Nirmal whistled as he shovelled, but he was not feeling cheerful. His head throbbed from the summer heat and his spine ached from bending down. He had hoped to dig a six-foot-deep trench around his house by nightfall, but a day’s work had only resulted in blisters on his palms and a shallow ditch that even a child could cross. His mouth tasted of dust and disappointment.
A Malabar thrush picked up the feeble notes of his whistle, as if telling him not to give up. It was an old habit of his, this looking to the forest for signs. In his first year as a forest guard, a pair of mottled wood owls had kept him awake with their eerie howls one night and, the very next morning, the deputy ranger had turned up outside his quarters with the news of his mother’s death.
He stopped digging to look for the whistling thrush in the canopy of trees surrounding the house. But the bird was nowhere to be seen. He aired his khaki shirt, which patches of sweat had plastered to his skin. A squawking flock of parakeets descended on the tree-tops. He wondered if he would be safer up a tree. His ditch would deter neither wild dogs nor elephants.
The shovel on his shoulder, he jumped over the ditch and headed back to the house, dry leaves crackling under his feet. His makeshift home in the forest looked grimmer than ever before. Paint peeled off its brick walls. The wooden shutters meant to cover the front windows hung loose like broken elbows. But what pinched his heart was the sight of the iron bars on the windows, which a bull elephant had bent out of shape the previous night.
Nirmal had just about fallen asleep when he heard the unmistakable crunch of branches being snapped into two. He tiptoed to the window, looked out and saw a lone elephant shaking the jack-fruit trees in his garden, its ivory tusks beaming in the moonlight. He crawled back to his folding bed, shivering in spite of the heat. Tried to be still. Prayed to all the gods he could name. But the elephant sought him out; charged against the walls of the house, and twisted the metal bars on the windows with its trunk, trumpeting so ferociously that even the always raucous crickets fell silent. In all his years in the forest he had never seen anything like it.
Nirmal heard the unmistakable crunch of branches being snapped into two. He tiptoed to the window, looked out and saw a lone elephant shaking the jack-fruit trees in his garden, its ivory tusks beaming in the moonlight.”
Was this too an omen? He drank some blessedly cool water from a mud pot and, on a messy table by his bed, looked for the letter from his wife. He had read it the day he picked it up at the check-post but he went over it again. As usual her real reason for writing the letter was hidden somewhere between the stories of their daughter’s indifferent grades at school and the procurement of a new blender. Call me as soon as you get this, Shalini had written. Ramesh has a job for you in the Gulf.
There were no details about the job offer from his brother-in-law, a ploy no doubt meant to pique his curiosity. Shalini often badgered him about finding a better job, reading out recruitment advertisements in newspapers over the phone and, on his short visits home, making him entertain relatives who might know someone looking for a security guard or a clerk. There was a new urgency to her job search undertaken on his behalf, as if she had sensed his disquiet from miles away.
The two-room house was becoming dark. He squinted as he studied the letter, thinking of Shalini’s face as she wrote it. She must have frowned as she tried to balance her threats with pleas. Her words carried the faint smell of coconut oil, which she applied to her curly, waist-length hair every morning.
Squirrels scurried on the roof above him. He lit a kerosene lantern and looked out of the window. The sky was dark blue, with rose-tinged clouds floating over it like the remnants of a pleasant dream. He decided everything would work out; it had to. Then came the high-pitched shrieking of birds, alarm calls rippling through trees and ringing in his ears. A deer fawn raced outside his window, followed by a pack of wild dogs, their red coats as bright and menacing as their snarls. Nirmal was used to these chases. This was the way of the forest. But today, the vicious whistling of the dogs hounding their prey made his hands tremble.
The elephant returned to his quarters that night, trampling his unkempt garden and his prayers. This time it tore off the window shutters and banged against the only admirable feature of the house: its thick, metal front door. Nirmal looked at his .303 Lee Enfield rifle leaning against a wall but it gave him no comfort or confidence. The gun was a colonial relic that jammed constantly. It should have been in a museum, not a forest. He wrapped its expired cartridges in a handkerchief and carried them in the pocket of his pants.
