My friend Vishweswaraiah once told me a Kannada proverb: One attains wisdom only by reading and travelling. But for the first condition, I would have been a wise man by now.
On joining the audit department of our bank, I travelled continuously for two years. Should you care to accompany me, I can take you from the Chandragiri River in North Kerala to the bhul-bhulaiah in Lucknow to the city of Pune teeming with scooters ridden by lovely young women, which made the prospect of being knocked down on the road rather attractive. I can tell you the true story of a magician who took an equipment loan from our bank. He thanked the manager, shook hands, and vanished, never to be seen again. Or maybe, I’ll tell you the story of a distraught elephant in Parambikulam, although my stodgy prose is unequal to the task of describing the breathtaking beauty of a tropical rain forest washed by moonlight.
I was in Chittur-Palakkad in North Kerala. The Head Cashier of our bank there was lovingly called “Swami” by all. He looked a saintly sixty or thereabout, with a mane of silver hair and many lines criss-crossing his face; but he looked old only until he smiled, which he did often. A smile erased years and decades from his handsome face and turned him into a young man.
One day during the lunch break, I told him and his deputy, Sreeram that I would love to visit a jungle near Palakkad. It was a casual remark and I soon forgot about it. But after a few days Sreeram said a jeep had been hired, a forest bungalow booked, and six of us would be on our way to Parambikulam the following Saturday afternoon.
For the statistically oriented, Parambikulam is a 285 square kilometres wild life sanctuary 110 kilometres away from Palakkad. It is dotted with dams and reservoirs and mostly consists of teak trees, partly natural and partly commercial forestry. One of the chief attractions of the forest is the giant Konnemara teak. It is one of the tallest and oldest trees in India.
Our driver Raju was a wiry young man with a huge curling moustache and a matching fierce look. He could have been the twin of the notorious poacher and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, maybe separated at birth. Though he looked scary, I felt we couldn’t have had a more reassuring man to drive us through a forest. But appearances can be deceptive. This would be proved once again during our trip.
The Wild Life Warden’s office at Thoonakadavu overlooks a picturesque dam. By the time we reached there, the sun was going down. The bungalow reserved for us was at Thellikal, a marshy area deep inside the forest frequented by herbivores. The Warden gave us a guide and told us to go to the bungalow immediately. He also asked us not to drive during the night as it was not safe for us, and more importantly, inconvenient to the animals. “In the jungle,” a poster proclaimed, “the animal has the right of way”.
As we were about to leave, the warden casually mentioned that an old male elephant had been recently dislodged from his herd and harem by a stronger, younger bull. The former was out in the open, unattached, lonesome and distraught. These single bulls often turn into rouges and we had to avoid him at all costs.
As we reached the Peruvazhipallam dam after a short drive, the jungle had been lit up by a gorgeous yellow twilight. The dam had a blue expanse of water on one side and bluer hills on the other, where our destination nestled. We had to take a jungle road, the entry to which was barred by a padlocked chain. At this point, our guide said he had forgotten to bring the key. (After all, he was a government employee!) A few of us stayed there as the jeep went back to collect the key. We sat under a banyan tree and watched night descend softly on the jungle. In the gathering darkness we also saw some moving bushes beside the river far away. Elephants drinking water, frolicking.
By the time we crossed the chain dividing civilization and the rapidly shrinking rest of the world, it was pitch dark. The jungle path was rough, narrow, undulating. It was closely hugged by lush foliage on either side.
The jeep was rolling down the hill gently and we were close to the stream beside which we had seen the elephants a little earlier. But for the headlights, darkness prevailed all around. From the soft rustling of water seeping through the whirr of the engine, we knew we were near the river.
Suddenly we heard loud trumpeting by elephants right next to us. Raju lost his nerve and swerved wildly, away from the sound. The jeep went off the road and nearly fell on its side.
The minor mishap was soon forgotten as we met some lovely animals. First, it was a tiny rabbit caught in the headlight beam. Scared, he ran furiously ahead of our jeep. He was too panicked to turn right or left. We had to stop and switch off the lights to end the unequal contest between a tiny child of Nature and human technology.
Next came a family of bison. A few luminous eyes reflecting the headlight soon revealed two huge gaurs and a little calf with humped backs and thin legs with white stockings. They looked quite different from the bison seen in zoos. Animals in captivity are not their real selves. The bison watched us intently for a long moment, crossed the path and swiftly vanished into the wood. One expected such huge creatures to be clumsy. But they moved with the effortless grace of a leaf caught in a winter breeze.
It started raining. Our jeep jerked along from one ditch to another. We were about two kilometres away from our destination on a straight road when we saw the elephant. He was alone, walking ahead of us slowly. We stopped, kept the lights and engine on and watched him move away from us. One of his tusks was seen from the side, glistening in rain and the headlight. Our guide explained that he was the unattached bull the Warden had warned us about. The pachyderm moved on and was not seen after a while.
We waited for a long time before cautiously restarting our journey. Nothing happened until we saw him again. Presently, he was walking towards us. Caught in the headlight beam, he looked magnificent. He walked towards us with the quiet grace of someone who knew he was the master of the situation. Perhaps he had no malice, but there was no way to check. Neither was it possible to find out how badly he was upset by the recent turmoil in his conjugal life.
The night was dark, the uneven jungle path slippery after the rain, and there was no space to turn the jeep. A huge tusker was coming nearer and nearer, with his tusks pitching and his trunk swinging like the hand of Fate. The overcast sky and the dark jungle behind him paled into insignificance as the impossibly large elephant loomed over us, covering the entire windshield. A line from Kenneth Anderson flashed through my mind: “It is okay if you meet a herd of elephants in the jungle. But beware of the single elephant. He could be dangerous.”
This time, no one could fault Raju if he panicked. He put the vehicle on the reverse gear, but released the clutch too quickly. The engine stalled ... the elephant was right over us, held back for the moment, possibly by the heat of the engine ... Swami, who was between me and the driver, caught Raju by his collar and shook him until he recovered his wit.
Each moment seemed like an eternity. Eventually, Raju managed to start the car on the reverse. He drove like mad towards complete darkness on a slushy, uneven path. If the elephant didn’t get us, our driver would. This fast forward on the reverse continued for a fairly long time until the people sitting behind shouted in unison and the jeep stopped with a violent jerk, dangerously close to a precipice.
Much later, we were able to reach the bungalow, an ancient tiled building surrounded by a moat. The ground beneath our feet was covered by a thick layer of soggy leaves. We stepped on a flimsy log to cross the moat. The mysterious bungalow stood like the last signpost of a forgotten civilization. By then, the moon had stopped playing hide-and-seek with mischievous clouds. A gibbous moon was greeted by tall trees that threw mysterious rivers of moonlight below. Crickets provided the orchestral score for a song whispered by wind blowing through leaves.
The teak trees were hundreds of years old, many of them taller that ten storeyed buildings. This is how the forest was hundreds of years ago. This is how it should be hundreds of years from now. Mother Nature stood before us in her primeval beauty. The twentieth century lost its meaning.
We sat outside the bungalow with the mandatory rum and Coke. All of us, including the most prosaic man in our group, agreed that it would be a crime to sleep on such a night.