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!


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