He crawled under the bed, closed his eyes and even after the unruly sounds outside his door quietened down.
The next morning he inspected the ditch and found it was filled with leaves. Though he had expected the dismal result, predicted it even, it soured his mood as he set off on his patrol, the strap of his bag across his chest and his useless rifle hanging over his shoulder in a sling. Pavitran, a forest watcher who accompanied him on his rounds once or twice a week, joined him by a river a few kilometres from his quarters. In the monsoon the river was an angry goddess, spitting and frothing at the mouth, but now it was a gentle brown-green stream that occasionally disappeared between rocks. Nirmal told Pavitran about the elephant.
“Elephants can charge at forty kilometres per hour, I have heard,” Pavitran said. “How fast can you run?”
Then he laughed at his own joke. Nirmal felt a rush of envy. Pavitran was still young enough to feel invincible. He scampered up mountain slopes, surefooted like a goat, unafraid of steep inclines and falling rocks. Just the thought of it made Nirmal’s knees creak.
“Wait until it happens to you,” Nirmal said, heading in the direction of a watchtower that he climbed every other day. “See if you feel like laughing then.”
“Sa-ar, you have toddy in the house?” Pavitran asked, sprinting ahead. The ‘Sa-ar’ was offered without courtesy. Though technically Nirmal was his superior, Pavitran liked to treat him like a slow-witted uncle.
“What are you saying?” Nirmal spat out a bug that had flown into his mouth.
Pavitran skirted the chocolate saucers of a cluster of fungi growing under a branch on the ground. “Elephants are great drunkards,” he said. “They love toddy more than we do.”
“You know I don’t drink. It’s not that… it’s one of those things that you can’t explain. This elephant, it’s like he won’t stop until he has stomped on my head.”
“You should ask for a transfer,” Pavitran said. “Get a posting where you can stay with your family. In nice, clean quarters. Some place where there’s a good school nearby for your daughter.”
The air was sweet with the smell of cinnamon but Nirmal felt bitter. Whenever he went home, his daughter smiled at him once or twice, then went back to the television or the phone or the stereo or whatever it was that caught her ever-changing fancy. When he asked her questions, Radha ignored him kindly, singing along to strange Hindi film songs, or pretending to develop a sudden yet keen interest in her books.
He paused to catch his breath. Pavitran stopped too, but he was restless. Like a monkey, he swung from the prop root of a fig tree dangling over their path.
The steel watchtower swayed in the wind. Nirmal gripped the rough railings to steady himself. The forest seemed deceptively empty. Not even a bird in the sky.”
“You think it’s easy to get a transfer? You think I haven’t tried?”
“All I’m saying” – Pavitran jumped down and wiped his hands on his shirt – “I haven’t heard anyone else complain about an elephant.”
“Oh, I see, so I’m making it all up, eh? That’s just great. And the best I could come up with was an angry elephant? Not even a bloody ghost?”
“Don’t get mad at me, boss. I’m not your enemy.”
The steel watchtower swayed in the wind. Nirmal gripped the rough railings to steady himself. The forest seemed deceptively empty. Not even a bird in the sky. Pavitran was looking through the binoculars a tiger-loving NGO had donated to forest guards in Kerala along with jumpers and blankets.
“You see anything?” Nirmal asked. “Let me have a look.”
Pavitran held on to the binoculars. Nirmal nearly snapped at him, but stopped himself. He could not afford to alienate Pavitran, who having grown up in the forest, knew more about it than a trained guard like him. Pavitran still lived in a tribal settlement in the jungle, but unlike the other men in his community did not brew hooch illegally or help poachers. In return for his selflessness the Forest Department gave him a khaki uniform like the one Nirmal wore, a daily, often-delayed wage of ten rupees and a scratchy blanket as bonus at Deepavali.
“No sign of any poachers,” he said, returning the binoculars.
“They’re in the valley. Sa-ar, you know that. Once the monsoon starts—“
“Yes-yes, they will be back.”
