Gogol and his parents decided to visit Darjeeling during the summer vacation and all arrangements were made with great gusto. Instead of going straight to Darjeeling they planned a three to four days’ stop-over at Siliguri where Gogol’s fourth maternal uncle lived. In spite of repeated invitations from his uncle, Gogol’s family had never quite managed to pay them a visit. The Darjeeling trip provided them with the right opportunity.
During the summer rush getting reservations on the Darjeeling Mail was almost like getting at the moon. Since Gogol’s father was a busy man it would not be possible to dilly dally over the dates. So a flight to Bagdogra was deemed convenient. From there if an Indian Airlines bus could drop them at the city office, it would not be difficult to reach his uncle’s home which was in the locality known as Collegepara in Siliguri. It would, at the most, take ten minutes by rickshaw.
Within three days a booking was secured on the Bagdogra flight. This was not Gogol’s first flight. Once he had flown to Guwahati, and then driven down to Shillong. Therefore the excitement of flying for the first time was not there.
It took their Fokker Friendship aircraft to reach Bagdogra merely half an hour after the take-off. Uncle had already been informed about their arrival. And having started from Calcutta early in the morning they reached uncle’s home before lunchtime. Both young and the old were very excited at this re-union.
After a sumptuous meal they spent the rest of the day wandering about the Mahananda bridge. After consulting his father, Gogol’s uncle called up the caretaker of the Jaldapara sanctuary and asked for a booking. The man at first refused, saying that rooms could not be booked at such short notice. He relented however and agreed to arrange a room for them, but only for one night.
They say that in Jaldapara not only could one see herds of deer and rhinos but tigers too. Elephants take the visitors around the place. Gogol was so thrilled by the thought of it all that he could hardly sleep, and when he did, it was to dream of elephant rides and deer and rhinos.
Things happened exactly as Gogol’s father had visualized. The stay in Siliguri had been planned keeping in mind a visit to Jaldapara. Although they left Siliguri very early in the morning it was afternoon by the time they reached Jaldapara. The little food and water they carried was used up as soon as they reached the sanctuary. The place was surrounded by tea estates and on the left were the mountains of Bhutan. Gogol, however, was disappointed. He had expected to see dense forests. Instead, he found military camps on all sides. Army trucks and jeeps drove by every now and then. Helicopters and other smaller airplanes flew intermittently.
Buro-da, who had been to Jaldapara before, said, “The sound of guns is coming from Chandmari. Practice firing is going on. And there is an Airforce air base near Hasimara.”
On the way to the bungalow from the Forest Office they passed rows of whitewashed two-storied military quarters. Jaldapara seemed to be a full fledged Army and Air Force base. However, and to cap it all, there were a few elephants tied to a stake in front of the office.
But there was some truly bad news awaiting Gogol and the others. On reaching the bungalow they were told that there was nothing for them to eat! What next? Whatever little food they had carried with them was all eaten up…they felt quite starved. After much coaxing on the part of Gogol’s father the manager at last agreed to have dal and rice cooked for them in the morning, and father gave the man money to buy fish, mutton or chicken, whichever was available, for dinner.
A big room on the second floor had been reserved for them. Although there were only two beds, the manager promised them more mattresses and one mosquito net. It was hot and at least there was a fan above their heads, so sleep would perhaps not be a problem. After all it would be a matter of one night only.
The night passed and early in the morning before light had broken, ready with tea and biscuits, the caretaker knocked on their door. “The elephants are ready; it’s best to start as early as possible,” he said.
It took them just about fifteen minutes to get ready. All of them, specially Gogol, was so excited that they could not afford to waste too much time over the tea. Two elephants with mahouts on their backs were waiting at the back of the bungalow. Upon some seemingly mysterious instruction from the mahouts, both the pachyderms squatted low upon the ground. There were two other men who stood ladders against the backs of these huge beasts and helped Gogol and the others to climb up. The jute mattress was secured tightly with thick ropes tied to the animal’s back. A mahout instructed them to hold on to the rope for dear life.
