By all accounts, Dilip was a man of skill and patience. That afternoon must have been an afternoon like every other. The slanting rays of a benign sun had lit up the shimmering leaves and warmed the wild waters just right for their daily dip. Dilip must have been looking forward to spending the afternoon with Shankar who had been his constant companion for nearly a year now.
Dilip must have playfully goaded Shankar a little on their walk to the water that day. Who knows what dark thoughts were triggered in that moment. Shankar’s crazed mind had been smouldering all day. All it needed was a little prodding from Dilip for all that passionate fury to explode. Shankar pulled Dilip from his shoulder and flung him to the ground. Shocked and startled, Dilip must have screamed out Shankar’s name in fear and hope. But Shankar was too far gone. All he knew was his bloodlust. His aching head and throbbing loins had driven him to the edge. He needed to bury his frustrations, either in an act of passionate love or reckless, mindless violence.
Dilip’s cries fell on ears deafened by the madness. His life-breath burst out of him as his organs collapsed and his once robust form was crushed as Shankar trampled the man who had cared for his every need during his time in Chandaka. Dilip’s heart rending scream pierced the darkening sky, setting the stage for a haunting silence that followed. But the dull thunk-thunk-thunk of a relentless Shankar flailing away at Dilip’s crumpled body went on for a while. Once he realized that the man was no more, Shankar stopped and stared balefully at the mangled corpse. One couldn’t tell if it was remorse or unquenched anger that still clouded Shankar’s beady eyes. As horrified onlookers who were too scared to intervene finally mustered enough courage to try and take Dilip away, Shankar threatened to dismember anybody who dared to come close.
The gigantic tusker stood over the mahout’s body, guarding it for hours, until forest officials managed to tranquilize the elephant and retrieve what remained of Dilip.
Shankar had a reputation as a mahout killer. `Dilip was his third victim. Training and riding elephants is a one of the world’s most hazardous professions. The very scale of the dynamics between puny human beings and the world’s largest land mammal, even with the elephants being as gentle as they can be makes fatal accidents nearly inevitable. Matters are compounded further when male captive elephants become ‘musth’, a seasonal state of extreme sexual arousal which when unrequited finds expression in testosterone charged violence and aggression. Usually male elephants secrete an oily liquid from their temporal glands and dribble urine constantly – signs that the mahouts should be wary and take extreme precautions…
Mahouts can go wrong with reading the signs. Dilip did, and paid for the oversight with his life last November.
I was worried about that while I drove towards the banks of the Yamuna. That’s where you would find Delhi’s haathiwallahs and I was due for a refresher course in elephant riding. I had had a few sessions in the art from a tiny master mahout with a big thick moustache. They called him Phool Singh. But Phool Singh and his elephant were out on ‘government duty’ I was told and so I had arranged for a few lessons with a neighbouring elephant camp.
To get to the camp, one had to drive off the road that bridged the banks of the once mighty Yamuna and onto a dirt track that led down a steep incline. The camp was basically a ramshackle shed with a pair of cots and dirty mouldy mattresses. Howdahs, elephant saddles, were stacked on top of each other. Charkatiyas, fodder cutters, and mahouts sat around a game of cards and the elephants, two tall females and one rather rotund juvenile swayed about like they were plugged into invisible ipods while in the distance, a massively muscled male with a domed head, chewed impassively on a stack of sugarcane. His creamy tusks were long and thick, sticking out like sabers from a phalanx. The tips had been sawed off and capped with rings. I wondered if it had been done because the behemoth had a penchant for sticking them into ‘soft targets’.
“kya chahiye babuji!’ Startled, I turned. I was so intent on taking in the sight of his immense magnificence that I didn’t notice the tall gaunt figure that had crept up behind me. Old worn leather sandals tied around veined feet and thick yellow toenails, a lungi draped around a pair of stork like legs, and a long loose kurta folded at the sleeves covered a lean but broad frame. A long henna dyed beard framed a wide mouth scattered with pop-corn like wobbly teeth, kohl lined eyes and a head shaved bald completed the picture of the man standing in front of me. I explained that I had called the previous day, given Phool Singh’s reference and mentioned that I wanted to learn how to ride and elephant. A slow realization dawned on the man. He nodded and he turned to his right to call out to one of the boys. But as he turned, I saw the left side of his head and I kid you not, a lesser man would have evacuated the contents of the day’s breakfast on the spot. It took a whole lot of choking back to hold things in. From a couple of inches behind his left temple, spanning the length of his skull ran an ugly gash. The skin had split open and I could see his skull, peeping out from behind. The wound had a yellowish hue, perhaps because of some turmeric based ointment or anti-biotic cream. He saw the involuntary grimace that try as I might, I couldn’t rub away and said “hathi ne mar diya… I was cleaning the area where the elephants are chained, sweeping with a broom while I had bent over, when the elephant just playfully knocked me over with its foot. The animal’s toe nail caught my head and ripped it open. There was so much blood and my head hurt so bad… didn’t think I would make it. Been two weeks now… It is ok now”
It’s an uneasy truce between man and elephant. Though revered by us for its association with the elephant headed god, Lord Ganesha, domestic elephants lead a rather wretched existence. Most might have enough to eat, but their feet catch infections in their confined quarters. The burning roads in summer, the noise and the pollution in our cities, the cramped living conditions and the cruel methods of catching and training these gentle giants drives these animals to the very edge of their sanity. The cruelest cut of all the isolation that these highly social and intelligent animals have to endure. Not only are they separated from their herd and family in captivity but even the primal instinct to roam is crushed under the weight of the heavy chains that constrict their freedom. Male elephants suffer even more when they are almost spread eagled with chains for days and weeks while they are in ‘musth’. Given the circumstances it is almost a miracle that many more mahouts don’t end up like Dilip.
One of the charkatiyas came up to me to lead me to the tusker, Bhola, who stood like a granite statue, with flapping ears. His mahout, Saif, a young lad barely out of his teens, was tying the howdah on his broad back. While the boy struggled with the ropes, the elephant ruffled his hair affectionately with his trunk. The boy pushed the trunk away, scolded the animal that towered over his frail frame and moved towards the tail. For a while the elephant played with a stick of cane and then as soon as the boy walked back towards the elephant’s flank, I could swear I saw an impish glint sparkle in the elephant’s eye as he dropped the cane and ruffled the boy’s hair again. The boy rebuked the elephant and pushed the trunk away but then softened, laughed and rubbed the big belly. The bull elephant let out a deep contented growl and curled his trunk around the boy’s wrist and got a few more pats for his effort.
I couldn’t imagine this pair ending up like Dilip and Shankar, and yet… and yet…
There were so many questions swirling in my head. How would I fit in with these two? What will happen to this boy when this elephant’s gone? It is illegal to buy and sell elephants now, so are these the last of their kind? The ancient art of training elephants is all but dead. Is that a good thing? So what happens to the mahouts? What happens to the domestic elephants? Where and how would Saif and Bhola, and why, even I, end up? As I clambered up the ropes on Bhola’s raised leg, I knew I was about to find more answers and a whole new point of view… Hut, hut… I felt slabs of muscle under Bhola’s pumice stone like skin move… The ground beneath starts flowing like a slow easy river... Hut! Hut! Will keep you posted… gotta go!