The Ladies Man

Jai Patel aka JP was known for his ability to wriggle out of tight situations. He was sort of a legend at the TV production house where I joined after passing out from college. Though his official designation was that of a production manager, his job profile was varied because of one simple reason – JP was a silver-tongued charmer who always managed to make people see things from his point of view. From befriending a crusty old shop owner to open his house for the crew in the wee hours of the morning to making an absolute stranger pay for his meal at a fancy restaurant, JP’s powers of persuasion had few equals.

JP was also a much envied ladies man. His sharp wit could breach the sternest of defences. JP’s various amorous escapades were oft-repeated tales in the office. And during long journeys through the hinterland of India. It was during one such journey that I heard the most popular one.

One of JP’s lovers was Savita, who incidentally happened to be the wife of his landlord, Vilas Shanbag, Secretary, Laxmi Niwas Building Society, Andheri (East). On the first Sunday of every month, the residents gathered for the monthly meeting to discuss various issues. This was JP’s opportunity for a quick tête-à-tête of the physical kind. Living in the flat adjacent to his landlord’s had certain advantages after all. The moment he saw Vilas start to address the society members, he would quickly run out of his flat and let himself in using the key Savita had given him. Knowing Vila’s penchant for long-winded speeches and robust arguments with various committee members, JP knew he had at least an hour or two at his disposal. Savita would always conveniently develop a headache before the meeting and would stay at home. JP as a tenant wasn’t required to attend. Everybody else in the building would be at the meeting. It was a situation that was tailor-made for the lust-struck lovers.

On one such Sunday, as luck would have it, just a few minutes into the meeting Vilas felt a certain rumbling in his stomach. The spicy prawn curry he had for lunch was making its presence felt in no uncertain terms. He tried to ignore it, but it was quite insistent. He sighed in annoyance. He made some apologetic noises and asked the committee members to discuss some issues while he made a quick trip to his flat. Vilas almost ran up the two floors to his flat. He pressed the doorbell impatiently, swearing at the delay. It was when Vilas started pounding at the door that JP realised that the situation could get more than a bit sticky.

Seeing the panic-stricken expression on Savita’s face, JP started shouting ‘Fire! Fire!’ Savita looked at JP with a bewildered expression. JP rushed into the kitchen, grabbed a matchbox and lit some newspapers lying around. Thick acrid smoke filled up the room. Savita also started shouting at the top of her voice. Vilas grasped what was happening and quickly raised an alarm. The congregation downstairs rushed up the stairs with nary a plan. They were just about to break open the door, when it opened and JP and Savita stumbled out coughing and spluttering. With the straightest of faces, JP faced the crowd, kept a hand on Vila’s shoulder, suppressed a cough and told him: ‘Don’t worry, your wife is safe...and so is your house.’ The crowd as most crowds are wont to do chucked reason out the nearest window and started cheering.
Vilas, overcome with emotion, embraced JP warmly. The crowd again cheered lustily.

All of us burst out laughing at the tale. ‘And on top of everything, JP didn’t have to pay rent till he moved out’ – Alex, the camera assistant who hero-worshipped JP, couldn’t resist adding. Alex, JP and I, the assistant director were returning from a shoot in a Kani tribal village. The location was deep inside the Agast-Hymalai hills of the Western Ghats, a thickly forested mountain range along south-western India, in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. The Kani tribals are famed for their knowledge of medicinal herbs. The rest of the crew had left a bit early while we stayed behind to shoot some extra footage of the village.

Madhu, the forest guard assigned to us was a bit jittery. And quite understandably so. He was driving a jeep on a route that’s frequented by a herd of wild elephants. That too, with a malfunctioning wireless set. Apparently, after sunset these wild elephants just plonk themselves on the dirt track and thereby declare the road closed to all and sundry. There have been a couple of instances when some foolhardy souls had dared to challenge the herd by honking incessantly to make them move. They barely managed to escape by the skin of their teeth.

We tried to lighten Madhu’s mood. JP told him – ‘Don’t worry, if elephants block the road, we’ll just turn back and head back to the village.’ Madhu countered this by saying – ‘On this track, if an elephant charges at us, you can be sure we won’t reach very far.’

