elephantine things


While trekking in Bhumthang in Bhutan some years ago, we asked our guide, a strapping Bhutanese, how to escape if we were to encounter a bear. He didn’t know. Sujaya remembered what someone had told her, that you should run in a wide zigzag, so as to beat the bear’s side vision. The bear can’t maneuver (so the theory) and will fall and roll down. We had laughed—what if it rolled down on you, and you went tumbling down together?

Now in Malnad, we’ve been asking people how to escape if we come upon elephants.

We ask because we see their large round footmarks in the tracks between the coffee; we see broken fences; dung; and some weeks ago, on a neighbor’s plantation, uncles and aunts and other elders of a baby elephant pulled out coffee for the baby to play with—they played a long time and they took good plants from two acres. I've not seen anger at the destruction the elephants cause though people do not conceal their fear. But, just once, Annaiah Gowdru, sitting in the back of my car, looked wistfully at a JCB earth-remover at work on a farm and wished to borrow it, to smack an elephant with it. “Chhe,” someone said, and all in the car had fallen silent.

Last week Nandeeshanna was taking us round his flawless plantation and we were admiring his rich green plants (no weed at at their feet, no kambada-chiguru on their stems, no disease in the leaves, the branches full of beans and limp from the weight) when his wife called and asked him to return home. It was only five but the light had waned. He obeyed her, though he said the elephants reach his plantation many hours after dusk, descending from a range of hills to the North-East of where we stood, trampling on the many plantations lying in their way from the hills to his estate. They say the elephants stick to the same path—set in their lifetime? In ancient times?

“Run,” is the only advice all have. Some agree that we should run zig-zag. If we’re in the car and their herd is crossing the road? “Switch on all the lights, blink continuously every light that can blink, and press and hold down the horn button.” I’m not so sure. If I were an elephant, I’d smash the car that's being a nuisance in that fashion in the forest.

Nandeeshanna goes to the Planters Club on Sundays, where he permits himself some whisky and plays rummy until eleven. “I’ve asked him to stop,” his wife told us in his presence yesterday. Nandeeshanna is disciplined to a fault, so she has no fear of what his weekly rummy and whisky will do to him. She is afraid that the elephants will do him down at midnight.