I do not remember when I saw my first elephant. Perhaps it isn’t possible to grow up on the subcontinent and see an elephant for the “first time”. As in the Buddhist legend, one feels an awareness of these beasts co-emerged with you from the womb. India is not an unfriendly place to be an animal. A careless zoophilia is woven into almost all aspects of life. It is accepted that monkeys will photobomb your vacations, that stray dogs will patrol your research institutions, that cows will stand where they choose to stand, that parrots will interfere in love affairs, and so on.
The limits of this zoophilia is what is at stake in Dhruba Hazrika’s Elephant Country. In the story, set in Assam, a herd of elephants block a road connecting a village to the larger world. The situation turns into a crisis, and the local magistrate, a woman, is faced with a stark choice.
Of course, the elephant might say it is we who have blocked its roads, destroyed its habitat and thrown its very existence into question. Dhruba Hazarika’s story warns us, I think, that it is up to us whether we will be the last generation to see the elephant.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
It was now the second day since the elephants had taken over the road. There were twelve of them and they had hunkered down, and on a stretch that was on wider and slightly higher ground, a low hillock, so that the occupied portion was not as soggy as it was at the lower elevation where the rice stalks grew in the wide-open paddy fields. At times, an elephant or two would saunter down the dirt road southwards towards the village, less than two furlongs away, and then, swerving right, enter a forest, uprooting, and carrying back to the herd, banana trees that grew in abundance.
On either side of the road the rains had turned the fields muddy, and at least three feet deep, and, therefore, even if one tried to circle around, it meant being sucked in, with every step taken, right up to one’s waist while covering the 500-odd metres between the village and to some place safe beyond where the elephants had settled down. Because of this no man or woman had been able to enter or leave the village. It was the only road connecting the village to the national highway five kilometres north.
That evening the forest ranger stepped into the circuit house compound and waited for the magistrate to come out to the veranda. It was dark. Down by the river the waters gurgled as bats flapped their way among the tall, gnarled, leafy ahot trees.
When she emerged from her room, the ranger said, “They simply do not move, Baideo. It’s the second day. Those who want to return to the village are camping in a basti, a furlong-and-a-half from the elephants.” He blurted, “It’s best to use firearms.”
“Firearms?” said the executive magistrate. She was short and dark and round-faced with her hair drawn back, tight, from the forehead. In all the times he had met her not once had he seen her smiling. From inside the room came the whirring of a fan, the long thin curtains on the doorway fluttering listlessly.
The ranger slapped a gamusa against his neck. The mosquitoes never left you. In summer or winter. The sweat had pockmarked his face and then dripped down to his chest. It was not that he was bedraggled when it came to dress sense but right now he looked like a man who had stepped out of a swamp.
“Didn’t you use the dhols, the drums?’ the magistrate enquired. It was a raspy voice, of someone who had far too much nicotine in the throat, or maybe she had just recovered from a cold. Close to the door were three cane chairs but she kept standing. In the light from the bulb in the veranda, she looked drawn, as if having woken from a night of bad sleep.
“We used them, Baideo,’ the ranger said. “It didn’t work.” She stared at him; and, suddenly, embarrassed for no reason, he coughed unnecessarily.
“Sometimes a few of them shift positions and sometimes one or two go into that forest and come back with banana stems. But otherwise, you cannot move them.” He sighed, his eyes taking in the tiny silver ring on her nostril. “Fifteen years I have been on field duty. But nothing like this.”
“I see,” said the magistrate. “And the firecrackers?” She was dressed in a white salwar kameez without a dupatta and he tried not to look at her breasts, firm and pointed with a faint outline of nipples against the fabric.
“Firecrackers, too. These last two days. We hardly have any more sticks.”
“I see,” said the magistrate once more.
For a while, there was silence save the sound of water lapping against the bank. It was clammy, the air still and heavy. The rains had stopped sometime in the afternoon and for an hour after you could breathe without the sweat crowding your eyes or your mouth. Then the clamminess came in dripping; mocking your attempts at restoring whatever freshness you had felt but seconds ago. But there was nothing you could do about it.
