Once Upon a Time on Elephant-back


like dripping light sprinkled my body.

and a Khalij startlingly drew a

black line with its flight.

the lantana used its thorns to

protest against the invasion;

the shrike balanced on the tip of the

overloaded sarkanda…

somewhere the king moved and the langur

hacked its warning in tune

with the barking dear.

the jungle froze and with bated breath

i wait.

the moment passes.

It was getting a bit annoying – not being able to do our work because of the hordes of tourists that seemed to take over the place! No elephants were available for us to cross the river. The garbage around the riverbanks had to be cleaned soon.

Looking at the human animals, I wondered about the Homo Sapiens’s selfish and unreasonable fight for space with the world’s wildlife, which has to contend with hunting, poaching, pollution, pesticides – and most important, the loss of habitat. Very often, determination of dedicated people is all that stands between an endangered species and extinction. But why do they bother? Why should we bother about the tiger? Does it really matter if the tiger becomes an extinct species in India? Yes it does. Every animal and plant is an integral part of the environment… with a major role to play in maintaining the ecological stability of his or her delicate environment. Conservation is very much in tune with our own survival… the world would be a lonelier, poorer place without them.

Hoots of shrill laughter interrupted my musings. Looking across the chaur, I spotted Anarkali, the cow-elephant returning from the forest with a group of tourists.

“Kuch dikha?” I asked the mahout, as the elephant came towards me.

“Sirf hiran aur junglee sooar”, whined the man in the designer jungle-suit, “Hum toe tiger dhekhne aaye theh!”

Anarkali blew an agitated “paruuff” and I exchanged a private look with the mahout. His dark and angry face betrayed his thoughts. How could these people ever expect to see anything with the noise they must have made during the trip? They were lucky to spot the ‘hiran and junglee sooar’, and also fortunate that the mahout had been able to control Anarkali’s nervousness.

I feel that all those who visit National Parks, Sanctuaries and Reserves must undergo a day’s orientation programme on ‘human behaviour’, before they are allowed to enter.

Anyway, here I was with time on my hand and tigers on my mind.

Well, one particular tiger!

Rahim Chacha, Rambha’s mahout had spotted Badshah’s pugmarks across the north chaur towards the watchtower. Yes, THE Badshah! There was general excitement in the air as

Badshah was the elusive tiger – a massive beast known for its majestic size and craftiness. Few had sighted him but many had heard his roar that curdled the blood and turned firm legs into jelly! Known for his stealth, this big cat’s stories were narrated by the elderly mahouts. It was believed that Badshah was a forest spirit. Remarkably, there were no stories of Badshah ever attacking any human. The old hands of the jungle gave him the respect he deserved.

Those who were fortunate to spot Badshah spoke in hushed and awed tones of its size and power. Rahim Chacha was the only mahout who had seen the animal. According to him, the tiger had materialised out of no-where and looked at him, as if asking a question – wanting to know what Rahim was doing in his domain?

Chacha was the one to give the tiger the name Badshah. He would also whisper a prayer each time he narrated this incident and in the same breath blessed Rambha for standing firm.

That night, little Razia, Chacha’s granddaughter came over to inform me that Rambha would be free the following evening. I was overjoyed with the prospect of the tourists leaving and the elephant available. I had been rather dismayed with the authorities’ decision to deny us the elephant. More so, because the re-allocation was based on the fact that it had ‘politically more important’ trips to undertake… daughter of some high-ranking government official was on a visit with her incredibly noisy Hindu College classmates. Later, a mahout had complained of being thrust into a potentially dangerous situation during a forest trip, when the said collegians disregarded the mahout’s advice.

There was another VIP family too, with a gun-toting security guard. It was ludicrous to watch the overweight MLA and his entourage being followed everywhere by the gunman!

By 3 o’clock in the afternoon the forest seemed to settle down. I made my way to Chacha’s house. Rambha had just returned from the river after her bath and her skin was glistening. She had been given a good scrub by a stone. Her eyes were twinkling and her gait was sensuous. She kept blowing air gently and stayed as close as possible to Chacha. I have always marvelled at this wonderful relationship between the elephants and their mahouts!

“Huzoor! Nadi kal paar Karengay,” said Chacha, “Charakat bimaar hai aur jungle janaa parega.”

I was still contemplating this new eventuality, when Chacha asked, “ Aap saath chalengay?”

My blatant glee was so obvious that Chacha could not suppress his smile and tried to hide his amusement by filling his mouth with tobacco.