His parents got on to one elephant while Gogol and Minu-di climbed on to the other one. When the elephant stood up, it seemed to little Gogol that he was sitting astride a mountain. The animal swayed as it moved, like waves on an ocean. Gogol had mixed feelings about this ride— he felt like giggling gleefully, and at the same time he was scared. All of them, including his parents, were laughing as they swung from side to side. Gogol’s father punctuated his laughter with a warning, “Here, hold onto the rope…. TIGHT.”
Gogol was happy. No military camps here. The birds nestled in the trees and chirped with joy. Suddenly the elephants started wading through the river! Gogol got the goose flesh with fear and excitement. ‘Buro da, what river is this?” he asked.
“The river Jaldhaka. See the other bank? That is the actual Jaldapara Forest,”
Gazing across the river Gogol noticed the dense forests… so green! The elephants were still crossing the river, carefully picking their way sometimes over the pebbles, sometimes over the water. At one time they started swimming in the deeper waters midway across the river and those who were riding on their backs felt their feet brush the water. “Do elephants drown?” exclaimed Gogol, frightened.
“Don’t be stupid. Have you ever heard of an elephant drowning? Imagine you are upon a boat,” said Buro da.
Actually the ride did feel like a boat ride— the elephant too was moving like a boat, swaying in the waves, and fighting off the currents.
So far so good. But then they ran out of luck. Even though they roamed the forest for a long time they saw no animals; not even a deer, let alone rhinoceros or tiger. Meanwhile the sound of firing could be heard; it seemed to come from the direction of Chandmari and helicopters combed the sky.
“Not many rhinos or deer can be spotted in Jaldapara nowadays. The gun shots and airplanes have scared them off. Most of them have migrated to the nearby forest of Holong. There are many forest bungalows there. Many people go there these days,” said the mahout.
Gogol returned to the bungalow with a long face. He told his father about the forest bungalow in Holong. “It requires advance notice to book that place,” explained Gogol’s father. “Moreover without a car of one’s own it is very difficult to get there.”
Hearing this Gogol felt even more disappointed. “Let’s see what we can do,” said his father.
Well actually there was nothing left to do. That very day they left for Siliguri and, after spending the night in Uncle’s house, they left for Darjeeling early the next morning by a hired jeep. This time Buro da and Minu di did not come with them. Having spent two days in Darjeeling they went on to Kurseong. In Kurseong Gogol got involved in quite an adventure in the Buddhist monastery but we shall not go into that story at the moment.
From Kurseong they went back to Darjeeling and after having taken pony rides to his heart’s content, Gogol had nearly forgotten the disappointment of the Jaldapara trip. But his father had something up his sleeve. From the Jaldapara tourist bureau he managed to book two rooms in the bungalow at Holong. He put his arms around his son and said, “Happy now?”
"But father, what about the car?” he asked as he kissed his father joyfully.
“We’ll have to hire a car from Siliguri for two days, that’s all,” was the reply.
They went back to Siliguri that very day. His uncle promptly arranged for a car and they set off for Holong early the next morning. The driver was Bengali and quite a gentleman. Buro da and Minu di also came along with them.
At first they drove along the road to Jaldapara and then veered off towards Assam. On this latter road was the entrance to the Holong Forest. The gate looked like the gate of a level-crossing, made of strong iron rods. The gate man checked the booking slip and opened the gate.
There were dense forests on either side. In the middle a road of hard clay, and strewn with pebbles. The car drove on and on with no destination in sight. “How far is the bungalow?” asked Gogol, perplexed.
“Five kilometers from the gate,” laughed the driver.
Buro da had never been to this place before so he had no comment to make. Gogol understood now why it was so difficult to come to this place without a car. They would have had to walk all the way up to the bungalow. Had they taken a bus they would have to change midway… so much bother! But now Gogol was having fun. He enjoyed the journey through such dense forests. No Army camps, no helicopters. Only forest, forest and more forest. Suddenly he spotted a wooden bridge and beyond that a double storeyed wooden house.
