Takeaway

Broken Tail, and other tales

Sunil Rajagopal | Updated on January 10, 2021

Jungle book: The presence of the animals — an elephant, a tiger and sambhar — loomed large over the evening   -  ILLUSTRATION: SUNIL RAJAGOPAL

A crackling fire, a tusker and a family scandal bring together a group of fellow travellers in Kerala

* It was the tusker that broke the silence. A dull rhythmic thudding, like someone beating the dust out of a heavy mattress, came from the brooding jungle behind us

* Of course, this particular tusker had swatted five men to pulp this past year. But only because they walked right into him at night, drunk and without a light

* Heeding a fellow Kiwi traveller, the couple took the first available flight to Kerala. They were assured it would be quieter, greener and people would not bother them

***

At first, only the fire spoke in our midst. It crackled and chuckled, as if at some private joke. The cicadas, in full throat at dusk, were quiet and we merely stared into the fire. Strangers averting eye contact, knowing not what to say.

An odd company we were, too: A young IT couple from Bengaluru used to weekend vacations in Coorg across the border from Wayanad, Kerala. A ruddy, apprehensive couple from New Zealand in their 60s. My wife and I, in the last pit stop of our drive down from Delhi to Kochi. The owner of the Wayanad resort, dressed in fatigues and boots, and his naturalist quietly stoking the fire.

It was the tusker that broke the silence. A dull rhythmic thudding, like someone beating the dust out of a heavy mattress, came from the brooding jungle behind us. I could imagine him standing there, a shadow in the darker night, gently flapping his ears and swishing his tail; waiting for us to eat and be busy, so that he could come down to the waterhole only a few hundred feet from the fire. A flimsy solar fence and the shallow mud pool were all that stood between the two parties.

A few nervous giggles went around the fire.

The gruff Kiwi remarked that his friends would be mighty amused if he was trampled down by an elephant in an Indian jungle. His smiling wife placed a comforting hand on his knee. The host assured him that all was safe. Elephants are gentle giants and, as a rule, avoid humans. Steady flapping of ears usually indicate a comfortable mood.

Of course, this particular tusker had swatted five men to pulp this past year. But only because they walked right into him at night, drunk and without a light. He was fondly called Murivalan (Broken Tail) by locals. Elephant tail hair is a precious commodity in Kerala, often worn as a lucky charm. Some years ago, an inebriated hunter had accidentally cut off the entire tip of his tail while bravely attempting to pull out some hair. The incident left Broken Tail permanently in doubt of people coming on to him at night.

We had met Broken Tail earlier that evening on a rise by the roadside, chomping on bamboo. Foolishly, I had stopped the car and rolled down the window to take a picture. He was so close that we could see the broken tail swishing ineffectively at flies and one murderous tusk longer and whiter than the other.

The Kiwi woman shushed a worried growl from her husband and volunteered to entertain the fidgety band with a story. Satisfied to see ears pricking up, she turned to face the fire; wrinkled hands clasped in her lap and feet tucked daintily under in the way that only women can.

***

Her grandfather was an English doctor who spent his younger years sailing the world. One of these voyages brought him to Calcutta in the 1930s and the enigmatic city cast its spell on him. The good doctor dropped anchor, found a suitable woman from the isles and stayed on. He soon had a thriving practice and his family grew over the next decade.

Not long before India’s independence, his wife succumbed to one of the uncountable maladies that fester in the tropics. That got the doctor moving again, this time to the south of the world. His journey ended in Auckland where his children, a son and a daughter, would spend the rest of their lives.

In time, the old doctor passed away, but only after his son beat him to it. The daughter meanwhile had a girl of her own — our storyteller; also living a happy married life in Auckland.

Well, at least until a couple of months ago. Whilst on her deathbed, her mother revealed something as stomach churning as spicy Indian food. It turned out that the doctor was more of a traveller than he had let on. Back in Calcutta, he had become enamoured of his charming, English-speaking Bengali cook. It was she, and not his wife, who bore him his daughter. However, she did not follow him to Auckland in order to carry out her own duties as wife and mother. The doctor continued to write to her, till she left this world as grandmother to half-a-dozen Bengali babus. He kept this a secret until his last days.

Our storyteller had often wondered about the stray black strands in her blonde head and her easily tanned skin. Restless, she dug through family papers and worked up some leads. Could she trace her grandmother’s family and meet some long-lost uncles and cousins?

And that was how she came to India. For good measure, she dragged along her husband, who’d virtually never stepped outside Auckland. She wasn’t sure what she would find or how long it would take. The couple came without a return ticket.

One day in brash, hustling Delhi and a second in stifling, stuck-in-a-time-warp Kolkata — that was all it took her to decide that India was simply too much for a laid-back Kiwi. She did not want to find any Indian quarter-brethren any more. Heeding a fellow Kiwi traveller, the couple took the first available flight to Kerala. They were assured it would be quieter, greener and people would not bother them. That bit was true, but no one told them about the mosquitoes and the elephants.

***

Now here she was in Wayanad, sharing a fanciful tale with an audience comprising complete strangers, an unnecessary fire and a grumpy tusker. When she was done, she was smiling. Relieved, perhaps. The husband looked embarrassed.

There is nothing like a scandal to melt ice between strangers. The IT couple proudly showed off a video of a plump tigress, snuffling at the wheel of their vehicle in Bannerghatta.

The resort owner scoffed and clarified to the company that tigers in Bannerghatta are tame and fed broiler chicken. His tigers, on the other hand, insisted on arranging their own warm-blooded dinner. To strengthen his case, the naturalist recounted how a tigress stalked a sambhar stag at the waterhole last week. The guests could see and hear all the gory action from their cabins.

That was the last straw for the alarmed Kiwis who hurried to the dining hall, demanding supper. In any case, the fire was nearly out. A soft splashing told us that Broken Tail was drinking in peace at his waterhole.

Sunil Rajagopal is an amateur birder and photographer based in Delhi

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Published on January 10, 2021
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