It was seven in the morning.
The air hung heavy with the heady fragrance of jasmine, tuberose, turmeric and sandal paste, mixed in with smoke from the ceremonial fire.
The high-pitched excitement of arriving guests and the laughing chatter of those already settled into the serried rows of plastic seats competed with the blare of Kannada film songs from loudspeakers positioned at the four corners of the hall.
Theertha threaded her way through the happy chaos, busy on some self-imposed errand. Preparations had been on since very early in the morning; there was not much left to be done – but it was a wedding after all. Her nephew Girish was to be married that day, and no family wedding ever feels complete without a lot of purposeful scurrying around to no purpose at all.
She had woken up hours earlier and, in the pre-dawn light, dressed carefully in her new sari – shiny green, with gold flecks and a border embroidered with gold motifs – before leaving home at five in the morning to catch the bus to the kalyana mantapam in town.
Her heart lifted with pride at the sight of Girish in the traditional gold-bordered dhoti and turban of the groom, but her mind was back home with her daughter. She pictured Suprita, nose buried in her books, busy with eleventh hour preparation for the board exam that would conclude her final year in school.
She will be here soon enough after her exam, Theertha told herself, her smile wide at the memory of her daughter’s excitement at the new clothes and gold chain her father had bought for her to wear to the wedding.
Inside the house — a two-storey brick and tile structure with fading green walls and windows of a washed-ivory whiteness, nestling in the midst of a Kodagu coffee estate – there was little relief from the building heat of the bright summer morning.
Suprita glanced at the wall clock for the tenth time in as many minutes, decided that she really had no more time for last minute study, and scrambled into her blue and green churidar with the matching blue dupatta.
The 10th standard board exam weighed heavy on her mind. Today was English – her least favorite subject. She was prepared, she had told her mother the previous night; she hoped to get decent marks.
She gulped down her glass of milk, smiling at the taste of the Horlicks powder that had been stirred into it. She stopped for a moment in front of the glass showcase in the living room, home to assorted idols of Ganesha.
Her favorite was the one her father had hand-carved in wood. She paused before it in silent prayer. Suprita did not pray every day, but today was English, and she could use every bit of help she could get.
Slinging her book-bag over her shoulder, she grabbed the handlebar of her cycle and raced out through the gate, running up the narrow lane to the junction where it joined the road. Her friend Lakshmi was already there, waiting. With her were two other classmates, both in street clothes. Ayyo! Go home and change, Suprita scolded them — the headmaster has ordered that we should wear our uniforms. Do you want to be sent home and miss the exam?
The two ran back to their homes to change. Suprita and Lakshmi, chattering and giggling, pushed the bicycle up the slope. It was too hot to pedal up the steep incline.
It was 7:40 AM.
Prema smiled to himself as he watched his daughter’s headlong rush through the gate, and went back to fixing the sprinkler that had been causing problems all week. His day had begun much earlier, when he went to drop his wife Teertha at the bus-stand at five in the morning.
Back home, he had looked in on his daughter, who was buried in her books. He warmed milk for her, and stirred in a heaped spoonful of Horlicks. He had never done that before; afterwards, he could never explain the impulse that had made him do it that day.
As his daughter disappeared up the lane, Prema bent over the sprinkler. Times were hard and help was difficult to find — the young men of the village were migrating to the cities, where there were better jobs to be had; the few who were left demanded higher wages. Of late, he was doing much of the work on the estate on his own.
From the distance came a rumbling sound. He paused in his work, his senses on alert. He knew elephants; he knew their moods, and every nuance of their calls. Sure enough, he heard the sound he had learnt to dread: the chilling trumpet blast of an enraged elephant.
Shiva, his son, rushed out of the house and ran towards his bike. “Let’s find out what happened,” he called to his father as he ran.
Prema advised caution. The last thing we need to do, he told his son, is to rush headlong on a bike towards an angry elephant. “Let’s wait and see!”
As they spoke, two girls in uniform approached the gate. Prema recognized them as his daughter’s classmates. They said they thought the sound had come from a nearby hill, and promised to be extra careful on their way to school.
Prema felt relieved –the children were aware there was an elephant in the vicinity. Suprita loved elephants; she knew their moods. She would be careful.
Two weeks earlier, as his daughter’s exams neared, he had taken his family to the temple at Subramanya. Suprita had offered up money and two coconuts, and been blessed by the temple elephant. Prema grinned to himself as he remembered his daughter’s excitement when the elephant laid its trunk on her head.