Gogol jumped out of the jeep the moment it stopped. He looked at the bungalow—it was beautiful. A huge dining hall, a separate sitting room, furnished with comfortable sofas. The Jaldapara bungalow did not even deserve comparison with this one. “You can see a lot of fish in the river just below the bridge,” said the driver.
Gogol, Buro da and Minu di ran towards the bridge. There were lots of big fish playing in the crystal clear water. Gogol started jumping up and down, clapping his hands in delight, but the fish did not take fright.
A few minutes’ walk from the bridge, a stroll on the opposite bank, and, tied to bamboo poles on the left, they saw a row of elephants. They were feasting on branches of trees and tall grass. One elephant was tied a little away from the group and she was encircled by iron spikes. But why? Buro da had no answer to this.
There were a few wooden structures nearby, and on the other side a wooden bungalow. Clothes were set out to dry. Though no one seemed to be around, Gogol guessed that the mahout’s family lived there. Some women were busy with household chores. Suddenly, “Look what’s there,” cried Minu di. There, far from the wooden houses, Gogol saw a baby elephant, with a chain around its neck. He too was feeding off some tall grass; Gogol ran to the spot with Buro and Minu close upon his heels. The elephant too started moving towards them, its trunk swaying. “Careful, Gogol, don’t go too close,” warned Buro da.
Gogol held out a long stem of grass. But the moment the elephant pulled at it, Gogol was swept off his feet. Buro da caught him just in time.
“Who would think a baby would be that strong?” wondered Gogol.
Just at that moment a deep, solemn voice was heard from behind them, “Where are you from, folks?”
They turned to see a young man about twenty-five or twenty-six years old who looked almost like Titu da, Gogol’s cousin who was a medical student. Buro da who read in class eight was the oldest among the trio; so he spoke, “We are from Siliguri.” And Minu-di pointed at Gogol and said, “He is from Calcutta.”
The man who looked like Titu da, sported the same sort of moustache, wore bush shirt, trousers and sandals, looked around once and said with a glance towards Gogol, "Don’t roam around like this; you are too young and for some days now a wild tusker is creating trouble here.”
“Creating trouble? But why?” exclaimed Gogol.
The gentleman said with a smile, “The wild creature seems a bit angry.”
“That means it’s a mad elephant?” queried Buro da.
Before the man could explain anything Gogol’s father’s voice was heard; he sounded worried, “Gogol, Buro, Minu! Come back to the bungalow at once.” They looked back and saw father and the driver almost running towards them. “Come back to the bungalow, quick!” shouted father as he came nearer, “A big, wild, mad elephant is around and he is chasing people …” He rounded up the children and then noticed the young man, “You…?" he asked in wonder.
“I am a ranger working in this forest,” answered the man. “I was also telling them about the wild elephant. But there is no need to panic. The animal does not really harm people. Come, I shall accompany you.”
Although everybody looked scared they were somewhat reassured by the man’s words. He continued talking as he walked, “The elephant is huge… a male tusker. Maybe he comes from Assam, across the hills of Bhutan."
Gogol quite liked the man and liked the way he talked. He clung close to him and exclaimed, “Oh dada… " and stopped short. He knew that his father did not approve of his addressing strangers as ‘dada.’ He looked at his father in embarrassment.
The man seemed to understand, and, smiling a little, said, “My name is Jayanta. You can call me Jayanta da.”
Father turned to Gogol and smiled. Gogol was reassured. “Jayanta da, how do you know that the elephant has come from across the hills?”
“During the monsoon, the mountain rivers and the rivers of Assam tend to flood. Elephants are scared of floods. Moreover, the fields are full of crops on this side, and the elephants come to feast on it. They eat as well as destroy. Then we are called upon to fire empty shots from our rifles and scare them off,“ replied Jayanta.
They crossed the little footbridge and reached the bungalow. Gogol saw his mother looking out for them anxiously. She seemed reassured to see them.
