“That is ridiculous. You can’t procure shoot at sight order for Karuppan” I said and in the moment of anger added, “Had you not carried on illegal felling, he would have never ventured into villages searching for food”, my voice betrayed my temper and the MLA grew livid.
“Who are you to question me with your conservation bullshit? Do you doubt my integrity? Remember how you and your father came groveling to me to get you posted as a Ranger in this area? Now you are advising me? Education does not change the status, you uncouth ba…”, he was fuming now, “Your Karuppan trampled a man to death and triggered a fire that has reduced the forest to cinders”
I mellowed down. I was dealing with men who had Karuppan’s life in their hands, powerful men. “Sir, but he was just looking for food, poor guy. The villagers should have never tried to ward him away with lit torches. Even then, he only tried to move away from them. But in the mayhem, he was trapped, with the villagers blocking his escape route. He charged at them to clear his way to the forest”
My defense in support of the majestic tusker, had no effect on the MLA. It was not surprising because one of his timber yards affected by the fire was still smoldering.
“He is a criminal, that Nondi Karuppan.” The MLA mumbled. Calling Karuppan, a limp, Nondi, was MLA’s way of cutting the animal down in size. Karuppan deserved it for showing unwarranted cleverness. Several times during that day, the MLA would address Karuppan as Nondi, and every time I would cringe.
He climbed onto the open jeep. It was a signal for me, the forest ranger of the Chinnamalai Reserve Area, to join him without delay. The MLA was on his way to inspect the villages ravaged by the fire. I meekly joined him.
As we drove through the dusty tracks, my mind went back to the first time I heard about Karuppan.
“If you don’t gulp down your kanji in two minutes, Nondi Karuppan will come for you”. To my mother’s threats, I, a six-year-old, bawled more, loud enough for my father to rush into our thatched house asking what was wrong. But my father was more upset with my mother for calling Karuppan Nondi.
“Why do you call him that? He is, after all, an orphaned child”, my father said.
He had a soft spot for Karuppan.
Many years ago, when my father started out as a forest guard, he had received a message that a female elephant had been shot by the poachers and left to die. On reaching the site, my father saw a young calf, plaintively trumpeting near a dead elephant’s body. The calf had been shot too in the hind legs. He refused to let anyone touch his mother’s body, charging at anyone coming near her. After a few days of vainly trying to make his mother get up, the calf wandered off, the bullet wound turning into an ulcer by now. Later, the wound would make him walk with a pronounced limp.
Throughout my childhood, I had heard the story repeated by my father, that I felt a strange connection to Karuppan.
“I could still see him caressing his mother’s face with his trunks, trying to wake her up. I somehow feel responsible for her death”, my father would say.
My father was the first from our hamlet to go to school. However, what he taught me was more than letters and numbers. He taught me reverence for nature. He taught me that the stolid mountains and opaque forests would not betray the predator or the prey, for they knew all was a part of a bigger circle, much bigger than one species. In this clockwork path, what went around came around. And for the same reason, my father believed that man would be done by his own greed, one day. I was too young to understand that, then.
Karuppan, for whom I had grown a special bond, was a loner. He was never a part of any herd and was easily identifiable being darker and heavier, add to that the limp. But he was elusive. Everybody knew about him but very few had actually seen him. I was one of those lucky few.
As a reckless teen once, I heard my father say Karuppan was spotted near Contour Canal, the animal watering hole. I had to see this solitary animal, I decided and slipped out of the hut.
Once near the canal, I placed myself at the vantage of a tree branch and soon enough, I heard grunts and low trumpet, echoing. Then, a hundred yards from me, I saw a humongous black animal, frightening by his sheer size, a 5-ton behemoth. He passed by the tree where I was perched, ruffling it as he went, setting several branches to sway. Before I could gather my wits, I fell down with a thud behind the passing elephant. He sensed me and turned around and here I was facing a giant who could outrun me at any terrain. To him, I would look like an intruder who had to be dealt with. His eyes seemed to narrow in on me for a minute, for that long eternal minute when I stood there shaking, helpless and at his mercy. Then, he gave an irritable grunt, turned back and proceeded to the water. I slipped out behind him and hurried back to the hut, my legs still buckling under my own weight.
“Who do you think you are? Hero or something? Karuppan could have pulped you all over the forest floor that we would have to scavenge for your bone to bury. ” My mother was justifiably angry.
But to me, the encounter only strengthened my admiration for Karuppan. This was an animal who knew his powers and yet had held his restraint and let me live. Only a superior being could exhibit that kind of compassion and deliberation.
