Mudumalai: Tangled in elephantine mysteries

I woke up to a very wet morning – a heavy downpour and then a drip, drip, drip kind of rain. The living room in our guesthouse in Ooty felt cold and damp; it felt colder, damper, and depressing as I watched the rain from inside. There was no fire to cheer things up so I stepped out into the garden and walked in the rain. I was wet but felt revived. I walked towards a covered archway with a rose creeper. Pink and white cosmos grew wild and swirled around it in small smiling waves. Narrow stone steps lead from the garden to a clearing below. It would be a pleasant retreat in summer for reading and dreaming.

Mudumalai elephants

On the inner edge of the clearing was a small temple with no vigraham (idol). A trident rested against a stone painted yellow. It had three horizontal white lines reminiscent of Shiva, so I assumed that it was a spot dedicated to Him. Coniferous hedges bordered the outer edge of the clearing. A single honey flower plant made tiny funnels of soft orange colour against the green hedge wall. Closer to the stone steps, rose cactus and wild yellow flowers held sway. Two erect blue gum trees (Eucalyptus Globulus) shot through the two dark cypresses and asserted, ‘I am the master of all I survey.’ Who would question this claim? Pleased with the seclusion and tranquility of this retreat I would have loved to linger here but we, that is my husband Ravi and my twenty year old son Ananda, were leaving for the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary late morning and I had to pack our bags. We were also moving into the Tamil Nadu circuit house where we would stay the remaining three days after our return from Mudumalai. I was reluctant to leave this cozy place but we had to move out as the guesthouse was going to receive a fresh set of guests.

After a prolonged breakfast and a round of good byes to the guesthouse staff, who had taken good care of us, we hit the road for Mudumalai. We would be staying at the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board guesthouse at Masinagudi. At the start of our journey, we took the West Lake Road from Ooty, crossed a bridge across a swamp oozing out nauseating odors and entered the shabby filthy town of Talakunda by the straight road. The smell of some pungent chemical and that of rotting vegetation assaulted our nostrils. The road on the left led to Pykara. Mudumalai was thirty-four kilometers from here and the driver would have to negotiate thirty-six hairpin bends. I was glad I had eaten a light breakfast, for the dizzying curves would make even the hardiest of stomachs churn. All of us popped sugarcoated ginger pieces into our mouths to forestall nausea or motion sickness.

Sprawling bushes covered with tiny clusters of orange and pink flowers made our journey bright. I had seen these flowers in Hyderabad and I also remember that as kids we used to take a head of flowers and then very patiently and intently suck the nectar from behind each minuscule stem. Although these flowers are quite common and grow in untamed profusion, I did not know their name. I also saw my phonogram flowers – these were a delicate lavender shade.

We reached Masinagudi at lunchtime and checked into the guesthouse. Our driver was relieved that it was no longer wet and cold and so were we. ‘Nalla climate,’ he said beamingly. He meant that it was good weather. Away from the town, the guesthouse was peaceful. If one stood at the head of its long driveway that gently sloped towards the gate one had an uninterrupted view of the Nilgiris. A lone temple gopuram dominated the foreground. One of the highest hills in the distance had a level summit with just three or four erect conifers crowning its crest. It was like a balding scalp with three or four upright strands of hair. Because of this distinguishing feature I followed its random appearances as we drove back to Ooty the next afternoon and discovered pleasantly that it was somewhere in the neighborhood of that hill station. The hill was like a guiding beacon whenever we sighted it on our way back.

The caretaker cum cook of the guesthouse gave us a simple but satisfying meal. It was the closest to a home-cooked meal that I had eaten on this trip. It was late afternoon by the time we got to Teppakadu, the headquarters and reception centre of the Mudumalai sanctuary. Ravi got in touch with the Forest department staff hanging around there and this ensured that we got the first two seats on the bus taking the visitors along selected routes of the sanctuary. The walls of the office complex and waiting area had pictures of the wild creatures and birds that we could hope to see in the area: tiger, elephant, gaur, spotted deer, mouse deer, the four-horned antelope, gaur, bear, wild boar, the Malabar flying squirrel, the Nilgiri langur, flying squirrel, bat squirrel, wild dog, hyena and some birds.

