It was the summer of 2012. I was driving home one day, stuck in the usual bumper to bumper traffic that afflicts Bangalore. My mind skipped idly between subjects – from my pesky boss to the newest phone I was hankering after. I noticed my car was crawling behind a large covered truck with an unusually high canvas-covered back with a flapping canvas sheet covering the back. Suddenly, a man within pulled the sheet aside and hooked it onto a ring at the side, presumably to let some air in because of the sweltering heat. I glanced up to peer into the interior and then stared. Inside the truck was an enormous elephant, shackled to the walls and floor with thick iron chains, swaying slightly as the truck ground over the potholed road.
The elephant’s back was towards me, but I could see its head distinctly. The truck jounced over a nasty bump. The elephant seemed to shake its head in anger; then it raised its trunk and trumpeted out a fierce cry of protest. My mind flew back over the years to an incident that had occurred when I was around three: an encounter with elephants! They had deputed my father to a jungle camp deep in the jungle, and we stayed in a tent encampment. The scenes ran scattered through my brain, but I recalled snakes, scorpions, the rich smell of the earth, and to top it off, the encounter with the elephants.
I drove home in a daze and wrote what I could remember of the incident. I tried as best I could to capture the emotions (at least what I could remember of them) inspired by the memory. I saved the file in an obscure corner of my disk, but when I encountered it again a few months later and read it I said to myself, “Hey, this is not too bad, Botch! You should write more!” That’s how the book began. I did now write the other chapters in the order you see them. I recall I wrote “The Truck Ride” second, and “The Momos” third. But the pieces gradually knitted into a whole that kind of chronologically makes sense.
I’m pasting in an excerpt from that first exciting chapter (also called “Jungle Submarines”) that started this whole journey. I hope you enjoy it; and if you do, please buy the book if you haven’t already! Links on the homepage.
Excerpt from Chapter 1: “Jungle Submarines”
… The night watchmen had special whistles, and should they detect any sign of elephant movement, they would have to blow their whistles shrilly and vigorously. At the sound of the whistles, the jeep drivers would have to run to their jeeps, turn on the engines and the headlights, and honk their klaxon like horns in perpetuity. The people of the camp, on hearing this caccination, would have to rush out to the fences, carrying with them whatever implements would best make noise, plus their torches and petromax lanterns, and to create as much of a hullaballoo as was humanly possible. They hoped that the elephants would be suitably dissuaded by this exciting reception, and would find another path around the camp.
Papa sternly coached the family on the elephant drill. He assigned different implements to the members of the family. Papa and Mama together would be in charge of the petromax lantern, and the blue-and-white metal chair. The chair made a loud booming gong-like sound when banged, a fact that Mama had discovered to her disadvantage one afternoon when Botch had played a fine rendition of “The Ride of the Valkyries” with two spoons and a fork on it. Minu was in charge of the big kadai (or wok) along with a large metal serving spoon; Anu and Botch each had two large metal plates along with two large spoons. They did not practice the drill; Mama and Papa knew very well the noise the children could make if they put their mind to it.
For Botch, time passed by in an enchanted stupor. It was syncopated by the thrumming of the cicadas, the zithering of the bumblebees, the warble of the moorhen. Botch walked around in a daze of happiness; every moment discovering a new wonder. There is life in the forest, and there is death. But the Life (with a capital L) that Botch was beginning to grasp, that boundless font of energy, that rich, deep, pulsating Thing that was evident in the forest, was something quite different from what was seen in the city. Life was the promise that for every leaf that blew off a tree, another two would spring in its place; for every blade of grass that was nibbled by a rabbit, another two would take its place. Life was the promise that the sun would rise in the morning and set in the evening; that the glowworms would shimmer like chandeliers in the trees; that a million little insects would live and die their frenetic lives within the breadth of a tree trunk; that no matter what puny little men did, the forests, the rivers, and mountains would remain, ferocious but immutable in their majesty.
“It is time”
One night, when the family was fast asleep, it happened! There was a loud clamor, a clanking, a honking, a screaming; Botch awoke with a start and glanced around to see Mama bundling Anu and Minu into jackets. She did the same to him presently. “It is time,” said Papa. He gravely handed the instruments of cacophony to the family – the spoons and plates to Minu, Anu, and Botch, the large ladles to Mama. Lastly, he picked up the gong-chair and led the family out to their assigned station near the North gate.
Botch will never, ever, as long as he lives, forget that night. The searchlight glare from the jeeps headlamps, the thunder of the powerful engines as the drivers goosed them as hard as they could, the syncopic blare of the horns, the thrumming and beating and jangling and snorting of a hundred people trying to make as much sound as possible, the blue gong-chair booming with Mama and Papa beating lustily on the bottom and sides, Minu and Anu beating their plates as hard as they could. Botch had forgotten his plate in the melee, so he beat the gong-chair when he spotted an opening; but he was in a half-waking and half-sleeping state, so half his swings probably missed. No matter; Papa was beating a demonic tattoo on the chair, his face sheened with sweat, and Mama was no less energetic in her ministrations, her arms no doubt strengthened by the beatings she frequently and arbitrarily dispensed upon the hapless children in the name of discipline.
And then came the elephants! Outside the fence, he half-heard, half-saw something moving – gigantic forms lumbering by on velveteen toes, ears aquiver, trunks aloft, sensitive nostrils twitching and turning like the periscopes on a shoal of jungle submarines. Sometimes the beasts paused, leaning almost casually on a tree to bring it crashing down, or reaching up with their trunks to rip off a branch to munch or use as a fly swatter.
The elephants were puzzled by the noise and the lights. This was not what they usually encountered in their migration. The matriarch of the herd paused and considered what could be done. She could, of course, order her soldiers to follow her and crush the irritatingly noisy hairless monkeys that gibbered and gesticulated before her; but would that solve her problem? She had to guide her band of seventeen elephants (and two precious babies) safely to the lush marshlands near the Sone River, where they would spend the summer amidst the shoulder-high elephant grass safe from the sound gods with their thunderclap death-wands. Besides, she could not afford to have another injury in her band. Why, only a few suns ago, when they were threading their way through the clay pools, poor old Shagran, the oldest member of their tribe, had slipped and gashed his rump rather badly on a jagged stone that was lying there. And what a to-do that horrible Shona, with her fine tufted tail and her soft, high-pitched trumpet, had made about it! She knew Shona was eyeing her position and would seize on any opportunity to highlight any perceived shortcomings in her leadership. No. She must lead her tribe to the haven without any further injuries.
She remembered that turning left and walking for around 700 breaths would take them away from the monkey camp to another path that would lead toward their destination. She raised her trunk and trumpeted a few terse instructions; then the group turned and began moving in the direction that she had she had instructed them to go in. She waited as they disappeared into the shadows, then, depositing a few choice and steaming balls of dung to serve as a marker for the bands that might follow, she turned and slipped like a shadow after them.