The Making of an Elephant Wallah
The Shoulders of a Giant
Deep in the jungle-clad hills of northwest Burma, close to the border of the Indian state of Manipur, Billy Williams, delirious with fever, began to regain consciousness. Half dreaming, he scrambled to piece together what was happening. His lanky body felt cockeyed and unresponsive. Even opening his eyes seemed impossible. As hallucination gave way to reality, he remembered his predicament: He was stranded in an inaccessible forest, on the wrong side of the raging Yu River, during the dangerous, unrelenting monsoon rains of 1927, and he had never been sicker.
His spiking fever was accompanied by chills. The lymph nodes at his groin were swollen to the size of fists, and some of the small pustules lining his feet and legs had broken open. For days he had been unable to eat and could barely drink. That morning he could not even stand.
As the lashing rains tore at his clothes, he suddenly felt something that he couldn’t make sense of: His cot was lurching, as if it was trying to buck him off. Forcing his eyes open, Williams realized he was not on the wrong side of the river, but smack in the middle of it, riding an elephant through the churning avalanche of water. Around him, deadly two-ton tree trunks shot down the rapids like missiles, crashing into one another with a sound like thunder.
Blinking against the pouring rain, he seized the rail of the large bamboo cargo basket, or “kah,” he lay in as it rocked him back and forth, perilously close to the frothing current. The elephant was pitched at a steep angle, leaning his flank into the wall of water, shouldering all his weight against the chocolate-colored torrent in an effort to keep his footing. Yet Williams felt oddly lucky. That was because of the elephant he rode. There was no way Williams could mistake the animal’s identity—even in his feverish state, slumped high up in a basket. The broad expanse of the gray back, the delicate pink freckling bordering the ears, and the rakish slant of the gleaming white tusks, their tips just visible from this viewpoint—this was the only elephant who could brave the crossing: the strongest and most stouthearted creature in the forest, the best friend Williams ever had. Bandoola.
Williams, who managed several teak logging camps, would eventually know a thousand elephants by name during his years with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Of all of them, Bandoola was dearest to him, owing to his intelligence, virtue, and strength. Williams had confidence that even without a rider’s guidance, “the great elephant knew what he was doing,” using his own instincts and judgment for this passage.
Not that a human voice could be heard over the pounding water, but Williams probably mustered the breath to at least whisper encouragement. He had made a habit of speaking to the working elephants in the language they were trained in—Burmese. More than any other animal, he believed, they craved conversation. Their vocabularies, the number of words they understood, were astonishing, but to Williams, impressive as that was, there was something that counted more. These creatures could read underlying emotion, understand intent, perceive what was really being expressed. Now, verbalized or not, Williams would make plain to Bandoola that he was grateful and believed in him.
The bull already knew how ill Williams was. Earlier that day, the mahouts, or “uzis” as they were called here, who worked for Williams had cinched a cargo basket to Bandoola’s back. It was an unusual event for the tusker, who was a logging elephant, not one of the small pack elephants called “travelers.” Nonetheless, he had stood patiently, head held high, ears flat against his neck, as the rain pelted his back and ran off his wrinkled hide in runnels. Soaking wet, his skin had inked into a deep purple. Elephants in Burma knew how to cope with monsoon. If he tilted his head forward, his large, bony brow ridge would shield his eyes from rain, and he could keep water from spilling into his nostrils by hanging his trunk down straight, curling it under at the very end. When a limp Williams was carried out of his tent, Bandoola’s dark eyes, beneath their heavy, wrinkled lids and long lashes, tracked the movement, lending him the meditative look particular to elephants. Bandoola not only recognized Williams, he knew something was wrong. This person was different from the energetic, confident man who when visiting camp invariably produced a sugary tamarind ball treat for Bandoola, spoke to him, scrubbed his sandpaper skin exactly where it needed scratching, ran his hands along his hide, swabbed ointment on abrasions, and then slapped his flank good-bye. He had nursed Bandoola back to health for a whole year after a fight with another tusker, spending every day cleaning the wounds and applying antiseptic and fly repellent. Now Williams, the elephant saw, was as broken as Bandoola had been then.
