Boman by Rohit Narain

His life began on the slopes of the mighty Gutherayan hills, on the banks of a stream that joined the Chinar river. His mother, the matriarch of the herd, had no problem delivering him, having delivered two calves in the last five years. He lay motionless for a while, breathing in his first lungful of fresh mountain air. After an hour, he stirred. He tried to stand but fell back upon the soft grass. He finally stood on his little wobbly legs after several attempts, swaying and trying to find his balance. The elephant calf was born.

Life was good for the baby elephant in the jungles of the Melagiri hills. Bamboo grew in profusion on the hillsides and the herd would often feed there. He would watch his mother bend the bamboo fronds with her trunk to get to the tender leaves at the top, stuffing her mouth and chewing happily. There was grass too, growing thick and green. The herd would feed on a hillside an entire afternoon, basking in the late afternoon Sun, while the baby elephant played tag with the other calves. They would playfully wrestle with each other chase each other, and sometimes the egrets and other birds that would drop by to feed on the buzzing insects in the grass. The little calf especially loved to chase egrets. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that he never caught a single bird. He just enjoyed the chase, his head bobbing up and down as he charged at them trumpeting shrilly, his little trunk dangling comically. The older members of the herd fed quietly, a watchful eye on the playing calves, their large flapping ears alert to the slightest sound of danger. Sometimes, one of the females would raise her trunk to sniff the air while others fed peacefully. There had been a flurry of activity one evening a few weeks ago, when the sharp alarm call of a Sambar sounded nearby. This was followed by the guttural ‘harr harr’ of a langur in a nearby treetop. It was probably a passing tiger. Instinctively, the baby elephant and the other calves moved to the centre of the herd, which had stopped feeding, their senses alert to the slightest movement, sound or smell. After a tense half hour, the herd relaxed and resumed its feeding and the little calf resumed his play. Little did he know that it would the last time he would play with his friends.

The Sun had just begun to slide down the surrounding escarpment. You could notice the air cooling, bringing a respite from the blazing heat of the day. The heat bounced off the boulders that were strewn along the hillside as the herd made its way carefully down the mighty mountain to the tiny village of Kodikerai. It was already dusk when they reached the edge of the forest, keeping out of sight of the village. Most of the villagers were already back from the fields. The men gathered around a large Gulmohur tree that grew on the western boundary of the village, smoking beedies and talking. The womenfolk were indoors, preparing the evening meal of ‘Kanji’ a porridge made of watery rice and spiced with chilli and salt. The smell of woodsmoke and humans made the elephant herd a bit nervous, as they waited silently for nightfall. After a while, the hubbub of activity reduced as the village settled down for the night. It was time for the herd to move.

The herd moved slowly, crossing the elephant proof trench easily at a place where the walls of the trench had caved in and flattened by the movement of cattle and goats. The elephants crossed over there, silent as ghosts. The Matriarch led them in a single file. The large matriarch led the way. Silent as shadows they moved. Nothing stirred in the village. The calves moved carefully between the mighty legs of the adults, careful not step onto a dry twig or get their feet entangled in the creepers that hung from nearby bushes. The only sound one could hear was that of an occasional heavy body brushing against the undergrowth. There was a place where the walls of the Elephant Proof Trench had caved in and flattened by the movement of cattle and goats. The elephants crossed over there, silent as ghosts. Even the calves seem to sense that this was serious business. They stayed close to their mothers. A hundred metres away towards the village was a flimsy looking wire fence. The matriarch led the herd there, knowing from experience that beyond the fence were bunches of near ripe bananas ready for harvest. It was this that had brought the elephants out of the forest. They had discovered this little farm a few years ago and had dropped in regularly to feed on the bananas and other fruits that the owner of the farm grew there.

A short distance away from the village was the Kodekerai forest bungalow on the slopes of the Gutherayan. It was dark and still at the bungalow. No lights shone, no one stirred, but there was a faint aroma of tobacco in the air. A close observation would have shown a man sitting on a rickety arm chair deep in the shadows of the verandah, smoking a pipe. He was a man of average height and build, not more than 5 feet 7 inches in his socks. His bare feet rested on the low wall of the verandah. His face was framed by a short salt-and-pepper beard. A Gurkha hat sat on a little table next to him, along with a tin of his favourite tobacco. He appeared to be asleep but he wasn’t. In fact his jungle trained ears had already picked up the little sounds of the elephant herd as it moved towards the village. An occasional little squeak from the direction of the herd told him that there were calves in their midst. He smiled to himself recalling the times when he had observed this herd from a distance without any of the elephants coming to know of his presence. His name was Kenneth ‘Scotty’ Anderson.