Tiny droplets ran down the magistrate’s temples. She was a thinking person, had always been one, not much given to words and now the silence added, or seemed to add, more depth to her. “How many elephants?” she asked.
“Twelve,” the forest ranger said. He was trying not to stare at her nipples, marble-small, and taut under the lights. He looked away. “We climbed a coconut tree and counted. They are bunched up on the top of a slope on the road. Could be more.”
“The leader? You could pinpoint the leader?”
“A big one, a cow, Baideo, but there’s another female as well.” He felt the sweat under his armpits, against his thighs, knew he was carrying that acrid smell that had become a part of his life, a smell his wife had somehow been able to tolerate. Almost unconsciously, he took a step away from the magistrate. “I think there are two groups. They banded together.”
“Strange,” she said. She ran a forefinger over her nose and the warden saw the shine on the ring as her nostrils flared momentarily. “Something’s very strange.”
“Very strange,” the ranger echoed. He wiped his face once again, his back against the railing.
Because she was a thinking person, she said, “Any accidents? You know; that railway track near the highway? I get reports of injuries.”
She’s no fool, he thought, and because he had for a while forgotten about it himself he looked guiltily at his mud-caked boots. “A villager saw one of them, a cow, limping up the slope the day before. Around dusk. Could be an injury.”
“I see,” she said. “You have the tranquillizers?”
“We have them, Baideo,” he said. “But she isn’t badly injured. She can walk.”
“Even so,” she said, wearily, he thought.
The heat was pricking him now, a sweat of another kind spilling the next words from him. “We need to clear that road tonight, Baideo,” he breathed out. “Or, by tomorrow morning.”
The light in the veranda blinked twice; then steadied. A moth hummed towards the bulb, struck it head-on and, stunned, fell to the floor. A twig from a tree awning over the river plopped into the waters below. “Tonight? Something urgent?”
“A man from the village wound through the paddy fields in the afternoon. Took him two hours through that slush.” He wiped his neck with the gamusa and wanted to say, I am tired, I want to sit. But, instead, he said, “There’s a woman in labour. Long past her time. Needs a doctor urgently. It has to be a Caesarean.”
The magistrate turned around, her eyes scanning the darkness outside, her breathing long-drawn, deep, and then she faced the ranger once again, “There’s no way out from the other side? From behind the village? From the reserve forest?”
“No, Baideo,” he replied quickly. “That forest is six kilometres wide, eight kilometres long. Thick with trees, undergrowth. Leopards, wild boar, snakes. East and west of the forest are the wide grasslands, now flooded. To the north, it leads to another village. No doctors there. Even if there is one, it is not possible to carry a pregnant woman all the way. There are only hunting tracks, narrow paths. Slippery and would make for very difficult passage. The rains. Fallen trees, branches every few metres.” He straightened himself, his lean muscular body akin to that of a boy scout suddenly aware of his role. “I know that forest, Baideo. I have been looking after it for more than ten years.”
A sudden breeze floated up the river, and the ranger tried not to stare at the salwar kameez pressing against her body. But the nipples had now gone soft, almost disappeared. A frown came upon her face. “All right.” Her eyes seemed larger as she looked at him. “All right, then, use firearms to scare them away,” she said.
“Fine, Baideo,” he said, almost immediately. It was what he had been waiting for. “We have the weapons. Needed your go-ahead.”
She brought up a hand, felt her cheek, and then quietly, her eyes now boring into his, she stated bluntly, “You foresters have used firearms before, even without a magistrate’s permission.”
He shuffled his feet, looked at the floor, and then wiping his face once again, said, “It is only when they attack, Baideo, when they turn violent.” The sweat had pasted the front of his shirt to his chest and belly. “This time it’s different. They simply sit there. Do not move.” As she shifted a few steps to the left he felt a sudden coolness with the wind from the fan inside the room venting through the doorway and onto the veranda. “Our DFO,” he said, “told me to inform you.” He paused. “I think he feels safer that way.”
“Oh,” she said, “that man.” She had stepped up to the railing a few feet away from him, her face blending with the dark of the trees with only the white of her dress reflecting the light from the veranda at the far end. “But no killings, you understand?” The voice seemed to rise just a decibel higher, the inflexion a command; almost.
