To the Elephant Graveyard
By Tarquin Hall
Grove Atlantic, Inc. Copyright © 2000 Tarquin Hall
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8021-3835-7
Chapter One The Hit
'Man and the higher animals, especially the primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuitions, and sensations, similar passions, affections, and emotions, even the complex ones such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity; they practise deceit and are revengeful ...' Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
The elephant came in the dead of night. At first, he moved silently through the isolated hamlet, past the cottages, bungalows and huts where the inhabitants had long been fast asleep. Past the meeting-house, the fish-pond and the village shop. Past the cigarette stall, the water pump and the temple, dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god.
The tusker crossed the rickety wooden bridge that spanned the village stream and turned east, following the sandy lane for several hundred yards. Here, he took a short cut over a field, breaking down one or two fences and trampling rows of cabbages underfoot. Soon, he passed another clutch of homes and a primary school.
For some unexplained reason, none of these buildings attracted his attention. Indeed his tracks, when examined the next morning, showed that he failed to stop even once along his chosen path. Instead, he continued to the edge of thesettlement, strode straight up to a bamboo hut belonging to a local farmer called Shom, uttered a shrill trumpet and then launched his devastating attack.
Monimoy, a farmer from the same village, was a witness to what happened next. Now, two days later, he sat in the Assam Forest Department's public affairs office, telling his story to P. S. Das, the information officer whom I had come to meet soon after my arrival in Guwahati.
'I was making my way home after some drinking,' said Monimoy. 'I was walking in the lane when the elephant came. I watched what happened next with my own eyes!'
The farmer scratched at his nose with his index finger and glanced nervously around the gloomy office, sniffing the strong smell of kerosene emanating from a nearby petrol can. His hands shook like those of a junkie gone cold turkey.
'The elephant's eyes glowed red. Fire burned inside them. Flames and smoke shot out from his trunk. He was a monster - as big as a house, like one of the gods. His tusks were huge, like ...'
Das, sitting behind a desk positioned in front of the farmer, was tiring of the yokel's lengthy and highly coloured story. Impatiently he raised a hand to silence the excited farmer.
'Just tell us what happened.'
Monimoy fidgeted in his threadbare dhoti.
'Yes, yes, of course,' he stammered, 'I was just coming to that ...'
He swallowed hard, trying to calm himself, and then continued: 'The elephant charged at the hut, using his head like a battering ram. Time and again, he smashed into the walls. The timber creaked, snapped and gave way. He smashed at the door with his tusks, breaking it into little pieces. The elephant tugged at the supports with his trunk. Soon the roof caved in!'
Monimoy leaned forward in his chair, nursing his forehead in a manner that suggested he was suffering from a hangover.
'Inside, Shom's family screamed for help,' he continued. 'I could hear the terrified cries of his daughters. "Help us, help us," they pleaded. "The elephant is attacking us!"'
Monimoy had watched from the lane, drunk and helpless. Rather than going to the rescue, he remained frozen to the spot.
'I couldn't move,' he stammered, shaking his head from side to side regretfully. 'I couldn't do anything.'
It took the elephant only a few minutes to flatten the flimsy structure. Amidst the confusion, a lantern was knocked over, setting fire to the dry straw roof. Within seconds, the hut was engulfed in flames. Two of Shom's daughters escaped out of the back, running across the fields to the safety of a neighbour's cottage; another daughter and her mother hid in a nearby ditch. Sadly, Shom was not so fast on his feet.
'Shom was drunk. He stumbled out of the hut clutching a machete. I could see the terror on his face. He called out for someone to save him. This got the elephant's attention and he came after Shom.'
With shaking hands, Monimoy paused to pick up a mug of milky tea that stood on the desk before him.
'Shom tripped and fell on the ground. The elephant grabbed hold of him with his trunk. Shom struck out with his machete. The elephant knocked it from his hand.'
As he talked, Monimoy began to sweat openly. He shut his eyes tight as if the memory of what happened next was too much to bear.
'Shom was screaming and screaming. I can hear him now! He struggled to get free. The elephant held on to him and swung him around and then smashed him against a tree again and again.'
