THE ELEPHANTS I NEVER SAW

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The only time I ran on a trek was when a lone elephant gave chase.

Elephants provide a touch of drama to hikes and outings in South India.

If you are not quite the naturalist, field biologist-type, then long before you see one, you make your exit if you have seen signs of one.

I realized this when I was very young and out with extended family on a road trip in the Western Ghats of the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. En route to Gudalur, on a quiet forest road with no other vehicle or human being in sight, our hired van halted and its occupants tumbled out to stretch their limbs. Deep breaths are part of stretching and it wasn’t long before an odor, familiar and tad worrisome, reached the nostrils. Someone spotted fairly close by, a sizable deposit of steaming hot, fresh elephant dung. We peered into the forest, looked at each other and did the most sensible thing – got back into the van and made haste for our destination.

The years between that trip and my thirties were a distraction. If being alive to the moment is what attention is all about, then those years of school, college and pursuit of career were distraction hankering after a future. In my thirties, I started seeing Kerala in a different light. Now a hiker, climber, wanderer-type, I began noticing the state’s geography. None of it had featured in my efforts years ago to educate myself. The only geography that mattered then was the route to well settled-life, which as it turned out, wasn’t meant for me. Fallen flat, humbled and with ego on vacation, I must have let the universe into my head. A visit home began packing in a hike as well. That’s how a hike through the forest, to Ponmudi near Thiruvananthapuram (for more on Ponmudi please see https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/), happened. It wasn’t the proper thing to do (you need permission) but I had met this retired forest guard, who knew of a quiet path. We met up with him and were soon off on a nice little trek; a pretty stiff one too if I may say.

The first hour or so was through tea estates.

Beyond that it was forest with plenty of bamboo in it.

Fed by recent rains, the surrounding vegetation was rich and lush green.

Rain also meant stuffy atmosphere.

Whenever the sun appeared, we sweated profusely.

Suddenly, deep inside the bamboo forest our guide froze like a pointer dog.

He then sniffed the air.

“ I am getting the smell of elephant,’’ he said, “ we have to ensure that the wind is not blowing from us towards the herd.’’ Whatever it’s other properties or the consequences it warned of, the odor worked well as a magic potion for choreographed progress on the hike. A dozen steps, then freeze; dozen steps, then freeze – of course, I am exaggerating, but with a dash of imagination what we did can resemble a contemporary dance. Luckily, the herd stayed as odor; it didn’t physically appear on our trail or near it. But the periodic halts necessitated by worries over elephant odor, was enough time for leeches to attach themselves by the dozen to our shoes. That was only to be expected for it was still rainy days. We reached Ponmudi amid thick mist. My cousin Rajeev and I were delighted to discover such a hike in the neighborhood of a city we had grown up in and never bothered to know as nature or geography.

Our relationship with Elephas Maximus continued.

If it was an unseen herd en route to Ponmudi, then two years later, a lone ambassador turned up to scare us on a hike inside the Neyyar Dam sanctuary near Thiruvananthapuram.

We knew there were elephants around and the guides kept us on edge pointing to freshly trampled vegetation, steamy dung and tree bark still oozing sap where a tusk had scraped it. According to the sequence of events as described by those behind, my cousin Vipin and I walked past a lone elephant standing in the shadows. Neither of us saw it. Not paying ones respects to something so large and obvious must have punctured the elephantine ego. If that was the case the ego must have been punctured several times over for none of us saw the elephant. Further, one of those bringing up the rear of our small group, paused to photograph a machan or platform built high on a tree by the local foresters.

I don’t know exactly what happened. I suppose, the camera flash went off. The animal charged. That was when everyone nearby, including the photographer, saw the animal. People ran. At the sound of scampering feet approaching from behind, I looked back and saw Rajeev running in. As he, his two friends and the two forest guards (they were the guides as well) caught up with me, I also ran sharing the general panic but not knowing the specific cause. We soon caught up with Vipin, who too joined the group run. Actually it was amusing – a bunch of people running, a couple of us pretty confused from not knowing what had happened. Somewhere along the way, amid the sprinting, I recall asking what was going on. “ Elephant!’’ – I heard; I don’t remember who said it, the word said it all. Thankfully we were spared harm, a strenuous full body work-out being the only price for our carelessness.

I never saw the elephant. We ran from the machan to the forest guards’ outpost on the edge of the Neyyar Dam reservoir, not too far away. We were on safe ground. We sat down to take stock.