The ranger leaned against the railing, his eyes now on the silvery ray that came in a straight line over the river. Through the leaves in the trees, the moon struggled into the sky. “Certainly, Baideo,” he said, and thought, Nobody would want to kill elephants. Only the unholy do.
“Do they make much of a difference? The firearms and the firecrackers?”
“Not much of a difference,” he sighed, his voice a whisper. “But they know, Baideo. In ways strange to elephants they know what firearms can do.”
She moved back towards her room and the ranger looked at her neck and her face, the glow on her skin like the shine on a new leather cricket ball. “But no killings,” she said, once more.
He looked at her, knew she was uncertain of what would happen in her absence. “Perhaps you can come with me, Baideo. Perhaps you can see for yourself how we conduct ourselves.”
The moon had come out clear and full over the tree tops. It was sticky, a windless night that begged for rain. She knew she would not be able to sleep when the warden left. It was a night that clawed into your loneliness. “My driver has left for his quarters,” she said, her mind alternating between a picture of the tuskers and that of the woman in pain in the village.
“I came in the DFO’s car,” the ranger said. “You can come with me, Baideo. It is a comfortable vehicle. We will drop you back after the operation.” He looked at her breasts, then quickly away. “Please,” he said, his eyes now on her nose, the ring: wanting to feel it, touch it. Pagol, mad, he told himself, toi pagol, you are mad.
“Fine,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Can you inform the thana? Ask the OC to come along. Ask him to bring the newly posted doctor from the primary health centre.” She pointed to the cane chairs. “Sit for a while.”
When, fifteen minutes later, she came out and handed him a bottle of mineral water he had already informed the divisional forest officer and the officer-in-charge of the police station, using the walkie-talkie in the Gypsy. “They have already left for the area,” he said as she climbed in. “We will meet them there.” He gunned the engine and took in the fresh talcum smell that she had brought along with her.
Two kilometres from town and then southwest from the highway they drove for another five kilometres. Because of the rain late during the day, the road had gone slippery, the Gypsy skidding now and then, but the ranger had his hands firmly on the wheel and after some time, they stopped up close to where the road sloped up. Ahead, less than six hundred feet away was the rise. Under the moonlight, the magistrate saw the elephants sitting in a close bunch, the ears and the trunks the only sign of movement.
To the left was a basti, a hamlet, surrounded by coconut and betel-nut trees and bamboo. There was no electricity but from some of the huts shone lamps lit by kerosene. On either side of the road were wide paddy fields. The light from the moon fell on the rice stalks, standing rigid like miniature soldiers on a parade ground. The rays caressed a watery patch, a rippling of silver, with the leaves playing green and yellow and grey-white. Somewhere, a bullfrog practised a series of croaks with the others joining in one by one until it rose to a crescendo and then just as abruptly the sound ceased altogether; only to return in the same pattern after a random interval.
“Those who have not been able to enter the other village,” said the ranger, “are camped here. Eighteen of them. Since yesterday.” He switched off the ignition. “This basti is meant for the adhiar people who come to plant the saplings. They camp here. Just seven huts.” Switching on a hand torch he stepped down. “The DFO and the OC and the doctor should be here by now.”
The moon had seeped through the trees and as she rounded the vehicle the magistrate saw two dark grey shapes close to the huts. The ranger said, “The forest department’s elephants, Baideo. Just in case we need them.” Unconsciously, almost, he rubbed his nose. “They have been smeared with cow dung. Partly removes the smell of us humans when we are up close to the wild herd.”
“Hello,” said the DFO, flippantly, as he stepped out to the road. He was slim and good-looking, like a movie actor, clad in white shorts and an open-necked vest. Because he was an IIT graduate and because he served in the Indian Forest Service he felt that he could not bring himself to address a State Civil Service officer in the rank of a sub-divisional magistrate as Ma’am or Baideo. The magistrate was a thinking person. She sniffed patronizing breath even when not blatantly emitted.
As quiet as the moon, as expectant as the people in the village less than half-a-kilometre beyond the rise, there were these people who gathered around her now: sixteen armed men, comprising foresters and the police; the fifteen adhiar men and women temporarily camping in the basti; and the eighteen men who had not been able to enter their village. And the OC. And the doctor.