We set out on Rambha around 4 o’clock and crossed the slightly elevated ridged valley that has the river coursing through it, breaking into many subsidiary streams running in all directions to cut-up the sandy, shingley valley bed into innumerable little ridges and ravines. The nullahs and ravines that go deep into the tree forests are of great importance to the animals. These hold brake of bamboo along their margins and also thick shrub growth, useful both as fodder and as cover.

Chital scattered out of our way and then cautiously resumed their grazing. A wild boar snorted somewhere and a jungle fowl scuttled in the undergrowth. It felt good to be here. I shifted my position to adjust to the elephant’s gait and slowly allowed myself to listen to the forest.

Into the thick Sal forest, Rambha ambled through thick and thorny lantana, occasionally pausing to inspect an interesting tree. Her trunk would then coil around to snap-off juicy branches.

Suddenly, I realised that the forest had become very silent and Chacha’s quick hand gesture held me back from asking any question. I saw him tighten his grip on the rope and push his feet firmly behind Rambha’s ears.

The sound of the langur’s hack made my hair stand on edge. Chacha pointed to his right and I strained my eyes to see what he had seen. A sambar called out a warning adding to the langur’s agitation. Rambha was nervous and Chacha bent forward to murmur soothing sounds into her ear. The forest went deeper into a strange silence and I crept close to Chacha.

“Tiger hai.” He said.

A shiver of delight and fearful anticipation rippled through me. My throat was so dry that I could barely croak my question, “Kidhar?”

“Saamne wale nulleh mein shaayad.”

Our hushed conversation was brutally interrupted by the alarm call of the kakar – not once but twice and then we heard a sharp yelp of pain

“Shikar pakaraa hai…” was all that the mahout could say when the forest pulsated with a deep roar of a tiger. This even caught Chacha by surprise and Rambha let out a terrifying trumpet and bolted further into the undergrowth.

Hanging on to my dear life and one end of the charpai on Rambha’s back, I saw Chacha use all his experience in trying to control the elephant. The branches slashed my faced as the elephant continued its run. I closed my eyes and soon lost track of directions. Chacha had Rambha under control within minutes but to me it seemed like hours.

We had come out onto the sandy bank of a nullah and Rambha suddenly found a tempting leaf to chew upon. It was, as if, she had never made the charge!

Just as I was about to breathe easy, a jab from Rahim Chacha nearly toppled me down. Calmly pouring some tobacco in his mouth, he nodded to his left.

There were fresh pugmarks!

“Ekdam fresh hai,” was Chacha’s observation, adding with awe, “Badshah key lagte hain.”

By now, having managed to regain my composure, softly asked him to follow the pugmarks.

Chacha looked at me for a moment and then with a deep sigh, commented, “Aapko bhi fitoor hai!”

And it was this ‘Fitoor’ of ours that prompted us to continue our tryst with Badshah. Chacha swiftly guided Rambha away from her snack down the nullah. He kept his eyes on the pugmarks and watched the surroundings too – with great care.

“Takdeer mein likha hoga tabhi Badshah dikhega,” Chacha said softly.

“Uska koi bharosa nahin,” he added, “hum par nighah hogi uski.”

We followed the pugmarks for a few meters going south towards the water hole. Then like magic the pugmarks disappeared…there just weren’t anymore! It was as if the tiger had leapt into the air and vanished. We went around in a widening circle trying to find some pugmarks. It was in vain.

Backtracking to the nullah we heard a sound from the lantana undergrowth and Rambha froze into her tracks and her trunk went up to sniff the air suspiciously.

A young chital shot out of the undergrowth. Its left flank was bleeding with the flesh hanging loose. We could clearly see the claw marks and the glistening blood. It seemed to have somehow escaped being caught by the tiger.

I had never seen anything like this in my life before. The question was…where was Badshah?  And, was it really Badshah?

I wanted to continue the ‘hunt’, but Chacha’s word was final and probably correct.

“Jungle key aur Badshah key meharbani hai huzoor,” philosophised Chacha, adding, “Usko akela chor do.” Stranger things have happened and one learns never to question the wild.

It would soon get dark too and we had yet to collect the fodder.

Convinced that Badshah had once again made its presence felt we left the area to its rightful owner, hoping that it would continue to visit us in future. Another story would now be added about this magical beast.

As we approached home, drained out with an experience that the two of us would share, I thought about the bond between us. It reminded me of the time when this tigress had approached the water hole………but, that is another story!

( First published in the Sunday Mid-day, Mumbai)

3 Responses to “Once Upon a Time on Elephant-back”

  1. August 14, 2009 at 8:44 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post – cannot wait for the next one!

  2. October 21, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    What a gripping read that was! So do tell – did you ever catch sight of the elusive Badshah?

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