Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Killer Strikes

On 25th June, Manwar Ali, a resident and former worker of the tea garden where we live, was attacked and killed by a wild elephant. The elephant, a lone tusker, had entered the Bara Line - a workers' colony - early in the evening, and it had hidden itself quietly for some time before the people living near Manwar's house saw it. They gave chase, as they usually do, frightening it away with crackers and strong lights, and by making a lot of noise. Tea garden people are resigned to sharing their living space with elephants.
A tractor with powerful lights was driven around to send the elephant back in the direction of the forest. The chase ended - or so it appeared - and people went back home. Manwar Ali turned off to the side street where he lived, and stamped the dirt off his chappals. At the sound, the elephant came out from where it had been hiding, unseen, and hurled him to the ground, into the tea area. Manwar rolled into a little drain and hid there. The elephant sniffed around him once, and walked away. Manwar got up, and walked until he found someone. He told him what happened, and asked to be taken to the hospital. It was around eleven thirty in the night. People gathered at once and they took the poor man to the garden hospital, where the doctor examined him. He didn’t have any external injuries. However, the doctor recommended that he be taken to the hospital in Birpara town. Someone was sent to call the driver of the ambulance, but before he rushed back with him, Manwar died. He must have sustained heavy internal injuries. His head had hit against a tree trunk when he fell.

The shock was terrible. What a sudden, unexpected, fearful and painful death. Manwar's brother had been with him less than an hour before, in the big group that always runs behind elephants - keeping a safe distance, of course. No one tried to injure the elephant or to harm it in any way. It killed without a reason, and without any provocation.
The Assistant Manager alerted the Wild Life squad in the area, who turned up soon enough, but not before they expressed the fear that they might get beaten up by angry tea-garden workers. It has been known to happen. There was no trouble. The people were agitated, but not aggressive.
The state pays a compensation of Rs.One Lakh in the case of deaths caused by wild elephants. The Squad paid a small part of the sum as an advance towards funeral expenses.
There are so many cases of elephants killing people. According to a report in The Times of India dated 5 June 2008, 250 people die on an average every year in the country's eastern states in the man-elephant conflict. There is a website called 'Elephant News India' where I spotted the link to this article, and it carries 18 stories of man-elephant conflict for the month of June alone. Now there is one more.

Elephants are dangerous animals, and we in tea gardens have a healthy respect for them. There are as many elephant stories as there are tea planters. They are part of our lives, the tall tales that are told and retold over evening drinks in friends' bungalows. I don’t feel like recounting even one here now.
Visitors to tea gardens get really excited when they hear about elephants coming out for an evening round from the nearby forests. 'Don’t say you that you wish you could see an elephant,' my husband always tells them. That elephants can kill, and for no apparent reason, is something visitors find hard to believe. That they can destroy huge areas of cultivated land, including vast areas planted with tea, sounds impossible. My husband has more to say about elephants. They are huge, but light-footed. They can chase their quarry at great speed, running at something like 40km an hour. They have tiny eyes in proportion to their bodies, and weak eyesight, but their sense of smell more than makes up for that. An elephant is a master at concealment. It can hide in the darkness, even in the shadow of a tree.

The night after the attack, everyone was worried. A killer elephant generally returns to the place where it has struck. Manwar's brother, his closest surviving relative, was filled with sorrow, but he had no anger. He had a sad story to recount to my husband when he met him in Bara Line early in the morning. Their uncle was killed, over twelve years ago, at almost the same spot, and by an elephant. He'd been carrying a little child in his arms. The child was lightly flicked aside out of harm's way by the elephant before it struck the man down and killed him.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Harry Potter and You-Know-Why It Works

The Harry Potter books may have started off as a set of 'different' school stories for young readers, but the final work in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , is nothing less than a full-pitched effort to sell England, Old and New.

The use of elements of Western mythology and folklore (including Classical, Celtic and English elements) ensured the early success of these books. They are the 'Amar Chitra Katha' of the English speaking world. The names Minerva, Pomona, Sirius, Bellatrix, Severus, Lucius and Draco are all Greek and Roman; Arthur, Percy and Ginevra are from Arthurian legend, and Hagrid, Hogwarts, and Hogsmeade have Gaelic/Celtic resonances. It is fascinating, it's entertaining, and educational.

How many young children read novels today? And yet they read these, or they have them read out to them. Myth and magic in their pure forms rule over any other form of fiction any day. Add to this the episodic format - with Harry and his friends growing up with their readers, one book every eighteen months, and you know why it all succeded. We're a civilization that loves to wait for the next episode, while we wonder what's going to happen. The number of websites devoted to guessing what would happen in the last book was mind-boggling.

