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In the last week of March, the local experts pronounced, the rains would arrive. They had done so for years, within a few days of 20 March, and no doubt they would this year, too. And no rains came.
The forests, tinder dry with the scorching heat and the controlled burning of the undershrub in February, blazed in patches every night — these fires, started by human carelessness or mischief, were major conflagrations, uncontrolled and probably uncontrollable once well under way. There was a heavy ground mist early in the mornings, but as the sun rose this was dissipated, and by 10 o’clock the dryness was a thing one could sense and see, the exquisitely fine orange dust hung in the air and tinted each casual movement of the breeze, and the dryness was a parched feeling in one&’s throat, why even in one&’s skin. In fact, I felt it most cutaneously, a dull burning all over that only the cold bath at night relieved.
On 30 March we went to Benne, 15 miles away, in a last, optimistic attempt to photograph wild elephants Usually, I was told, elephants were all over the place with the first rains, but this year we had had no rains, and no khubber of elephant except from lorry drivers passing Benne. We arrived at our destination, smothered in the orange dust that permeated our clothing, precisely at noon, but there was no time to wait for less unfavourable lighting. The tracker awaiting us informed me that there was a small party of elephants in the incredibly fresh-leaved forest on the hill beyond the road; they were there, at a patch of wet mud, barely a furlong away, and if I was quick I could get my picture before they moved uphill to denser shade.
Hastily dusting the cameras, we went up an ascending track which had once been a ghat-road and was now merely a rutted path overgrown with tough flat weeds, with a wall of tangled, dry lantana on the side from which the hill fell steeply away. The elephants were still there, at that wallow, a bull, three cows and two calves. They were a light brown from the dust and drying mud, with the adherent leaves and bits of clay giving their skin a very rough texture. The tusker stood in the foreground. Two cows and a calf moved uphill and melted into the jungles as we came upon the scene. The third cow, which had just had a good wallow, stood besides the patch of mire, in which her calf lay half buried. The silence was uncanny — no sound, not even the semblance of a plop, came from the wallow below us, and the ponderous beasts moved without cracking a twig or rustling a dry leaf.
They were 180 feet away, below us, as per my trustworthy rangefinder, looking more like pigs than elephants in that top view, with the midday sun illumining only the very tops of their heads and backs. This was the nearest I had been able to get to wild elephants, and I was eager, even anxious, to seize the opportunity, but there were difficulties in the way. Apart from the unfortunate lighting and view, the lantana lining the track we were on was right in the way and could not be cleared without alarming the entire jungle.
By sheer and painful physical effort I achieved a stance overlooking the hedge of lantana, though the top twigs still blurred the foreground in the groundglass. Then, as if to reward my effort, the tusker sat down deliberately in the mire. The calf was still in it, and there was no room in that patch for two. As the big bull sank down on his knees, and then rolled over on his right side, with the trunk and limbs towards me, the calf scrambled out of the wallow and went and stood beside its mother, and a miracle was staged before my eyes.
The vertical lighting was now flush on the tusker&’s face and flank, though the lantana a yard from my lens still blurred his stretched limbs so that the disadvantages of the view and noonday sun were nullified, and every little detail was clear. Slowly he rolled right over on his side, visibly revelling in the cool feeling of the wet mud against his flank, and curled up his trunk.
There was a pain like a toothache in my left leg, the leg which sustained the weight of my leaned-out body, and I was wretchedly conscious of camera wobble while squeezing the trigger, but I remember these were not the things that were uppermost in me then. I was filled with a sense of envy as the great beast relaxed and luxuriated in the cool mud, while I stood there acutely uncomfortable and cramped, feeling the dust and heat in every pore.
He spent a good five minutes at the wallow, then got up unhurriedly and followed the cow and calf into the jungles. By going ahead in a semicircle we were able to sight him again, while he drank deeply at a waterhole; he saw us too then and we were able to notice more clearly the dark exudation staining his cheek, which showed he was in musth. Afterwards, he sauntered up the hill towards a clump of bamboo, rounded the clump and was suddenly gone, the silence and completeness of the vanishing of his huge bulk leaving every one of us with a feeling of unreality, as if we had not witnessed only minutes previously such a vivid scene of domestic ease and contentment in the life of an elephant.
This was first published on 14 June 1959 in The Sunday Statesman