The elephant toyed with the local farmer, like a cat playing with a mouse, before dropping him on the ground. Remarkably, Shom was still conscious. He groaned in agony as blood seeped from his mouth and nose.
The triumphant beast stood over him, raised his trunk and trumpeted angrily. Then he prepared to finish off his victim.
'What happened next?' prompted Das impatiently.
Monimoy swallowed again.
'As I watched,' he said, 'the elephant knelt down and drove his right tusk straight through Shom's chest!'
Das grimaced. I shifted uneasily in my chair. Monimoy looked off into space, as if in a trance.
'For a moment, Shom writhed around. After that, he was still.'
The rogue elephant raised his tusk with the farmer still pinned to its end like a bug on the end of a needle.
'Then the elephant tossed him to one side and disappeared into the darkness, the blood dripping from his tusk.'
Two days earlier, on the morning of Shom's death, I had been reading the newspapers in my office at the New Delhi bureau of the Associated Press when the following article caught my eye:
Rampaging Rogue Faces Execution
Guwahati: The government of Assam today issued proclamation orders for the destruction of one wild rogue elephant, described as Tusker male, who is responsible for 38 deaths of humans in the Sonitpur district of Upper Assam.
The state Forest Department has therefore invited all hunters to come forward and bid for the contract worth 50,000 rupees.
The favoured candidate is one Dinesh Choudhury of Guwahati. In reply today to a question about whether he would accept the assignment, he said: 'It is a very dangerous thing. It will take some time before the elephant can be brought to task. We will have to travel on tamed elephants into the jungle areas and flush him out.'
The deadline for candidate application is tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.
* * *
Tearing the article from the paper, I reread it carefully. It sounded like one of the most promising stories I had come across for months. Who would have imagined, in this day and age, that the Indian authorities were hiring professional hunters to slaughter Asian elephants, which are more usually regarded as an endangered species? Surely, with modern tranquillizers, an elephant could be captured and placed in a zoo or, at the very least, driven into a game reserve? No doubt, I mused, corruption lay at the heart of the matter. If I had the chance to travel to Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam, I sensed that I might be able to expose what sounded like an underhand business.
* * *
There was just one problem. The elephant was on the rampage in North-East India, an obscure part of the country rife with insurgency. The region was periodically off-limits to foreigners. In the past, I had been barred from going there. I decided to call Assam's representative in Delhi who made it clear that the regulations had been relaxed.
'I cannot guarantee your safety or offer any protection,' he said, 'but you are free to travel anywhere in the state, except military areas.'
That was good enough for me. I called my editor in London, sold him the story and explained that I might be away for as much as a fortnight. After that I booked myself on the next Indian Airlines flight to Guwahati.
Now, sitting in Das's office, I considered Monimoy's fantastic tale. It seemed implausible. Elephants do not breathe smoke and fire, they are not gods, and they certainly do not go around in the middle of the night knocking down people's homes and singling out particular human beings for premeditated murder. Elephants are kindly, intelligent, generally good-tempered creatures, like Babar or Dumbo. Monimoy, who had by his own admission been drinking at the time of the attack, was clearly prone to wild exaggeration. But could he also be lying?
My suspicions aroused, I questioned him carefully about his motives for travelling all the way from Sonitpur, a full day's bus ride, just to tell his story to the Forest Department.
'I have come on behalf of my village', he told me, 'to petition the government to shoot the elephant.'
He explained that his family, along with dozens of others, lived in constant fear. For weeks, the elephant had terrified their district, killing thirty-eight people.
'He is possessed! An evil god! He kills anyone who says bad things about him. That's why he murdered Shom. Only the day before, Shom said he hoped the elephant would be killed,' continued Monimoy. 'So, you see, by coming here and pleading with you to shoot the elephant, I am putting myself at great personal risk. When I return to my village, the elephant will surely come for me!'