“ That was Kolakolli, wasn’t it?’’ our guide asked his colleague, commencing an animated discussion about the encounter.

It was the first time I heard the name.

Interesting play of words – that name.

Kola in the Malayalam language can colloquially refer to a bunch of fruits or flowers – it is often used to describe a bunch of bananas. Kola also means murder. In this case, the name with an action slant for emphasis in its second half appeared to indicate a vicious killer. Whether that was deserved or not, it was the reputation the elephant in question had acquired in the region. From their conversation, I didn’t feel that the guards established beyond doubt that the animal which chased us was Kolakolli. Not knowing who or what Kolakolli is or why the name emerged, I also suspected that the guards were playing up our encounter with an elephant I had still not seen.

A few months went by.

One night in Mumbai, while surfing television channels, I came across a news report of a lone elephant called Kolakolli captured near Thiruvananthapuram. The animal with a weakness for liquor had damaged property and killed people in the area. Penned in a specially made enclosure of tree logs, the elephant was shown on camera rearing up on its hind legs in a futile attempt to scale the walls. It subsequently died in captivity. A June 2006 report in The Hindu newspaper pointed out that while the 30 year old-elephant was said to have killed a dozen people in the preceding seven or eight years, there was little evidence linking it to the deaths. There was speculation that the animal suffered from tooth infection and indigestion leading it to raid crops. In fact, much before it acquired the title Kolakolli, the elephant was called Chakkamadan after its weakness for ripe jackfruit (jackfruit is called chakka in Malayalam). Trapping the tusker had become imperative to rid the region of lingering fear. A video of Kolakolli in that tight pen is there on Youtube. I am not providing the link; it is a depressing sight. Kolakolli has a page on Wikipedia too.

More months went by.

While on a visit home, Rajeev and I visited the Peppara Dam, not far from the Neyyar wildlife sanctuary. We had to meet forest officials there to secure permission for a hike to the 6237 ft high-Agastyakoodam peak (https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2014/08/09/a-trek-and-a-tea-story-part-1/).

We hired a three-wheeled autorickshaw to take us from Vidura to Peppara. Shahajad, who drove the vehicle on that lonely road, kept talking of elephants showing up. I asked him about Kolakolli and he said, the tusker had been penned not far from where we were. Shahajad’s version of the story and indeed the versions I heard subsequently from people in the area, featured a twist to the tale. They all highlighted Kolakolli’s love for liquor. The animal which regularly raided brewing dens deep in the jungle had become addicted to it. In captivity it couldn’t get the brew, experienced withdrawal symptoms and grew violent. To calm it, tranquilizer shots were used. But somewhere along the line, they said, the addict’s body had proved too weak to withstand the chemicals. The elephant died. That was the locals’ take on the turn of events. According to Wikipedia, the captured elephant was sent for training but died a few days later “ reportedly due to cardiac arrest.’’ Kolakolli seemed to have died a legend for apart from the media attention it garnered, there was at least one person – a man we picked up on that lonely road from Vidura to Peppara – who claimed that the hunters had captured the wrong animal.

The real Kolakolli is still alive, he declared sarcastically.

Suddenly the vehicle’s engine sounded like isolation personified in my head.

It was a narrow, winding road with long stretches of potholes and not one vehicle had passed us in a long time.

On both sides, it was forest.

I knew the man was joking. He was probably a cynic. In India, condemned to the matrix of too many people, undying feudalism and everyone wanting to be somebody just to show off power, the tradition of bad administration quickly makes cynics of people. So many problems haven’t ended despite repeated official pronouncements that they will. Why should Kolakolli be exception? I suspect that’s the rut that man fell into. But the thing about elephants is that their behavior is so unlike their obvious size. They are capable of subtlety, quietly standing by and watching in that tradition of the jungle itself while man – so full of the self – will walk by as I did on that hike or drive past as I was doing now. I could call this the ` Kolakolli metaphor’ for at various stages in my life, spanning career as journalist to wannabe climber, I noticed the world well only at times of ego crushed. As they say, everyone sees but to notice, the mind must have room for it.

Somewhere along the way, our three-wheeler paused to let the man get off.

After he had vanished into the wooded surroundings – as characters always do in such stories – Shahajad turned around and said, “ that man is much older than me, so I couldn’t talk back. Kolakolli is dead. No doubt about it.’’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The incidents mentioned in this article happened some years ago.)

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