A Prince, the Civil Servant and a Bull Elephant
Mahmud Sipra & Faisal Sipra
(Continued from last week)
Sitting there in Rangamati in his neat bungalow sipping his morning tea some 16 years later Superintendent Khan in a moment of nostalgia glanced at the array of framed fading photographs that sat on the credenza- of his peers he had served with and the places he had served in: Rangoon, Moulmein, Mandalay and the Kohima Imphal Front. Prominent among them was an enormous black and white photo of Lal Bahadur- the elephant. The Superintendent had last seen him on Christmas day 1941. His mind taking him back to that fateful Christmas in 1941 to Rangoon, till then a bustling shining city of golden pagodas and wide boulevards before Japanese fighter planes flying sortie after sortie rained bombs on this vibrant centre of trade and mercantile activity and within minutes turned this once proud city to rubble.
He remembered his last instructions to the Mahout. “Take him away from here…far far away.” He never found out whether the mahout or his charge ever made it to safety.
The attack was to force the then Burmese Government and what was left of its key administrative structure to flee and to relocate to Simla in India. An arrangement that was to remain in place courtesy of the Indian Government until the war ended.
The sound of his police patrol driving up to his front porch snapped the Superintendent out of his reverie. Putting out his cigarette he got up and as per habit strapped on the holster with his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson pearl handled revolver and made for his jeep and the posse that was to accompany him into the Bandarbans-towards the area of the elephant's last sighting near the Burmese border.
After a night and a half day trek through the jungle the local tracker held up his hand bringing the Police patrol to an abrupt halt. Running out of the jungle in their direction a few panic stricken men sprinted past them. “Mohingas” whispered the Chakma tracker. Mohingas are from the Burmese side of the border-inhabitants of the Arakan Yoma. The Superintendent was too preoccupied to worry about a few poor illegal aliens who had found themselves running from the elephants straight into the arms of a Police force.
Then an out of breath straggler appeared and fell into the arms of one of the police patrol. He breathlessly uttered only one word: “Hathi”(Elephants) before catching his breath and scampering after his comrades. Now fully alerted to the danger, the police patrol spread out guns at the ready.
The one thought that was running through Suprintendent Khan's mind was how does one stop a marauding elephant with a Royal Enfield 303 rifle- leave alone a herd of them?
Suddenly the silence was shattered by the screaming of monkeys and birds taking to flight followed by a loud thrashing sound as a herd of about ten or twelve elephants came crashing through the thick foliage and on seeing the patrol suddenly stopped in their tracks- their massive bodies swaying, back and forth, unable to make up their minds- to charge or not to charge. The only thing that separated them from the Police patrol was a small watering hole.
“Hold your fire! Aykahneh darao!” (Don't move) ordered the Superintendent in Bengali.
A chorus of honks and grunts from the herd brought forth a loud trumpeting sound from across the pond directly in front of the police patrol and then through the trees he appeared. A huge tusker- head and shoulders above the rest and he charged at the patrol immediately. Wading through the shallow pond towards the patrol at a furious pace- sending most of the patrol scurrying in the opposite direction. Half way into his charge the tusker stopped turned and headed towards his herd circling and nudging them back in to the trees they had emerged from. The herd obeyed and retreated into the jungle.
The tusker appeared again alone this time and by the look of him he was spoiling for a fight. This time he did something curious. He waded into the knee deep water pond again crossing it only to stop with his fore legs on the bank and his hind legs still in the water. Malevolently staring at the police patrol- now reduced to only three people, Superintendent Khan, his faithful driver Abdul Muqeem and a recently promoted Inspector from Cox's Bazaar by the name of Nabaligh Mian.
The three stood there observing the beast as he dipped his trunk into the pond, filling it with water and again charging towards the group… abruptly stopping about 15 feet away from them and sprayed them with water from his trunk- reminiscent of the antics of another elephant in another time.
The dash through the pond had also washed away all the mud from the lower part of his legs- exposing a red and white scar on the hind leg. Racing through the Superintendent's mind the question: “Could it be- can it be…?”
Instinctively, the Superintendent was to utter the reprimand; “Baaz a Oy!” The beast froze in his tracks. Still looking dangerous. Then as hundreds of times before he heard the familiar command: “Hoshiar Lal Bahadur- Salaam Karo!” Seconds ticked by before he reacted. Taking a few tentative steps forward first… then bending one leg he knelt and curled up his trunk in salute with a familiar honk.
No member of the Police patrol including Superintendent Khan himself from that day on would ever doubt anyone's belief about elephants having long memories. They were all believers now.
It was a triumphant Police patrol that returned to Rangamati that night with Lal Bahadur faithfully following much to the merriment of the local populace. The next morning “Lal Bahadur” was if not inducted he certainly was adopted by the Police as the ceremonial mascot.
He soon settled into a life of pampered ease, making the ritualistic weekly appearance on the parade ground and being the star attraction for VIPs and their children as a VIP himself. Appropriately dubbed “A Very Important Pachyderm” by a group of very bright ten year old kids from Utah- on a day visit from the Karnaphuli Dam American School.