It was probably the irresistible smell of fresh bananas that made the matriarch a little careless that night. She would have usually surveyed the surroundings, looking out for anything unusual but tonight she didn’t pause. She ambled straight on. The young calf followed several paces behind. There was sudden bright flash, followed by a bright explosion. The herd froze, temporarily blinded and confused. When the baby elephant’s vision cleared, he saw his mother lying on her side in the grass, motionless. The stench of scorched flesh filled the air. She had walked into a low hanging high voltage electric cable, coming into contact with as she passed under it. The little baby elephant was confused. He stood by his mother’s body not knowing that she would never rise again. The matriarch was dead, killed instantly.

For a few minutes the herd milled around the body of their fallen leader, confused and frightened. The loud explosion woke the entire village. They gathered in a bunch, with their kambalis draped around their shoulders, some of them carrying torches. Others gathered machetes and sticks. All of them quickly rushed to the spot from where they had heard the explosion. The herd had scattered by then, most of them rushing back to safety of their beloved forest. The baby elephant was torn between staying with his mother and following the herd back into the forest. He ran around his mother’s body, making small sounds in his throat, nudging her with his little trunk, urging her to get up and lead him back to safety. Already he could the voices of men approaching. Then he heard another sound, a sound he had never heard before, the barking of village dogs as they caught the scent of the elephant. He looked up to see the first of the dogs appear around a bend in the trail that led from the village. The dog was followed by other dogs, all of them barking and snarling ferociously, their canines gleaming white in the darkness. They encircled the baby elephant, working up their courage to fall upon him and tear him to pieces. Suddenly one of the dogs lunged at the little calf from behind, fastening his teeth on his left hind leg. He shrieked in pain and fear. He swung round, shooing the dog away with his little trunk. Another dog lunged at him, biting his other rear leg savagely, and then all the dogs fell upon him, growling and biting hard. The baby elephant squealed in pain again. He was bleeding from a dozen bites, tired and weak, when the villagers arrived. They gathered around watching the uneven fight, wondering how long the baby elephant would last, while others cast fearful glances at the dead elephant.

Suddenly from behind them in the darkness, an angry voice demanded in Tamil, “What on earth is happening here?” The crowd parted respectfully to reveal the figure of Kenneth Anderson standing a little distance way. He wore a khaki shirt and Khaki trousers, both of which were crumpled. It looked as if he had dressed in a hurry. He held a powerful torch in his right hand, his eyes flashing angrily. One look at the scene before him told him the entire story. Before anyone could move, he had picked a handful of medium sized stones and hurled them at the dogs that were snapping and lunging at the baby elephant. One well aimed stone took the leader of the pack in his side. He let out a yelp of pain and ran away disappearing into the bushes. Two other dogs met with the same fate before the other dogs noticed Kenneth’s presence. Then they all backed off, still growling ferociously at both the elephant and the man. The man paid no heed to the dogs and walked up to the carcass of the dead elephant. It took a few minutes for his trained eye to reconstruct the story. He was filled with a cold fury at the people responsible for this. Angry words rose to his lips but before he could voice them, he remembered the baby elephant. He shone his torch into the bushes but it appeared as if the baby elephant was nowhere in the vicinity.

Kenneth knew that it was impossible to follow the baby elephant in to the dense jungle in the darkness. He decided to head back to the forest bungalow and call the Forest Department the first thing in the morning. A report would have to be filed about the death of the female elephant. He also had to make sure that the little baby elephant came to no harm. With this in mind, he asked the villager to head back to the village. As he retraced his steps back to the forest bungalow, he thought about the dead matriarch and bitterly cursed the irresponsible people who had let the high voltage electric cable dangle so low to the ground. This negligence had cost the herd it’s leader, someone who had led the herd through difficult times, her huge memory filled with details of where food and water could be found even in the driest time of the year. His last thoughts before falling asleep were about who would lead the herd now.

The next morning Kenneth Anderson motored down to the DFO’s office at Mathigere, a few miles from Hosur. He met the DFO and appraised of the situation. The DFO immediately ordered an enquiry. A team comprising of forest officials and a few volunteers from a local NGO that worked with wildlife conservation, headed to the spot. The villagers were questions and statements were recorded. A post mortem was held to ascertain the cause of death of the elephant, as part of the investigation. Finally the dead elephant was cremated on the spot. Some forest watchers set out to track the baby elephant but soon lost its spoor on the rocky hillside. The common surmise was that it had found its way back to the herd. Kenneth Anderson decided to stay on in the forest bungalow for another day, to enjoy the silence and solitude of this forest which was his true home.

The Sun was barely topping the eastern escarpment of the Melagiris the next morning when Kenneth Anderson was woken up by the murmur of conversation outside his window. He stepped out into the cool morning to find a group of villagers standing outside, respectfully waiting for him. They had come to tell him that they had been woken up in the early hours of the morning by the barking of the village dogs. They had gone to investigate and found that the baby elephant had returned to the spot where its mother had died! Despite the presence of dogs, it had refused to move from there.