“Where’s the doctor?” she said, ignoring the DFO.
“Namaste, Ma’am,” said a tall gangly man in spectacles and not quite into his forties.
“Hello, Doctor-Sahab,” said the magistrate. “I asked you to come because it could be an emergency.” The ranger thought she smiled but it could have been the moon playing with the shadow of a leaf from a coconut tree. “I hope you have your bag with you.”
“Right here with me, Ma’am,” he said and gently lifted the bag.
“Good,” she said, and then looking at the OC, said, “All ready, Mahanta?”
“All ready, Baideo,” said the OC. He was over six feet tall with large penetrating eyes and a walrus moustache. It was said of him that he was a born general, that he feared nothing.
“No killings,” she said, turning to look at the ranger.
He looked at her, at her nose-ring, remembering the talcum smell. “Only blanks, Baideo. The firing will drive them into the forest. I know.”
They walked up the long slope then, in twos, with the OC and the warden leading the way and eight armed constables immediately behind; and, still behind them, the remaining armed men. And bringing up the rear trundled the two female departmental elephants with the mahouts atop their backs. Only the basti dwellers and the stranded villagers and the magistrate and the doctor and the DFO stayed back.
“Won’t you join them?” the doctor asked, turning to look at the DFO.
Without a second’s hesitation, the man replied, “No, it’s all right. They have the weapons. And the firecrackers.”
“Still,” said the doctor.
“Official protocol,” said the DFO, gruffly. “This is how it is done.”
The magistrate stepped forward, away from the two men, her eyes on the crest where the animals were resting. It was more than six hundred feet away but she could make out the semi-circular mound, a black mass that could very well have been the size of a basketball court. Twelve pachyderms lying side by side, fathers and mothers and calves and brothers and sisters breathing heavily, slowly, silently, chewing whatever they had gathered from the forest beyond.
The black mass seemed to move now, a sinuous ripple as the moon’s rays caught an ivory curve rising scimitar-like against the sky. Under the moon’s clear rays it was almost as if they were all in a silver-strewn zone between dream and reality.
In the still air, they heard the OC’s cannon-ball voice. “Okay, arms out!”
“Why don’t we wait till dawn?” said the doctor suddenly.
“We cannot,” said the magistrate but did not turn to look at him. Then, as they heard the constables slide back the bolts of the .302s, she added, “It may be too late by then.” She turned to look at him as he came up to where she was standing. “In a short while, I will tell you why.”
“Fire!” shouted the OC. The sound of iron striking iron ricocheted against the hot humid sullen night air, the bullets wheezing over the elephants and towards the village and the forest less than two furlongs away.
For a few seconds in its aftermath, there was a silence broken only by the barking of a dog from the basti. And then with a deep rumbling sound, the herd was on its feet. It was so sudden that the magistrate sucked in her breath. The hillock had turned to a mountain, the mass having expanded, so that it looked like a huge black moving wall. At almost the same time, the night growled a long rolling thunder as the elephants opened up with their full-throated trumpeting. It could have been all twelve of them or it could have been but just two. Whatever it was, the tumult resonated throughout the benighted forest, enveloping every living and non-living entity, with the moon taking shelter behind a passing cloud.
“Bhagawan!” breathed the DFO. “Oh, Prabhu!”
“If they charge,” the doctor whispered, “the men are dead.”
In a sudden two-second break in the trumpeting, they heard the OC shouting once more, “Fire!”
The shots rang out, sixteen rifle shots one after the other akin to a gun salute by police personnel during a Republic Day function; or, during a VIP’s funeral. In the humid-laden night under the light from the moon, they rang out loud and clear, the decibels far stronger than that of firecrackers. But, uncannily, the elephants stayed their ground, neither scattering towards the forest nor charging down the slope towards the armed men. Only the trunks swung up in protest, the trumpeting heralding a drama that no human can fathom.
A breeze, so very thin that you did not quite feel it, came in from the forest and over the fields and down the slope. “You ordered them to go,” charged the DFO, his voice shrill and scared. “They will die. My men will die.”