In the absence of Mars Bars-Supt. Khan asked his cook to prepare a concoction of boiled rice generously laced with molasses, honey and peanuts as a substitute. Lal Bahadur would devour this new “dessert” by the kilo.
The next sign of trouble came when in a moment of unbridled hubris typical of bureaucrats Col. Niblet decided to invite some of his British friends on an elephant hunt astride Lal Bahadur.
Superintendent RA Khan gently but firmly informed the Dy.Commisioner that Lal Bahadur had been a tracker and a logging elephant and had never trained as a Hunting Elephant which are a breed apart. More importantly given Lal Bahadur's chequered history- there was no knowing how he would react to the sound of an Elephant Gun being fired from atop his head from a howdah strapped to his back. The risk was not worth taking. “In the interest of safety, the Deputy Commissioner's requisition of the Police Elephant for taking part in a hunt is declined.”
Stung Col. Niblett reacted with scorn at the reasons put forward. That evening after a few drinks he ordered his staff to inform the Superintendent that he wished to see “Lal Bahadur” at his residence. The orders were duly complied with and the mahout presented himself and Lal Bahadur at the “DC Sahib's bungalow” .
After a wait of about two hours long after the sun had set Col. Niblett appeared carrying a loaded gun and said; “Now let us see if this blasted animal is afraid of gun fire.” Inebriated and emboldened he marched up to the docile Lal Bahadur put the gun near his ear and fired of two shots. The reaction from Lal Bahadur was predictably instant. Shrieking he threw his mahout off and then crashing through the gate house sending the sentries on guard and Niblett running for their lives- he stormed off into the night and disappeared.
He was found by a search party and his mahout a week later and gently coaxed back to the police lines.
Superintendent RA Khan put in his retirement papers after the incident and left Rangamati and his beloved Chittagong Hill Tracts for good.
A year or so later after the incident, the Government of Pakistan received a request from the Iranian Ambassador that the Shah of Iran's younger brother, wished to go on an Elephant Hunt in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The request was duly conveyed through the Foreign Office to the then Governor of the Province.- who in turn forwarded it to the Deputy Commisioner of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Who was none other then one Col. Niblett.
Unable to refuse the request and unwilling to inform the Governor's office in Dhaka or the Foreign Office of the danger he proceeded with arrangements to welcome the Prince and his party. A rare distinction for a superannuated civil servant.
The Prince and his entourage arrived with Niblett playing host and Master of the Hunt. To the delight of the royal party- Niblett had outdone himself with the arrangements. The pomp and circumstance which greeted the royal visitors being reminiscent of the days of the Raj. The hunting party consisted of a convoy of jeeps bristling with a contingent of the Police Force- Cooks , Gun Bearers, a Bar man- valets, drum beaters and most importantly four elephants. None being of the hunting variety. For some inexplicable reason the Elephant Gun- which had been especially arranged for the occasion was mounted on the howdah harnessed on the back of the tallest and the most regal of all the elephants: Lal Bahadur.
Once in the hunting area-The Prince with his gun bearer mounted Lal Bahadur. To his surprise he found Niblett on a different animal. The Prince wouldn't have it. He insisted that Niblett accompany him on his mount. Trapped, Niblett had no choice but to acquiesce to the royal command. The hunting party slowly lumbered towards the area which had been earmarked by local guides where herds of elephants were grazing.
It wasn't long before a herd was spotted and the party moved in for the kill. A full grown tusker stood in their way guarding his herd. The prince's gun was readied- he took aim and fired. And then pandemonium. Lal Bahadur reacting to the loud report of the gun and seeing a fellow elephant crumble and fall threw his mahout off first then shaking the howdah strapped to his back violently enough to send the prince and his party flying through the air on to the ground- he turned to search for his tormentor. He found him cringing on the ground next to the prince who had broken his arm and shoulder. He lifted a screaming Niblett in his trunk and in one swift movement smashed him to the ground and then stepped on him. Kicking his corpse around like a football he finally left the scene shrieking into the jungle.
The incident caused a diplomatic furor and Government of the day could not find words to express their regret over the incident.
The Shah's brother lived to tell the tale and understandably never sought to hunt elephants again- preferring the more salubrious and safer surroundings of the French Riviera to go hunting.
Superintendent R A Khan died in a London Hospital in 1984 at the age of 72.Taking with him a treasure trove of untold similar stories.
Rangamati- has since been transformed by the Bangladesh government into a beautiful resort and is today a major tourist attraction.
Learning of the incident the Burmese Government filed a claim for the return of their “Police Asset”.
To the best of my knowledge they were pointed in the direction of the Bandarban Forest- with a cryptic note: “ If you can catch him you can keep him.”
Author's note: Every effort has been made to check the veracity of the incidents and the history of the contents in this article. However, some license may have been taken to dramatize the events. The story nevertheless-remains true.
Mahmud Sipra is an author and an independent columnist.
Faisal Sipra is a regular contributor to various publications in the USA.
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