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Close encounters with wildlife

This is how our father would give us a cue to be ready for a storytelling session. My siblings and I would say loudly, ‘moonlight’. We would soon be out of home and into the courtyard. The moonlit night would be incredibly beautiful. We would sit around our father huddling up. He would tell us stories involving ghosts, wild animals, late-night robberies and so on. The style of his narration would perfectly match the contexts and characters. No story would end without a moral. We would soak up the stories but sideline their morals.

In 1968, on a Saturday night, we were lucky to have a star-studded sky and a full moon as if Diana, the moon goddess, wanted to listen to my father’s story. The story revolved around a labourer’s dangerous encounter with a wild elephant in a tropical rainforest. The poor labourer had a narrow escape, returning home with a broken leg. The narration was so compelling that it sounded like a real story. As usual, my father ended the story with a message. He said, "When you walk through a rainforest, there may be lurking dangers invisible to you. However, there are ways to sense and smell their presence. For example, if you encounter a sudden swarm of buzzing mosquitoes, you should be wary of a hiding elephant just around the corner". As usual, we soaked up the story, but wrote off the moral.

Nine years later, I was 18. There were no more story times. My father was a labour contractor on a tea plantation located on a mountain top about 40 km to the north of Kanyakumari. The only access to his workplace was a narrow partially paved road that meandered through a 100 square kilometre dense forest. Lofty oaks, teaks, ebonies and a host of other wild trees were native to this forest. My father used to return home once a month taking a ride on a truck or tractor belonging to the plantation owner.

One day, my mother wanted me to run an errand and take some groceries to my father. She filled a bag with rice, coconut and dry fish weighing about 10 kg. I put the load on my left shoulder, headed to the bus station and boarded the lone bus taking passengers to the mountain base called Keeriparai. From there, I had to hitch a ride on the plantation owner’s truck or tractor or walk all the way with someone. Unfortunately, the truck had left with some workers half an hour before I reached the spot. The last hope was a postman who used to walk 12 km uphill to deliver letters to the highlanders. I was told that the postman too had left.

Therefore, I hit the road, stepping up my pace hoping to catch up with the postman. I trudged on. Half an hour into the uphill trek, the forest got denser and darker. Soon, it was completely impenetrable to sunlight. There was an eerie silence around and I could hear nothing but my heartbeat. It felt as if nature was conspiring against me.

As I walked on, suddenly I was confronted by a swarm of buzzing mosquitoes. When the swarm became larger and the buzz louder by the second, an awareness dawned on me. I remembered the practical wisdom I ignored nine years ago. I paused and took a step back. I cautiously looked around. My heart skipped a beat when I saw an enormous beast, a giant male elephant just 50 feet from me emerging from a blind spot caused by a sharp bend in the road. My face became wet with beads of sweat. My knees began to jerk as I saw the elephant take a giant step or two towards me. I instantly turned around and took to my heels downhill with the load on my shoulder. After a minute of non-stop run for life, I paused breathlessly and looked back. To my relief, I saw the elephant slowly leave the road and disappear into the thick undergrowth down the ravine on the right. I was not ready to resume my walk uphill fearing fresh sources of danger. The beautiful forest now looked treacherous. Every rock looked like an elephant. Every slope with undergrowth looked like a trap.

I remained standing where I was. I wanted to return home. But the thought of visiting my father goaded me on to continue my journey. I would have hardly taken a couple of steps ahead when I heard the horn of a jeep coming up. It was the estate owner’s jeep. I hitched a ride on the jeep’s trailer. As the jeep negotiated the same bend, it slowed down seeing a large heap of fresh elephant dung in the middle of the road. The estate owner mumbled to himself, "A tusker has just passed this way." I was silent, watching the towering trees and the lush green forest when the jeep engine revved up as the road ahead steeply sloped up.

When I narrated the event to my father, he froze in shock for a moment and then heaved a sigh of relief.

When I saw the elephant, I was well within the striking distance. Had I not remembered the tips and techniques, which my father shared, of sensing and escaping from danger in the wilderness, I would have walked into the jaws of death and wouldn’t be around now to share this story.

Conventional or contemporary wisdom comes from experience. Experiences often turn into stories. We often soak up a story when it is soulfully narrated. However, we tend to ignore its soul. We remember the narrator, contexts, and characters, but let the moral fade into insignificance. Practical wisdom found in stories comes in handy when we pass through uncertainties in real life situations. Every message that a story is intended to convey is its soul. Soulless stories don’t stand the test of times since they don’t serve any other purpose beyond being temporarily entertaining.

rosejosephgeorge1958@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 2:35:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/close-encounters-with-wildlife/article37838668.ece

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