To the Elephant Graveyardby Tarquin Hall
“To see wild India from the vantage point of an elephant’s back is thrilling. And what becomes of the rogue and the reasons for his deadly behavior are revealed dramatically.” –The Boston Globe
On India’s North-East frontier, a killer elephant is on the rampage, stalking Assam’s paddy-fields, murdering dozens of farmers, and leaving behind their mutilated, crushed bodies. Local forestry officials, powerless to stop the elephant, call in Dinesh Choudury, one of India’s last licensed elephant hunters, and issue a warrant for the rogue’s destruction. Reading about the ensuing hunt in a Delhi newspaper, journalist Tarquin Hall flies to Assam to investigate, convinced that no elephant could be guilty of the grisly crimes of which it is accused.
What Hall finds is that the Khasi live intimately with the elephants, riding on their bare backs, caring for them, talking to them, and praying to them. Here, elephants wrap their trunks lovingly around their masters’ shoulders, and signposts in villages tell where domesticated elephants should be hitched. Though it seems a world of peaceful coexistence between man and beast, Hall begins to see that the elephants are suffering, having lost their natural habitat. Hungry, confused, and left with very little forest to hide in, herds of elephants are slowly adapting to domestication, but many are resolute and furious.
From intense accounts of the killer rogue to long travels on the backs of the village elephants, a fascinating world unfolds, replete with opulent portraits of the gorgeous emerald green hills, glistening rain forests, and the engaging people of North-East India. But behind the beauty, unimaginable murders are being committed by a crazed drunk rogue. To the Elephant Graveyard is a compelling account of the search for a killer in a region of India rife with insurgency, rich in folklore and superstition, and whose ancient ways are fast disappearing along with the ever-shrinking forest.
“To the Elephant Graveyard really a novel in disguise. . . . An eccentric cast of characters and Hall’s compelling prose make this less of a travelogue and more of a damn good read.” –H. Scott Jolley, Travel & Leisure
“To see wild India from the vantage point of an elephant’s back is thrilling. And what becomes of the rogue and the reasons for his deadly behavior are revealed dramatically.” –The Boston Globe
“[Hall’s] fine storytelling and skill at handling dialogue come through as he pieces together a lively portrait of contemporary Assam, including a considerable amount of elephant fact and lore.” –Library Journal
“[T]ravel writing that wonderfully hits on all cylinders . . . and the narrative tension brought to the tracking of the rogue is exquisitely riveting, climaxing in a movingly sorrowful scene. . . readers will not regret one vicarious moment spent with the author on this trip.” –Booklist
“His story is a page-turning detective tale that recounts how the motley group of journalists, mahouts, and government-employed hunters stalked the killer elephants through the wild territory of India.” –Publishers Weekly
“The legendary elephants’ graveyard . . . haunts the memory long after one has closed the cover of a wonderful book that should become a classic.” –Daily Mail (London)
“Tarquin Hall . . . introduces us to the darker side of the Asian elephant. It is more of a thriller than a straightforward travel book, and the writing is insightful and sensitive.” –Literary Review
“Hall is to be congratulated on writing a book that promises humor and adventure, and delivers both.” –The Spectator
Chapter One: The Hit
“Man and the higher animals, especially the primates, have some few instincts in common. All have the same senses, intuitions, and sensations, similar passions, affections, and emotions, even the complex ones such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude and magnanimity; they practise deceit and are revengeful …” –Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
The elephant came in the dead of night. At first, he moved silently through the isolated hamlet, past the cottages, bungalows and huts where the inhabitants had long been fast asleep. Past the meeting-house, the fish-pond and the village shop. Past the cigarette stall, the water pump and the temple, dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god.
The tusker crossed the rickety wooden bridge that spanned the village stream and turned east, following the sandy lane for several hundred yards. Here, he took a short cut over a field, breaking down one or two fences and trampling rows of cabbages underfoot. Soon, he passed another clutch of homes and a primary school.
For some unexplained reason, none of these buildings attracted his attention. Indeed his tracks, when examined the next morning, showed that he failed to stop even once along his chosen path. Instead, he continued to the edge of the settlement, strode straight up to a bamboo hut belonging to a local farmer called Shom, uttered a shrill trumpet and then launched his devastating attack.
Monimoy, a farmer from the same village, was a witness to what happened next. Now, two days later, he sat in the Assam Forest Department’s public affairs office, telling his story to P. S. Das, the information officer whom I had come to meet soon after my arrival in Guwahati.
`I was making my way home after some drinking,’ said Monimoy. `I was walking in the lane when the elephant came. I watched what happened next with my own eyes!’
The farmer scratched at his nose with his index finger and glanced nervously around the gloomy office, sniffing the strong smell of kerosene emanating from a nearby petrol can. His hands shook like those of a junkie gone cold turkey.
`The elephant’s eyes glowed red. Fire burned inside them. Flames and smoke shot out from his trunk. He was a monster – as big as a house, like one of the gods. His tusks were huge, like …’
Das, sitting behind a desk positioned in front of the farmer, was tiring of the yokel’s lengthy and highly coloured story. Impatiently he raised a hand to silence the excited farmer.
`Just tell us what happened.’
Monimoy fidgeted in his threadbare dhoti.
`Yes, yes, of course,’ he stammered, `I was just coming to that …’
He swallowed hard, trying to calm himself, and then continued: `The elephant charged at the hut, using his head like a battering ram. Time and again, he smashed into the walls. The timber creaked, snapped and gave way. He smashed at the door with his tusks, breaking it into little pieces. The elephant tugged at the supports with his trunk. Soon the roof caved in!’
Monimoy leaned forward in his chair, nursing his forehead in a manner that suggested he was suffering from a hangover.
`Inside, Shom’s family screamed for help,’ he continued. `I could hear the terrified cries of his daughters. “Help us, help us,” they pleaded. “The elephant is attacking us!”‘
Monimoy had watched from the lane, drunk and helpless. Rather than going to the rescue, he remained frozen to the spot.