The bus rattled its way along the circular route prescribed for the visitors. Its throaty surly engine warned the animals to keep away although I am sure they were all familiar with its noisy harmless inroads into their territory and did not feel threatened by it in any way. We kept our eyes peeled for the animals and were delighted to see the following: an elephant family, a peacock, a porcupine, the half-hidden tail of a flying squirrel, the disappearing-into-bushes rears of wild dogs and pretty picture-book-like groups of spotted deer. For the rest I was content to observe the forms and the different shades of green and brown of the trees. I am sure they had plenty of stories and ‘awful’ secrets to tell of the different creatures that moved in and around them, but we were not equipped to hear their fantastic and fear-inspiring tales. The many small castle or fortress-like anthills were rare works of art.

After the bus ride as we headed for the canteen for a cup of tea, the forest department chap suggested that we see the elephants being fed at 5:45. He also told us that we could see a nine-month old orphaned baby elephant. Now that was more attractive than the first suggestion. We had to retrace our steps, walk the bridge over the river Moyar to get to the elephants’ feeding area and the forest museum. Ravi and Ananda went ahead while I finished my cup of tea. A small group of young men and women stood outside the canteen speaking boisterously in Tamil. They had bought themselves cone ice creams. I saw them remove the paper lids, nonchalantly peel the paper wrapper and throw the uneven bits of paper on the road. The road and kuccha/dirt sidewalks were cleaner than any I had seen in a tourist area. In fact, they were trash-free. As they continued to litter the clean spot outside the canteen, something exploded inside me. I was angry, angrier than I had been in a long time. I think the sight of trash and filth in tourist places was beginning to get to me, and this seemed to be the last straw as the place was wonderfully clean. Hence, their act seemed like one of desecration. It was not merely an instance of uncivilized behaviour. Controlling myself, I walked up to them briskly and addressed them in a cold peremptory tone. I was surprised at myself. I do not speak Tamil, and didn’t care if they understood English well. My tone would serve the purpose. ‘What are you doing? Is this road a dustbin? Do you see any one else throwing bits of paper on the road?’ They looked at me blankly as if I was talking to someone invisible behind them. I pointed to the strips of paper and ordered, ‘Pick these up right now.’ They looked at me, shell-shocked, as if I was someone exceedingly unreasonable or imbalanced. I bent lower, pointed once again to the trash and said, ‘Pick these up.’ ‘This very minute,’ I added, enunciating each word slowly and clearly. I pointed to a large blue trash bucket, just behind them, in one corner of the entrance to the canteen and said, ‘Here is a dustbin. This is where you throw this rubbish, this paper.’ They understood. Silently, glumly, they obeyed me. From the looks they exchanged with each other, I could see that they considered me a freak or felt that I was off my rocker.

There were still a few minutes before the elephant’s feeding time so I went to see the baby elephant. I had imagined that it would be in a secure enclosure in the open but it was within a bamboo enclosure in a room. I pressed my face against the sliding glass windows to see it better. Its skin was dark, jet-black, with hair sticking up like a porcupine’s. It was moving restively in circles, without pausing. It really looked like a child, vulnerable and cute. Three kids huddled near the window to get a closer look at this over-sized child and tapped to attract its attention. The guard saw their eagerness and slid the window open partly. The elephant baby promptly put its trunk out. The children stroked it and said in surprised voices, ‘The skin is thick. It is hard.’ One of them tried to poke its finger into its nostrils. The elephant baby seemed to enjoy company – it didn’t mind the touch, the fondling. The guard closed the window, scared of being hauled over the coals by his superiors who were obviously concerned about the baby catching an infection. The children exclaimed in disappointment at this very brief meeting. Their playmate of barely a minute was denied access to them and he began to circle the room ceaselessly again. Although it was extremely well looked after, I felt sad and wondered how it had become an orphan. I asked the forest department official for its story. He said, ‘It was a month old when we found it by the roadside, very close to the sanctuary. It was very weak and lay in a faint. We took care of it and when it was strong again we tried to find its parents. When we couldn’t trace them, we tried several times in various ways to help it move into an elephant herd and merge with them. It showed no interest in, or capability of, being with its own kind and felt lost. Fearing for its survival we brought it back here to take care of him. After all, he is very young and unfamiliar with the ways of the forest.’ I asked him how he came to be separated from his parents and whether elephants desert their young if they are frail and sick. I was surprised to learn the following: a mother elephant will not forsake even its dead child and carries it in its trunk for as long as a week. Is it an instance of very deep attachment or something else? My eyes filled with tears as I heard this. My thoughts were with the baby elephant as I walked unenthusiastically towards the elephants’ feeding area. Ananda called out to me, ‘Hurry, it’s time. You don’t want to miss this. They are all here.’

