A Prince, the Civil Servant and a Bull Elephant
Mahmud Sipra and Faisal Sipra
Less than fifty miles from the port city of Chittagong- in what is now Bangladesh, a winding unmettled road once meandered through a thick savanna of bamboo towards the formidable Banderban forest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts- home, to the Chakma tribe and the Asian Elephant.
Mounted high on a hill sits the tiny bird's nest like picturesque district capital of Rangamati- with its tree lined pathways, quaint bashas surrounded by a riot of colours from the abundance of wild flowers and the khaki green of its undulating meadows.
In 1956, there were only three VIP's here. A Raja Tridev Roy, Chieftain of the Chakma tribe, the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police of the Hill Tracts.
A fourth VIP was added to the list when a magnificent animal by the name of “Lal Bahadur” was added as the ceremonial mascot to the Police force. Lal Bahadur was a 25-year-old bull elephant.
If elephants could tell tales Lal Bahadur would have been one of the great storytellers.
Some years earlier Lal Bahadur had gone AWOL from his previous masters the Burma Police Force- during the mating season. Apparently, Lal Bahadur had taken a fancy to a young she elephant from the then Pakistani- now Bangladesh side of the border while a herd had been lazily feasting on some bamboo shoots on the Burmese side. Like all smitten lovers Lal Bahadur followed her scent across the border in to the Banderbans, the natural habitat of the elephants in the region. The occasional Border patrols that spotted him- given his size and single-minded determination- gave him a wide berth.
The matter would have probably ended there had Lal Bahadur returned to his side of the border once his ardor had been satiated. But Lal Bahadur decided to stay. Every now and then he would be spotted leading a large herd of elephants in and out of the jungle and on more than one occasion- playing havoc with the food stocks of the local tribes.
Eventually his forays were brought to the attention of the Deputy Commissioner- a Col. Niblett and the Superintendent of Police a Mr. R. A. Khan.
Until then Lal Bahadur's identity and antecedents were unknown to the authorities. To Col Niblett he was just another rogue elephant and a nuisance and ought to be put down. The decision to eliminate him was promptly conveyed to Mr. R.A. Khan the Supt of Police.
Mr. Khan a gentle and erudite man-who walked like Humphrey Bogart and talked like Chief Inspector Morse (British TV Series of the same name) received the orders with some trepidation. His twenty-five years of gallant service in the Burma Police before and through the war had exposed him to many such clinical administrative orders in the past.
His mind went back to another time, to another place in Upper Burma some twenty years earlier when as a fresh inductee in the Police Force he had come face to face with a young elephant that had severely injured his right hind leg in a wild stampede of a dozen other elephants who had been corralled for the night at a logging camp. The stampede had been triggered the night before when the logging camp had come under attack from Karen rebels.
The ensuing firefight with guns blazing from all sides had panicked the animals that were ankle chained to either the trees or to the giant logs piled in the yard. One such male elephant when trying to free himself from his chains pulled on the cuffs and the chain with such force that he brought the logs on top of his hind leg. The steel cuff and chain, piecing both bone and flesh.
“It was a terrible sight. To see this magnificent beast lying there in agony with one massive leg trembling with pain was not easy.” Young Khan was to recall.
“So with the help of an aging mahout, an iron monger and an alcoholic Vet-we cut away the steel chain and cuff, washed his wound as best as could be done with vodka, some tincture iodine and a mixture of herbs. We improvised on the bandage by using a vodka soaked piece of tarpaulin from one of the tents to dress the wound. I fed him a couple of bars of “Mars Chocolate” to keep him occupied during the treatment. His newly developed taste for the chocolate evidenced a dramatic increase in my friendship with him to say nothing of my Police Canteen bill.”
The Vet, an Irishman who had worked all night finally went and sat down exhausted on a nearby log lit a Lucky Strike and then pouring some whisky from a hip flask in to his coffee said to me: 'If he survives the next three days without the infection spreading …he stands a chance.”
“Miraculously the animal recovered from his wound in a few days. I observed him while he playfully filled his trunk with water from the nearby trough and sprayed me with it. My immediate reaction to this mischief was to reprimand him in Punjabi: “Baaz a oye!” (Behave yourself!) A reaction he seemed to enjoy and would stretch out with his trunk towards me until I rewarded him with some more Mars Bars.”
In the absence of a surrogate parent and keeper, young Khan faced the dilemma of finding a home for his now broken in lord of the jungle. In a last ditch effort he approached his immediate senior a Mr. Cree for his help. It seems that Mr. Cree- though not completely convinced what he could possibly do with an elephant in the police force- asked for the elephant to be brought to the police parade ground for inspection.
The animal was duly brushed and cleaned and brought to the parade ground where he patiently waited with his mahout flicking the flies with his enormous ears until the inspection of the of the recruits was over. Then on a signal from Mr. Khan the mahout maneuvered the massive beast right in front of Mr., Cree and other senior officials of the Police- with one leg pulled back he knelt in front of them and then raising himself on all fours curled up his trunk and delivered the coup de grace by raising himself on his hind legs with a triumphant honk to the delight and applause of all the officers and their wives present.
The Burma Police suddenly had a mascot.
Until then he was just another elephant with no name. But on that day for want of a better name and to comply with regulatory ration card requirements he was quickly given the name “ Lal Bahadur” by his doting guardian Mr. R A Khan. Undoubtedly, bearing in mind the red and white scar on his hind leg that set him apart from any other pachyderm.
To be continued…
(R) thedailystar.net 2008