`I couldn’t move,’ he stammered, shaking his head from side to side regretfully. `I couldn’t do anything.’
It took the elephant only a few minutes to flatten the flimsy structure. Amidst the confusion, a lantern was knocked over, setting fire to the dry straw roof. Within seconds, the hut was engulfed in flames. Two of Shom’s daughters escaped out of the back, running across the fields to the safety of a neighbour’s cottage; another daughter and her mother hid in a nearby ditch. Sadly, Shom was not so fast on his feet.
`Shom was drunk. He stumbled out of the hut clutching a machete. I could see the terror on his face. He called out for someone to save him. This got the elephant’s attention and he came after Shom.’
With shaking hands, Monimoy paused to pick up a mug of milky tea that stood on the desk before him.
`Shom tripped and fell on the ground. The elephant grabbed hold of him with his trunk. Shom struck out with his machete. The elephant knocked it from his hand.’
As he talked, Monimoy began to sweat openly. He shut his eyes tight as if the memory of what happened next was too much to bear.
`Shom was screaming and screaming. I can hear him now! He struggled to get free. The elephant held on to him and swung him around and then smashed him against a tree again and again.’
The elephant toyed with the local farmer, like a cat playing with a mouse, before dropping him on the ground. Remarkably, Shom was still conscious. He groaned in agony as blood seeped from his mouth and nose.
The triumphant beast stood over him, raised his trunk and trumpeted angrily. Then he prepared to finish off his victim.
`What happened next?’ prompted Das impatiently.
Monimoy swallowed again.
`As I watched,’ he said, `the elephant knelt down and drove his right tusk straight through Shom’s chest!’
Das grimaced. I shifted uneasily in my chair. Monimoy looked off into space, as if in a trance.
`For a moment, Shom writhed around. After that, he was still.’
The rogue elephant raised his tusk with the farmer still pinned to its end like a bug on the end of a needle.
`Then the elephant tossed him to one side and disappeared into the darkness, the blood dripping from his tusk.’
Two days earlier, on the morning of Shom’s death, I had been reading the newspapers in my office at the New Delhi bureau of the Associated Press when the following article caught my eye:
Rampaging Rogue Faces Execution
Guwahati: The government of Assam today issued proclamation orders for the destruction of one wild rogue elephant, described as Tusker male, who is responsible for 38 deaths of humans in the Sonitpur district of Upper Assam.
The state Forest Department has therefore invited all hunters to come forward and bid for the contract worth 50,000 rupees.
The favoured candidate is one Dinesh Choudhury of Guwahati. In reply today to a question about whether he would accept the assignment, he said: `It is a very dangerous thing. It will take some time before the elephant can be brought to task. We will have to travel on tamed elephants into the jungle areas and flush him out.’
The deadline for candidate application is tomorrow at 5:30 p.m.
* * *
Tearing the article from the paper, I reread it carefully. It sounded like one of the most promising stories I had come across for months. Who would have imagined, in this day and age, that the Indian authorities were hiring professional hunters to slaughter Asian elephants, which are more usually regarded as an endangered species? Surely, with modern tranquillizers, an elephant could be captured and placed in a zoo or, at the very least, driven into a game reserve? No doubt, I mused, corruption lay at the heart of the matter. If I had the chance to travel to Guwahati, the capital of the state of Assam, I sensed that I might be able to expose what sounded like an underhand business.
* * *
There was just one problem. The elephant was on the rampage in North-East India, an obscure part of the country rife with insurgency. The region was periodically off-limits to foreigners. In the past, I had been barred from going there. I decided to call Assam’s representative in Delhi who made it clear that the regulations had been relaxed.
`I cannot guarantee your safety or offer any protection,’ he said, `but you are free to travel anywhere in the state, except military areas.’
That was good enough for me. I called my editor in London, sold him the story and explained that I might be away for as much as a fortnight. After that I booked myself on the next Indian Airlines flight to Guwahati.
Now, sitting in Das’s office, I considered Monimoy’s fantastic tale. It seemed implausible. Elephants do not breathe smoke and fire, they are not gods, and they certainly do not go around in the middle of the night knocking down people’s homes and singling out particular human beings for premeditated murder. Elephants are kindly, intelligent, generally good-tempered creatures, like Babar or Dumbo. Monimoy, who had by his own admission been drinking at the time of the attack, was clearly prone to wild exaggeration. But could he also be lying?
My suspicions aroused, I questioned him carefully about his motives for travelling all the way from Sonitpur, a full day’s bus ride, just to tell his story to the Forest Department.
`I have come on behalf of my village’, he told me, `to petition the government to shoot the elephant.’
He explained that his family, along with dozens of others, lived in constant fear. For weeks, the elephant had terrified their district, killing thirty-eight people.
`He is possessed! An evil god! He kills anyone who says bad things about him. That’s why he murdered Shom. Only the day before, Shom said he hoped the elephant would be killed,’ continued Monimoy. `So, you see, by coming here and pleading with you to shoot the elephant, I am putting myself at great personal risk. When I return to my village, the elephant will surely come for me!’
His superstitious beliefs aside, Monimoy’s motives seemed plausible and straightforward. Nevertheless, I had spent enough time in India to know that nothing in the subcontinent is ever clear-cut. There had to be more. Perhaps Monimoy, a shifty character if ever I’d seen one, had murdered Shom and blamed it on the elephant. Or maybe Monimoy was a poacher and had provoked the animal who, in turn, had killed his partner, and now the farmer was attempting some kind of cover-up. Or perhaps the elephant lived in a forest that Monimoy hoped to chop down and cultivate, and that was why he wanted the elephant removed.
Whatever the case, I found it very hard to believe that an elephant would deliberately hurt anyone, except perhaps in self-defence.
When Monimoy eventually left, I asked Das what he thought of the farmer’s extraordinary story. The information officer shrugged his shoulders.
