Elephant – The Lady Boss; Vanasuma Prakashana; Chandrashekhar Basappanavar (1998)
The Tramp chanced upon this veritable gem while sifting through a row of second hand books in the wildlife section of ‘Blossoms’ a famous bookstore on Bangalore’s Church Street. The store with its impressive collection of books, new and old, on virtually every subject under this sun, was itself a ‘find’ of sorts.
It was the book’s rather odd title that caught my eye. The store was selling a second hand copy at 50% off and I picked it up out of sheer curiosity for its title. The book has been written and published by Chandrashekhar Basappanavar – a veteran of the Karnataka Forest Service who retired in 1994 as Karnataka’s Chief Conservator of Forests. Though the title of the book itself sounds a loud warning to the unsuspecting reader yet nothing really can prepare one for the initial jolt on being exposed to the author’s ‘peculiar’ (murderous?) use of the English language! The realization dawns as to why the author had chosen to publish the book himself! But once you overcome your prejudice against ‘odd’ language and decide to persist with the book and focus on the narrative – it grows on you.
It’s a tale of the author’s love affair with the elephants of Bandipur National Park. A ‘not-so-old’ man recollecting his days spent in the wilderness. Of risky walks through the elephant country. Of exploring the park on elephant back. Of cowering inside a hide when threatened by a charging matriarch. Of driving on the narrow forest tracks on his dated ‘Waggoner’. Of his last minute decision to abandon the machan and scamper for safety with an angry bull trumpeting after him. The author describes rescue operations of elephants trapped in the bog. Of providing succour to dying elephants, deserted by the herd. Of post mortem operations performed in the field to ascertain the cause of death. Basappanavar’s anecdotes are full of vivid details. The explicitness of the blow-by-blow accounts of mating encounters of elephants in the wild would have made even a Vatsayana blush!!
The stories are also laced with valuable tips on jungle craft. How one can safely follow a troop of langurs if lost in a forest. The langurs warn one of lurking danger from predators (but not from elephants or gaurs!). One can safely eat anything that is eaten by a langur. Then there are tips for making out a tuskless male elephant (a Makhna) from a female elephant.
The scheme followed by the author to structure his narrative is rather loose. The story jumps back and forth with a lot of repetition. But then this is not a book by a modern day wildlife biologist constrained by the rigours of hard empirical evidence. These are essentially real life stories by a lover of the forests – much like the jungle yarn exchanged by the 19th century shikaris over campfire – extremely interesting and spiced with bawdy humour. The author chuckles mirthfully to recall the discomfiture of the 60 something American lady, a famous chronicler of Himalayan Odysseys, who was made to witness a live ‘performance’ by a virile bull elephant!
The book impresses you with Basappanavar’s close quarter photography of wild elephants in an era that lacked the convenience of modern-day digital cameras that offer immediate feedback and allow one to zoom in on a dangerous subject from a safe distance.
To sum up, this is an unabashedly personalized account of the elephant country of Bandipur – full of wild anthropomorphic conjectures. A book not meant for the sophisticated reader who fancies good language and scientific rigour. But then jungles are not meant for the sophisticated. Take the Tramp’s word for it – you’ll love these jungle tales of this naughty old man!