Four Hours of Madness - Life at the Margins

8 November, 2013.

I think the lessons of today will take some time to process. Perhaps it is the yin and the yang of life. You can't enjoy the yin, without also experiencing the yang.

The early hours of this morning yielded one of the greatest experiences of my life. A dawn elephant ride through the elephant grass. It was wonderful. Thick fog. No wind. Watching the sun rise from the back of an elephant. Rhinos. Water buffalo. Deer. Elephants. All capped off with a white rainbow: an incredibly rare meteorological phenomenon. Awesome.

A white rainbow as seen from the back of my elephant.  Incredibly rare.  Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

A white rainbow as seen from the back of my elephant.  Incredibly rare.  Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

My elephant was a "tusker". A male with the most beautiful long tusks. How anyone could contemplate killing such a magnificent animal for two bits of ivory was beyond me, but then, I don't live in the villages and struggle to work out how I'm going to eat from day to day. Not that that's an excuse. Plenty of villagers go hungry in deference to life as a poacher.

41 rhino killed last year in the park and 25 killed this year. That's not to mention the five park guards that have been killed by rhinos, buffalo and tigers this year who work to defeat the poachers. The latest one was two days ago. A park guard was charged from behind by a rhino as three of them patrolled the park.

There was just me and a park guard on the back (on our elephant anyway). The park guard is there in case something goes up the spout. But I'm not sure how useful he would have been. At one stage when he went to raise the rifle due to some rustling in the elephant grass, he mucked around trying to get it loaded and cocked. Not that great if it's a tiger launching at you or a rhino cracking the #$%^s with the world. Not that we felt concerned.

Even the ending of the ride was wonderful. I went to have my photo taken with the elephant I'd been riding when a baby elephant came flying out from behind and false charged me. I kept my ground and she pulled up less than a metre in front of me. I let the elephant smell my hand before I stood with him to have my photo taken. On each occasion that the person raised the camera to take our photo, the elephant raised its trunk for the camera. Awesome that was. Made me laugh.

A Baby Elephant Posing for the Camera, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

A Baby Elephant Posing for the Camera, Kaziranga National Park, Assam, India, 2013.

So that was the yin. What a wonderful morning.

If the yin was wonderful, then the yang was equally awful. Horrible. Something no-one should experience. Least of all, the people in the inner circle: those brought together by proximity or common bloodlines.

Down the highway toward we motored. Us variously resting or checking up on news on our phones. Passing the drive. As we had all trip.

At around 1000, I felt a sudden braking from my driver. Nothing to trigger awareness. No different to the million or so times that we had braked or swerved to miss buffalo, people, cattle, goats, dogs, chickens at other times during the trip. But for some reason, this time, the eyes stayed raised.

In the middle of the road was a man holding a child by the arms as the kid swung around in the air. Was he trying to stop the child throwing himself in front of the vehicle? Around him were perhaps twenty other people. It was different. I thought the kid was trying to suicide. My mind was trying to process the scene. Our vehicle edged slowly forward.

Ten or fifteen metres closer to our vehicle our eyes were drawn to a rag doll lying in the middle of the road: it's clothes flapping in the breeze. Still, not that unusual. Back to the flailing kid. What was going on.

But again, the eyes moved back to the doll in the middle of the road. Tiny. Like a dirty version of the ones we played with in the dust when we were kids growing up.

Only it wasn't a doll. It was the lifeless body of a young child aged not more than four or five. I felt sick to the core. A slab of meat hanging in a butcher's shop.

Our driver kept moving. It was horrible. Perhaps the worst thing I have witnessed in my life. We were sick to the stomach. Numb. My driver bashed his head three times with the palm of his hand. I didn't look around to see the look on Anurag's face. Our vehicle was punctuated with an awful silence.

The vehicle rolled slowly forward. There would be no stopping. There was nothing we could contribute, other than to make a tragic situation horribly worse. It will stay with me forever. I feel sick every time I process the scene in my mind. I can't even process the scene.

We passed the scene. The vehicle slowly accelerated. How should I feel? How should I think? I'm not even a victim here. Is there a right way to react?

In the one morning, one of the best experiences of my life, book-ended only hours later by one of the worst.

When things like this take place - like many many others will attest - you question the point of life. And none of the three of us in the vehicle were even victims.

The child that's gone. The people left behind. The point of life. The fragility of life. All the things you see. All the things you learn. What does any of it count for in the end, when the abruptness and grotesqueness of life and death is brought home as brutally as it was this morning.

The wonder of the elephant raising its trunk set against the awfulness of this. All in one four hours of morning.

But this is life. Here. Everywhere. It's the depth of the valleys, the grotesqueness of the troughs, that make the views from the peak so rich. You can't have one without the other. This is life. And death. As it is. Uncensored.

Is life the goal and death the punishment, or is death the goal and life the punishment. Did the kid really lose this morning, or did he really win. Why do the people left behind - anyone - need to learn these lessons.

As we pushed forward I found myself alternating between laughing with the recollections of the elephant and then wanting to shed a tear for the kid, and his family, that was here no longer. Laughing about life's random joys, and confusion and wanting to shed a tear for its never-ending suffering.

Later on, I talked with my guide and asked him whether he had reflected throughout the day on what we had seen this morning. I'd gained the feeling that it was like water off a duck's back in some ways. My sense had proven correct. The third world has a different attitude toward life, but maybe they have got it right. Who is to know.

Yesterday, many many lives changed forever as a result of one solitary split second of madness. Somewhere in all of this there will be lessons. Part of the accumulation of experiences that give life its unique character. These periods of suffering that counterbalance the joys of living life.

Why this has to be life is beyond me. There are no reasons. It just "is".

But life is here for living, and that means without blinkers. Even if it hurts like all hell breaking loose.

Counterbalanced against the joys of the elephant, of course....