For the next few weeks, I would pray that Karuppan would cross us when the rickety van took us to the school in the foothills every morning, just to show my friends that I had not been lying about his size. But alas it never happened and my friends continued to taunt me for they thought a loner tusker would never let anybody go alive. But I knew Karuppan’s temperament by now. He would not attack unless provoked. My father had recounted how Karrupan seldom attacked other elephants even during his ‘musth’, the mating period for elephants. He was agile and strong and could take on any challenge but he had always held his balance.
I went on to finish college in the nearest town and was preparing for my qualifying exams for ranger’s post. I visited my hamlet only during vacations. Over the years my visits became fewer but I would ask my father about Karuppan. The forest was thinning out, my father said. Karuppan was spotted more often in our vicinity and my father felt that a grave mishap was imminent.
It was then I observed how the landscape had changed over the years. The lush rolling grassland now looked barren brown. The once thick evergreen forest dwindled into patches of greenery. Swathes of land had trees cut to stumps. Later I learned that illegal felling had grown rampant. With that, the monsoons had begun to delay by days, weeks and then finally by months, turning the forest into semi-arid land.
Soon, I cleared my exams and was posted as Range Officer of our area. One of my jobs was to track and study the animals within the reserved forest. Obviously, I kept a close watch on Karuppan. I was scared for him as much as I was scared of him.
He was exceptionally intelligent. Once he crossed a man-made moat dug by a coffee plantation owner, by throwing a couple of fallen trees over it and creating a makes shift bridge. He went on to feast on the succulent coffee berries as the owners watched on helplessly.
Two things struck me then, his ingenuity and his necessity to come into the plantation for food, which I observed he usually did not. Could it be the delayed monsoons again that had parched his grazing grounds?
It must be, for again, two weeks later, he ventured into human habitat. After some altercation, he retreated without any harm to the field or him.
Then the fatal day arrived. Karuppan must have been famished when he strayed into the fodder fields of the villagers searching for food. They tried to scare him away with torches. In the melee that followed, Karuppan had trampled a man to death while trying to flee from the mob. The torches that the villagers carried had fallen down and had set fire to the dry grass shrubs that formed a natural border between the forest and fodder crops. The fire couldn’t care though, about vegetation and habitat. It had burnt with equal fervor on both sides, spreading its wings mightily. Hamlets and fodder fields fell prey to it. The dry leafless branches of the forest trees crackled and burst into flames. Birds fled in flocks, against the wind. Bison and Tahrs went up the rocky hills to escape the wrath. Macaques scurried from branch to branch, little ones clinging to their mother for their dear lives. Later when I went into the affected areas for inspection, the fire’s impact hit me again. Peacocks were seen with burnt tails and plumes. Several fledglings were roasted alive. Many macaques showed singed skins, pink and raw against their black and grey coat. A macaque infant, burnt to death reminded me of a human baby, jolting my conscience.
The damage was extensive. Somebody had to pay for it in blood and it looked like Karrupan had to.
Two days after it started, the fire showed some waning. It was time for the MLA, to assess the damage and express his sympathies. He would have to appease the villagers who would be baying for blood.
The MLA wanted me to accompany him to the villages ravaged by the fires.
The mood was tensed among the villagers. But MLA knew his job. He hugged the mother of the victim who lost his life in the stampede. He shed a tear or two, seeing the victim’s children. After announcing compensation from the state coffers, he valiantly declared that he would not sleep until he had seen the end of Nondi Karuppan. He said he had convinced the Chief Conservatory of The Forests to issue a shoot at sight order for Nondi Karuppan. The villager hooted and clapped.
I watched with trepidation, the mounting frenzy among the mob to kill Karuppan. It was men against Karuppan. It was beasts against animals. It was the system against nature.
Later on, my heart would lurch when I read the blatant lies the newspapers carried, claiming that a ‘rogue’ elephant haunting the Chinnamalai Tiger Reserve was killed by sharpshooters, apparently after several attempts to tranquillize him failed. I would be shocked when Karuppnas large tuskers would somehow find its way to the MLA’s farmhouse, who would go on to win the next election for his swift action to resolve man-animal conflict in the area.
Clearly, the greedy predator had won this time. I would pray that Mother Nature would have mercy on this reckless being on the day, she raises in defense of her voiceless prey and unleash her revenge. But compassion would be too much to ask from her, because now I understood my father’s rustic wisdom.
What goes around, comes around.
Photo By: Pixabay