Saturday, February 8, 2003
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

Intriguing facts about elephants

THERE are somethings about the elephant I have never understood. The rear of a woman walking away has been compared to that of a receding pachyderm and eulogised by Sanskrit poets as beautiful to behold. A few times I have followed an elephant in my car and gazed at its massive posterior and wondered why I failed to see my ancestors’ point of view. Elephants have a strong sense of smell, specially for liquor. On my visit to the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary, I was told by many tea-planters that it was dangerous to brew liquor of any kind in the open. The slightest whiff of air carries the message to elephants over a mile or more away. They are drawn to it because they love liquor. They drink all they can find and reward the brewers by destroying their huts and trampling them to death. Such gross ingratitude is unknown among other animals.

Another aspect of elephant-human relationship that continues to intrigue me is that though tamed elephants can be seen in all parts of India and worshipped in their human incarnations, as Ganapati in Maharashtra, it is only in southern-most States — Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — that they are attached to temples to take out deities on auspicious days and form an integral part of religious ritual. Can anyone explain the difference in regional attitudes?

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Indians learnt to take elephants as long ago as 2000 B.C. They were used to move trunks of huge trees weighing up to four tons. Then they were recruited into our armies. In 326 B.C., King Porus had a phalanx of 200 elephants to confront regiments of Alexander of Macedonia. And lost. Likewise in 1526, Ibrahim Lodhi had hundreds of elephants lined up to face a much smaller army of the Mughal Babar. And lost. More often than not elephants had no stomach for battle, turned tail and trampled over soldiers they were meant to lead.

My animosity towards elephants has acquired personal dimensions. Last month my elder brother’s grandson married a Nair girl. A Sikh wedding took place in Delhi to be followed by a Nair wedding in bride’s mother’s village on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. The bridegroom’s party, which included my daughter and grand-daughter, flew down to Cochin and then by coach to the temple where Hindu ceremonies were to take place. With them was Boris Johnson, Tory MP in the British House of Commons, a distant relation by marriage, his wife and four children. In the milling crowd was the temple elephant, named Gopalan. There are different versions of what upset the beast. One is that it did not like white people; when one wanted to take a close shot of it in her camera, it made its displeasure known by grabbing her in its trunk and hurling her on the ground. Another is that it had never seen so many beturbanned sardars and expressed its disapproval by giving my nephew (the bridgegrooms’s father) a resounding kick which sent him sprawling with many ligaments torn. Altogether eight members of the party were hospitalised. Fortunately, my daughter and grand-daughter ran for their lives and escaped unharmed. This elephant is known to have killed two mahouts earlier. I give full credit to the bride’s father Krishna Kumar, ex-Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s and Narasimha Rao’s governments, who saw the whole episode as auspicious. "If you can survive an attack by an elephant, you can survive every calamity," he is reported to have said.

The Indian elephant (eliphes maximus) though somewhat smaller in size than its African cousins can be as vicious. In its usual span of life of 60 years it comes of masth (sexual madness) at least once a year between the ages of 21 and 50. When old, it is thrown out of the herd by young bulls; it becomes a loner and often a rogue bent on destruction. It eats solids (leaves, branches — anything) of a quarter of a ton and drinks 50 gallons (190 litres) of water every day. It is the biggest destroyer of forests and gives nothing in return except cannonballs of dung. In fact, it is the most useless animal on earth.

I would not have brought up this subject because of my nephew who is still in plaster and has to use crutches to move about but I saw Boris Johnson’s article on the subject in Spectator (UK) and reproduced by Asian Age. But I do think it is time we stopped trapping elephants to march in processions, take visitors for rides and temple dieties for airing. They should be left to forage in their habitats and prevented from encroaching on human habitations.

A man of science

Another great Indian gone, unhonoured, unsung and unnoticed by the media. This unfortunately is the fate of people who for reasons of age or illness cease to be in the public eye. When they go few people get to know of their repertoire. This fate befell my friend Jagjit Singh, who died last September at the age of 91. Even I who had known him for over 70 years did not hear about it till a few days ago. Although I always teased him by calling him a genius, he was in fact one without any pretensions.

Jagjit was a couple of years senior to me in Government College, Lahore. Everyone knew him for one achievement: in every exam, he scored full marks in mathematics and allied subjects. He sat for the ICS, again scored full marks in mathematics papers (arithmetic, algebra, geometry) but still could not make it. His first priority was to teach mathematics but his own college turned him down. He took the next option and joined the Indian Railway Service.

He brought his uncanny mastery over mathematics and helped solve many problems Indian railways were facing. In 1960, he was appointed Director of the Railway Board. He retired in 1969 as General Manager of the North-East Frontier Railways. For the next three years, he was Managing Director, Indian Drug and Pharmaceuticals, Adviser of Asian Development Bank and Adviser of Tata Chemicals.

It was not as a civil servant but as author of book that Jagjit Singh made his mark. When he wrote his first book Mathematical Ideas, he asked me to read the manuscript with a note saying: "I am using you as guinea pig. If you can understand what I have written, every one will be able to understand it." It waspublished in London, the first of its kind written on the subject by an Indian. It was followed by Modern Cosmology, Great Ideas in Information Theory, Language and Cybernetics. And many others. In 1963 Jagjit became the first Asian to win the UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize for the popularisation of science (Earlier, awardees included Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Konard Lorenz and Margaret Mead.) He was elected Fellow of Royal Statistical Society and awarded an honorary Doctorate in Science by Roorkee University. When Pakistan scientist Abdus Salam won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978, he chose Jagjit to write his biography, which was published by Penguin (India).

These were years when I met Jagjit Singh over coffee at least once a week. What impressed me most was his candour and humility. When he stopped coming, I did not realise he was in poor health. When he died no one bothered to tell me he was gone.

Who is stupid?

A boy got a job that required him to dress as a polar bear to promote soft drinks at puja pandals. A man passing by asked, "Don’t you feel stupid dressed in that thing?"

"Why should I feel stupid?" answered the boy, "You’re the one talking to a bear."

(Contribued by Reeten Ganguly, Silchar)

Sampoorna Bharat

Q: What does India produce that no other country in the world can produce?

A: "Indians"

(Contributed by J.P. Singh Kaka, Bhopal)