Jungle Tales 5: Ranjit, the Rogue



(My 50th post!)



“Deta, tell us about that rogue elephant,” I coaxed my father one evening during a power cut at my sister’s residence. The husband and brother-in-law were completely unaware of the life that we had, or rather my father had led in Manas Wildlife Sanctuary way back in the 70s and 80s. I felt that as our husbands, they should know at least some aspects of that life as well.


Deta kept silent for some time, maybe he was assailed by the memories of his past, and then he began to tell the story of Ranjit, the Rogue. (I shall put in my own memories of incidents, as well.)

Ranjit was born to a domesticated elephant couple belonging to the forest department, in a village near Manas. “Ranjit was an ugly calf,” Deta recalled. “He had features different from other elephants - his back was on a higher plane than normal and he had a relatively smaller head.” Looking back, perhaps these anomalies signified that he was not an ordinary elephant.


Ranjit’s mother was Manimala, a genteel matriarch true to her name. Unfortunately, the same traits had not passed on to her son. Even as a baby elephant, Ranjit showed signs of volatility.  While other elephant calves frolicked among themselves, Ranjit bullied them by pulling their tails or knocking them about hard. Manimala’s mahout Jalil had a tough time teaching discipline to the little one. In time, Ranjit turned out to be a makhna elephant. A makhna is a male elephant who does not have prominent tusks. Instead he has very small ones, known as tushes.


Jalil had a son of his own, Farid, who was aspiring to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a mahout himself. The 16 year old lad was familiar on the ways of the elephants, having been brought up amidst them. He had already learnt the ropes of the profession and would help out his father in the routine chores. Every morning, the father-son duo would take the elephants out for a bath in the river and then proceed to feed them. While Jalil scrubbed down Manimala, Farid would be playfully splashing water on the tyke Ranjit. No one could foresee the dark clouds of gloom that were to descend upon the family.


It was on a sunny March morning that the villagers heard the heart-rending wails of Jalil, coming from the direction of the river. They ran to the river side to find a hysterical Jalil on the banks, pointing towards the adjacent jungle. “Farid!” he could hardly speak. “He has killed my Farid and taken him into the jungle!” Ranjit, at that time, was a young elephant of 9 years. Farid was to be his first victim.


The incident was reported to the forest office and Deta directed a search party to locate the elephant. An inconsolable Jalil related the entire series of events. It seemed Farid had just finished washing up Ranjit and had climbed up on his back when suddenly the elephant caught hold of the boy by his leg. Before Farid could react, Ranjit had the boy in a tight stranglehold in his trunk and smashed him onto the ground. Farid must have met with instant death as his head struck hard against the ground. Not satisfied with this heinous act, Ranjit had dragged the boy’s body with him and disappeared into the jungle. It was then that a shell-shocked Jalil had found his voice and shouted out to the villagers.


After a long search, the group of foresters tracking the elephant finally came upon the body, or whatever remained, of the dead boy. The body bore signs of being mauled by a predator, perhaps a leopard, and the foresters inferred that Ranjit must have left the body long back and wandered off on his own. The search for the elephant continued and at long last they were able to catch hold of him and bring him back. 


The return of Ranjit created a new problem for the forest department. He was still an immature elephant and needed someone to look after him. But then, who would take care of him? Who would agree to be his mahout? Deta was sitting flummoxed with this issue when 24-year old Mohan entered his office. 


“I will do it, Sir,” he said, as if he could read Deta’s thoughts. “I am Jalil’s friend and have been helping out with his elephants. I know Ranjit since his birth. Let me be his mahout.” 


Deta was not very convinced. “Are you sure you can handle him? Do you know the risks involved? He has already killed a boy.”


Mohan took a deep breath and stood up straight. “Yes, Sir,” he said resolutely. “I can handle Ranjit. Please give me the chance to prove that.”


Deta threw up his hands at Mohan’s persistence. “Okay, go ahead. You have been warned fair enough.” He said dryly. “But be prepared to face any type of menace from the elephant.”