`You’re right. Elephants are generally very gentle creatures. Usually, they won’t kill a living thing, although you do get the odd rotten apple.’
`Yes, but this farmer made the elephant sound like a crazed monster,’ I said. `It was sheer nonsense – all that stuff about him creeping through the village and picking out a single house to attack. That’s unheard of. No animal behaves like that.’
Das tipped back in his chair.
`You have a romantic view of elephants,’ he remarked. `Genuine rogues are rare, but we do get them from time to time. There’s no more dangerous or cunning an animal.’
That’s what you would say, I thought to myself. Your department is the one that has issued the warrant for the rogue’s destruction. But why, I asked him, didn’t they capture the animal instead?
`The average Asian male elephant weighs seven tonnes, stands nine feet high, can run at twenty-five miles an hour and possesses a trunk that could pull your head right off your shoulders,’ Das explained. `You can’t put such a rogue elephant in a cage, you can’t tie him to a post, you can’t pacify him or reason with him, and he can’t be trained. He has to be killed or he will kill. It’s as simple as that.’
He drew hard on his cigarette and continued: `An elephant must kill at least twelve people before a destruction order is given. When that happens, we have to choose a hunter. Not just anyone is invited to come forward. He must own a .458 velocity rifle, be a trained marksman and, preferably, have experience of shooting elephants.’
Das went on to explain that a warrant is issued with a description of the elephant’s height, approximate weight, colouring and any distinguishing features.
`The warrant has a time limit,’ he added. `It’s usually fourteen days. If the elephant in question is not eliminated within that period, then all bets are off.’
`It sounds like a Mafioso hit,’ I joked as I jotted down the details in my notebook.
`If you like,’ said Das, unamused.
Just then, the old-fashioned bakelite telephone on the desk gave a loud, shrill ring. Das picked up the receiver.
The person on the other end talked rapidly, the line distorting his voice.
`Yes, I understand,’ said Das.
The line squawked and then squawked again.
`Right. I will. Five minutes.’
Das remained calm and aloof. He replaced the receiver, stroking his right cheek like a poker player considering his hand.
`I have just been given the name of the hunter who has been assigned to the task.’
`Who is it?’ I asked excitedly.
`He is Dinesh Choudhury, a Guwahati man and a trained marksman, the best there is.’
Dinesh Choudhury: the name I had seen in the newspaper article. I asked Das how I might get in touch with him. He wrote down the address on a piece of paper and slid it over to me. Then he stood up and showed me to the door.
`Don’t be misled by the environmentalists. This elephant is a man-killer,’ he said, squeezing my hand and looking me straight in the eye. `You should be careful. Things are not always what they seem. Rogue tuskers don’t distinguish between locals and white men. He hates us all equally.’
I asked him whether it was true that the victims’ families had gone on hunger-strike, as I had heard that morning.
`That’s another thing,’ he cautioned. `Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. Our Indian journalists are all consummate liars.’
Outside in the street, I hailed a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw and handed the piece of paper to its Bengali driver.
`Paan Ba-zaar?’ he asked, reading the address and seeking confirmation of my destination.
`Yes, please. Paan Bazaar,’ I repeated.
He revved up his lawnmower-like engine and, with a jolt and a shotgun blast from the exhaust, we lurched off down the road, his dashboard shrine flashing with multicoloured disco lights. He slipped an audio cassette into his player and grating Bengali film music blared from the speakers. The yowling soon attracted the attention of a street dog who ran alongside the doorless vehicle, yapping frantically and snapping at our wheels. Despite our increasing speed, the dog managed to keep up with us for nearly fifty yards before receiving a well-aimed kick from the driver. As the whimpering hound fell far behind, the driver turned in his seat, cocked his head at me and smiled triumphantly.
Soon we took a right turn down a back road pitted with potholes as deep as bomb craters. Crouched in a foetal position in a vehicle obviously designed for dwarfs, I bumped up and down on the rock-hard seat. The vehicle reached its top speed and the driver zoomed over a sleeping policeman, causing the auto-rickshaw to do a rear-end wheely and slamming my head against the steel support bar in the roof. Next we took a sharp turn left and I only just prevented myself from being dumped on the road by throwing my arms around the neck of the driver who, temporarily blinded by my embrace, nearly drove into the back of a water buffalo.
Rather than becoming enraged, I felt strangely exhilarated. For weeks, I had been shackled to my desk in New Delhi, covering the latest developments in the arcane world of Indian politics. Now, with my mobile phone and pager locked away in a filing cabinet, I smiled to myself. Whatever the outcome, this was sure to be an adventure.
As the driver continued his manic passage towards Paan Bazaar I reflected on my interview with Das.
Why had he made the elephant sound so dangerous and menacing? I wondered. Surely that was all bluster, just to reinforce the story and to make the price they had put on the rogue’s head sound legitimate. Das was up to no good. He had to be.
Given this, I wondered how best to approach Mr Choudhury. He was bound to be unreceptive, so perhaps cash would help my appeal. Or the prospect of fame and publicity. Failing that, I might try playing on his vanity. Had I not come at vast expense all the way from Delhi to interview him? That always worked. Even the most publicity-shy people like that kind of attention.
Suddenly turning into one of the city’s main thoroughfares we were swept along in a whirlwind of Indian traffic. Bullock carts and sacred cows meandered across lanes of pollution-belching cars. Vespas buzzed past. Drivers overtook, undertook, did U-turns in the middle of moving traffic, reversed down one-way streets the wrong way, and honked their horns incessantly. Overloaded trucks accelerated and then slammed on their brakes. Motor-scooters slalomed. Battered buses cut across lanes at breakneck speed. It was as if every vehicle was being piloted by a circus clown.
