Elephant heroics

17 Feb

Thinking of Elephants
Some people in Europe or perhaps in America think of India as the land of elephants. While this isn’t really true there are occasions when an elephant does take centre-stage and creates not just adventure but quite some suspense. Here’s an elephant story that nearly made the headlines not very long ago, and it actually happened in India!

I’d been in the ministry for many years in the 1990s and had worked in areas of India that are considered remote, as in parts of Ranchi [Jharkhand State].Yet in all those years I had never encountered a wild animal anywhere. It had never even crossed my mind that I’d experience anything of the kind until it happened, in March 2009.

I was Pastor to what is popularly known as ‘tea garden’ Catholics in a rural area not far from the second largest town in West Bengal, Siliguri. It was the season of Lent, in the Christian liturgy, and we were nearing the end of the preparations before Easter, including Mass and penitential services. I couldn’t get to the initial gathering we had to go to, which included hours spent hearing ‘confessions’ and counseling families who had particular needs. So, I’d arranged for a priest friend from a neighboring parish to start off the Mass and the confessions. I had let our driver take him there in our parish jeep in the belief that I could get there a little later on our parish motorbike.

Sister Magi, of the Nirmala Convent nearby who helps on our ministry team, had warned me that I had to get there early as there would be quite a line for confessions. So, I thought I’d surprise the team by bringing in an additional priest. I made a hasty decision to take along our 80-year-old retiree-priest as my pillion rider and get to the outreach station chapel at Saraswatipur some hours after the proceedings would have started. Just as we were about to leave something cropped up and I decided against taking along my elderly priest friend, Father George. I think it was mainly because of the 16-km lonely ride over a bumpy dirt road through the tea gardens and the thick forest.

The Elephant scent
It was in the afternoon when we set out and the setting sun set up a beautiful backdrop as it came through the chinks between those tall trees. Yet in that loneliness nothing really moved, except two local guardsmen going in the opposite direction, riding bicycles, presumably getting home after their shift duties. We reached the place alright, with our ‘catechist’(lay instructor of the catechism), Jerome, negotiating the rough road quite steadily. Everything seemed fine, and I heard at least an hour of confessions at the chapel. These Christians are fervent and devoted and very religiously follow the rituals and practices of Christian life. In fact, usually before Easter and Christmas, there are literally hundreds of confessions to be heard. Most families also renew their baptismal and marriage vows on these occasions. I think they believe, and rightly so, that confession helps reconcile them to God and strengthens them in their Christian living.

It was getting dark and I thought I’d better get going. So, this time, for the return trip, I drove. It was a Sunday and I thought I’d do a slight detour and go through the local market on the way. At the market, the driver of the tea garden manager stopped me. I thought he just wanted to greet me for Easter. He actually had an important message to pass on. He came up to me to warn me of a rogue elephant roaming wildly in the forest.

Facing an Elephant
No sooner had we left the market than a strange feeling of uncertainty came over me that made me drop a degree of confidence. But I am a competent driver and have always known how to tackle eventualities or difficult situations. Yet that day, as we kept moving along I was faced with one of my worst fears ever. My pillion rider, the catechist, in a very soft and calm voice whispered, ‘Father….see elephant!’ It took me a few seconds to take in the message while the motorbike kept moving forward even if a bit bumpily. When the message did register, lo and behold, there was the Indian elephant right in the middle of the road! It was a sight as exciting as it was frightful: one that many adventurers and tourists would have loved or perhaps paid to have witnessed. For me it was a sight I’d rather not recall. It was not one that had come up in my wildest dreams.

There staring down at us, from just about 20 feet away, standing imposingly on the road was the dreaded beast. I pulled the handbrake and stayed seated on the bike, shocked and stunned. My mind went blank. I just couldn’t think. I couldn’t believe I was indeed facing the rogue elephant. As we sat there motionless on our bike, the elephant made the first move. Seemingly the animal had second thoughts and turned around. Whatever his intentions were, for us it was dramatic relief, a time-out, and a real breather. But it was short-lived.

The Elephant in charge
Elephants too, perhaps very much in the way bulls spin around in the bull-fighters’ rings, apparently do these pre-attack drills: they shuffle around a bit and then do the charge after a glorious trumpet blast. There he was: our glorious Indian elephant showing off his prowess, his ability to prove his dominance over anything that moves in the forest. He trumpeted and made as if to attack us. Instinct got the better of us. We abandoned the bike and scrambled to safety: I to the left and Jerome to the right.

Things didn’t go well for me. As I ran I tripped and hit a branch hanging low and fell rather helplessly not far from the bike. Jerome didn’t do much better and fell not far from the elephant who apparently in attack-mode. In fact, the elephant had started moving towards us and was only a few feet away from the bike. In that dusky evening just waiting in fear for our mighty elephant to attack and crush the pair of us, was like waiting for judgment day. In those precious moments, which were really the fine line between living or dying, apart from my whole life whizzing past me in a flash, I was able to spare a thought for Jerome. I knew I was dispensable, but I didn’t want Jerome harmed. He had a wife and a three-month kid. I asked God to take care of us both, but especially of Jerome.

As we waited there, almost with our eyes closed, ostrich-style –head stuck in a hole, we waited in vain. God’s angels must have disoriented the elephant’s perceptions. In that confusion, in our efforts to save our lives, we lost track of the elephant. We just didn’t know where he could have gone. Life was too precious right then for us and all we focused on was an escape route. We knew that to be hanging around in that desolate area was not the wisest of decisions. We got up ignoring the minor bruises we had suffered in our falls and almost instinctively ran towards the safety we had, our bike. We quickly got it upright. Thank God it started. When I fell I lost my specs but I was confident that the desire to live would help me drive through in spite of the blurred vision. I could also feel my chest numb and my face swollen, but I had only one thing on my mind, and I guess so had Jerome: survival. So, as a lover of animals I wish elephants a big ‘God bless’ but as a lover of life it was more ‘Thank you God’ for saving us!

The Elephant haunt
We were at about a half-way point and were not sure whether to go back to the chapel or to proceed home. It was a difficult decision as we just didn’t know where the elephant was or what his intentions were. We finally decided to go home to our centre. Once back home there was hot food and a shot of something stronger to shake us back to reality. Thankfully the medical check-ups didn’t reveal any injuries to either Jerome or me.

Later as we sat through hot soup narrating the experience, Father Raphael, my colleague, told us how only a few days earlier a rogue elephant had crushed a man in the village. So ours was indeed a miraculous escape, truly providential. I was saved from a painful death and from the chilling headlines that might have hit the local papers, ‘Priest crushed by rogue Elephant.’ I was especially pleased that Jerome came out of it unscathed. He means a lot to the parish team. We Pastors would indeed be weak instruments of God’s work without our Catechists.

[SebuKol’s story edited and retold by T.D’Souza –for TRODZA – 170215]

[NB: SebuKol was Pastor in a ‘tea-garden’ parish near Siliguri, West Bengal, in the noughties.]
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