The trumpeting stopped; the peace and quiet of the estate enveloped them again. Relieved, he decided it was too hot to continue working, and wandered off indoors for a shower.
The telephone rang. Instinctively, he glanced at the clock. It was nearing eight.
Afterwards, no one knew exactly what had happened. Much was hypothesis and conjecture — little fragments painstakingly stitched into the most probable narrative.
The two friends, Suprita and Lakshmi, pushed their bikes along, engrossed in their chatter and oblivious to a big elephant grazing amongst the tall bushes that fringed the sides of the road. The girls walked on and at some point, unconsciously stepped into the elephant’s personal space.
It charged. The panic-stricken girls dropped their bicycles, turned around, and ran for their lives. Suprita, the fitter of the two, was slightly ahead. “Ooodu… Ooodu…”, she exhorted her friend as she ran.
There was a house some forty meters down the road. It was their best refuge. Suprita ran headlong towards it.
Lakshmi slipped and fell. The elephant ignored the fallen girl and charged after Suprita, gaining with every foot.
Suprita reached the house. As she reached out to open the gate, she glanced back over her shoulder to check on her friend. At that same moment two dogs inside the compound, disturbed by the commotion, began to bark. Suprita was startled, momentarily distracted.
Her hesitation lasted just seconds, but it was enough. The elephant caught up with her.
The inhabitants of the house, alerted by the sudden commotion, came out into the yard and looked around, but could see nothing amiss.
Up the road, Lakshmi picked herself up, still in the grip of fright. She could see no sign of the elephant, or of her friend. She hurried towards the junction; the few people she met there had not seen Suprita either.
Lakshmi retraced her steps. The locals joined in the search.
They found Suprita’s body in a trench, just 20 meters away from the house that would have sheltered her. Her schoolbag was still on her back.
Prema froze at the sound of the telephone, prey to premonition. An instant later he heard Shiva’s voice, raised in alarm.
“Something has happened to Suprita!”
Prema rushed out of the bathroom, pulling on his shirt as he ran. He jumped on the bike as Shiva let in the clutch and raced it up the hill. At the top, they found a cluster of people. One of them, a neighbor, knelt by the road, a body cradled in his arms.
“See, child, your father has come…” he was saying as the bike raced up and skidded to a stop. “Open your eyes, baby… look…”
Prema laid his palm on his daughter’s cheek. “She was cold,” he recalled later.
A neighbor telephoned Prema’s brother, who lived in the nearby town of Kodlipet. When Prasanna drove up in his car, Prema climbed into the back seat. The neighor tenderly laid Suprita’s body in his lap.
The ancient Maruti 800, with Prasanna at the wheel and Shiva beside him, wheezed up the hill. In the back seat Prema, too shell-shocked for tears, ran gentle fingers over his daughter’s face, brushing away the dirt.
At Kodilpet hospital, Dr Thomas examined the child and pronounced her dead on arrival.
There were a few bruises, particularly on Suprita’s cheek. Her churidar was slightly torn. Otherwise, there was no visible sign of injury. She looked like she was sleeping, Prema recalled later.
After a more thorough examination, Dr Thomas said a couple of ribs were broken. More crucially, Suprita’s brain had suffered some trauma.
They reckoned that the elephant must have caught up Suprita in its trunk, bag and all, and flung her away in the midst of its enraged rush.
As nearly as Dr Thomas could tell, Suprita had died of fright.
At the wedding hall, the bustle of breakfast was over. Happy guests hung around in clusters, chatting. Off to one side, Theertha and her sister began putting together the thamboolam, the auspicious gift that guests would take home after the wedding. As they worked, they caught up on gossip, sharing stories of the guests they had met.
A relative walked over and beckoned to her sister. Theertha kept working, mechanically putting together one coconut, a few betel leaves, a couple of betel nuts and a stick of turmeric in the decorated bags embellished with the name of the couple.
It was some time before she had the uneasy sense that something was wrong. She looked up from her work and noticed that family members were gathered in little knots, whispering to one another. She caught a few furtive glances in her direction. In that instant, she sensed that something had gone terribly wrong.
A cousin detached himself from one of the groups and walked towards her.
Note: The events above have been recreated through extensive interviews with family members, friends of the dead schoolgirl, and neighbors. It is the first in a narrative series on the elephants of Hassan. This story is part of the Nature without Borders project. Illustrations by Tosha Jagad with the help of Divya Mudappa