I’m terrible with dates. While I need to shovel loads of fish down my gullet to simply remember even my own date of birth date, the one date which is firmly etched in my memory is the 1st of January 1978. I was a young pudian (green horn) SD (Sina Dorai = Assistant Superintendent) on Panniar Estate in the High Ranges in Kerala. The estate was teeming with with elephants so much so that Panniar had one Division going by the name of Anairankal (literally translating into ‘the road by which the elephant goes down’). The upshot was that not a day went by when one, while going around the estate, didn’t bump into at least a couple of the pachyderms. The SOP was straightforward, you see a fellow, you simply swivel your bike 180 deg and head post-haste in the opposite direction. Workers, since they were always on foot, whenever they saw an elephant (which was a regular feature) either turned on their heels or should the fellow be too close and have been encountered while coming around a corner on the road, would simply duck under the nearest tea bush and stay put till the gentle giant(s) had ambled across. Perfect harmony and cohabitation. The man/animal conflict tale was, in those days, unknown and waiting in the wings to be played out many decades later.
Back in the day the High Range Club was always buzzing and VERY active. With the district encompassing 26 estates, 23 Tata Finlay (now KDHP) properties and 3 belonging to Malayalam Plantations (of which company, I as an Assistant Superintendent, was a teeny-weeny cog in the machinery) the strength of covenanted staff in the district was enough to ensure that the club was always alive and kicking. Never more so than on New Year’s eve. Which ‘evening’ traditionally ended the next morning with an early 0500 Hrs breakfast of dosas, leaving one just about enough time to hop on to one’s bake and make the one hour plus ride back to the estate in time for muster. The High Range Club on new year’s eve (besides other big bashes and inter-district meets through the year) was very pucca. Ladies resplendent in their best saris and all the men in formal attire – dinner jackets or ‘bandh gala coats’.
The accepted form back in the day was that, following the New Years dance and somewhat extended dinner, on the 1st of January one attended muster (always sacrosanct and de rigueur) allocated the day’s work and could then take it somewhat easy through the day. I digress, so back to 1978 and the first day of the new year.
Leaving the club post a hearty dosa breakfast, still in my formal dinner attire, I rode into Panniar just in time for my morning muster at 7 a.m. As the workers trickled in, they were assigned their work for the day and headed off to the allocated fields. Around 0800 Hrs, by which time normally all the workers should have reported for work, my conductor Mr Balia (Incidentally NEVER Balia – always Mr Balia) remarked that he found it rather strange that not a single worker from the No.5 line had come in for work. Odd indeed. So I got on to my bike and heading off towards the lines. Nearing the line houses I saw that a whole lot of workers and kids were sitting on the roofs of their houses. Seeing me they started shouting that I shouldn’t come any further since there was an elephant sitting in the middle of road.
Did a quick about turn and drove up instead to the main office which was on the hillock opposite the No.5 lines, from where I could also sight the road leading up to the lines. Sure enough, there it was – this huge pachyderm sprawled across the road with his massive head slightly raised off the ground, resting on his tusks. On the question being shouted out, the workers hollered back that the fellow had been there since midnight in exactly the same position. As to why everyone was perched on their rooftops, was told that they were scared to come down. By which time Mr Balia having also arrived on the scene, explained to me that the elephant on the road was the same one which had been visiting the lines regularly to raid their kitchen garden plots for banana and sugar cane which the workers had planted. To fend the fellow off, whenever the workers would hear or see him heading their way they would scramble up on to the roof and would start banging on the CI sheets to drive the fellow away from their homes.
This particular time, probably fed up of being chased off all the time and being robbed off the juicy cane, it appeared that the tusker after trumpeting and raising his trunk to its full height, had charged towards the lines and had probably tripped and fallen over and was most likely injured. Which would explain him sitting on the road in the position he was in. In all the continuing pandemonium and egged on by Mr Balia, one of the workers finally picked up courage, clambered down from his rooftop perch and approached the elephant with a large rock in his hand, got close enough and threw the rock which simply bounced off the elephants back with not so much as a twitch from the mastodon. That gave all the others, including me, the courage to approach the fellow. Which is when we saw the high tension cable firmly lodged, running across through his mouth above his lower lip. And him obviously dead!
By this time Rajah Pooviah (red arrow) who, since Abid was away on a longish leave, was the acting Superintendent had also arrived on the scene. After much discussion the only conclusion we could arrive at was that when the big fellow charged the lines, his trunk being very high up in the air, had probably hit the electric cable dragging it into his mouth. And there it stayed with the electric poles on either side of the sagging cable bent inwards and leaning at an acute angle towards our poor dead pachyderm.
The matter being reported to the Divisional Forest Officer resulted in almost all the government functionaries in the district descending upon Panniar. Which lead to two days of a merry-go-round with Rajah being threatened with arrest for having willfully electrocuted the elephant. Two days of tension and with all sorts of pressure being applied before the DFO finally arrived at the obvious conclusion that the death was the result of an accident. Which then culminated in a formal permission from the district authorities to the estate management to dispose of the carcass.
Ever tried to dispose off a 4 ton carcass? Easier said than done I assure you. The first option being cremation, 600 litres of diesel was brought in from the factory and poured over that massive body and from a very safe distance, a burning rag was tossed on. Whoosh! A cloud of dense black smoke and a massive flame which died away as quickly as it had erupted. The smoke having cleared we saw that, barring only the hair on the elephants hide which had disappeared and some singing of the hide, the carcass itself was totally unaffected. After much deliberation and logistical planning a massive pit was dug across the road just behind the carcass. The estate tractor fitted with a winch cable and our two lorries were pressed into service to pull the elephant, dragging it into the pit. Following which the workers paid their respects to the tusker by conducting a Swami Kumbra (a prayer ritual) before the grave was covered over, leaving a massive hump in the middle of the road.
Fast forward to 2018. I had to visit Munnar for some work with KDHP and decided to pay a visit to my first estate. Walked up to the office and looked down into the valley. Yup! Not high or as prominent when we’d buried the hapless soul, but there it was immediately discernable – the hump in the middle of the road!