The elephants are coming

Christmas morning. I wake up tired of tinsel and the spirit of the season - fairy lights, shopping mall Santas and 50% off sales …there is a state-owned bus to Wayanad at eight in the morning.

It's a day bus; semi-deluxe, non air-conditioned and besides who would travel on Christmas Day, except someone seriously considering escape.

On the other side of the aisle is a couple. She in her twenties. He in his forties. Nicely dressed; surreptitious glances.

A quick dekko as soon as they get in to check if there are any familiar faces…the relief when they realize they needn't worry about being spotted.

I grin to myself. They are running away from the reality of their lives too!

The countryside flees past. But I concentrate on the couple. He his India Today. She her Femina. Two headphones, one Walkman. Hands linked, cheeks nestled against each other. They have about them the contained smugness of new love. When she falls asleep on his shoulder, he turns his face towards her and presses little kisses down. I turn my eyes away feeling like an intruder and meet the eyes of the lady conductor.

She has had a busy morning; a child threw up and the parents pretended not to notice. When they wouldn't listen to her quiet entreaties to clean up the mess, she did so herself. Both the seat and the child. Another couple behind me grumble in Hinglish on her behalf: indignation at the parents callousness, their lack of manners... But the father peeled an orange and the mother shook her jhumkies and both stared resolutely into the distance. And the lady conductor smiled. I wonder if a male conductor would have been so forgiving.

At lunchtime, the man across the aisle wants the bus to stop at a new restaurant after Nanjangud. The bus driver refuses. He pulls up at a little shack after Gundulpet. There is smoke and grime on its walls but it is packed with passengers from another bus.

The couple and I share a table. They share a plate and feed each other little flakes of fried fish. I settle for egg curry, parotas and watching them. The egg curry resembles in colour, texture and aroma the fish curry and mutton curry that is being eaten at the next table. But I say nothing. Besides the meal with a cup of strong coffee cost me less than twenty rupees.

It is early evening when we cross the Karnataka-Kerala border. The lady conductor wakes me up. "One hour more," she says.

Coming along the mountain roads, I don't notice the electric fences. Perhaps there is nothing about it that suggests the extraordinary. At least in the beginning.

But gradually, kilometres of barbed wire hovering constantly in the periphery of vision create a new atmosphere. A darkness, a weight in the air, a feeling of presence; everything seem to suggest there is an elephant, a single rogue male, lurking behind this thicket of trees, that clump of bamboo. In Wayanad, I encounter Andy Warhol's theory of 15 minutes of fame.

In Wayanad, the road to celebrityville begins with the elephant. Everyone, almost everyone has an elephant tale to tell. Elephant wisdom to disseminate; elephant theories to propound and an I-don't-know-how-I-lived-to-tell-you-this-encounter with an elephant.

Bathery town [Or Sultan's Battery, the last outpost of the district] is just another small town in Kerala. Its uniqueness doesn't extend beyond the kinnath appam. A steamed pudding made of rice flour, jaggery and coconut milk, the kinnath appam is available is just two of the many shops that flank either side of the main street which also is the highway. However Bathery has plenty of everything else: plastic buckets, duck eggs, jewellery, cast iron skillets and purple seedless grapes from Sangli. Add to this the knowledge that the shops are just a façade. Behind it is the jungle, a dark slumbering beast. During the day, monkeys dart through its leafy limbs. At night, it comes alive with a stealthiness. Branches splinter under its heavy feet. A jackal yowls.

A report comes in of a lone tusker sighted at Anjham Miles[literally the fifth mile stone].

In the clear light of the day, courage surfaces easily. I coerce my hosts, a veterinary surgeon and his wife whom I call Mad Mama and Amayi into a day trip. There is much to choose from. All the 344.44 s km of Wayanad is a forest sanctuary. Twenty-five kilometres away is Pulpalli, a place whose claim to fame even if dubious is distinct. In the forest surrounding the region, once Che Guevara and Castro reigned through disillusioned and angry young rebels. In 1969, Ajitha, one of the demi-goddesses of the Naxalite movement in Kerala massacred several policemen and left the impression of her bloodied palm on the walls of the Pulpalli Police Station.

We settle for the Chethalayam range. At Anjam miles, the road curves around a thick bamboo copse. On either side, the wooded slopes lead to more dense forests. Though it is noon, a thin mists hangs in the air. Mad mama points out fresh elephant dung. And suddenly I am spooked into consciousness of the tusker's presence.

