It was just after I had passed out of Medical College – I didn’t have a full-time job, and I was still undecided on what to do with myself. Not that I have too much of an idea now, mind you. I used to bike around to remote health outposts, helping out, working for a day or two. Many of these were in forested areas, and taking the roads after dark was not advised. Naturally, I would always ride back on my motorbike in the dark, and that day was no different.
Before I go any further, let me give you an idea of the surroundings. This was part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve – wet evergreen forests teeming with wildlife, in spite of more than a couple of centuries of continued human depredation. The road was what is called locally a ghat road – which meant that it sidled, snakelike, up the side of a mountain before coming down in the same fashion on the other side. Ghat roads also had hairpin bends – places where the road turned in on itself, and you take a three hundred and sixty degree turn to find yourself several meters below where you were a few seconds ago. It was also narrow (to be expected of a ghat road) and pot-holed (especially during and after the monsoons). Huge trees overhung most of the roads, and driving through them even on the hottest day was a pleasant experience.
The nights, however, are a different story. Street lights did not exist on those roads, and the overhanging trees effectively kept out any moonlight. The inky darkness was hardly dissipated by the futile efforts of even the most powerful headlights. And so, taking the roads after dark was discouraged. When the locals absolutely had to go somewhere during the night, like in the case of a medical emergency, they would band together, carry torches – both battery-powered and flaming – and walk, talking and singing in loud voices. It kept the animals, and more importantly, the villagers’ fears, away. Even lorries, those intrepid behemoths that would carry anything anywhere anytime if the price was right, wouldn’t risk these roads during the night. And again, if they absolutely had to, they would do so in as big convoys as they could rustle up, often waiting hours at village tea-shops for other lorries to show up.
Anyway, getting back to the tale on hand, I used to regularly ride back at night. That particular day, I was speeding to get home, having had a tough two-day haul at a forest clinic. As I turned a corner, I caught a glimpse of something in my headlight. Against all my instincts, I stopped, and slowly scanned the area with my headlight. There it was, a massive tusker, standing just off the road, thankfully facing away from me. But the situation was rapidly changing, as he was swinging around to see who was bothering him at this hour. Without waiting to give him a chance to see, I turned my bike around and quickly turned the corner. With the light gone, the tusker seemed to have calmed down – he didn’t come charging after me!
With the engine switched off, I could hear the sounds of the tusker moving around. He seemed to be whiling away his time by the side of the road. I had nothing to do but to wait till he went on his way. Lone tuskers were bad news – they were usually bad-tempered and tended not to take kindly to people who flashed lights at them. As I waited by the side of the road, I was joined by a motley crew of a few cars, a lorry and a guy on an Enfield Bullet. Everyone waited, not too patiently, for the tusker to go away so that they might continue their interrupted journeys.
After a while, the motley collective decided that it would power through as the elephant was showing no signs of going anywhere. Finally relieved that we would be on our way, and glad of the company of larger vehicles to power through with, I mounted my bike and started the engine. It was then that I noticed that none of the others seemed ready to start. As I looked around, someone explained that they had decided that the guy on the Bullet and I had been chosen to do the powering through first. They reasoned that since we were on bikes, we could manoeuvre our way out better than a car or a lorry if things got sticky and the tusker decided to start chasing us. I was all ready to back out, but the guy on the Bullet reassured me, saying that he had done this several times before, and knew exactly what to do if things went wrong. So, trusting more in blind luck than anything else, I followed him as we sped past the tusker, who didn’t even turn to look at us.
Once we were a safe distance away, we stopped and looked back. We saw a car approach the elephant at full speed, screech to a halt a few metres before, and go back at the same speed. And still the elephant stood there, without moving. We figured if the guys were so scared, they would be there all night, shared a laugh at that, and went on our way.