Naomi Campbell, in which case the odds, admittedly, stack up rather steeply against you), I reasoned I had a good chance of making it back in good health with a photograph or two to show for my efforts.

By now, I had crept in closer to the sounds of the pachyderm party. And there seemed to be a party inside me too. My heart was booming to a rapid beat and my intestines felt like they were being plucked like harp-strings. It’s not a nice feeling. I had grown a goose-bump rash, which, if you were to run your fingers along my skin at the time, would’ve done a whole lot of good for your blood-pressure issues, if you catch my drift. What it didn’t do a whole lot of good for was my own blood pressure though, for it soared and plummeted like the Mumbai skyline as I drew closer.

I needed something to calm down. And then I remembered that the forest I was walking through was once the haunt of the great hunter-raconteur Kenneth Anderson. Not too long ago, three decades and a bit, to be exact, you could have chanced upon good old Kenneth if you were to be where I was that day. He might’ve been out hunting a man-eating leopard or tiger at that hour, hurrying to his machan before darkness falls. Or maybe it was a marauding sloth bear or a rogue elephant he was aft er. Or perhaps he was just out ‘ghooming’, like he used to say in his books. These tall teaks must have seen his adventures walk past them as they unfolded. If only they could talk and tell me of the stories I had grown to love in the books KA wrote. And there was one more thing I wished I could ask these trees... Where the @#*! (it’s not a habit and I hardly ever use them but at times like these, few words can say it the way these four-letter ones can) is the elephant...? Or the elephants? The sound, which until now was calling out in a straight line, suddenly broke into fragments and seemed to surround me. Was it a whole herd? Or just one sore rogue? I couldn’t tell if the surround-sound feeling was real or just a bouncing echo. It was like being stuck with Bruce Lee in the hall of mirrors during the climax of Enter the Dragon.

At this stage, you must be wondering why I’m making such a big deal about wild elephants. Aren’t they the most friendly of all wild animals? They take us for rides, play cricket in silly costumes at the circus, show up for weddings etc. Shouldn’t they be the easiest to photograph? Let me answer that notion by recounting what a Sholaga tracker told us the previous morning. There were three of us – V, a dear friend, A, my dearest wife and I. We were going for a hike through the woods and Sivan, the tracker, was our guide.

We walked the same route that I had taken this evening and then walked along a stream bed in search of wildlife. In the early hours we saw a pair of Indian bison – magnificent beasts, amongst the tallest of all wild oxen. The pair melted into the bush as soon as they sensed our presence. We saw the spoor of a sloth bear near a termite mound and the scat of a big cat. Sivan reckoned it was a panther... Perhaps the all-black variety that was relatively more common in these parts. And all along, Sivan was as calm and cool as the cucumber he’d been snacking on.

But then we traced our way back to the river-bed and here Sivan froze. Almost on cue, so did we. “.Yanai!.....”, (elephant) he whispered. “So, let’s go see them,” I whispered back but Sivan gestured for me to stop. He backed away from the spot and said it was too dangerous to approach the beast over open country. “Of all the animals in the forest, we fear the elephant alone. Unless they’ve become man-eaters, tigers and leopards would always slink away from the mere presence of man. The bear only attacks if it’s cornered, so we usually have little to fear from them. But ‘Yanai’ is another matter. Herds are not usually dangerous unless you come between a mother and her calf.”

“But if you happen to see a lone elephant, give it a wide berth. It’ll either be ‘musth’ or worse, a ‘rogue’.’ Male elephants have these glands near their temples and once a year, these glands ooze a secretion. Its a sign that the bull is going through a phase where his sex-hormones are waging a crusade against his will, pushing him to seek a mate and sow his wild oats. Most such bulls, if they have found a mate wouldn’t bother people. But the ones that can’t find a mate or are driven out by another male give vent to their frustrations by knocking over trees, pulling out stone markers along forest paths and attacking people, cattle and carts. However, once this period is over, the elephant becomes as amiable as any other. But the rogue is the villain of the forest. Some do because they were shot at by people and even though the wound doesn’t kill them, the pain scars them and they seek vengeance. Others just become bullies. We have one in this part of the forest. Last year it entered ragi fields and ate up our crop. When we tried to stop him by bursting crackers, the bull refused to budge. Instead it chased us out of our fields. While we ran into the village, two brothers ran into a hut. The elephant reached the hut just as the brothers closed the door behind them. But the elephant didn’t give up. It rammed the hut and knocked a wall over. While one of the brothers escaped, the elephant knocked the other down, trampled him and then gored the now lifeless form a couple of times. Then it entered the village, smashed a few other huts, drank toddy from the pots in one of the houses and then knocked over some trees in our orchards.” A rogue, he says, is worse than a tornado.

By now, we had reached the high bank of the river and Sivan pointed at a dark boulder like shape that moved between the branches. ‘Mad Yanai!’ He whispered, meaning the rogue. The elephant was facing away from us. But what if it turns and charges, I asked Sivan. “If the trunk is straight, it’s a mock-charge... An elephant would never risk hurting its trunk during a charge so just stand your ground. But if it has its trunk rolled up and out of the way... run!. Climbing these short trees wouldn’t help so just run....” (I later read that taking sharp turns or running at right angles might help increase distance because while the elephant can outrun most humans, it isn’t good with corners. Also jumping across ditches or ravines might also deter the elephant because they aren’t keen on jumping).

As we walked away from the spot, I wondered what I would do if the elephant did charge. Sivan can take care of himself and I would back myself to run away from most elephants. But what about the wife, or my friend who was nursing a bad back. How easy would it be to run away knowing that the elephant was gaining on my wife or my friend? If I survived the chase, how would I live with the price I paid for my cowardice? On the other hand, could I really do much?

The walk back to camp was a torturous one. What would I do? What should I do? Finally I decided that I would do what we used to do in a game called cut the cake. Like tag, one chases and the other tries to escape but if one were to run between the two and ‘cut the cake’, the chaser now had to run behind the one who had cut the cake. I hoped the elephant too would remember the rules of the game if such an event were to come to pass. Although this reduced my chances, it was the only way I was going to run from an elephant....

Anyway, back to our little tryst with the bamboo eater(s?) this evening. As I edged closer to the sounds I tried to peer through the brush and see the animal. And then I saw it.... No not the animal, but the bushes parting. The elephant was moving towards me in a hurry. I still couldn’t see it but I heard a terrible trumpet and the sound was bearing down on me.... I gave up all thoughts of taking a picture... I did not wait to find out if the elephant was chasing or just running out of fear and I did not wait to find out the one thing I had sworn I would before running from an elephant and that is check if the trunk was rolled or straight. Call me a coward if you will, but I just ran without a second glance and I was happy...

Happy to be alive, happy for the rush in my veins and most of all happy that I had no cake to cut when I did get charged... I could still tell myself that when the time comes, I would still have the courage to cut the cake. And put that raised sarcastic brow to rest, will you? For now that we are so far away from the elephants, behind my glass table, I’m even more convinced that if push came to shove, I would cut any cake for love... Try me!