I watched as a mother and her child tried to cross the street, the two terrified figures clinging to one another like passengers on the sinking Titanic. They took a step into a gap in the traffic and immediately a bus cut off their line of retreat. Gingerly they took another few steps forward as a Maruti hatchback ground to a halt inches away from them, the driver cursing. I could see a truck bearing down on them from the other direction and held my breath, certain they would be run over. But at the last second, to my astonishment, the driver swerved to the right, pushing two bicycle rickshaws off the road, as the mother and child ran safely to the other side.
Wherever I had travelled in the subcontinent – from the southernmost tip of Tamil Nadu to the hill stations crouched in the foothills of the Himalayas – it had been impossible to escape this chaos. Even here on the North-East Frontier, a part of the world that has remained isolated for centuries, traffic madness had spread like a virus.
Guwahati, or Gauhati as the British referred to it, might have been a beautiful city had it not caught this debilitating disease. Instead, it has been reduced to a sprawling, filthy, polluted and congested mess. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi immigrants, corrupt politicians, a burgeoning indigenous population and a stagnant economy have only compounded the problem.
Guwahati’s saving grace is its position, built around rolling emerald-green hills along the southern bank of the Brahmaputra, the largest of India’s rivers. Known to the Assamese as the Lohit, or Red River and to the Burmese as the Bhullambuthur, which means `Making a gurgling sound’, it rises in Tibet and flows for 1,800 miles before discharging an estimated 500,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Bay of Bengal. Off to the left, I caught my first glimpse of this massive waterway, which remained virtually uncharted by European explorers until the end of the nineteenth century. It was broad, dark and brooding, its fast-moving surface alive with whirlpools, eddies and rapids as if some Hindu god was churning it from beneath. Fishing boats and ferries chugged upstream, straining against the current. Two Christmas pudding-shaped islands sat in the middle of the river surrounded by brown and yellow sandbanks. On the far shore, soft afternoon light played across rolling hills thick with jungle, while downstream, car windows glistened as they passed over a high, mile-long suspension bridge.
We turned down a filthy side street, its gutters heaped with festering rubbish, a welcome playground for India’s flourishing rodents and carrion. Over one shop entrance a sign announced: `M/S D. CHOUDHURY & SONS’.
`Okay. Bus,’ I cried out above the noisy engine. `Stop! This is it!’
The auto-rickshaw came to an abrupt halt. I stumbled out, half dazed, and paid the driver. He seemed amazed when I handed him a tip. Clearly it was his first – who else but a crazy foreigner would reward such suicidal driving? He nodded gratefully before turning round and heading back in the direction we had come, the repetitive Bengali music still blaring from his speakers.
I approached Mr Choudhury’s shop and pushed the door ajar. A wide desk dominated the otherwise sparsely furnished, dimly lit room, its surface littered with a collection of odds and ends – a can of lubricating oil, a telescopic sight, a used shotgun cartridge filled with paper clips, and half a dozen dusty back issues of The Shooting Times. Against the far wall stood a glass cabinet full of rifles with polished chestnut-coloured butts and shiny barrels. Next to it, I spied some fishing rods, nets and tackle. But there was no sign of the owner.
`Hello. Is anyone there?’ I called out as I stepped inside.
`One moment, please,’ came a voice from the back. `Take a seat. I’ll be with you shortly.’
I sat down in the chair in front of the desk as instructed, still taking in my surroundings. Half a dozen black-and-white pictures hung unevenly from the damp-stained wall. One showed a handsome young man with chiselled features sitting on top of a magnificent-looking male elephant with long, thick, white tusks. In a smaller print, the same youth was kneeling over the body of a dead leopard, rifle in hand.
`There used to be thousands of leopards in Assam,’ came the same voice, now just a few feet behind me. `We used to bag them quite regularly. Today, all we’re allowed to shoot are rats and crows.’
Startled, I leapt up from my chair and found myself standing face to face with the same man who appeared in the photographs on the wall, or rather an older version with greying sideburns and sagging jowls. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and a Guwahati Rifle Association baseball cap, he looked every bit the hunter – right down to his glasses, which were square, concave and, for a trained marksman, surprisingly thick. They were custom-made bifocals and the lenses reached above his eyebrows so that from certain angles his eyes seemed to bulge like goldfish in a bowl.
`Hello, I’m Dinesh Choudhury,’ he said in a soft voice.
`Tarquin Hall,’ I replied, shaking his hand. `Very pleased to meet you.’
For a moment or two, a self-conscious unease crept over me as I was gently appraised through narrowed eyes, rather as a hunter might watch an animal in the wild.
Mr Choudhury did not appear to be the menacing character I had built up in my mind. If anything, he seemed gentle, with a slightly quizzical air and a boyish charm. Yet at the same time, there was something supremely confident about the man. He had the considered, introspective look of someone who makes few mistakes, his prominent chin and set mouth suggestive of resolution, even of obstinacy.
Olive-skinned with brown eyes, he was unlike the other Assamese I had seen in the street, most of whom had distinct Mongoloid features. With his aquiline nose and arched forehead, he might have been mistaken for an Italian. Indeed, as I discovered later, he was of Aryan stock, a descendant of Hindu Rajasthani princes who had fled to Assam three hundred years earlier to escape the Mogul invasion.
`So what brings you to my little shop, Mr Hall?’ he asked at last, playing absentmindedly with an empty brass bullet casing that lay on the desk.
`Well, I’ve flown all the way from Delhi to find you. In fact I’ve been travelling for several days to get here,’ I began, trying to sound as enthusiastic as possible.
`And you are a journalist. Is that right?’
`Yes,’ I answered, realizing that Das must have tipped him off. Either that or he had made a calculated guess. Whatever the case, hacks have a bad name the world over and I was keen to present myself in an altogether different light.
`My main interest in life is travel writing,’ I explained, taking a copy of my first book from my backpack and handing it to him.
He inspected the bright cover, glancing at the publisher’s blurb. Then, thumbing through the pages, he paused to look at some of the photographs. Encouraged by his apparent interest, I continued: `That book’s about some journeys I made when I was younger. In one chapter, I go rattlesnake-hunting in Texas,’ I added, hoping to strike a chord.