The twelve elephants were waiting behind bamboo railings for their evening meal. On aluminum-top tables, under a shed, expert hands were mixing and preparing their food. Huge square cubes of steamy rich brown stuff, topped with something white, were put on the table. Then this was mixed with other ingredients. It looked soft, mushy and disgusting but the onlookers watched fascinated. I asked the forest department chap what it was. He said it was ragi, horse crap (I was aghast), rice, jaggery, cane sugar, coconut, minerals and salt. Their work diet was different from their rest diet. The diet chart and the calorie intake was prepared very meticulously and shown on a table drawn on a wall display board. To my immense relief, I discovered there that the forest official meant horse gram. Either his pronunciation or my hearing was awry.

Mudumalai, the elephant, in front of me, had dysentery. The feeder took the huge lumpy mass of food and tried to shove it into its mouth. It let the whole thing fall to the earth. They had mixed some medicine with it to alleviate his problem but he could discern something unfamiliar or distasteful and refused to eat. The feeder succeeded in the third attempt. I looked at the elephant next to Mudumalai and discovered how different their faces were. I had thought that, except for some distinctive marks on their bodies, it would be difficult to tell one from the other. How stupid I was! Mudumalai was handsome, with a very proportionate, well-filled face while the elephant next to him had a very long face with nothing particularly singular about his visage. He was plainly plain. A host of wild boars had gathered not far from the elephants; they moved around keenly and cunningly, eager to pick up any scraps or splotches or small mushy mounds of food that either fell to the earth by accident or because they were rejected by the pampered elephants. I had not seen such expert and tenacious scavengers. Every evening the boars showed up at the precise feeding time alerted by an unfailing internal clock. A NRI family near me was wondering what the elephants’ food consisted of. I sensed their curiosity and told them. We got talking and the couple told us that they had taken the bus ride the previous afternoon into the forest and spotted a tiger. It was around a half past three in the afternoon when they saw a tiger on a high branch of a tree with a small animal trapped in its jaws. I was surprised since the bus’s engine was cantankerous enough to warn away the most docile of creatures. I suppose the animals were quite familiar with, and scornful of, these noisy excursions into their territory. The moment Ravi and Ananda heard that these people had seen the wild cat the previous afternoon they decided to come back the next day to try their luck, or better still, take a jeep ride late at night on the Teppakadu – Bandipur road. I am glad someone dissuaded them later from doing this as the people running these night trips, occasionally into prohibited areas, were doing this illegally to make easy money. The gullible visitor is lured by their glamorous promises of showing you the fierce felines. I am terribly scared of tigers and leopards even on screen so the mere mention of a possibility of seeing them in flesh in their natural habitat is enough to scare the daylights out of me.

As we sauntered out of this place a lone peacock strolled in regally with its magnificent tail feathers stroking the earth; it seemed to taunt the wild boar behind it for its lack of colour and grace. It ate the tiny specks of the scattered remains of the elephants’ dinner, but with dainty disdain for its hulking competitor, the boar.

We returned to Teppakadu the next afternoon to try our luck once again with the animals. On the seat directly behind Ravi was a couple who spoke both Kannada and Tamil. The man was big-made, barrel-bellied and had heavy pouches under his eyes. Loose flesh seemed to ooze out of him. With sagging balloons for cheeks, he looked unpleasant to put it mildly. Behind this couple sat three hefty young men. They had squeezed themselves into a seat meant for two. Although these men did not know the couple, they struck an instant friendship that was based on inane exchanges of ridiculous comments on the sanctuary and its administrators. Within five minutes of boarding the bus, they were impatient to spot animals. They were loud and uncouth. The driver warned them to be quiet as their noisy talk and raucous laughter would scare away the animals and cancel our chances of spotting any creatures but they did not seem to understand that their unruly obstreperous energies could scare away the animals. After ten minutes, we spotted a family of elephants in the distance. The driver stopped the bus. No sooner than we saw the elephants that these men started squealing and laughing mockingly. The elephants quickly moved deeper into the forest. The four uncouth men had denied the other visitors a chance to take pictures and get a good look at the elephants. Remorseless, they continued their unseemly behaviour. The bus driver once again warned them to be quiet. Another ten minutes and no animals to be seen. They continued whining and complaining loudly as to how unfair the tour was. They had no interest in observing their surroundings or enjoying the ride into the forest. Instant gratification of the desire to see wild animals was all that they wanted. Bored, they called out, ‘Puli, puli’ (tiger, tiger) and then yelped at their own pathetic joke. Then they pestered the bus driver with questions and demanded to see the animals. They insisted that he take a different route. ‘Turn right, turn right,’ they shouted. He shushed them at first but when they got out of control, exasperated, he rebuked them in Tamil, ‘I am not a zoo bus driver. Do you understand? This is a sanctuary.’ They wished to understand nothing. I could see that their behaviour was getting on Ananda’s nerves. He had waited for them to listen to the driver and become quiet. When continued with their crude remarks, he turned around and said authoritatively, ‘Shut up.’

