False Dichotomies


Not Shooting an Elephant

Yelling cheerfully at the horizon seemed the appropriate thing to do. A primal scream for a primal place, at the top of the watchtower, looking out over Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. With me were two other souls: my friend Ameet, a Singaporean Sikh with a penchant for the wilderness, and our guide Gobi, a small tribal man with senses as strong as the animals that surrounded us. Gobi was the first to draw attention to my faux pas. His English was less than limited, but pointing downward with his hands while saying “Lower” did the trick. Ameet provided the commentary: “Shouting disturbs the animals.” Me: “He should have told us before.” Ameet (sarcastically): “I’m sure now they’ll put a sign up.”

Gobi had led us into the sanctuary with an umbrella in his left hand and a rusty blade in his right. I had already joked about whether he was going to use it to kill us – Wolf Creek style – but I soon became glad that he had it. Because a few minutes after my watchtower stunt, we heard the trumpet of an elephant, and it was alarmingly close. Gobi signalled for us not to move. Three hearts began beating that little bit faster; every forest sound suddenly took on the ultimate meaning. Gobi signalled for us to keep walking, muttering something in Mayalayam under his breath.

Gobi was a mystery. He walked in flip-flops, exposing his three missing toes. We asked if they had been removed by a tiger – his answer was inconclusive. For the next hour, as we walked through the park, he would suddenly pause, look out on the horizon as if in a trance, before quietly saying something like “elephant” or “other side” or “very close”. At one point, he opened up his backpack, which we assumed was filled with nothing more threatening than our dinner, and pulled out a small explosive that would no doubt make a useful addition to a suicide-bomber’s belt. Then he said something about “close”.

My watchtower yellings meant that our presence was now felt. So as to avoid danger, we had to take the long way round to our night-time tree-house. Gobi told us to wait, and wandered off into the bush. I was frustrated by his enigmatic behaviour, and keen to get to the tree-house as quickly as possible. I thought of George Orwell’s seminal essay Shooting an Elephant, so loved by my father, wondering if he would mention it after my appropriately flattened casket was placed in the ground. Then Gobi called us over. “Elephant” was now “very close”.

We followed him for 20 metres but saw nothing. Then a flash of grey and another trumpet, softer this time. Gobi turned and began to run, a comic cartoon run; we ran with him. Then we turned back. The elephants (I think there were three or four of them) were at ease, sizing us up, while we stared back, awestruck. I unsuccessfully tried to take a picture. These were the same creatures I had seen being bathed earlier that week, but meeting them in their natural environment was a totally different proposition. Now we walked calmly away, the bomb left in the bag, the rusty blade still in Gobi’s right hand. We made it to the tree-house, where Gobi’s companion was waiting, slightly concerned that it had taken us so long. Gobi explained to him what had happened, and he laughed. The next morning we saw the footprints the elephants had left behind before crossing the river, but sadly we didn’t wake up to see it happen.

The only other creature of note we saw was a green python. Chinnar is one of the less well-known sanctuaries in southern India, although it has a large selection of wildlife. Presumably it’s harder to spot anything there. But maybe that’s more fitting. In land that is wild because of human non-intervention, even a single peek is an encounter to cherish, even if it is the result of one stupid but fitting cry into the cloudy skies of the Western Ghats.

1 comment

1 Comment so far

  1. Neela November 3rd, 2011 5:11 pm

    Go check out kaziranga in Assam…

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