Jayanta said, “Look! There! There he is, across the river, in the middle of the field. He is looking this way.”
The river was actually the stream that flowed under the wooden bridge and the same river flowed in front of the bungalow. There are concrete steps going down into the water and on the other side, an expanse of green field in the midst of which stood Mr Elephant.
Gogol had never before seen such a gigantic pachyderm. Nor had he seen such huge tusks. The animal had patches of mud on his bluish-black body. He was holding back his ears and was slowly swaying his trunk. Gogol was not so scared as fascinated. The elephant looked like the King of the Forests, strong and silent. There was no sign of madness. Nothing abnormal about him. Gogol felt like running towards the majestic creature. What would happen? Would the animal kill him? He dared not ask.
After standing there a few minutes, the elephant started slowly advancing towards the bungalow.
“Everybody go inside, he may come here” Jayanta shouted in warning and everybody scrambled indoors.
“No hurry! Besides he will only come up to the banks of the river. See the small pebbles strewn all around the bungalow? Elephants never step on these, for the stone chips get inside the soft flesh between their toenails. They are scared of that. Actually, elephants are awfully intelligent.”
“Even a wild elephant?” asked Buro da, while hurrying in.
“Yes, even a wild elephant. Come, let us watch him from the sitting room window,” said Jayanta.
They spread themselves out on the window sills. They were surprised to see that within such a short time the elephant had already crossed the river and was standing before the bungalow, but was not stepping on the pebbles.
With waves of joy thrilling through his body, Gogol thought the elephant looked not only like the King of the Forests but like the Airavat, the elephant of Heaven about whom he had read in a book. He had never thought he would see such a big tusker standing so near him. His tusks were glittering in the sunlight and he was stretching his trunk out towards the bungalow as though smelling them.
The elephant stood still for a few minutes, turned left and walked slowly away. Gogol’s parents were absolutely engrossed in the scene. Gogol turned to Jayanta, “Jayanta da,” he asked. “You were saying that the elephant was causing trouble, that he was angry? But why, what is the reason for his behaving like this?”
“Well, let me explain,” said Jayanta with a smile. “But first let us sit down.” Gogol snuggled close to Jayanta da. Father too sat down, his mouth twitching, suppressing a grin.
“Have you seen our pet elephants?” asked Jayanta. When everyone nodded assent he continued, “Have you seen the one that has been tied up and surrounded by a fencing of sharp iron spikes?”
“Yea!” they exclaimed.
“Right! That is the female elephant—we call her Bonomala. That wild elephant wants to marry her. Bonomala seems to fancy him too.”
Gogol’s mouth dropped open in astonishment. “Elephants’ wedding?! How is that possible?”
“Not the traditional marriage with priest and all; they just keep each other company and go into the forest together.”
Gogol’s curiosity knew no bounds; “Then why is the marriage not taking place?”
“Well, then we’ll have to set Bonomala free; that is not possible.”
“Bonomala works here. She carries goods and luggage. Also, she takes visitors like you for a ride around the forest to see rhinoceroses and deer. If we set her free she will go back to the forest. Maybe she would go across the Bhutanese hills to jungles in Assam, and never come back. That would create problems for us, you see.”
Buro-da had at last grasped the entire situation. “Now I know,” he exclaimed with a smile. “That is why Bonomala is surrounded by those iron spikes— so that the wild elephant cannot take her away!”
“That’s right,” said Jayanta. But Gogol was looking glum. “Gogol why are you so silent? Are you feeling sad?” he asked.
“Yes,” nodded Gogol.
“Why? Because the wild elephant cannot marry Bonomala?” asked Jayanta, amused.
Gogol nodded again, “Yes.”
Everybody broke into peals of laughter. But Gogol could not even smile. It seemed very unfair to him. May be the elephant was wild, but it was beautiful, with a monumental body and gleaming tusks. It was unfair to hinder his marriage—especially as the bride was willing, and it was cruel of people to laugh at their predicament.