“Shut up,” said the magistrate as if he was but offal, her nostrils flaring. For a very brief moment, she looked at the moon, her mouth wide open as she sucked in the night air. “They will not die.” Somehow, she was sure now. Very sure. Up ahead, on the slope, the two elephants had turned around, and unmindful of the mahouts’ prods, began heading back, running, towards the basti.
“Reload!” shouted the OC as he, too, began backtracking. He was a brave man as much as was the ranger but, like all things, even bravery has a limit.
Once again, the shots rang out. And once again, the elephants trumpeted their fury, reducing the rice stalks, the bamboo, and the coconut and betel trees and most of the men to petrified hang-dog creatures. But not the woman.
“Come,” said the magistrate beckoning the doctor. “Come with me.” She ran forward, her physique, trim and fit, now helping her pick up speed. With the bag in his hand, the doctor followed the woman.
“They will kill my men,” moaned the DFO. “They will all die.”
“Should he come along?” panted the doctor as he closed up to her.
“Leave him,” she said. “He is not worth it,” and without knowing why suddenly remembered her once-upon-a-time husband.
They had run as fast as they could and all of a sudden they were up close to the two elephants with the mahouts prodding them to face the hillock. “Pull us up,” she shouted, and almost as if they had rehearsed this a hundred times the elephants knelt on the ground, the mahouts quickly hoisting the doctor and the magistrate onto their backs. Then, as the elephants lumbered up and moved forward, the magistrate saw the constables getting ready one more time.
Into the night wafted a smell. It was the smell of raw earth and vegetation bursting with life. It was the smell of water baking under a blazing sun and then cooling under a sky seeking dew drops from a moon now pale with fright. But above the smell of over-ripe bananas and jackfruit, and of bamboo leaves dank in the low-lying water, and of the smell of smoke from the gunfire, there came another smell.
“Do not shoot,” shouted the magistrate. And she saw the two men, the OC, and the warden, turn around to look at her; saw the former quickly re-commanding the men. Up on the hillock, the pachyderms stood like prehistoric creatures summoned to earth by gods of yore; the trumpeting now diminishing with every passing minute.
She was a town-bred woman, more used to air-conditioned rooms and cars and leather-encased chairs, and yet as she rode forward, her body movement synchronizing with that of the elephant’s, with a thin wind silently blowing in from the forest up ahead she caught the smell. It came in floating in much the same way the moon now floated in the sky. She felt it swarming into her, into her very being, the air now so very heavy with its presence that she felt herself gasping slowly, heavily. It came in powerfully, a primordial smell that swirled around and over the twelve elephants, over the paddy fields, and onto the road. Yet it was more than a smell. It was something that could come only from uncanny insights, into man and animals, into creation and the instinct for creation. It was a smell that perhaps only she could detect.
And as the two elephants came trundling up to where the OC and the warden stood with the other men, they heard the cry. It came from the village, a long haggard moan, a deep agonizing wail, of a woman who was unable to hold on any more, of pain beyond measure as she fought with herself in allowing her unborn to be born or to give her own life a few minutes more before giving it up for her child; or, of both of them not ever seeing each other.
Such was its intensity that from behind her the doctor shouted, “Ma’am, the woman! She’s fading fast. It’ll be too late.”
Without turning her head, she said, “Do not dismount,” and then looking at the OC, directed, “Mahanta, get up with him.”
“Baideo,” said the forest ranger, looking up, the eyes anxious and sparkling under the moonlight and from the excitement of the moment. “Baideo,” he repeated because he did not know what else to say, because he did not know what was happening.
“Come with me,” she said, and the mahout tapped the elephant’s head as it knelt and the ranger quickly climbed up and sat behind her. “Do not be afraid,” she said.
“No,” said the ranger, “I am not afraid” but he knew his voice had quivered for a second or two.
“Move,” she said, “move very slowly,” and then, as an afterthought, turning around she addressed the OC, “Tell your men to return to the basti.”
They went up the slope, the hillock, toward the black mass a mere fifty feet away. There was no howdah and the ranger felt his chest pressing against her back with every roll in the elephant’s rump. After a while, he could feel his heart hammering and not just because they were now almost into the crest with the elephants standing like ahot trees that cannot be moved.