His superstitious beliefs aside, Monimoy's motives seemed plausible and straightforward. Nevertheless, I had spent enough time in India to know that nothing in the subcontinent is ever clear-cut. There had to be more. Perhaps Monimoy, a shifty character if ever I'd seen one, had murdered Shom and blamed it on the elephant. Or maybe Monimoy was a poacher and had provoked the animal who, in turn, had killed his partner, and now the farmer was attempting some kind of cover-up. Or perhaps the elephant lived in a forest that Monimoy hoped to chop down and cultivate, and that was why he wanted the elephant removed.
Whatever the case, I found it very hard to believe that an elephant would deliberately hurt anyone, except perhaps in self-defence.
When Monimoy eventually left, I asked Das what he thought of the farmer's extraordinary story. The information officer shrugged his shoulders.
'You're right. Elephants are generally very gentle creatures. Usually, they won't kill a living thing, although you do get the odd rotten apple.'
'Yes, but this farmer made the elephant sound like a crazed monster,' I said. 'It was sheer nonsense - all that stuff about him creeping through the village and picking out a single house to attack. That's unheard of. No animal behaves like that.'
Das tipped back in his chair.
'You have a romantic view of elephants,' he remarked. 'Genuine rogues are rare, but we do get them from time to time. There's no more dangerous or cunning an animal.'
That's what you would say, I thought to myself. Your department is the one that has issued the warrant for the rogue's destruction. But why, I asked him, didn't they capture the animal instead?
'The average Asian male elephant weighs seven tonnes, stands nine feet high, can run at twenty-five miles an hour and possesses a trunk that could pull your head right off your shoulders,' Das explained. 'You can't put such a rogue elephant in a cage, you can't tie him to a post, you can't pacify him or reason with him, and he can't be trained. He has to be killed or he will kill. It's as simple as that.'
He drew hard on his cigarette and continued: 'An elephant must kill at least twelve people before a destruction order is given. When that happens, we have to choose a hunter. Not just anyone is invited to come forward. He must own a .458 velocity rifle, be a trained marksman and, preferably, have experience of shooting elephants.'
Das went on to explain that a warrant is issued with a description of the elephant's height, approximate weight, colouring and any distinguishing features.
'The warrant has a time limit,' he added. 'It's usually fourteen days. If the elephant in question is not eliminated within that period, then all bets are off.'
'It sounds like a Mafioso hit,' I joked as I jotted down the details in my notebook.
'If you like,' said Das, unamused.
Just then, the old-fashioned bakelite telephone on the desk gave a loud, shrill ring. Das picked up the receiver.
The person on the other end talked rapidly, the line distorting his voice.
'Yes, I understand,' said Das.
The line squawked and then squawked again.
'Right. I will. Five minutes.'
Das remained calm and aloof. He replaced the receiver, stroking his right cheek like a poker player considering his hand.
'I have just been given the name of the hunter who has been assigned to the task.'
'Who is it?' I asked excitedly.
'He is Dinesh Choudhury, a Guwahati man and a trained marksman, the best there is.'
Dinesh Choudhury: the name I had seen in the newspaper article. I asked Das how I might get in touch with him. He wrote down the address on a piece of paper and slid it over to me. Then he stood up and showed me to the door.
'Don't be misled by the environmentalists. This elephant is a man-killer,' he said, squeezing my hand and looking me straight in the eye. 'You should be careful. Things are not always what they seem. Rogue tuskers don't distinguish between locals and white men. He hates us all equally.'
I asked him whether it was true that the victims' families had gone on hunger-strike, as I had heard that morning.
'That's another thing,' he cautioned. 'Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers. Our Indian journalists are all consummate liars.'
Outside in the street, I hailed a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw and handed the piece of paper to its Bengali driver.
'Paan Bazaar?' he asked, reading the address and seeking confirmation of my destination.
'Yes, please. Paan Bazaar,' I repeated.
He revved up his lawnmower-like engine and, with a jolt and a shotgun blast from the exhaust, we lurched off down the road, his dashboard shrine flashing with multicoloured disco lights. He slipped an audio cassette into his player and grating Bengali film music blared from the speakers. The yowling soon attracted the attention of a street dog who ran alongside the doorless vehicle, yapping frantically and snapping at our wheels.
Excerpted from To the Elephant Graveyard by Tarquin Hall Copyright © 2000 by Tarquin Hall. Excerpted by permission.
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