(Updated – with videos)
I have had a few memorable experiences with the Indian Gaur – the largest bovine species in South East Asia. During our introduction in 2012, I saw a herd crossing a golf course in Kodaikanal. Awestruck by their imposing physique, I approached them with reckless abandon. Mercifully, one of the alpha males scared me stiff into marching back. From a distance, I saw them leap in the air over a barbed wire fence. It was one of the most amazing things I had seen.
It had not occurred to me then that one wrong move, and I could have been gored, squished or trampled to death. Thankfully, large mammals like Gaurs and elephants tend to be pacifists while moving in herds. They know of the power they wield as a group. Especially, in the Kodaikanal hills where large carnivores are absent. The strays and rogues must be treated with extreme caution. They can attack unprovoked. People may deserve to bear the brunt of the brute force of nature. But avoiding such aggressive conflicts would be best for everybody’s business.
My buddy recently unearthed a bunch of videos that we had shot in 2012 & 2013 while traveling to the jungles of #southIndia. This clip was shot in the Kodaikanal. The gaurs didn't attack us because they had strength in numbers. Also, it took place in a crossing zone for vehicles, which meant that they were familiar with our silly behavior. Clearly, I had no clue how to approach #wildanimals back then. I was just yet another fat-ass tourist being a nuisance to nature under the guise of interested in it.
More recently, I came across a male Indian Gaur destroying the crops at a tea plantation in Valparai. Not far away, I saw a caretaker and his son huddled together. It seemed like they were having a discussion on what was to be done. I had assumed that father was going to stop the beast with the knowledge he had acquired over the years. Much to my surprise, the boy suddenly armed himself with a piece of rock.
He could not be older than 12 years. I was alarmed at the decision.
As he approached the Gaur with panache, my heart was in my mouth. It was staring him down. But he kept inching; holding the rock higher. When a few meters from each other, there was palpable tension in the air. But there was a sense of familiarity. The little fella emerged the unlikely hero. Shortly afterward – the Gaur strutted towards an electrical fence. Shaking its horns, it disappeared into the forest. The father seemed proud of his son’s courage and relieved that luck was on their side that day.
In the winter of 2013, luck was not on my side. Or maybe it was.
At the end of December, I was trekking through a pine forest in Vattakanal with a friend. We were there to watch the sunrise at a nearby clifftop. Nearly 6,800 feet above sea level, the sun gloriously emerges over it. For over an hour every morning, about 100-200 birds like bulbuls, swallows, and swifts soar against the orange-tinted skies. Happy about what we had seen, we started to walk back to the nearest town. It was an arduous uphill journey. We had to take it slow because we were novice trekkers then.
We hardly took a dozen paces before we came across a schoolkid in our vicinity. Quickly, he brought to our attention that an adult Gaur was standing about 500 meters ahead. Alone and agitated, it had blocked the exit path. I had suggested that we return to the cliff side, but the kid was cocksure about moving on. He reassured us that it was a part of his daily routine. I believed the twerp until he picked up a stone, and aimed it at the beast. When questioned, he calmly reassured us that we were safe. We tried to remain calm as this fella kept hurling stones at it.
Finally – it turned around and charged us like a kamikaze truck. In the melee, I heard someone say:
“Keelai odungo (run down)”.
I ran as fast as my fat hind legs could carry me. In doing so – I had accidentally put myself in the line of its attack. Barely a toenail away, I was flung downhill at an uncomfortable speed. My friend, who had smartly stood behind a tree, thought that I was gored. If you listen – at the 3.00 mark in the video, he screams:
Later, he told me that he was sure that I was gored. Unbeknownst to him, the Gaur was right behind. Thankfully, he escaped unhurt – as did the kid. Adjacent to them, I was skidding – rather comically – through dry leaves, twigs and pine corns. The momentum was stopped by a clutter of moss-covered rocks. The impact gave me a shattered left leg, a hairline wrist fracture, and a concussion. I could swear that it was going to charge again. Instinctively, I picked myself up and jogged uphill. I never looked back because I had seen enough monster movies to realize that it would be a terrible idea.
Considering the Gaur had wandered off, a brisk jog on a broken leg turned out to be a pretty bad idea too.
My leg had to be put in a temporary cast at the local hospital. I was told to get admitted because I might need surgery. We decided to head to the city, which was an 8-hour road trip. My friend had to drive through the night while listening to me whine about how unfair life was. All I could think was:
“How in the bloody hell could things get worse?”.
No sooner upon returning home, I got my answer. I was told by an orthopedic surgeon that I had to walk using crutches for two months. Then, I was laid off by my employer since I was unable to show up to work. I was also let go by someone I had cared for. So, I was angry, broke and depressed.
However, the bottom of the barrel is not the worst place on earth for a fresh start.
Au contraire, mes misérables, only when everything goes dark can even the tiniest scratch bring forth the screaming light.
Within a couple of weeks, I threw away the crutches before the doc had told me that I would able to. I found a better job. I began a fitness regime. My sideburns grew longer. I met magnanimous people along the way, who did their part to help me get back on my feet. More importantly, I had developed a love for bird-watching, which led me to rediscover a passion to be alive.
By the time the April arrived, I was doing fine. And the first chance I got, I went for a trek in the same pine forest where my life had changed earlier in winter. Because I desperately wanted to have that moment. To stand where I once fell. To think about all that was, and whatever will be.
Like a thief visiting the crime scene after the statute of limitations has expired.
The last time I saw #IndianGaurs jump the fence was in 2014. It was an incredible sight, to see these Herculean beasts, literally, muscle their way over 3 to 4-feet high fences. This weekend, I had the good luck to shoot plenty of videos of them doing just that. We encountered this herd, showing off its collective skills, as we were leaving #Kodaikanal. @sillychubs
The difference is that in real life – the audience does not applaud. Nobody gives a crap about whether I make it out alive. Or how I fought against the odds to emerge stronger.
Why should they?
Everyone has their own burden to bear. They have their own narratives to script. But, when a part of it slips through their fingers, they sense a loss of control. This helpless feeling. This seething rage over relinquishing their life’s goals to happenstances.
They cannot help but wonder why they bother to plan for the future when it can all disappear in seconds.
I ask myself that too. Even though I am nowhere close to figuring it out, I still keep scheming for perpetual happiness. Sometimes, though, I can picture a Gaur charging at these so-called plans. Obliterating them swiftly, the fantastic beast lowers its horns and grunts – as if to warn me:
“Que sera sera, puny human”.