Hastily dressing up and bolting down a quick breakfast of bacon and eggs, Kenneth rushed to the spot with the villagers. He was saddened by what he saw. The baby elephant was still there, standing in the shade large tamarind tree. It’s rough and hairy skin hung loosely in folds over its little frame. Clearly it had not eaten since the day it’s mother had died. Some of the wounds inflicted by the feral dogs had turned septic. The baby elephant probably would die soon if it was not taken care of. Kenneth quickly drove to the DFO’s office again. Luckily, the DFO was in. Kenneth quickly reported all that had happened. The little calf needed emergency medical care if he was to survive. An animated discussion ensued. Half an hour later, the DFO was was the phone, talking to his counterpart in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The baby elephant had to be shifted immediately to the Elephant camp in Thippakadu for treatment and rehabilitation. A mahout named Boman, from the elephant camp would leave for Hosur immediately by bus, to take care of the calf.

It was growing dark when Boman the Mahout reached Hosur. He was lean man with a thick dark moustache and watchful eyes. He wore a cotton lungi and shirt. He had a stillness about him that Kenneth Anderson liked immediately. Without a great deal of conversation, they set off for Kodikerai in Kenneth’s Jeep. It was dark when they reached the village. After a quick dinner of Kevuru Koozhu (Ragi slurry with salt) and Kozambu (a type of curry), Boman insisted on meeting his new ward. The baby elephant had been cajoled by the villagers into a cattle pen that had been emptied for this purpose. Despite the lateness of the hour, a sizable population from the village had gathered to watch. Boman approached the cattle pen and unlocked the gate slowly. He walked in and shut the gate behind him. He stood still for a several minutes, watching the baby elephant, noting its weakened condition, its flesh wounds oozing lymph and pus. He swore softly under his breath. Boman had spent his entire life among this these giants of the forest and knew them as gentle and intelligent creatures. He offered a silent prayer to Madeshwara, the God of the forests.

When the baby elephant saw Boman, his first reaction was to back off in fear to the far end of the stockade, making small noises in his throat, his trunk hanging loosely. The presence of this man frightened him. Boman made no move to approach him. He just stood there, about 20 feet away, observing. After a while the baby elephant relaxed. He sensed that this man was not a threat after all. Boman decided to leave it at that for the night. He left the enclosure, carefully locking it and walked back with Kenneth Anderson to the forest bungalow where he had been allocated a room next to Kenneth’s.

The next morning a lorry hired by the forest department arrived from Denkanikota to transport the baby elephant to Mudumalai. The lorry ground to a halt in a cloud of dust a few metres away from the cattle pen where the baby elephant was kept. A tall man, dressed in full sleeved shirt and well pressed trousers, climbed down from the cabin of the lorry along with the driver. He was obviously the veterinarian who would treat the elephant calf and accompany the calf all the way to the elephant camp. Boman was there, along with the Kenneth Anderson and some of the village elders. After the customary greetings, tea was served. It was made with goat’s milk and jiggery. It was sweet and strong. After a quick discussion, the group moved to the cattle pen. A few strong men from the village held the weakly struggling baby elephant while the veterinarian gave him a few injections and dressed the wounds. The calf was then shifted gently to the back of the lorry which had been covered with tarpaulin to keep out the Sun. Thick mattresses had been thoughtfully placed on the floor of the lorry as well on the sides to prevent injury to the calf. Soon the lorry was on its way, carrying its precious cargo, with Boman the mahout riding in the back along with the calf and the veterinarian riding in the cabin along with the driver. Kenneth stood along with the villagers, watching as the lorry disappeared in the distance. This would a story that would be told for a long time to come, gaining more and more colour with each passing year.

At the Mudumalai Elephant camp, the baby elephant made a remarkable recovery, all due to the efforts of Boman the mahout. He stayed by the baby elephant all day, nursing him, applying the medicine that the veterinarian had given. Boman would even eat his own meals with the baby elephant, squatting next to him as he slept or played about. The little calf grew so attached to its mahout that if Boman had to go away for a little while, the calf would run around the camp looking for him everywhere. The two had become inseparable. They would eat together, play together and even sleep together. When the time came to name the baby elephant, everyone at the elephant camp unanimously decided to name him after his caregiver. The baby elephant was thus named Boman.

Today, visitors to the elephant camp often stop by to watch a young elephant and its mahout go about their chores. They don’t speak much to each other but the visitors often see the elephant reach out and touch the mahout, his trunk on the mahout’s shoulder as the mahout talks to someone. The mahout unconsciously reaches out to stroke the rough skin of the elephant next to him. It’s obvious to onlookers that they are the best of friends. Little do they know that this elephant owes its life to a certain man with a beard who smokes a pipe and wears a Gurkha hat.

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