That piece of information cut short the non-stop banter. Madhu glanced at us. I almost could see a pleased expression on his face. Something on the lines of - ‘now you know what I was worried about.’ The shadows started lengthening as we bounced along the track.

We entered a thickly wooded stretch of forest. Lofty trees blocked the last dying rays of the sun with consummate ease. Madhu switched on the headlights and started muttering oaths that referred to immediate family members. The jeep came to a grinding halt. It was not difficult to miss the hulking spectre standing still in the middle of the road. Only the trunk was in the air and swiveled from side to side. Madhu whispered – ‘It’s a female. Usually they are not very aggressive. But even though she has detected our presence, she’s standing still. And that’s not a good sign.’ All of us remained quiet and just stared ahead. If Madhu says it’s not a good sign, we had no reason to disagree.

Madhu gently engaged the reverse gear. As the jeep lurched back, the elephant moved forward threateningly. Madhu stopped the jeep. The elephant also stopped. It was plainly evident that we won’t get far if she decided to charge us.

Madhu suddenly stiffened and started muttering oaths again. And this time his oaths included an entire family tree. We saw him staring fixedly at the rearview mirror. A massive tusker was standing quietly just a few paces behind the jeep. ‘That’s a full-grown male. And they can be really aggressive.’ We could have done without the additional information.

Terrified whispers flew thick and fast. From the obvious ‘Should we try blasting the horn’ to the ill-advised ‘Let’s scare the elephant by driving straight into it.’ Alex even volunteered the priceless information that a hive of bees can scare away elephants. He shut up when all of us just glared at him. JP was quiet the entire time. Finally he spoke. ‘Let me talk to her. I’ll convince her.’ All of us looked at JP. I was a bit worried. It’s not enough that we were stuck between two elephants in the middle of nowhere; we now have to contend with a man who wanted to engage in a dialogue with a wild elephant. Well, not strictly a dialogue. A monologue, maybe. But you get the drift.

We tried to dissuade JP. Madhu even quoted some statistics about how it’s not possible to outrun an elephant. JP just muttered a prayer and gingerly stepped out of the jeep.

The elephant spread its ears and came forward a few paces with its trunk curled. Madhu whispered to JP – Careful…it’s getting ready to charge. A bit unnecessary, I thought. One cannot be more careful while facing a wild elephant in the wild.

With folded hands, JP started talking. Earnestly. Fervently. It’s been many years but I still remember most of the monologue.

‘Dear Lord Ganesha, first of all, we’d like to apologize for disturbing you. You see we had to stay a little late at the adivasi village to shoot the arogyapacha plant. You know, it’s being tested at the Tropical Botanical Research Laboratory at Trivandrum as a possible cure for cancer. And guess what, for the first time in India, this tribe is being financially rewarded for their knowledge of medicinal plants. It’s a good thing, isn’t it? However I feel sometimes financial rewards can also be detrimental for these tribes who lead a very simple existence. But at the same time, they should be rewarded for their indigenous knowledge. We are doing this story so that the entire world knows about them. And we need to reach the town tonight because we are catching the Trivandrum Express to Bombay tomorrow morning at 7. We have lots of equipment with us and if we miss the train, it’ll be really difficult for us to get onto another train with all this equipment. So, please let us go and we promise we’ll never come back on this route so late.’

JP finished speaking. The elephant moved a few paces forward till it stood just in front of JP dwarfing him. For a few tense moments, everything was quiet. Even the constant chirping of the crickets ceased. It was as if the entire forest was holding its breath to see what would happen next.

The elephant raised its trunk, trumpeted loudly and melted into the surrounding thick bush.

We looked behind. And just saw an empty road.

I have narrated this incident many times. On a flight. In a train. At parties. And once even when my friend’s wife was in labour.(Well, he was tense. I had to distract him with something.) The reactions usually ranged from incredulous snorts to derisive laughter. Many thought we had some ounces of a particular nine-leaf plant before we started out on our drive. But there were a few who believed something like this actually happened. That’s because they knew JP. The fact that he was truly a silver-tongued charmer.

And as Alex astutely observed, ‘Let’s not forget the fact that the elephant was a female.’