`Very interesting,’ he said, smiling at me. `You’ve done a lot of things for someone so young – is it not so?’
My attempt to engage his interest was working, I thought. Now that he was primed, I felt confident of tackling him on the subject of the elephant hunt. Would he be leaving soon?
`Yes, I think so. Probably tonight.’
`Ah, right,’ I said, feeling a tingle in my stomach as I formulated the next question in my mind. `Well, I was wondering if you would allow me to tag along, so that I might write about it later?’ I paused. `I think it would make a fascinating book.’
`Yes, yes, sure,’ replied the hunter. `I’m quite happy for you to come up to Sonitpur.’
A wave of relief and excitement swept over me.
`Oh great! Thank you very much,’ I said, amazed at how easy this was proving.
But then Mr Choudhury raised a finger and added the word `However’. He crossed his arms and stiffened.
`However,’ he repeated, sitting back in his chair and frowning, `you understand that you will not be able to come with us when we hunt the elephant. You will have to stay in the camp.’
My skin went clammy and my stomach started to churn. Had I heard him correctly? He wasn’t going to allow me on the hunt? Did that mean he suspected my motives? That he feared I wanted to expose him and the elephant-shooting racket? Was he being friendly just to lead me on?
All I could say was, `Why can’t I come?’ in a feeble, childlike whine.
`Well, the tusker has already killed thirty-eight people,’ explained Mr Choudhury. `That makes him a formidable opponent and very dangerous. Also, we will be travelling in areas where there are insurgents who are fighting for an independent Assam. I couldn’t be responsible for your safety.’
My chance of a great adventure was fading fast. I had not come all the way from Delhi to sit around in some crummy camp. For a split second, I felt like arguing my case but then thought better of it. The only thing to do was to accept Mr Choudhury’s offer, drive up to Sonitpur, spend some time with him and try to wangle my way on to the hunt later. With this in mind, I took a deep breath and changed tack.
`I completely understand the dangers and I would hate to put you in a difficult position,’ I said. `At the very least, I’d like to come up to Sonitpur. After all, I have come all the way from Delhi to be here.’
The hunter nodded his head in agreement.
`By all means come,’ he replied. `It will be very educational for you. I must warn you, though, that it will be rough. You’ll be sleeping outside, the food will be basic and you’ll have to help out in the camp. Everyone mucks in. You will be required to cook and clean up, and you may even have to do some hard manual labour.’
Though Mr Choudhury didn’t know it, this was exactly the kind of experience I was looking for. After years of eating junk food and sitting at a desk, some honest physical work would do me good. But I was taken aback when he asked me if I smoked.
`Just a few a day,’ I said casually. `I’ve cut down a lot recently and …’
The hunter was shaking his head in disapproval.
`No smoking. Elephants have an acute sense of smell. They don’t like cigarettes.’
`Right, no smoking,’ I said, wondering how I would survive.
Did I drink?
`Well, one or two … you know, just sometimes … the odd glass of beer …’ I felt almost apologetic.
One look told me that I would be off the sauce for a while.
`Right, no drinking,’ I sighed out loud.
`And one last thing, from now on, don’t use any deodorant.’
No deodorant? Banning fags and booze was one thing, but surely my Right Guard was harmless stuff?. Or perhaps he found my brand offensive. Did he, like an elephant, have an acute sense of smell?
`It’s a small detail, but it could be your undoing. An elephant will pick up its scent a mile off,’ he added. `And it might attract the unwanted attention of the rogue. He would be less than friendly.’
Then Mr Choudhury stood up, muttering that he had lots to organize before his departure.
`That settles it then. I will pick you up at your hotel at eight o’clock tonight. Please bring as few belongings as possible.’
I thanked him for his time and turned towards the door. But just then, he called me back. Reaching into the drawer of his desk he pulled out a book, a reprint of P. D. Stracey’s Elephant Gold, the standard work on the Asian elephant in Assam.
`Here, I would like to give you this,’ he said, and with that, taking up his fountain pen, he wrote an inscription on the title page, which he attributed to the legendary fifth-century Assamese sage Palakapya, who is said to have been born from an elephant.
Where there is duty, there is nobility. Where there are elephants, there is victory.
On my way back to the hotel, my head was spinning. How could someone like Mr Choudhury, who seemed so kindly, shoot elephants? Had he grown so used to hunting animals that one more didn’t make any difference? Or did he just need the money? Judging by the state of his shop, the rifle and ammunition business was hardly booming. The bounty of 50,000 rupees, the equivalent of roughly six hundred pounds, would go a long way in Assam. And there was the ivory to consider. The two tusks would be worth a fortune on the world market if they could be smuggled out of India – enough to set someone up for life.
It took less than twenty minutes to reach my hotel. The foyer was packed with Congress Party politicians and workers holding their annual regional meeting. The bigwigs, those who professed to be carrying on the work of the Mahatma, were all dressed in white homespun pyjamas, a uniform that had once stood for humility in the days when India’s freedom fighters had identified with the common man. Now, it was synonymous with corruption and was worn by pot-bellied men with generous double chins. Somehow, I found it hard to imagine these individuals putting the Mahatma’s example of abstinence into practice.
The Congressmen jostled for the attention of the lone man behind the reception desk. He had been landed with the jobs of telephone operator, receptionist, concierge, occasional bellboy – he had helped me with my bags – and cashier. Looming over the Congressmen I successfully caught his attention. His name was Rishi. It said so on his name-tag.
`You had a call, sir,’ he said, beaming at me as he pushed my room key over the counter and tried to grapple with two telephones at the same time.
`Oh really, who from?’
He rummaged behind the desk, getting the lines twisted, and handed me a message. It was from a `Mr Banerjee, Ministry of Sports’.
I licked my top lip as I studied the slip of paper, noticing that my first name had been spelt `Fartquin’.