And that is how Ranjit’s second innings began, under the care of Mohan. Mohan had armed himself with a bigger hook to control the elephant, amongst other precautions. Ranjit turned out to be an extremely hard working elephant. He was engaged by the forest department in various activities and it did not take much time to train him. Ranjit was a quick learner and Mohan was glad to see his progress. Deta, who still had his concerns, was pleased to see the relationship between Mohan and Ranjit. Maybe his concerns were unfounded, after all.


It was the year Ranjit had turned eleven that the second disaster struck. Loud screams from a young boy shattered the quietness of an afternoon at my father’s office. “It is Ranjit!” the boy spoke, gulping in lungful of air. “He has gone mad!” The first thought that shot across Deta’s mind was what happened to Mohan. But the boy could not express himself coherently owing to the fatigue brought by running across many miles. Deta jumped into his Jeep and directed the driver to take him to the elephant feeding area, where the boy had come from. 


On the way, Deta went over a few facts. The boy had termed Ranjit as having gone mad. An elephant sometimes seems ‘mad’ when he has ‘musth’. Musth is a period among elephants older than 15-20 years when they get aggressive and sexually active. Many elephants have been known to have gone out of control and become overly aggressive during musth. Now, Ranjit was only 11 years old – he was still a juvenile. Besides, makhnas are known to have shown lesser musth than tuskers. Then, why this behavior of Ranjit?


Deta’s worst suspicion regarding Mohan was proved correct when he reached the site. The lifeless figure of Mohan lay on the ground, his ribs shattered where the elephant had held him down with his sharp little tusks. Ranjit was standing some metres away, unperturbed and unrepentant. Deta directed the elephant to be chained and tied up securely to a post. A second life had been snuffed away – the second person who had trusted and loved the animal more than anything else.


Once again Deta was weighed down by the question of what was to be done with Ranjit. He decided to apply to higher authorities to auction off the elephant but was met with negative response. That essentially meant that Ranjit would have to be borne by Deta’s office and that he would have to appoint someone to be his mahout again. 


For a long time nobody came forward. Then one day, Deta found a young man and his wife waiting for him in his office. His name was John, an ex-employee from the tea garden adjoining Manas. He folded his hands and came forward.


“Sir, I have come here to apply for the post of mahout for Ranjit,” he said. 


Deta was not too pleased. “You know the fates of his past mahouts?”


“Yes.”


“Does she know?” Deta nodded towards his wife.


“Yes, Sir,” John replied. “We know. But we are very poor, Sir. We are in severe need of money.”


Deta tried his best to dissuade the young man, but to no avail. Poverty was a hard object to ignore.


Finally, Deta gave in. “You will sign a document stating that you have taken up this job fully on your own, considering all the risks involved,” he informed John and the young man agreed to it quite readily. 


So, Ranjit had his third mahout. Deta decided to put one more person, Dinesh, along with John to take care of the elephant. He hoped that perhaps two people as his controllers would overwhelm and dissuade Ranjit from carrying out any murderous attack. John or the other person was never allowed to remain alone with the elephant at any point of time. The strategy seemed to work out fine and two and a half years passed by peacefully. Maybe Ranjit had mended his ways, after all.


But apparently, he had not.


I still remember the day Ranjit had killed John, although I must have been around 5-6 years old that time. John and his partner Dinesh had just finished collecting grass for feeding the elephant and were about to return with the load. John had clambered onto the elephant and his partner was about to follow suit. Suddenly, without any warning, the elephant made a sharp movement of his head and threw off John on the ground. As a horrified Dinesh watched, Ranjit pinned John to the ground with his small tusks and thrust his head against John’s chest with all his might, shattering his ribs. Dinesh knew any action against the elephant at that time would be utter foolishness and ran away from the scene towards the forest office.


Deta was struck with a morbid feeling as soon as he saw Dinesh approaching the office on his own. “Till date I have not been able to forgive myself,” Deta told us, pausing in the middle of the story. “Somehow I hold myself partly responsible for putting that young boy at death’s mouth. I still remember his face and that of his wife…” Deta trailed off.


