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A CLOSE CALL

Living in India in the 1960s was a life-changing experience. We missed some of the Sixties unrest sweeping the United States, and when we returned to New York, the aura of India—the sights, sounds, fragrances, the music in the air—had so colored my imagination that for a time, I suffered from reverse culture shock.

We had many adventures during the years we lived in New Delhi, the capital city. One time, when we were traveling in the south, while my husband visited science departments in various universities, we had an escapade that was a little more than we expected. The chair of the Department of Zoology at the University of Mysore was a friend of the game warden at Bandipur, the former private game preserve of the Maharajah of the Kingdom of Mysore. It was March, the beginning of the dry season, and the park was closed, but he arranged for us to have a private visit. At that time (1963), the reserve was not developed for tourism. Now, it is a Tiger Preserve in the newly created state of Karnataka, under jurisdiction of the Government of India. There are a number of hotels and guest houses in the area, and tourists can arrange to go on safari in jeeps or larger conveyance. But when we were there, we parked our car near the entrance and rode up to the camp on elephant back. Our accommodations were a few raised bungalows that had served in the bygone days of the British Raj to house the guests of the Maharajah, who came for tiger shoots.

After a delicious dinner of curries and an assortment of Indian breads, we were left to our own devices in our bungalow, which was not wired for electricity. Our traveling companions, two women doctors—Annie and Sabita, one American, the other Indian—retired to their rooms early, so we did the same. A bearer had turned down the beds and lowered the mosquito netting. A wooden tub was filled with water and there was a rudimentary shower. The “commode” was a throne-like chair with a chamber pot underneath, set in a private cubicle. Behind it was a trap door, and as we discovered later, squatting in a nearby field, was a boy whose job it was to remove the contents, called night soil, which was then used to fertilize crops. Nothing was wasted in the India of the 1960s. (This, incidentally, presented a public health problem for which the Ford Foundation had a Latrine program.)

Before dawn the next morning, a bearer slipped into our bedroom, murmuring “chotta hazri,” or bed tea, as he set a tray of biscuits and strong hot tea on a table. In the cool morning air, we sipped the scalding tea, and hastened to get dressed. We were going on safari!

Outside, in a clearing, by the light of torches, we saw a female elephant with her mahout, the man who had trained her and would spend his entire life with her. She was beautifully decorated, with colored designs drawn on her hide and drapings of bright mirrorwork hung about her person. At a command, she knelt and extended her trunk. We climbed up to the howdah, a platform that could seat the four of us, as well as the game warden, who carried a loaded elephant gun. We noticed there were other guns strapped to the bottom of the howdah. This could be either reassuring or unsettling, depending on your point of view.  There were mixed reactions in our group.

We were told that the elephant’s name was Shanti, and she was expecting a baby. She was beautiful and I noticed that she had very long eyelashes. The distant horizon was turning pink as Shanti moved into the surrounding jungle. The game warden cautioned us not to speak above a whisper, so the animals wouldn’t know we were there. “The scent of the elephant is stronger than the scent of man,” he told us.

The mahout signaled Shanti with his hands, feet or by means of an ankus, a short stick with a hook on the end. All he had to do was touch her ear or pat the top of her head, and she responded, as we silently glided through tiger grass that came up to her knees. We reached a watering hole just as the rays of the rising sun sparkled through the trees and were reflected in the water. Immediately, the air was filled with chirping and jabbering and screeching, as tropical birds, monkeys and antelopes descended on the pool. A family of elephants emerged from the jungle and the smaller animals made way for them. There was a definite hierarchy, as each species retreated to their own section of the pond. The elephant mother pushed her baby into the pool, spraying him with a trunk full of water. The baby squealed with delight and rolled in the muddy shallows. I noticed the mahout patting Shanti’s head and whispering soothing sounds in her ear, lest she experience a sudden desire to join her wild cousins.

We continued off into the jungle. The hope was that we would spot a tiger. Usually the elusive tiger stayed in the hills, but because it was the dry season, he was forced to come closer to civilization for food and drink.

Suddenly, there was a crashing in the jungle ahead of us and the sound of trees and branches being broken. Shanti stopped short and backed up, swaying from side to side. The mahout spoke urgently to her, trying to calm her, while the game warden lifted his gun, pointing it in the direction of the disturbance. The bushes parted, and there, not more than 100 feet from us, stood a great bull elephant who looked as menacing as…well, as a great bull elephant can look. This was a rogue elephant—a social outcast, ousted from the herd because he had killed or wounded another member.

We could feel Shanti trembling; she was clearly afraid of this monster, who seemed unhinged, tearing at leafy branches, uprooting small trees and stamping on them. When he noticed Shanti, he reared on his hind legs, lifting his trunk and letting out a tremendous roar, ready to charge. Our elephant was backing up. I heard the click of the game warden’s gun. I knew what is meant to feel one’s heart in one’s throat. As we braced ourselves for impact, with another bellow, the rogue turned tail and dashed off into the jungle. For what seemed like an eternity, we could hear his enraged roar echoing through the dense woods. When I looked around, I discovered that my husband Shelly and Annie, our doctor friend from New York, had both taken guns out of the rack under the howdah, and were prepared to shoot if the rogue had charged.

We broke the silence then, laughing with relief, realizing how close we had come to disaster. As we returned to camp, the animals, alerted to our presence, scattered into the trees and bush. Mother monkeys grabbed their babies, brilliantly colored birds flew away to their nesting places, and the elephant family retreated from the watering hole, lumbering off into the jungle.

When I wrote “Catch the Wind,” my novel about the campaign to eradicate smallpox, I used this true story for a scene with the main characters, Nicole Légende and Drew Tower, two doctors who are working together in India, and falling in love.

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