The order “Hmit!” was given, and Bandoola sank down, back legs buckling first into the sludge, then the front. Several Burmese men, their colorful sarong-like longyis sodden with rain, struggled with slipping hands and feet to hoist the senseless Williams up to the basket atop Bandoola’s shoulders. Two of them, Williams’s closest servant, Aung Net, and another camp worker, would ride with him.
As the body was passed upward, Bandoola swiveled his trunk, pressing his nostrils to Williams, and breathing in deeply. Even through Williams’s clothing Bandoola was picking up organic clues, especially from the armpits and between the legs. Like all elephants, he was a master chemist, analyzing much of the world through his sensitive nose. Bandoola could ascertain innumerable facts about any animal: last meal eaten, fitness, anxiety level, or hormonal state. Elephants read one another—and people—this way. Bandoola’s prodigious brain, highly evolved to negotiate a complex social world, kept a dossier of the men around him, especially Williams, whom he had known for seven years. Scent was a critical part of that inventory. Williams’s transformation into a seasoned forest man was telegraphed to Bandoola in large part by his body odor. Billy Williams smelled different as a veteran than he had as a recruit. Over time, his diet and smoking habits changed, the ratio of fat to muscle shifted, and his confidence around elephants grew, meaning certain hormones that often signaled fear were reduced. The city washed out of the man, and the jungle seeped in. When Williams had an opportunity for sex, Bandoola could smell that, too.
What Bandoola inhaled this day was misery. With just a few whiffs of Williams’s body, the tusker processed the rank breath, the change in hygiene, and the yeasty scent of an infection. Elephants routinely help other ailing elephants, lifting them when they cannot stand, feeding them when they are unable to forage. Are they capable of doing the same for people? Williams couldn’t prove Bandoola was aware of his dire condition, but it damn sure felt that way to him during his flashes of consciousness.
Like all the European teak men, Williams was a nomad of the forest. He knew illness and accident went with the job, that bouts of malaria were as frequent as colds were back home. Hundreds of miles—roadless, muddy, rain-drenched, wooded, and mountainous—from any medical help, he and his colleagues toughed out such episodes. Even the most robust among them could wither and die within days of something seemingly innocuous: a headache, a cut, a chill. “No one who works in the jungle,” Williams once wrote, “calculates on a ripe old age as a near-certainty.” The tropical forest was capricious in its blessings and curses. Indigenous people made sense of it with a pantheon of jungle sprites that they called “nats”: some cruel, sneaky, and slick, others kind and generous. The nats personified the soul of the forest.
Staying alive—especially for outsiders like Williams—took every trick a man could muster. The company’s numbers told the story: Williams had been one of forty-one young recruits hired for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in 1920. Now, seven years later, only sixteen of them were still on the job. The others were either dead, dismissed, or disillusioned. Though he knew the attrition would continue, he hoped he wouldn’t be the next to go. With Bandoola, at least he had a chance.
First, they had laboriously waded through nearly fifty miles of thick sludge. “Each stage of that agonising trek was about ten miles,” Williams wrote. “At every step Bandoola sank two or three feet deep into the mud. Each foot he lifted made a loud sucking noise and even his gigantic powers were sorely taxed.”
Then came the river. Progress was slow. The churning water was level with Bandoola’s chest, and the animal had to pause before each stride, feeling the boulder-strewn riverbed with his feet for his next purchase. Often, he would freeze in place for what seemed like “an eternity of time in the middle of the angry waters,” as the current sloshed over his back, soaking Williams and the two men. Then Bandoola would find a foothold and lunge forward again. “His massive head and tusks ploughed a passage through the water like the nose of a submarine,” Williams wrote years later in one of the several memoirs he would produce. “Riding on his powerful back brought home my own fragility.”
Precarious as his situation was, Williams could not keep his eyes open. The fever pulled him back into oblivion, as, step-by-step, Bandoola made his way. By the time they reached the far shore, Williams was unconscious. Aung Net and his helper pulled him from the basket and dragged him to a hut. There were still maybe a hundred miles to go between them and a station with a doctor. Once he was awake, Williams would have to make a tough decision: whether to travel overland through impenetrable virgin forest, or by water, shooting down the dangerous rapids. Either way, he needed to reach the more populated banks of the mighty Chindwin, the river where, it seemed an eternity before, Williams had first met Bandoola and his life among elephants had begun.