`What does he want, this Mr Banerjee?’ I asked Rishi, as he tried to fend off an irate Congressman who was complaining that he didn’t have a room with a view.
`He’s heard that you are a professional goalkeeper and is coming to meet with you.’
`A goalkeeper!’ I exclaimed. `I’m not a …’
Then, with a sinking feeling, I suddenly remembered what had happened that morning.
Upon my arrival at Guwahati airport, I had been required to register myself at Passport Control. The aggressive bureaucrat behind the desk had handed me a form to complete that asked for all the usual details: passport number, date of birth, country of origin and so on.
As a foreigner in a land that thrives on paperwork and bureaucracy, I was forever filling in such forms. Indian hotels always wanted to know everything about me, usually in triplicate. Sometimes, to amuse myself, I would give a false name, and I often added an out-of-the-way occupation like `Brain Surgeon’ or `Concert Pianist’ for good measure.
On this occasion I had scrawled `Goalkeeper’ and had handed the completed form back to the man. He had examined it carefully, checking the facts with those in my passport.
`Goalkeeper?’ he exclaimed. `That is no occupation.’
I shrugged my shoulders.
`Yes it is. I’m a goalkeeper,’ I replied, deadpan.
`You mean you are a player of soccer?’
`Yes,’ I confirmed, and then I overstepped the mark. `I play for Manchester United.’
He returned his attention to the form, crossed out `Goalkeeper’ and inserted `Soccer Player, Manchester Unlimited’.
In the end, all the fuss was worth it. He soon produced an ink pad and banged an Assam entry stamp on to an empty page in my passport. This was an unexpected and welcome bonus and I thanked him heartily, leaving the airport delighted. I had a new addition to my visa collection, and a rare one at that.
Nevertheless, it seemed as if my bluff had been called. The bureaucrat at the airport had obviously rung the Ministry of Sports and tipped them off. Now this Mr Banerjee was coming to the hotel.
Perhaps the airport official was still suspicious and wanted someone to check my credentials. I imagined myself having to prove my mettle against an Assamese striker on some Guwahati football pitch. Or perhaps Mr Banerjee wanted me to come and coach his team or even play in a game. If that were to happen, I would be unmasked as a fraud and, in such a sensitive part of India, rife with insurgency and drug smuggling, my innocent joke might be interpreted as something more sinister.
Whatever the case, I felt certain of one thing: Mr Banerjee would want to talk about soccer and all I knew about the game was that England had only once won the World Cup. I couldn’t even remember in which year.
Up in my room, I tried to decide the best course of action. I had three hours to kill. If I remained in the hotel, I was a sitting duck. After a quick shower I slipped out. With any luck, Mr Banerjee would call while I was out, and later that night I would get clean away.
* * *
Sitting at the back of a local tandoori restaurant, I ordered a late lunch. While I waited for the platter of food to come, I tugged a box-file from my backpack and flicked through its contents. Dog-eared and yellowed with age, they were a clutch of private letters written by my godfather Charles that I had inherited on his death in 1989. Since then, I hadn’t delved deeper than the first two or three. But now I pored over each page, searching for references to the North-East Frontier, where Charles had been stationed during the Second World War.
As I soon discovered, in April 1944 he had fought at the battle of Kohima in Nagaland, only a few hours’ drive from Guwahati. According to his own vivid description, Charles, along with several hundred Allied troops and local tribesmen, took on the Japanese army and won. During the battle, regarded as one of the most desperate of the war, Charles spent three weeks in a rat-infested trench on the edge of the British Governor’s tennis court. Day after day, and night after night, he defended his position against waves of Japanese infantry. Miraculously, Charles was one of the few lucky enough to make it out alive.
Later letters revealed that after the battle, he spent six months travelling around India, indulging his greatest passion: hunting. Not far from Mysore, in the southern state of Karnataka, he took part in five elephant hunts, bagging himself two pairs of tusks.
`There’s nothing quite as satisfying as shooting an elephant,’ he wrote to his younger brother Jeffrey in January 1945. `The shot – to the heart or the brain – is a tricky one to accomplish, especially when the beast is charging towards you. I cannot put into words the thrill of seeing such a large animal falling to one’s gun. I’m afraid it makes beagling seem rather silly.’
It was clear from Charles’s words that he, like most of his generation, had a different attitude towards hunting. In his time, there had been no such thing as an endangered species list, and even the largest animals were considered little more than vermin. But to someone of my generation the idea of killing such a fine animal was utterly abhorrent.
During his tour of India, Charles had also spent some time in Assam and had visited Guwahati’s Kamakhya temple. `A fascinating place,’ he wrote. `A centre of the black arts, where the most unspeakable acts have been performed.’
Having finished my lunch and with two hours still left to kill, I headed off in search of this mysterious site. The temple, one of the holiest in India, stands on Nilchal Hill, on the south bank of the Brahmaputra. As I arrived, pilgrims from across the subcontinent, some of whom had travelled for weeks to reach this spot, filed back and forth along the narrow pathway that winds upwards towards the temple complex. The new arrivals wore expressions of expectation and excitement as they took the last few steps towards the goal upon which they had set their hearts. By contrast, the devotees making their way down towards the car park were lost in quiet contemplation, their eyes filled with satisfaction.
Amongst them, I spotted a half-naked sadhu, a Hindu holy man. He was covered from head to toe in grey ash that gave him a deathly look and enhanced the whites of his eyes so that they looked hypnotic. His dreadlocks, which fell to his waist, rivalled those of a Rastafarian, the rope-like strands blackened by years of accumulated dirt and grease. His forehead was marked with three horizontal ochre lines made in holy ash. These proclaimed him to be a follower of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
On my way up to the temple, I stopped at one of the many curio stalls dotted along the way. Neat lines of bronze-cast Hindu gods were positioned next to a clutch of carved wooden snakes. Some frightening-looking bullwhips – which would have been more in place in an S&M shop – hung from hooks above the stallkeeper’s head, together with garlands of glazed cowry shells strung with bright plastic beads. A dozen alarm clocks, fashioned like temples complete with lotus-shaped bells, sat on a shelf. The deluxe version, which was painted a gaudy red and gold, was made out of’ `GENUINE PLASTIC’ and claimed to play six different mantras.