“What I don’t understand is, why do we even bother catching these poachers? The courts just let them out again.”
Nirmal did not respond but wondered if his own sense of disaffection had sprung from a lifetime of enduring such big and small injustices. Sometimes a leak in the roof could go unfixed for years before it caused the ceiling to sag or cave in.
Pavitran sat down on the floor, his legs hanging out between the metal rails. Nirmal zoomed in on a herd of sambar drinking at a water hole. There was a time when he had a hawk’s eyes but not any more. He could once cover the entire stretch of the forty-kilometre beat he had been assigned, but now ten kilometres, even five, exhausted him. Was he old? When had he grown old? His short shadow mocked him from the ground below. His breath sounded hollow; his skin was creased. Tomorrow his body would shrink; his back would crack; bones would jut out of his skin, sharp as knives.
He put the binoculars back in his bag and tapped Pavitran on his shoulder. “Nothing to see here. Let’s go down.”
Nirmal, in his time in the forest, had learnt that the average elephant ate one hundred and fifty kilogrammes of plants, and drank one hundred litres of water every day. He saw no evidence of this scale of consumption on his patrols. His nocturnal visitor did not leave footprints, have dust baths, pass dung and urine, or scrape the barks of trees with its tusks.
He might not have looked for the elephant hard enough. He was short of time. The summer heat was beginning to strip leaves off trees. Small fires broke out in parts of the jungle, which luckily fire-watchers hired from Pavitran’s tribal community managed to put out.
A week after he first saw the elephant, Nirmal visited the forest department office a couple of kilometres from the check-post. His officers told him to clear grass and shrubs around the area he patrolled to stop fires from spreading. He did not tell them about the elephant. (What if he had imagined it?) He did not call his wife, though another letter from her – this time with details of the Gulf job – had been waiting for him. (What was he to tell her?)
He scrambled back to the tribal village in the heart of the wildlife sanctuary, so he could speak to Pavitran about the fire line. Poachers started most of the fires in the forest, dropping matchsticks on grasslands to distract guards so they could escape with their kill. His department had no helicopters or extinguishers so Nirmal and others had to contain a fire by beating it with branches. The last time it happened his eyes had watered for days and it had seemed as if soot would never budge from his lungs. He stopped to pick up a couple of flowers lying on the ground under a red silk cotton tree and placed them at the feet of black rocks shaped like gods. Not again, Lord Ganpati, Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva. Not again.
Above him a Nilgiri langur crashed from one branch to another. A herd of gaur crossed the track in front of him, scarcely paying him any attention. Nirmal continued walking, scratching his balls and spitting on the ground. He wondered if he could ever appease these cruel gods with his modest offerings. He was angry: with the poachers and the judges, and the government that did not care if guards like him had food to eat or a place to sleep. In ten years he had not even got a promotion. What was the point of it all? Would he not be better off doing something easier, like tending an Arab’s or a Russian’s garden in Dubai? He tried to imagine what his life would be like if he earned in dirhams. His daughter might respect him a little. They would have a house of their own so Shalini would not have to argue with crass landlords barging into her kitchen and peering into pans to find out what she was serving for lunch. But he would still be alone, in a land where only air-conditioners and sprinklers made life possible.
He reached a small clearing where a tour operator sometimes pitched tents for tourists so they could spend a night or two in the forest. The only semi-permanent features of the site – a bamboo table and a bench the operator had put together – had been smashed to pieces, perhaps by an elephant. Nearby was a grove of bamboos, whose shoots and leaves elephants favoured over most other plants. He made a mental note to ask his seniors to shift the camping site before tourists returned in September.
The snap of a twig near him. Must be a porcupine or a langur. He spied a black rock in the distance but – what was that, was it moving? Probably not. God, he needed a good night’s sleep. No point looking. Pavitran would tell him to wear glasses and he would be right.