Into the Jungle
On a crisp November day in 1920, James Howard Williams, called “Billy” by friends and “Jim” by his family, saw the Chindwin River for the first time. The waterway originated far to the north near the Himalayas, in the wild Hukawng Valley, and stretched for 750 miles, eventually spilling out into the even greater Irrawaddy River near Mandalay, Burma. The Chindwin, the history books and magazines promised, ran through savage country where villagers still practiced head-hunting, performed human sacrifices to appease the spirits of rice production, and could transform themselves into ghost cats. Famous explorers wrote of remote and little-known corners of the area that harbored barbaric tribes. It was enough to scare any of the new British recruits routinely hired by the logging companies. But Billy was different. Striking a match to one of his Players cigarettes and looking out over the water and the limitless jungle beyond, he was amused by such flights of imagination. A forest teeming with monsters? He knew better and had seen worse.
Tall, clean-shaven, and built like a loping hound, Williams may have looked young in his freshly pressed khakis, but he had been through the kind of hell that quickly burns away a man’s innocence. Months earlier, on January 26, 1920, the British Army had demobilized him with the rank of captain. During four years of brutal, bitter fighting in the Great War as part of Devonshire Regiment, or the “Bloody Eleventh,” Billy had led other men into battle and served in several battlefronts in a wide sweep across North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Afghanistan. In the deserts of Egypt, he was part of the Camel Corps, facing the jihad raised by the Senussi, a group of Muslim guerilla fighters. Along the Tigris, he had been a bombing officer engaged in ghastly battles with the Ottoman Army as part of the Mesopotamia (Iraq) Campaign, in which close to one hundred thousand soldiers from the British and British Indian Armies died. Finally, in 1919, he endured his last two assignments. The first brought him into the turmoil of Lahore, India, where martial law was declared to quell rioting against the British. And later that year he fought hand to hand against fierce, well-armed tribesmen in Waziristan, a remote mountainous outpost on the border with Afghanistan.
He knew he was lucky to be alive. Nearly a million British soldiers had died in the Great War, and those who survived were forever changed. Some obviously so—faces half blown off, hands trembling from shell shock, trouser legs folded neatly and tacked up where a leg should be. Others carried the trauma inside.
Billy Williams would never write or speak about his experiences in the war, for he had a lifelong tendency to lock away his deepest emotions, especially the painful ones. The less he talked about something, the closer it was to his heart. It wasn’t in his nature to dwell on the darkness of combat. He wouldn’t mention what ailed him, only what might cure him. When he came home, he said that the vision of Burma’s lonely jungles, filled with wild animals, called to him. It was no surprise to his family. As social as he so often appeared, they knew that solitude was his true bent. He could do without the parties and pranks he was known for in school; in fact, he truly thrived in the kind of isolated wilderness that would turn other men mad.
His opportunity to do just that came from a chance meeting shortly before being discharged. An army buddy he was drinking with had a connection to a teak logging company and suggested an adventure in Burma. Williams fell in love with the idea even before locating the country on a map. Clinching it was the mention of elephants. “My way has been from a very early age the companionship of animals,” he once wrote.
His fondness extended to most creatures, but it was individual animals who affected him most deeply. He recognized their distinct personalities even when few others did. First, there was Prince, his childhood donkey, with whom he would wander the moors, hitching him up to a jingle, or carriage. “I developed a longing for big open spaces,” Williams wrote, “and used to talk it over with old Prince who seemed to understand.” The donkey, he said, “was the first animal with which I enjoyed a joke.” When he left Prince to go off to boarding school, he was bereft, feeling that the separation created a “blank in life.”
In wartime, he “really fell in love” with his camel named Frying Pan. And of more than one dog, he would simply say, “We loved each other dearly.” When circumstances such as school or war uprooted him, the worst part was saying good-bye to a pet. It created an emotional tear he believed could be mended only by time and the company of another animal. But an elephant? Was he really up to that kind of challenge?