Their hackles rose at the rude command. One of them replied angrily, ‘Speak nicely. Don’t say ‘Shut up’. Say ‘Keep quiet’.’

Ananda replied with cold cutting anger, ‘That’s exactly what I am saying.’ I clasped Ananda’s hand to calm him. He flicked my hand away.

‘I’ll teach you manner. You try to be cool,’ said the same young man in faulty English.

‘Yes, I am trying to be like you,’ said Ananda sarcastically. He turned away from them in disgust and refused to be drawn into any further argument with them.

They simmered down for a minute or two and then began their ludicrous comments again. Again the complaint, ‘We don’t see any animals. They have taken our money. They have cheated us.’ At this point, it was on the tip of my tongue to retort, ‘Why don’t you get off the bus? Do not be disappointed. We will take your pictures.’ Really speaking, to suggest this, was a grievous insult to the animals of the forest.

The obnoxious behaviour of the four men had ruined the pleasure of the other visitors who sat mouse-like, without protesting, throughout the ride. For us it was the third ride. For the other visitors, it was very likely the first and only ride. I am sure they were disappointed but understood that spotting wild animals is a matter of chance and luck. I am also quite certain that that the loud and vulgar cries of the four men had shooed the animals away. Our driver, too, was taken aback by the four men’s moronic nonsense. There was a large group of young men during the bus ride into the sanctuary yesterday but they did not behave like this. They were fun loving, but civilized, and knew the rules of visiting a sanctuary.

As soon as we got off the bus, our driver whispered to us, ‘They are drunk, I think.’

Ananda said to us later, ‘I don’t think they were sozzled. They were as sober as the day on which they were born.’ I agreed with him.

Ravi tried to explain their behaviour, ‘They are just a bunch of college students out to have a bit of fun.’

This observation annoyed Ananda, ‘College students? They are pushing thirty. Don’t make excuses for the inexcusable. This is not an amusement park and they have no business to spoil the fun of others.’

Ravi laughed, ‘Relax. They jeered at everything. Their irreverence was consistent. Grant them that!’

‘Are you trying to be funny?’ retorted Ananda.

Our driver told me the name of the pink and orange flower clusters later. He had asked the sanctuary bus driver. ‘Madam, pink and orange flowers you like name lantana.’ The restless desire to name these flower clusters was sated. These flower shrubs are so persistently invasive that they overtake entire areas. The forest staff considers them a nuisance but for me the orange clusters were beautiful. In one cluster, you can see so many colours – a flushed red, a charged orange, a proud peach, an incandescent yellow. It is a delightful palette.

Early evening when we drove back to Ooty I recalled our drive towards Bandipur the previous evening. We were approximately five kilometers away from Mudumalai when I had seen a thin old man with stick-like legs walking on the dirt side of the road in the direction of Teppakadu. He was wearing a weather-smeared shirt and a veshti folded above his legs and gathered around the waist. A long piece of cloth, its four edges meeting in a knot over his right shoulder, hung down like a U-shaped cloth cradle or mini hammock. It had some of his basic worldly possessions, I presume. He was carrying something in both his hands. I cannot recall whether he had a walking stick, a lota/kamandalam or an eating bowl in his hands. He was walking at a steady pace on his bony legs. Our headlights had caught his emaciated figure. When we drove back nearly two hours later and were heading towards Masinagudi, we saw the same old man walking at the same steady pace. He was 4 to 5 kms from Teppakadu, so he had walked approximately nine kilometers in less than two hours. His tenacity and stamina surprised me. He seemed oblivious of the passing vehicles, the gathering darkness and the thick forest. Our driver remarked, ‘Manas sari illa.’ He is not in his right mind. Ravi responded to the driver in Tamil, ‘Who knows he could be a siddha?’ The shadowy form of a bison in a ditch by the road loomed before us. Face turned towards the road, it looked large and scary. I rolled up my window cautiously, fearful of, and fascinated by, the dark silent forms of the trees, bushes and shrubs. I wondered what mysteries they guarded and what menaces they harbored in their heavily tangled secret interiors.