Night of the elephant


Last weekend, we finally saw our first elephant at the farm.

Until now, it’s been a case of ‘by their works shall ye know them’. Every time we are at the farm, we tell ourselves: tonight’s the night! But not a whisker of an elephant have we seen. We’ve found elephant dung galore, we’ve heard far off trumpeting, we’ve had the insides of our banana trees neatly sucked out, our paddy field laid waste, and our fences knocked over. We’ve seen and heard neighbouring farmers flashing their torches and bellowing from hilltop to hilltop to scare away the elephants that come rampaging into the ragi fields. Not a peep from the raiders themselves, though. I’ve always heard that elephants are very silent creatures, that can creep up on you without your ever knowing it. I once asked Rajendra about this, and he told me they do really walk very silently. But the trick is to listen for the other sounds they make: flapping their ears or breaking off branches from the trees. That’s the trouble with all these temple festivals, he complained – they make such a racket that you can’t hear the animals.

One time, a herd of elephants walked right past our house, driven by the forest rangers, but we couldn’t see them because it was too dark. It was such a disappointment that, the next morning, we foolishly followed the elephants into the forest. Our guide was a villager called Anand, who is considered an authority on elephants. We walked miles into the forest, and at last saw the herd at a distance, eating bamboo and strewing mud over themselves. Fortunately they were not interested in us. I don’t know what possessed us that day. We generally believe that the best policy with elephants is to stay far away and leave them alone.

To get back to the present. It is almost harvest time, though there isn’t much to harvest this year, owing to the drought. Very few farmers actually have a crop to guard, but they are guarding it extra vigilantly. It was quite early in the night when we heard shouts and saw lights flashing. We charged upstairs to watch for elephants from the roof. And this is the sight that met our eyes: three men (including the intrepid Rajendra) were chasing the elephant away from the ragi fields, armed with only their torches. My mother, meanwhile, was so distressed by the plight of the elephant that she kept calling out – poor thing! don’t shine a light on it! At first, the elephant trumpeted angrily at the men. It was terrifying to watch, but fortunately they had the sense to flee. Then it turned and ambled off to find some other, unguarded, field. The three men ended up in our house. We didn’t know whether to admire their courage, deplore their foolhardiness, or be proud of the way people and animals manage to coexist in this country.

That scene will remain etched forever in my memory. I’ve tried to capture the power, the wildness, the darkness, the primitive feeling in this painting. I’m no artist, and an even worse photographer. And anyway, I didn’t have my mobile phone on me when the whole thing happened. So this doesn’t even come close, but it’s a record of sorts.


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