Those who had been travelling regularly between Dimapur and Jorhat on National Highway 39 in the nineties would have certainly encountered the two huge elephants which used to
stand on the road and collect tax. Tax , not in the form of money or grain, but in the form of special bananas. These two elephants – a male and a female, mammoth in size, used to live in the forest area sprawling on both sides of the NH-39. Nobody knows how they came into the habit of collecting bananas from the commuters of four wheelers. While crossing the National Highway from one side of the forest to the other, they used to stand on the road, stop the four wheelers and demand a bunch of bananas from the occupants of the vehicles. Unless the tax was paid by way of a bunch of banana, the pachyderms would not allow the vehicles to move forward. Once the banana was handed over, the male elephant would get out of the middle of the road and allow the concerned vehicle to move forward. The female used to ensure that no other vehicle moved forward without paying the due. "These would have been strict officers of the exercise department in their previous birth’, people used to exclaim about these elephants. But they were quiet harmless and there had been no case where these tax collectors had injured a
Col M Veluswami
Though I was posted at Dimapur right from June 1991, I came face to face of these pachyderms only in December 1992. Till such time, though I had heard about these animals, I discounted the stories about these animals as fertile imagination of the people. I had taken up a case for creation of a detachment of the Assam Rifle Postal Unit at Jorhat. The proposal had been accepted by the Director General, Assam Rifles, who instructed me to visit the Range Headquarters at Jorhat and hold discussions with the Deputy Inspector General, Assam Rifles for establishing the Detachment Postal unit. Lt Col (then Capt) M Raghavan, Officer Commanding, Border Road Postal Unit was also to visit his Field Post Office at Mariani and we decided to go by one Jonga in order to save on the Fuel. In those days, there was stringent economy measures in the use of Fuel by Army vehicles and units used to be allotted monthly quota of Fuel.Since the schools were closed for Christmas holidays, we took our families also along with us.
When Raghavan asked me to stop the vehicle nearby a wayside fruit shop to purchase bananas, I suggested that we could purchase good quality apples at Jorhat. "The Bananas are not for us but for the elephants, without whose permission we cannot move ahead" he said and informed me of the animals. When we traveled a few more kilometres, we could see a number of vehicles standing on the roadside. "Yes, Sir. The tax men are on duty", said Raghavan and asked the driver to stop the vehicle when we reached the spot. The tusker came majestically (but it looked menacingly to us) towards our vehicle. Raghavan handed over the bunch of bananas to the driver so that he could further deliver it to the elephant. The driver was already terrified at the sight of the huge elephant coming nearer to the vehicle and, immediately, he transferred the bananas to me, as if I was a trained mahout who could handle any elephant. Seeing that the driver had handed over the bananas to me, the elephant moved to the left side of the Jonga. The elephant was so huge that the Jonga looked like a toy in front of it. I was also out of my nerves but tried to put on a brave front. In the meanwhile, Vinita, my four year old daughter, who was sitting on my lap, snatched the bunch of bananas from me and handed over it to the elephant, which extended his trunk into the Jonga. Having received the tax, the tusker moved aside and waved his trunk, signalling that we could move ahead. I instructed the driver to start the vehicle and speed away from the scene. When we were out of the danger zone, I heaved a sigh of relief. So were the other occupants of the vehicle, except, of course, Vinita, who seemed to be jubilant at having handled the situation successfully. "Vinita, were you not afraid of the elephant, which was taller than the Ashok Leyland Stallion vehicle standing in front of our Jonga? The elephant could have toppled our Jonga and crushed it, with all of us inside, with its huge legs", I asked her. "Afraid of the elephant, but why? The elephant is none but Lord Ganesha who is our saviour. Why should he harm us?", she countered me and recounted the scenes from an old Hindi movie which we watched in the Doordarshan channel the previous night.
In the movie, the crooked brother of the noble king usurps power and puts the king and the queen in jail. However, the loyal minister escapes with the five year old crown prince, through a tunnel. The minister gathers public support and prepares to take on the tyrant and save the King and the Queen. The wicked ruler announces that unless the minister surrenders and hands over the prince, he would execute the King and the Queen. The five year old prince stands in front of the statue of Lord Ganesha, located under a banyan tree, and prays unto the Vighneshwar to save his father and mother (of course by singing a touching song , a must in Indian movies). Touched by the plight of the young boy, Ganesha takes the shape of a huge elephant, marches towards the fort and breaks open the so-far impregnable doors. The public follows the elephant and fights with the troops of the tyrant. Ultimately, the wicked ruler is slain and the King and the Queen are saved. Before others could realize, the elephant blesses the prince and vanishes, only to become the statue of Ganesha under the banyan tree.
When Vinita finished the story, I, for once, realized that the cinema also served some purpose (of instilling faith and confidence in children). After a few months of this incident, I had to go to Arunachal Pradesh for inspection of FPOs. As we had to travel a long distance, we started very early in the morning, so that we could reach Jairampur before the sun set. Though I remembered that we should buy bananas for the elephants, the fruit shops were not yet open in the early hours. We also did not expect the elephants to be on the road before sun rise. However, when we reached the area of their domain, we were dump founded to see the elephants standing on the road. The tusker came towards the Jonga. This time I was not as terrified as I was at the time of the previous encounter. For, I knew that the elephants would not harm us if we did not offer them their due, but would only make us wait till they got their quota. Even as the elephant came very near to the Jonga, I remembered the words of Vinita. I closed my eyes and prayed, “Ganesha, you are our lord and friend. You are supposed to be our saviour. Only with the confidence that you are there to protect us that we travel in this terrorist-infested area without fear. If you stop our way and delay us, how can we reach our destination in time? I know that we have failed to bring you the offerings. But, that was not intentional". When I opened my eyes, I found to my utter (pleasant) surprise that the elephant had moved out of the road and was signalling to us to go ahead.
For the first time I agreed to the faith of Vinita that the elephant on the road was none but Lord Ganesha. I now call him "Ganesha, my friend".