Born to be wild and free


An encounter with elephants is not an everyday affair. And yet elephant stampedes are not uncommon to come by. A report about the invasion of wile elephants at Midnapore recently, took me back in years, to my teenage days.

Elephants still roamed the jungles in plenty then, in the thick rain forests of the Western Ghats. To get anywhere from Mangalore, one had to traverse through the famous ghats of Charmadi, Shiradi, Agumbe and Bisale. The roads were narrow and rickety, with landslides galore.

But those were days filled with action and adventure, the wild bunch on the coffee estate used to regale us with stories of valour and courage.

It was on one of those nights that I heard the story about a newly-married ' planter' who had taken his bride for a stroll in the jungle bamboo cluster. Suddenly, they were accosted by a rogue elephant. The young bride screamed. With it trunk, the rogue lofted the girl high and threw her to the ground.

By exhibiting a rare presence of mind that comes only from a long association with jungle life, the husband took off his shirt and attracted the elephant's attention before it lifted its foot to crush her, drew it away from its victim to the shirt that he had manated to hang on a bamboo plant.

He quickly lifted his battered wife to the safety of the car and drove away, to live and tell the tale to his grandchildren.

My first brush with wile elephants was in the sixties. I was in the jeep with my father driving back home after collecting the annuals spoils from our lands. An overturned truck lay on its side in the middle of a narrow bridge which meant that we had to take a long detour.

Dusk was approaching as we bounced along the muddy road. Just as we neared to stream which was flowing over the road at an unbridged culvert, we stopped dead in our tracks. For silhouetted against the bend in the jungle road, was a single elephant.

The tusker sauntered over majestically, inspected the jeep, and exhibited its displeasure by thrashing its trunk on the bonnet. This time too, my father, using his instinct switched on the headlights, statling the animal to veer to the side. That was the moment he was looking for. My father stepped on the accelerator and drove non-stop till we reached the estate, three hours later.

The last encounter was during a posting in Sikkim in the late seventies, which was even more frightening. I was visiting a young couple in an army camp somewhere on the Siliguri-Guwahati highway with my wife and two children. Out hosts lived in an improvised tin shed, with tin sheets for wall and roof. It served them as a living, dining and bedroom, with the kitchen thrown in at one corner.

No sooner had we retired for the night when the ground began to shake and the night was filled with the thunderous pound of while elephants running and screeching. The house began to sway and suddenly, to our horror, we saw a wall being torn away in the stampede. In a matter of minutes, the invading tornado had passed not more than two to three feet away from us.

The Whole camp had come alive by then with 'marshals' and a lot of drumming with we later learnt was regular drill for scaring the elephants. While we suffered no injury, there were casualties in the camp.

The most vociferious complaint came form the quarter master, whose liquor stocks had been smashed. Apparently, elephants have a healthy attraction to alcohol.

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