Jayanta da was sympathetic. “Gogol,” he said, “I know you are feeling sorry, but look at it this way. Because of the wild elephant and its tantrums, we cannot take you around to see the rhinos and the deer. If the wild thing sees any elephant other than Bonomala he starts chasing it. He is making our lives miserable!”
Gogol had not quite seen the situation in this light. Buro da, Minu di and father agreed that they were really out of luck. Gogol too felt sorry. It was he who was most enthusiastic about this trip. But at the moment he felt more sorry for that wild elephant.
Gogol got up early next morning. Buro da and Minu di were still asleep. Father and mother must have been asleep too. Gogol crept out of his bed and stood by the window. Birds were singing in the tree next to the river. Gogol went to the door and softly unlatched it. He went out of the bungalow and right up to the stream. He wanted to hold a fish in his hands. He stepped into the water. He was barefoot. He followed a fish through the water, but it disappeared after luring Gogol on to the opposite bank.
Disappointed, Gogol looked up. He was on the other side of the river, close to the tree where the birds were chirping. He clambered on to the high bank to look at the birds. A black bird with a cluster of yellow plumes in its forehead! Suddenly the bird whistled and flew off. And all the other birds followed suit. But why? Were they afraid of him?
At that moment Gogol felt his forehead touched by a light, warm gust of breeze which blew his hair across his forehead. An elephant’s trunk was above his head! His hair seemed to stand on end ! He looked up cautiously— the same bluish black wild tusker stood right behind him, his huge tusk, the one on the left almost touching Gogol’s shoulder.
“Should I run?” wondered Gogol, at his wit’s end with fright. But how strange! The moment he thought of running away the elephant lightly touched his forehead with his trunk. Gogol again felt the warm breeze upon his forehead and his hair got dishevelled. The animal touched Gogol’s shoulders, back and even feet with the tip of his trunk, as though he were smelling Gogol.
Gogol was no longer afraid. Could he…should he pat the elephant’s trunk, as he did to elephants in the zoo? He looked into the animal’s eyes but found no trace of anger. The elephant was flapping his ears. Softly, Gogol patted his trunk. The elephant immediately started sniffing Gogol’s fingers, wetting the tips with his saliva. Gogol felt like laughing. The elephant opened his mouth and Gogol could see his tongue. It seemed as if the animal too was laughing! “Are you laughing?” Gogol could not help asking. The elephant breathed into Gogol’s ears as if to say “Yes.”
“Aren’t you sad?” asked Gogol. “Because you can’t marry Bonomala?” he added.
The elephant touched Gogol’s cheek with his trunk. Just then Gogol heard many voices, coming from the direction of the bungalow and turned that way. The wild elephant then gave Gogol a slight push on his back with his trunk. But Gogol moved a few steps away from the bungalow. The elephant seemed to be making a sort of sign with his trunk which now looked like a raised hand. He pushed Gogol again, breathing lightly. Then he started moving his ears and trunk vigorously.
By then there was furor in the bungalow; Gogol heard a great turmoil. He thought he heard his mother calling him. But Gogol went towards the forest along with the elephant. The animal was occasionally touching him lightly with his trunk, and also caressing his head and cheeks!
Gogol was not afraid. He went along with the elephant and patted his trunk now and then. “You love me, don’t you?” he asked his new friend.
The commotion in the direction of the bungalow got louder and louder. But Gogol was not at all bothered about that. The tusker took a deep breath. Gogol seemed to be mesmerized. They had left the outskirts and were penetrating into the dense forest.
“What is that?” shouted Gogol. Immediately his new friend stood in front of him, protectively. Gogol saw a rhinoceros running away with her baby. “Rhino, rhino, mother and child!” he screamed in delight, clapping his hands.
