Elephants can run

Elephants can run

We have all glossed over newspaper headlines that say, “Rampaging rogue faces execution". Another rogue elephant in an obscure corner of the country, we shrug, and move on. Tarquin Hall, who read this news report while he was in the New Delhi bureau of the Associated Press, decided this was an excuse as good as any to get out of the city and chase a promising story.

This was in the late 1990s, the elephant was in Assam, where insurgency was at its peak, and the state government was offering Rs50,000 to the hunter who would shoot the rogue dead. On a whim, he booked a ticket to Guwahati.

Over the next few weeks, he embedded himself with the hunters and embarked on a search not just for the rogue elephant but to find out if the elephant graveyard existed. Legend has it that an elephant that knows its death is near leaves the pack and finds its way to the place where all elephants go to die.

To the Elephant Graveyard, the book that Hall wrote about the hunt, is part travelogue and part adventure. In a way, it is also a coming-of-age story.

Hall is suspicious of people’s motives for the hunt. He flip-flops between the tragedy of shooting dead a beautiful animal and the necessity of ending its murderous rampage—and in finding the answers to these, and by understanding India, Indians and elephants, he learns a lot about himself.

Hall introduces us to a motley bunch of memorable characters. The hunter, Dinesh Choudhury, is an experienced elephant shooter who usually finds his mark on the temple of the beast and kills it with one shot. Yet he is a reluctant hunter, one who likes to give his prey sufficient warning and opportunities to escape. Churchill, the head mahout of the elephant squad, instructs him on the mind of the elephant and Vipal Ganguly, the Kolkata-based photographer, plays the role of the mandatory native who speaks bad English and has no sense of time and place.

The account is simple and Hall paints a beautiful picture of Assam. There are only two problems with the book. One is the incessant “Oh wow" nature of the narrative. Any nugget of information he receives follows that tone. Oh wow, elephants never forget! Oh wow, Choudhury is not shooting the rogue for the money! Oh wow, I ate at a bad restaurant and that’s made my stomach lurch.

The other problem with the book is its constant digression from the hunt. It’s perhaps indicative of the need to constantly check the word count, the despair that it isn’t as long as it should be, and the tedium of thinking up what it could be padded with. In fact, Hall’s hunt for the elephant graveyard itself seems like an add-on to provide a larger context to the story. It’s unnecessary because the story of the hunt is compelling in itself.

The book was originally published in 2000 and Penguin is bringing out the Indian edition now, nine years later. Considering this decade has been one that has marked an enormous change in the way we live, the book is also a pleasant way to look back at a more innocent time in our lives.