The fantasies on sale are admirable : An orphaned, neglected, unloved and unremarkable boy discovers that he is a hero of sorts in a parallel, hidden world of which he first hears when he is eleven. He's a wizard; he can perform magic, but only after he's been to the school which teaches magic. He is invited to join Hogwarts, a residential school where he doesn't have to pay fees ( a sure-sell fantasy for parents), where every meal is a feast, and where he gets to sleep in a four poster bed with silken hangings. And he's inherited an enormous fortune from his parents.
He is the saviour for whom the 'other world' is waiting, because he is the only known survivor of the killing curse, which rebounded off him and neutralised its perpetrator, the evil Dark Wizard Voldemort. Once in school, he discovers that he has extraordinary skills, including sporting skills. School matches, house points and championships; night-wanderings, misadventures and punishments share the reader's attention with the hero's quest to destroy the returned Voldemort, who still wants to rule the world, but now wants to kill Harry first. The series could have coasted along these lines, but there was scope for much more, which someone was quick to realise.

After the weighty and messy Book Five, it appears that the author and her editors got down to giving a coherent shape - and a slightly different direction - to the last two books. Already the elements of the saviour and the chosen heir are in place. The last book, as many commentators have noted, has an increased number of elements of the Arthurian legend and the Grail Quest.(Remember the success of The Da Vinci Code ?) Only, this Quest is for something unholy, all the enchanted objects which enclose bits of Voldemort's soul and which must be destroyed. It is like the Dark Ages; the castle is without its king, the social order has been subverted, and fear and suspicion prevail everywhere. The school story is dropped abruptly. Harry, Ron and Hermione drop out, and are on the run through the English countryside, hiding in forests like Robin Hood and his band of men. Snape, the teacher who is Harry's tormentor and appears to be on the wrong side but is a double agent, morphs into a chivalrous lover: a Sir Galahad. He'd loved Harry's mother all his life, and he chose to suffer silently all along, maligned by both sides, to protect her son, eventually sacrificing his life. The transformation of Snape is a master-stroke.

All the elements of the Middle Ages are used to create an allegory with today's world. Voldemort is on an ethnic cleansing spree, ridding the magical world of all but Purebloods. He rules by fear, and he rules absolutely. Feudalism, hierarchies, servitude, and social discrimination are the evils which the young adventurers of the book seek to destroy. The world clamours for Harry, ' The Chosen One', Albus Dumbledore's anointed successor, but he chooses to relinquish the sceptre.

This formula has worked marvellously in an age of 'Us' and a nameless 'Them', whom it would be quite politically incorrect to name, and in an age that can't get enough of Prince William and Page Three Royalty. The Lost Heir motif is cleverly introduced in the last book, and Harry turns out to be the last in the line of the Peverells, the most blue-blooded of magical families! Potter's world becomes a metaphor for an idealised, multi-racial, tolerant and enlightened England, with an Heir-in-Waiting who chooses to abdicate! And the final flourish - J.K. Rowling puts a black man in the hot seat by making Kingsley Shacklebolt the Minister for Magic.

While Enid Blyton and the writers of her age appear hopelessly racist and xenophobic today, Rowling and team have spared no effort to produce something that is politically correct, and guaranteed to please everyone the world over. And in case they'd trodden on any toes - they seem to have done a quick review after the book was actually released - J.K.Rowling beamingly announced that Dumbledore was gay. It was like saying, 'See? We made sure no one's left out.'

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Under June Skies

Topiary. When you say that word in Tamil, you might be saying 'Throw your cap away.' Topi - erry! In that sense of the word, there's been a lot of 'topiary' in the twentieth century. I wonder why? With temperatures touching new highs every season, we need to keep our heads covered and cool.
If you wear a cap or a hat, you get funny looks. As a woman who wears a topi in the sun at all times, I've faced amusement, ridicule, cockiness and wisecracks, and I'm not exactly thick-skinned. In fact, it’s because of sensitive skin that I always wear protective head-gear. My brother in Delhi completely stopped wearing topis after a motorcyclist flicked one off his head when he was taking an evening walk.
A good alternative would be an umbrella, but the things you get these days are all made of synthetic material which compounds the heat. Instead of getting a little circle of cool shade, like what the black cloth umbrellas of old provided, you find yourself perspiring in a claustrophobic heat capsule.
Now that the monsoon is here, we know it's going to rain at any time, and without any warning. No one in a tea garden is going to leave home without an umbrella. Rainy, sunny or cloudy skies, that umbrella is indispensable.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Idler's Reverie

I wish we only spoke in verse:
If prose was not allowed in speech,
And minds rephrased each thought before
It fitted into patterned lines,
Think how much less of hurtful noise
Or harmful rage would be expressed?

There'd be a world of silences,
And we would all then thinkers be,
And only that which qualified
As poetry would pass our lips.

Picture : Watercolor by Swedish artist Anders Zorn, from the Internet
Heartfelt thanks to sister Eliza