“Baideo,” said the mahout, his voice a whisper, as the elephant slowed. “What do we do?”
“We go forward,” she said. “Go slowly.” They were less than fifteen feet away.
“It’s impossible, Baideo,” said the ranger. His voice had gone hoarse. “They will charge. We don’t stand a chance.”
And then, once again, the long keening moan came piercing over the field from the village. The cry mingled with the smell of raw flesh and earth and vegetation bursting with life and as the sound reached out and touched the moon the wall seemed to melt: the grey-and-black mass moved in unison, stepping back, retreating; edging to either side, so that the ranger could now make out the gap that was actually the road, opening up.
“Move,” whispered the magistrate. “Trust me.”
“Go, Manab,” said the ranger. “Just go.” Once more a wail, long and eerie and wounded beyond measure, rented the air. Without knowing why he turned to look behind him. Like soldiers faithful in battle, the mahout and the doctor and the OC followed silently.
He felt calm then, not really a sensation or even a feeling, but just a giving-in, of something that comes when treading helplessly through great danger. It is not just fear in itself. It is the helpless intoxication that fear offers which makes the moment pulsate with life. It is when the mind stops working rationally as we know it. That is what occurred to him, but not just then.
They were now into the mass, into the path made open; and then, lying a few feet away under the moonlight, they saw the two baby elephants, still struggling inside their embryonic sacs. The mud clung to the translucent, creamy skin, the legs and the snouts peeking out, the two mother cows licking them with the others standing around, silent, trunks lowered, their ears erect, as, from the village came the long agonising moan of a woman in labour as she fought against birth-denying darkness. The smell was very strong now, the smell of creation and after-creation, alive or otherwise.
“MaKamakhya,” cried the ranger, his voice cracking. “Oh, Ganesh Baba.”
“Two deliveries,” whispered the magistrate. She leaned forward. “Move fast now. As fast as you can.”
From a copse in the paddy field far to their right, a bat flapped across, the moon so very brilliant that the water around the rice stalks sparkled like silvery jewels. Somewhere in the dark, a goat bleated. The bat flew back, circled the thicket, and, then it was joined by another, and still another until there were over a dozen of them.
It was hot and humid and sullen and sticky and the forester watched the creatures outlined against the moon and then he felt his body pressing warm and wet, comfortably against the woman sitting in front of him. They were out of the mass and down the slope leading to the village and because sometimes in the aftermath of great danger you come alive in a way that did not seem possible only minutes ago he thought what he felt was shame. But it was gone as soon as it had come; the shame and the instinct that had brought the shame. Behind them came the other elephant with the three men on top.
They were at the village gates now, and then, once again, there came the long unnerving moan. Bag in hand, the doctor slid down the elephant and ran. Behind him, the OC adjusted his belt, patted the holster, and walked towards the huts. The magistrate looked at the two mahouts and for the first time since he had met her, the warden saw her smiling. It lifted her eyebrows, her cheekbones and he saw the white pearly teeth with the same shine on them as the ring on her nose.
You are brave and beautiful, Baideo, he murmured, softly to himself. Very beautiful.
“Yes?” she said, turning. “You said something?”
“Oh, nothing, really, Baideo,” he said. “I was just thinking of how beautiful the moon is.”
“It is,” she said, her face turned to the sky. “Isn’t it?”
In the air drifted the smell, a smell that has no name, really, with only attempts by humans to put a finger on it.
“Can you smell that smell?” she said, sucking in the hot fetid sticky night air. “Can you?” and they caught the desperation in her voice, the sadness.
“Yes,” said the mahouts. “Yes, Baideo, we can.”
© Dhruba Hazarika
Dhruba Hazarika is a novelist, short story writer and a columnist. He has written two novels till date, A Bowstring Winter (2006) and Sons of Brahma (2014), and a short story collection, Luck (2009). During the last thirty-five years, he has contributed as a columnist to The Sentinel, The Telegraph and The Assam Tribune. His short stories have featured in several magazines, including Indian Literature and New Frontiers. A recipient of the Katha Award for Fiction in English, his works have been included in the academic syllabi of several universities.
A former civil servant, Dhruba Hazarika resides in Guwahati, Assam.