I feared the elephant's shrewd little eyes were fixed on the diminutive human shuffling against my thigh. I don't think we got the joke then, but when we viewed the pictures up close on our return to Bangalore, the punchline that tickled my daughter was ours to behold.
On a trip to BR Hills a couple of weekends ago, we came upon a herd of elephants beside a waterhole. It was dusk and the light was fast fading. The herd comprised seven individuals including a young tusker. They were waiting to have their fill of grass before going down to the waterhole to drink.
We had not seen any "big game" that evening and the tourists (us included) who had paid well in excess of Rs 2000 a head for a night's stay at Jungle Lodges were hungry for entertainment or photographic souvenirs. And the staff was equally concerned about not disappointing them. So we stopped, interrupting the jumbo party, and spent an awfully long time watching the elephants. My daughter, growing bored of the increasingly dim view of hulking grey shapes in the tall grass, began to make conversation with herself. It was against the rules of the jungle, I suppose, and I had some trouble convincing her to quiet down.
The elephants grew impatient as they waited to drink. I was struck at how polite they were in objecting to the interruption of their evening's business: they shuffled impatiently but unhurriedly out of the undergrowth into our view. It was all very subtle and very civilized when they could have charged in unison and scared the living dung out of us. Sitting there in that open jeep with the air growing cooler around me, I felt a little ridiculous to be part of this paying party of safari-goers who were testing the patience of these sapient beasts.
There was a clear sense of leadership in the herd. The matriarch moved first, stepping out into the clearing. Another elephant, which looked a little younger than her (probably her second-in-command), seemed to be expressing her impatience to the matriarch with eye contact and head shaking. She seemed the more impetuous of the two and I am sure with time she would learn her management lessons. I was struck at how none of the other elephants stepped out of line to take the lead in charging us.
The matriarch never took her eyes off us for a moment. When she had enough of waiting and dropping glaring hints, she shook her head, huffed and ventured towards the water. On two occasions when she trumpeted my daughter tried her best to respond. Heads turned in alarm and looked accusingly at my precious little underage tourist. At one point, I feared the pachyderm's shrewd brown eyes were fixed on the diminutive human shuffling against my thigh as I leaned out for a picture.
All along my daughter chuckled to herself, saying (in Malayalam) that this whole affair was a nalla tamasha -- a good joke. I don't think we got the joke then, but when we viewed the pictures up close on our return to Bangalore, the punchline that tickled her was ours to behold. The matriarch had been playing peekaboo with the little girl in the jeep.