On Dinesh’s report, Deta and other officials reached the site where Dinesh had left Ranjit and John. John was still clinging to his life and was rushed to the hospital. I remember hearing his feeble voice calling for water when the vehicle carrying him had halted for some reason in front of our bungalow. I still get goose bumps whenever that memory comes back. Ranjit did not survive – he was declared brought dead in the hospital.


Deta could not bear this incident any longer. He stormed into the office and grabbed his rifle. “Let’s go and get that bugger!” Deta roared. 


Ranjit had left John and escaped to the jungle. Deta decided to follow his tracks on elephant back as the jungle was too thick for a vehicle to enter. He got one more elephant with him in case Ranjit turned too hostile. Thus, the search began. It was nearing dusk that Deta was finally able to locate the rogue elephant, in a part of the jungle which had been burned down to enable the growth of newer plants. Ranjit was happily feeding on some fresh green grass and he did not notice Deta and the other elephant approaching him. He was standing on relatively lower grounds and the movements made by the oncoming company made him look up. 


Deta could hardly control his anger on seeing the elephant, one who had taken three innocent young lives, all within a span of just five years. He recalled the young, smiling Farid, who would often accompany his father to Deta’s office, the honest Mohan and the poverty-stricken yet earnest and hard-working John.  Three lives which had met untimely death, leaving behind grieving and impoverished families. With a firm grip on the rifle, Deta aligned his sight on Ranjit.


Ranjit looked up straight at Deta. His ears stood still. And then he did something totally unexpected, one that shook up Deta and his resolution. Suddenly, Ranjit held up his trunk and touched his forehead in the ‘Salaam’ (salute) posture, trumpeting loudly. He would bring down his trunk, touch the ground and again give a salute. The salute to the avenger.  It was his act asking for mercy. Perhaps he could sense Deta’s rage and that his end was near. 


Deta’s resolve quavered. A sudden surge of pity overtook the wrath he had felt against the animal just a second earlier.


“Sir?” the mahout of the other elephant called out to Deta hesitantly. “Spare his life, Sir. The animal is repentant.” Ranjit’s final act had shaken him as well.


Deta paused for a minute, then nodded and lowered his rifle.


“Can you get him?” he asked the mahout.


The mahout assented and took his elephant towards Ranjit, who was still standing with a salute. He expertly jumped from his own elephant to Ranjit’s back and maneuvered him in the direction of the forest office.


“Let’s go, Sir,” he said. And that’s how Ranjit was brought back, ensconced between two elephants on either side. 


Ranjit never got another mahout. He was sentenced to a life tied onto a shady tree. He would be given food and water timely as reserved for normal elephants and would be taken for ‘walks’ accompanied by another elephant. 


“This was his punishment, a life in solitude,” Deta ended his story and I thought I could see his eyes becoming misty.


I remember visiting the range where Ranjit was kept, with Deta during his scheduled calls. I still have vivid memories of seeing the silent elephant tied to the tree, his silhouette against a pale sky, and whisper to my sister “He is Ranjit, the Rogue.” Ranjit would then glance at us, and silently raise his trunk. Was that a sign of gratefulness, or of resignation? I could never tell. 


We left Manas soon after but Deta would never forget to ask anyone visiting us from Manas about Ranjit. A few years later, in the late 80s or early 90s, we were told that Ranjit had breathed his last. He had been suffering from cancer. 


My heart feels heavy whenever I think about the lives lost, and yet I cannot help harboring sympathy for Ranjit as well. 


So, that was how life was in the jungle – a treasure trove of bitter sweet memories. Let me see if I can come up with some more..


(Note: Some names have been changed.)



Comments

  1. What a story! Animals do have emotions I knew, but that of repentance... this is my first story on it.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, Indrani, it saddens me whenever I think of the elephant...

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  2. Very well written... Loved reading it.. I read somewhere that even if a elephant is domesticated for 15 to 20 yrs right from its birth, it would still have a thought of going to the wild.. Thats how wild they r by nature..

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    Replies
    1. Yes, maybe their roots will always call them back...In fact, whistling ducks, even if they are reared amid human beings, will always fly away when they see their kind migrating to some other lands.

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