Thorns lanced his legs through his trousers. The birds on the trees around him were jittery, as if mirroring his unease. The staccato calls of giant squirrels filled the air. His feet ached. He heard a low rumble, then a high-pitched, brassy trumpet. Should he climb a tree or run? He ran, ducking under branches, flapping his arms as if he were swimming. His rifle thrashed against his back. His feet caught a gnarly root. He slipped and fell face down on the ground. A sharp pain pierced his jaw. Skin peeled off his blister-ridden palms as stones cut into them. Might as well give up. Might as well lie down. Let it end like this. He thought of Shalini and Radha. He thought of the brief, satisfying affair he once had with a tribal woman named Janu, which he had kept from everyone else. He closed his eyes and waited.
But there was nothing. Insects crawled on his skin. He slowly forced himself to stand up. Dusted his clothes. Felt a bit foolish. He bent down to pick up his rifle, which had fallen away from him.
“No need for that,” he heard a voice say.
The two poachers he and Pavitran had caught a month ago stood on either side, cornering him.
“How much does our government pay you?” a thin, bald man asked him. “Nine thousand rupees? Ten thousand?”
“You should join us,” the other plumper man with wiry hair said, laughing. “We may not get a monthly salary. But one kill and we can relax for two months.”
The men did not seem interested in killing him. They taunted him about his rifle and then poked him in the ribs with a slicker gun Nirmal could not identify.
“Don’t come after us ever again.”
“Or we will kill you.”
“Not that we want to kill you.”
“But we won’t have a choice.”
The thin man thumped him on his back as if they were friends. Then they walked away.
Nirmal bent down to pick up his rifle, his head sore, white lights flashing in the corner of his eyes.
Two days later, Pavitran visited Nirmal in his quarters. He examined the bent iron bars and the leaf-strewn garden, and said, “But wasn’t it always like this?”
“Forget it,” Nirmal said. “Did those poachers come to the village looking for you?”
The sky turned black as they talked. A summer storm. A strong wind hissed through the trees. Birds huddled in the grooves of branches. White hailstones pounded the forest, followed by rain. Nirmal and Pavitran peeled off their shirts and stood outside, arms outstretched. Only the jagged bolts of lightning forced them inside. Nirmal gave Pavitran a cotton towel to dry himself and made tea.
“I’m thinking of leaving,” he said as Pavitran sipped from his tumbler. “I have spent ten years in the forest. Ten years, just imagine. A man can go mad in half that time.”
“Is this about the elephant? Because we will find that bastard, no problem. We will give him one of those injections that will calm him down.”
Nirmal stood near the front door and watched the rain pelting down.
“If you think about it,” he said, turning around, “it’s not the elephant’s fault. What does it know? This is its territory. We’re the trespassers.”
Pavitran scratched his head. “I don’t know what this elephant has done to you.”
“Actually, the elephant isn’t real. Didn’t you say that?”
Pavitran sulked. Water drops splattered on Nirmal’s feet. He did not know how to tell the young man about the deterioration of his body; he did not think Pavitran would understand the exhaustion he felt, or the loneliness. For so many years, these forests, these quarters as paltry as his income, these conversations with those like Pavitran who lived in the jungle, had been enough. But no longer. He touched the bald patches on his head and thought of the receding treeline of the forest, chopped down to make way for dams or quarries. The forest was dying, slowly but surely, and so was he.
“But, Sa-ar, what will you do if you leave?” Pavitran asked. “Where will you go?”
“To the Gulf. I could become a gardener. Or a guard. I don’t know.”
“You won’t like it.”
Nirmal walked with Pavitran to the check-post, his belongings squished into the two bags they carried between them. At 5pm a taxi would ferry him from the check-post to the nearest railway station, where he would sleep in a waiting room until it was time to catch the train home.
The summer storms had given way to an early monsoon. The croaks of frogs now joined the chorus of birds and crickets. Their feet sank into slushy mud as they walked. Water dripped on their heads from the gleaming leaves above them. Black leeches clung to their clothes and they stopped frequently to shake off the creatures.
“You should have taken all your stuff, Sa-ar,” Pavitran said. “Such a waste.”
Everything seemed unreal to him, as if he was watching himself in a dream, up until the moment he shoved his luggage into the boot of the taxi.”