The air begins to throb. The hairs behind my neck begin to prickle. "What is that noise?" I ask.

"That is the sound of my cattle shaking their heads!" A man sitting a little away explained.

Pebbles are inserted into bamboo cylinders and hung around the cattle's necks. When the animal moves, it causes a sound that will linger long after the note is struck. "It scares the panthers and tell me where they are," he added.

Ravunni Chetty is wearing a paint-splattered shirt and faded khaki shorts, and a pair of scuffed plastic shoes. But there is to him a dignity, an aura of quiet strength. This is a man who has faced death many times over and knows that the only way to escape it is to deceive it by stepping into the shadows. "No abrupt movements; that's what scares the elephant and prompts it to attack!"

He has his share of hunting narratives. I sit on a stump and listen while Ravunni leans against a tree, exhaling beedi smoke and memories. Of those times when he could walk into the forest with a gun early in the afternoon and return only after he had meat for the entire village. "These days, these forest chaps are so strict that you can't even aim at the moon," his mouth splits into a wry grin.

"See that," he says pointing to a giant anthill. "You'll find the finest honey inside that. Why don't you come back next week for the temple festival in my village? I'll keep some honey for you and if you want I'll take you deep into the forest." The promises come one after the other. The last bid of a man to pass on to the world his understanding and love for the forest; a father who can't hide his disappointment or understand why his sons, a Drawing teacher, a barber and a bus cleaner, turned their backs to the forest.

Ravunni Chetty belongs to one of the original inhabitants of Wayanad - the Chettys. The other being the Adivasis. But is difficult to get a sense of the native population. Everywhere are the plantations and migrants. Yet there is unseen, this overshadowed mountain population ledged on the slopes and in the crevices. In the wider valleys are the specially created Adivasi colonies where tamed and shackled, Adivasis thrive on handouts.

Malayalam newspapers burgeon with reports of atrocities committed against the Adivasis. Young girls raped; men beaten up; land seized by bourgeois estate 'mothalalis'…in Wayanad you hear another version. "They know they are a large vote bank and exploit it ruthlessly. They shirk work and hang around expecting us to feed them for doing nothing. Even the police won't interfere if they get into a brawl with you. Look at that," an acquaintance says, pointing to an Adivasi woman lying on the side of the road in a drunken stupor. "Even if all I did was to help her to her feet, tomorrow, I'll be hauled up for molesting her!"

I have been here almost three days and I still haven't seen an elephant. A friend of Mad mama's, Dr J, appoints himself our tour guide and we set out to explore the Muthanga range. Dr J has fey brown eyes that'll mesmerize until you realize he's cracked yet another joke. We drive into the forest. A herd of deer crosses the road. Peacocks, wild fowl, more deer …"Where are the elephants?" I demand.

"Don't tempt fate," Dr J says. "The last time I did, I ran for my life. Two days ago, I was at the watchtower watching the elephants. On our way back, the jeep's engine shut off. So the driver began raising the throttle. That must have irritated an elephant that had wandered away from the herd and he began running towards us. " He paused. "I've never run like that in my life. And then he…" he added, scathingly, pointing to the grinning armed guard, "wanted me to climb a tree. I said I'd rather let the elephant gore me than try climbing a tree!"

Dr J drives towards a watering hole. We don't have to wait for long. Twigs snap and branches part. All we have between the elephants and us is water and a few feet of marshy slush. Thirteen elephants. One bull, seven cows and five calves. The cows flank the lone bull like elephant folklore claims, they would. They stand knee deep in water causing giant ripples. One of the cows stare at us and charges a few feet forward only to brake abruptly. Some minutes later, the herd leaves. "They'll return once we are gone," Dr J says, hastening me to the jeep. "How would you like it if a bunch of people stared at you as you bathed?"

Night comes quickly to Wayanad. There is a strange clear beauty of form about the mountains of Wayanad. They are large, imposing and grimly handsome. They stand set back shrouded in a clear frosty air as if each one of them would isolate itself further and forever from the landscape. Giant shadow hold the damp blue mountains in its grip.

The moon has a devilish cast to it. There is a sense of momentariness and expectation.

It seemed as though some dramatic occurrence was about to take place. An upheaval, an explosion, a furrowing of the horizon…all I knew was I was glad I would be part of it.

Read other travelogues


Indian Journeys, Penguin India 2001

Related Links





   Copyright© 2001-2005 Anita Nair. E-mail Anita