The next stall sold everything a pious Hindu might want or need in the way of religious offerings. Coconuts, garlands of marigolds and boxes of incense-sticks were all on offer, together with bags of sugar balls and bunches of green bananas – the essentials for puja, or prayers. The man behind the stall, who wore a Chicago gangster-style hat, offered me a package deal. One hundred and fifty rupees would buy me everything I needed to take inside the temple. He would even anoint my head with sandalwood paste for `no extra charge’.
`As part of this bargain, you will also get blessings from the god.’ He beamed. `That is for free. Then your wife will be in tiptop shape!’
I bought some offerings and took them up to the temple. At the entrance, as a foreigner, I had to pay a heavy bribe to be allowed inside. Taking the money, a Brahmin priest-cum-guide wearing flowing saffron robes instructed me to remove my shoes before he led me barefoot over the burning-hot tiles of the inner courtyard. Here, chickens and geese mingled with a wedding party waiting for their marriage ceremony to begin. The bride and bridesmaids were caked in make-up and decked out in psychedelic silk saris, elaborate nose rings and shimmering veils. As we passed by, doe-like eyes lined with kohl looked out at me and then shyly disappeared behind rippling gauze. Next to the temple’s main entrance sat a line of beggars with their backs against a wall, the late afternoon sunlight reflecting off their tin mugs and begging bowls. Like a group of actors waiting to audition for a part in a horror film, each one showed off his injury or deformity to its best effect, moaning like so many Ghosts of Christmas Past.
`This is one of Hinduism’s holiest sites,’ began the priest, who spoke English well. `It’s the place where the genitalia of the goddess Shakti landed after Vishnu cut her into pieces and strewed her parts across India.’
Shakti, he told me, was just one of the many guises of the Mother Goddess. In the Hindu pantheon, she appears in a number of forms and reincarnations: as Durga, Uma, Devi and, most famously, as the bloodthirsty slayer Kali. When Shakti’s body was cut up, the pieces are said to have landed in fifty-one places, sites in India known as shakti pithas. Kamakhya is considered to be the most sacred. For several centuries, it was a centre of Tantric Hinduism, a cult often steeped in bloody rites and black magic. Some experts believe Assam was the birthplace of this particular brand of the Hindu faith, thought to have its roots in the ancient rites of the primitive hill tribes who have long inhabited the region.
I followed the priest inside the temple and down a dark, dank passage that led into the innermost chamber. Burning incense-sticks and candles ate up what little oxygen was available and replaced it with suffocating, acrid smoke. Figures talking in reverent whispers moved about in the eerie atmosphere, their faces masked by shadows. The chanting of priests echoed and re-echoed all around us, the acoustics mysteriously amplifying voices that criss-crossed one another. Idols grimaced at me from the sooty walls. Their terrible images – tongues, fangs, serpents, horns – flickered in the dim candlelight and seemed to come to life.
The temple’s innermost sanctum is home to a mound-shaped rock with a cleft in it, representing the goddess’s yoni, or genitalia. The rock is kept moist by a natural spring which, during the monsoon, miraculously runs red with iron oxide and is drunk by devotees as `symbolic menstrual blood’ during the festival of Ambuvachi.
While I watched the priest begin the complex ceremony, it wasn’t difficult to picture the horrific practices for which Kamakhya was infamous in the past. Thousands of men were decapitated here amidst terrible rites designed to honour the goddess who, it was believed, relished human blood. Occasionally, there were even mass sacrifices – in 1565, 140 men died on one day alone.
Of those killed, many were volunteers known as bhogis. In return for their supreme sacrifice, these men were allowed to live in luxury for a year. During those twelve months, they could have as many women as they liked. They were pampered by servants around the clock, laden with presents and promised a place in paradise by Kamakhya’s powerful priesthood. At the annual festival of Ambuvachi, the men would be taken to a sacrificial altar where their heads were cut off and placed on a golden platter before an image of Shakti. Later, their lungs were cooked and eaten, and their blood was drained and used to boil rice, which was consumed by those who had gathered to watch them die.
Today, the only offerings the goddess Shakti receives at Kamakhya are bananas, sugar balls and, if she’s lucky, the occasional goat. Nonetheless, the puja was not without colour. Bells were rung, incense-sticks lit, yet more sandalwood was smeared on my forehead, mantras were spoken in reverent tones and the milk from my coconut was poured over the yoni rock.
Eventually we emerged into the dusk. At the gate, I paid the priest for his services and he thanked me gratefully, promising that my life would be filled with good fortune. As I made my way to meet Mr Choudhury, I could only hope that the priest was right.
Back at the hotel, Rishi the concierge told me that Mr Banerjee, the mysterious gentleman from the Ministry of Sports, had been and gone. It looked as if I was in the clear. But just to be on the safe side, as I waited in the foyer, I was careful to position myself in the shadow of a large potted plant where I kept my face partially hidden behind the collar of my coat.
Much to my relief, Mr Choudhury was on time. Shortly after eight, he strode through the hotel doors and spotted me in my hiding place.
`Everything’s in order,’ he said confidently, as we made our way outside. `We leave immediately.’
Mr Choudhury had arrived with two vehicles: his battered 1953 Land Rover which had a long wheel base, a khaki green canvas roof, a winch at the front and extra jerry cans of petrol mounted on the back; and a white Hindustan Ambassador, India’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle. Modelled on the 1950s Morris Oxford and built like a tank, it is the only indigenous car tough enough to survive India’s pot-holed national highways.
The hunter had brought along a small entourage that included two drivers and two guards on loan from the Forest Department who were armed with sub-machine guns for our protection against militants.
