Living With Elephants in Malnad, India
Basavanna called when we approached Ballupet; I strained to hear him over the sound of the rain on the car. He had elephant news. They’d arrived in his plantation the night before, and he’d called the forest guards for help. The guards had arrived soon after, and had left around 20:00. He had more to tell: Before going on to his place, the herd had passed the clearing round our bungalow, on our plantation, lingering in the wide open space for a while. That was news we could believe, because we passed later a pile of elephant dung in the middle of the track on the last stretch of the drive to our bungalow.
The gate to the plantation had been kept open for us, and the writer (the local title for a foreman on the plantation) waited there, on his feet, without an umbrella. The rain had reduced to a drizzle, but still, it was an incongruous sight, a barehanded bareheaded man standing there not even wearing boots—to protect us from elephants. Basavanna had told us seven of them had been sighted. We went in slowly, squishing the slush on the track. The writer chose to walk.
“If an elephant does come up, I’ll stop. We should be quiet,” I told my wife. She tends to take charge.
“I’ll crouch down here,” she said, pointing to the space round her feet. She was joking, of course. At least, that was the aspect on her face when I turned to it. The truth is that she is happiest when we are visiting our plantation—which happens about once a month, and she won’t let anything subtract from her cheer.
When we passed the dung we heard the first dadaki. Dadakis are big patakis. Patakis are firecrackers. The dadaki is louder, but from the distance of neighboring Basavanna’s plantation, and amid the gathering evening-racket of the birds, and of the insects that had stepped up their stridulating in the gray wet dusk, the explosion was muffled. After the first burst that we heard, the next dadakis exploded about one each half-hour. Soon as we reached the bungalow Basavanna called, showing concern and caring.
“They’ve halted in Mala’s thota,” he said.
Mala is the past owner of a pocket of a plantation between Basavanna’s estate and ours. The place still goes by her name, even after its title has passed to a businessman from Bangalore, who is an absentee planter like us. The Bangalorean has hired a local planter to improve Mala’s plantation; just as Basavanna, the most respected planter in our zone, manages ours. But there is a spot in Mala’s plantation, about three acres of it, that has never been cultivated—so it is a thick teeny jungle locked in among a spread of coffee plants. Passing elephants halt in that wild growth, sometimes for as long as three days. And after that they’ve been leaving on their own in the dark hours. It is different this time, because most planters have electrified their fences this year, and the animals should be shown exits they’ve not used before. A job for the experts.
“Would the guards allow me to join them tomorrow? Can I ask them?”
“I’ll tell them myself. Take your camera along,” Basavanna said. He always takes it on himself to grant every wish that comes to me while I’m at Nandi Thota. (That’s the name of our place: Nandi Thota.) Anyway, such hospitality is in the nature of planters in Malnad. They’re always exceeding the generosity they last offered.
I waited for morning. In the morning I waited for Basavanna’s call. “The elephants are still in Mala’s thota,” he told us when we called. And then he called again and said the elephants had gone out the gates, like regular folks. Ever since we bought Nandi Thota and became once-a-month visitors in Malnad, we’ve been seeing trampled fences, fences that have come in the way of the herd. On our plantation, that is the entire northern boundary. We’ve electrified our fence along with all the others.
“The guards herded the seven together into Mala’s thota last night. Looks like they found a way on their own.”
It wasn’t raining in the morning. Basavanna came over to our place around 11:00. Across from the deck, from where I sat, I could see a constant breeze among the coffee leaves, ruffling them and heaving the branches, going away and coming back again. Now and then a wind came, father to the breeze below, and caught the shade-trees and shook them whole. The trees have just been trimmed to control the shade. Through them I could see Parvathammana Betta, the hill with a small white temple to Parvathi on top. The temple and most of the top of the hill were covered in mist. It was a good moment for hot coffee here in the bungalow.
“Did they carry guns?
“No. Just dadakis. The guys don’t get guns anymore. Give them a gun and they’ll kill some beast and after that the Assistant Commissioner has to go home.”
Yes. An Assistant Commissioner can lose his job if an elephant—or any wild beast—is killed and it can’t be proved that it was all in self-defense. But, to go after wild elephants? With only dadakis? I’d imagined they’d carry at least a tranquilizer-firing gun.
“They know the elephant. I walked some distance with them last night,” Basavanna said. “They pointed in one direction and said there are two elephants there. They pointed in another direction and said two. In the third spot, three. Seven, altogether.
“As for me, I couldn’t see even a few steps ahead. I turned back soon as they lit a dadaki.”
I’m winding up my story, too. That’s all for this time. When the elephant is here next, I’ll ask the forest guards to please take me along. Basavanna was as disappointed for me as I am for you here at the end of this post. “If Shashikiran had come here two days prior, he’d have got nice pictures,” he told my wife when she came to take our spent cups.