Nirmal, having left most of his meagre possessions behind for Pavitran to take home, said, “It’s all right. You will be using most of it, I suppose.”
A half-green, half-black frog sat on a rotting log by the track. It saddened him that he did not know its name. How many other creatures were there that he could not identify?
Everything seemed unreal to him, as if he was watching himself in a dream, up until the moment he shoved his luggage into the boot of the taxi. Then the smiling faces of his colleagues, wishing him well, putting a garland around his neck, presenting him with a small, wooden elephant as a parting gift, became sharp and clear. He felt like crying but grinned instead. It started to drizzle and people left. He asked the taxi driver to reopen the boot and put the elephant in his suitcase. Pavitran was still standing by his side, getting drenched in the rain. Nirmal embraced him, then got into the taxi, and told the driver, “Okay, shall we leave?”
By then the sun had disappeared behind the clouds and the mountains. It was dark though it was not yet night.
“It’s tricky driving in this weather,” the driver told him, flicking the headlights on. “A bus rolled into a gorge this morning.”
“They were talking about it at the check-post,” Nirmal said, scratching the taxi’s stale-smelling upholstery. He felt bereft. He wanted to scream, knock his head against a rock. He wanted a sign. Dear Lord, tell me I’m doing the right thing.
“You have to be very careful on these roads,” the driver said, but then he drove too fast, the taxi’s tyres veering towards the edge of the winding mountain road.
Nirmal clutched the dashboard but he was swung from side to side.
Negotiating a hairpin bend, the driver said, “Looks like there’s some trouble ahead.”
Through the windshield, Nirmal saw a truck that had stopped in the middle of the road. The taxi driver pressed the brake pedal too late. The car tyres screeched as the vehicle just missed slamming into the stationary truck.
“Maybe the road’s crumbling,” the driver said, but he did not look concerned.
“Let me check,” Nirmal said and stepped out.
Two men on a bike honked behind them, revving their vehicle and shouting at the truck and taxi drivers for blocking the narrow road.
Nirmal walked ahead, passing a slanting sign erected on the roadside by the Forest Department: Nature has everything to meet man’s need but not his greed. The thick, yellow headlights of the truck did not reveal any cracks on the tarmac.
“Get back in the car, you son of a dog,” a cleaner who sat in the front of the truck, next to its driver, shouted.
Nirmal felt fear gripping his shoulders but his feet would not move.
Perhaps tired of waiting for a landslide or an apparition to materialise, the men on the bike rode ahead having somehow squeezed past the bigger vehicles on the road. They had barely gone ten feet when they whizzed around. An elephant, its shape hidden until then by the blackness of the night, came charging behind them, a speeding mass of unbearably loud, terrifying trumpets. Was this his tormentor? Had it followed him?
The drivers pressed their horns and flicked the headlights of their vehicles on and off as if to scare the elephant away. The animal stopped running and sauntered towards Nirmal. He could feel its eyes on him; was sure its tusks would rip his chest.
The elephant snorted as if mocking the drivers’ attempts to frighten him. Then he turned around and disappeared into the mountainside.
On wobbly legs Nirmal walked back to the taxi, where the driver stood leaning against the bonnet.
“What were you thinking?” he asked.
“Have a death wish, do you?” the excitable cleaner shouted from the truck.
Nirmal got into the taxi and wiped his forehead against the sleeves of his shirt. His heart was still racing.
The driver started the car after touching a small idol of Lord Ganpati affixed to the dashboard. “It’s good luck to see an elephant at the start of a journey,” he said. “You’re going to succeed in whatever you choose to do.”
“We will see,” Nirmal said. He stuck his head out of the window and looked at the forest above him, but it was too dark to see anything and raindrops fell on his upturned face.
From the collection Once Upon a Time There Was a Traveller: Asham Award-Winning Stories, published by Virago. Read more.
Deepa Anappara is a freelance journalist from India currently living in London. She is a graduate of City University’s Certificate in Novel Writing course, and her novel-in-progress has been shortlisted for the 2012 Yeovil Literary Prize.