The wild tusker touched his shoulder as if nudging him; he opened his mouth wide …Laughing? He again pushed the boy forward with his trunk. Gogol went onward holding on to his new friend’s trunk. Soon he entered a grassy area where the grass grew as tall as he. Suddenly a peacock flapped its wings, flew up and landed some distance away. Gogol was startled at first but the very next moment he shouted, “Peacock, peacock!” No sooner had he spoken than, just a few yards away, a herd of deer ran across the grassland making it surge up and sway like a big wave. Gogol clapped and shouted in joy, "Deer, deer!”
The tusker again gave him a push. But Gogol stood still as though entranced. All around him deer kept leaping out of the grass and running helter-skelter. Wild fowl and peacocks took flight from time to time.
Gogol was beside himself with joy. He clapped and danced with excitement. The elephant also kept nodding hard and vigorously swayed his trunk as though sharing in the boy’s happiness.
Some distance away Gogol stopped short, frightened. There was a small tiger-like animal crouching near the thick trunk of a tree. Holding his ‘wild’ friend by the trunk he whispered, “Tiger, tiger!”
What Gogol mistook for a tiger was actually a leopard cat. They were to be seen quite often in this part of the forest. The creature had curled up and was purring with fright at the sight of the huge pachyderm who, disengaging his trunk from Gogol’s grip, advanced a few steps. This was enough to make the animal leap and run off at full speed.
Gogol jumped about clapping his hands in glee. His elephant friend opened his mouth as if he were laughing. Just then voices could be heard quite close by to where they were. He heard his father calling, “Gogol, Gogol, where are you?”
“I am here!” shouted Gogol.
Then there appeared a group of men about a hundred feet away. Among them were father and Jayanta da; both had rifles in their hands. The ‘wild’ elephant now for the first time let out a strange cry, his ears flattened against his head. His eyes definitely wore an expression of anger, noticed Gogol. With his trunk he lightly touched the boy’s shoulder.
“Are you getting angry?” Gogol asked his friend.
Shielding Gogol protectively the tusker turned to face the group. “Gogol, that is a mad elephant. He will kill you,” shouted father.
“No, no, he has become my friend,” shouted Gogol in reply.
No one could say what the tusker understood of this exchange, for now he literally ran towards the group. The men at once turned and fled; so did father and Jayanta-da. But they did not leave the scene. “Gogol, you coax your friend to bring you back to the bungalow, please”, pleaded Jayanta-da.
“All of you— please go away,” said Gogol.
Father, Jayanta da and the others drew back a bit more, and hid themselves. Gogol turned to the tusker. The animal sniffed his face and head, but it seemed that he was still angry.
“Can we go back now?” said Gogol, “My mother is crying.”
The tusker pushed his trunk towards Gogol’s ear and seemed to whisper, “Be very careful. Don’t trust them.”
“But I am with you; don’t be scared,” reassured Gogol and holding on to his friend’s trunk, he went forward.
At first the magnificent creature seemed to be resisting but soon he fell in step with Gogol. The latter did not know the way to the bungalow. So the elephant had to lead him, pushing him forward with his trunk.
They approached the bungalow. A huge crowd had gathered before it. The tusker halted at the sight of the bungalow and refused to go any further. Gogol glanced up at him. No, he was not angry. There was just a tinge of sadness in those gentle elephant eyes. He patted the tusk and the animal blew his hot breath onto Gogol’s head, thus ruffling his hair. He touched Gogol’s shoulder and neck with his soft, warm trunk in a loving gesture of farewell. The elephant then turned slowly and walked away.
With a heavy heart Gogol stared at the retreating animal, so dignified and majestic. He strained his eyes until the animal disappeared into the dense forest. Now the crowd rushed out towards the boy. His mother held him in her arms with tears in her eyes. “One day I shall be killed with worrying for you,” she said. But tears mingled with smiles. Gogol entered the bungalow with his mother.
Jayanta da put his gun down and asked, “Now Gogol , tell us what that fierce wild animal was telling you!”
“He came to me on his own and made friends with me. He showed me around the forest.”
“Listening to your story makes me think… it’s time to re-organize our ideas about wild elephants.”
Father was looking at Gogol without a word, as if he could not quite believe that his son had actually come back.