`We’ll be driving all night. Let’s take turns sleeping on the back seat of the Ambassador,’ said Mr Choudhury as my bags were placed in the boot of the car. `Tarquin, you sleep first. I’ll go in the Land Rover and we’ll swap in a few hours.’
The driver opened the back door of the car. I was about to get inside when I heard my name – or rather its Indian version – being called out hysterically.
`Mr Halls! Mr Halls!’
A man in a purple tracksuit was running towards the car.
`I am Banerjee,’ he panted as he came to a stop.
I had guessed as much already. I turned to face him.
`Yes, Mr Banerjee? I’m in a bit of a rush. What can I do for you?’
He stood in front of me, his head bowed, his hands pushed together to form the traditional Hindu namaste, or greeting.
`Most terribly sorry for disturbing,’ he apologized, wobbling his head and shuffling his feet. `Are you really Mr Hails?’
I nodded my head nervously, expecting the worst.
`Well, I am most avid fan of British soccer. Please to be giving your autograph.’
He thrust a notepad and pen towards me, his brown eyes pleading to make his wish come true. My mind was reeling. Not for the first time in India I was completely baffled by the events taking place around me. Numbly, I reached for the biro and, steadying the pad, signed my name, making sure that it was illegible.
`Thanking you, thanking you very much, Mr Halls,’ said Mr Banerjee, backing away from me. He bounced on his heels with excitement, his head bowed to the ground. I thought I noticed tears in his eyes.
`This is the greatest day of my life, Mr Halls! Thanking you! Thanking you!’
Mr Choudhury was standing next to his Land Rover, his eyebrows raised in astonishment. I caught his gaze and, as I did so, he tilted his head to one side.
`Who was that?’ he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders.
`Oh, just one of my fans,’ I replied.
Across Guwahati, the electricity had been cut off, throwing the city into darkness. Residents stood about in the streets like spectators watching an eclipse. While they waited expectantly for the power to be turned back on, children played in the moonlight and elderly people huddled around fires burning inside empty oil drums. Along the main road, lanterns hung outside shop fronts. On the pavements, the proprietors of the larger stores revved up their petrol generators, deafening passers-by.
Even the city’s traffic lights had failed and the police were trying to direct the rush-hour traffic with torches. Vegetable stands were doing business by candlelight, dozens of flames twinkling in the gloom. Outside a cinema showing an Indian version of Mrs Doubtfire entitled Aunty Number One, angry customers, furious that the film had been interrupted, were demanding their money back. Down the road, a street-poster vendor who sold pin-ups of busty Bombay film actresses alongside garish paintings of Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Jesus Christ and the usual Hindu deities, was doing a roaring trade by the light of his car headlights.
As we inched our way through the traffic, I caught glimpses of advertisements for everything from Tipsy Beer to East Wood Cigarettes. `MOUNTAIN SPRING WATER. THE SWEAT TASTE’, announced one poster. Next to it, a billboard promoted a certain brand of local soap as being the best `FOR THOSE PRIVATE MOMENTS’.
Towards the edge of the city, we passed the Boogie Woogie Dance School where anyone with two hundred and fifty rupees to spare could learn to `get down like Michael Jackson’. Next to it stood the Double Digest Restaurant. A mile on, I spotted the Good Luck Driving School which promised graduates a `chance of survival’.
We passed out of the city limits and into the surrounding hills. A sign on the side of the road, erected by Assam’s Department of Transport, warned: `You ARE NOW ENTERING AN ACCIDENT PRONE ZONE.’ The large number of chewed-up cars and squashed truck cabs that lay abandoned on the side of the road – perhaps left there as a warning to others – were proof that Highway 37 was indeed hazardous, if not a deathtrap. More of Assam’s dogs lay about on the tarmac in various stages of decomposition.
According to my driver Rudra, who described them as `bad mens’, it was generally the truck-drivers who were responsible for the inordinate number of accidents and deaths. Most of them were said to be on drugs, which they took to help them stay awake on long journeys. Only that morning, there had been a head-on collision. `Both mens become like jams,’ said Rudra.
Highway 37 wound its way through the hills and down into the Brahmaputra valley. Knowing that in India there is an accident every minute and a death on the roads every eight minutes, I sat back in my seat, making sure that I was unable to see the road ahead. If something was going to kill me, I preferred not to have to see it coming.
I had been looking forward to talking to Mr Choudhury and getting to know him better on the journey, and I was disappointed that I wasn’t sitting next to him. Tired, I attempted to put such thoughts out of my head. Instead, I reached into my backpack and took out a collection of short stories and essays by George Orwell. I turned on the light and flicked through until I found his acclaimed piece, `Shooting an Elephant’. With the car bouncing over pot-holes, keeping my eyes on the words wasn’t easy. The story is set in Moulmein in Lower Burma where Orwell worked as a police officer. As a colonial, he was despised by the local population. One day while he was on duty, a trained elephant went beserk. Rather than lose face amongst the natives, Orwell decided to shoot it. But all he had available was a small-bore rifle, a weapon wholly inadequate for such a task. Despite this the first shot found its mark.
He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed like a long time – it might have been five seconds, I dare say – he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise. For as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upwards like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skywards like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.
Assuming I managed to talk Mr Choudhury into allowing me on the hunt I would see the same sad sight. I would see an elephant die.
A lump formed in my throat as Orwell’s imagery flashed again and again across my mind and suddenly, feelings of revulsion and guilt swept over me. Surely elephants, animals we regard with awe, endangered the world over, should not be gunned down? Couldn’t the rogue be captured, sedated and released elsewhere? But what of the people the rogue had killed? By all accounts, the victims’ families were baying for his blood. Surely they deserved justice. No human being would be let off such crimes.
Even so, as I switched off the light and drifted into sleep, I pictured the tusker on his own in the darkness somewhere in northern Assam. And I found myself hoping that he would disappear deep into the jungle – far away, where Mr Choudhury would not be able to find him.
©2000 by Tarquin Hall. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.