The red-and-silver Dragonfly happily flitted across the pool:
“Zim, Zim, Zim,
Over the water I skim.
Now dart in,
Now dart out,
And turn about.”
“Oh, bother,” croaked a hoarse voice as with a plop, a large Bullfrog settled himself on a lily pad. “A little less darting and dashing might be better all round. It’s hot and dusty enough without your hovering above my head.”
Listen to him
And the Dragonfly whizzed past.
“It’s no good talking to that one”, said a voice sharply. The Bullfrog wheeled his big eyes around to the busy bird pecking for worms by the edge of the pool. “Indeed, it’s not. I see you’re as busy as ever.”
“A family to feed. No time for nonsense,” replied the Hoopoe, as she dug the earth with her long curved beak, her pretty black-and-white crest fanning out every time she got a good mouthful.
“Things aren’t what they were,” grumbled the Bullfrog. “My great grandfather used to say that in his day our pool was a large lake with a dense jungle all around. Why, even the Big Ones lived here.”
“Big Ones!” asked the Hoopoe, whose memory went back only two summers, “and where are the Big Ones now?”
“HERE!” A brown, furry object popped out of a burrow sniffed the air cautiously, turned a somersault and fell with a thud on the ground.
“Hoo-po-po,” piped the Hoopoe flying up to the nearest branch.
“Awk!” croaked the Bullfrog diving into the pool.
“Ha! Ha!” laughed the newcomer, a large brown Hare.
“Really!” scolded the Hoopoe, “You are the silliest fellow I’ve ever come across.”
“One of these days,” croaked the Bullfrog surfacing again and settling himself on another lily pad, “one of these days you’ll laugh yourself out of your skin.”
“Serves him right, it will,” said the Hoopoe, fluttering down once more to start her endless digging.
“All in fun. No harm meant,” said the Hare, twitching his whiskers. “But what’s all this about the Big Ones? Did he really see them?”
“The Biggest of the Big Ones,” boasted the Bullfrog, puffing himself up like an inflated balloon. “The last of the Elephants, the Great One herself. My great grandfather saw her,” he went on, sighing deeply and shrinking back to his normal size, “on the last day of her life.”
The Bullfrog like nothing better than talking of “old times” and settling himself comfortably, began his tale:
“Once our jungle belonged to the Big Ones. It was a vast rich forest with Sal trees that stood even higher than the Big Ones themselves. Tall haldu trees cast their shade over the smaller curry pat which in turn overshadowed orange lantana bushes. And there were peepal and reeds growing along the banks of the stream.”
“Stream?” asked the Hoopoe.
“We know it now as Barsati Nullah”, explained the Bullfrog, “but then the nullah was never dry; it was a clear running steam that went all the way down to join the great river in the valley. In those days herds of Elephants roamed our forest; Tigers and Leopards stalked Nilgai and spotted Cheetah. The howl of Wolves could be heard in the ravines and Wild Boar snuffled among the roots of the heavy undergrowth. Of course,” admitted the Bullfrog honestly, “all this was much before my time. Even when I was a tadpole the Big Ones had already gone and the jungle-or what was left of it-was given over to us, the Little Folk. But in Bamboo Grove across Barsati Nullah…”
“Do you mean the Haunted Grove?” asked the Hoopoe, fanning out her crest feathers.
“In Bamboo Grove, across Barsati Nullah,” repeated the Bullfrog who disliked interruptions, “the Big Ones were back, at least that’s what that chatterer, Blue Jay said as he flew screaming through the trees. “The Big Ones are back, are back, are back,” he called-And he was right or almost right. The Bullfrog gave a short laugh. “You know how he is, Blue Jay? Two of the Big Ones had returned to Bamboo Grove. One of them was the old Cow-Elephant who, so my great grandfather told me, had led the largest herd in the forest. The other was her half-grown calf.”
“Where had the rest of the herd gone,” asked the Hare.
“That’s what my story is about, but you impatient young people won’t let me get on with it,” snapped the Bullfrog crossly. “The old Cow-Elephant was a great leader, wise and strong. Yet every year one or more of the herd were caught in the pits, dug by Man, the enemy. At last the other Elephants rebelled. ‘Let’s leave this evil place. Lead us to a home of safety. The enemy is taking away all our young ones. Each time they capture two or three. Soon there’ll be no one left. The others have escaped, let’s go too.’
At first the old Elephant refused to leave. The jungle was her home. ‘No enemy can drive me away,’ she said. But the other Elephants trumpeted and the calves squealed, ‘Take us away, take us to safety!’, And so, reluctantly, the old Cow slowly led the way, up the banks of the nullah, up and away.”
“Where did she take them?” asked the Hoopoe.
The Bullfrog croaked wistfully. “They say there is a place, a wonderful, beautiful Paradise, far away where no enemy can harm the Big Ones, nor us Little Folk. Without our enemy, Man, our homes aren’t burnt or cut down, nor are we hunted for our skins or fur. No terrible monsters blast our rock nor level our hillside. The streams are not dammed nor do lakes become pools. There all is as it always was.”
The Little Folk were silent for a while. The Hoopoe even forgot to dig for worms. Then the Hare asked, “Can the Little Folk ever get to that Paradise?”
The Bullfrog looked around the pool. “This is our world. We are small. We could never get so far. I am certainly too old. How far would a few hops take me?”
“What was good enough for my parents is good enough for me and my young ones,” said the Hoopoe primly. “But why did the old Crow return?”
“I don’t know,” the Bullfrog said thoughtfully. “Perhaps she was too old to change. Elephants have long memories; perhaps she missed her home in the jungle and knowing she hadn’t long to live wanted to end her days there.”
Anyway, back she came, moving like a great grey shadow through the trees. The young calf padded along behind her but he was frisky. He waded into the pool, squirted water over his back, and squealed with delight. Enjoying the sound of his voice, he trumpeted louder and louder.
“Oh dear!” cried the Hoopoe. “What a mistake! She should have stopped him. They must have heard him in the village below.”
“Yes,” croaked the Bullfrog, “they heard and they shouted, ‘The Big Ones are back! Let’s catch them!’ The next day they came with sticks and spears, gongs and drums, ropes and chains. They found the Elephants near the nullah. ‘Look, a young one. We can sell him to the zoo.’
“Take him to the circus!”
“Give him to the temple priest!”
“Catch him first, you rascals,” shouted their leader, who carried a cruel fire-stick. Bang! Bang! went the fire-stick.
The calf was frightened and ran here and there. His mother rushed to save him, scattering the yelling Men left and right, but they drove her off with their spears and the fire-stick. The calf didn’t know the jungle. He turned towards the nullah, and fell
into an old pit. In a flash they were upon him, and tying him with ropes and chains, hauled him out and dragged him away. Bang! Bang! went the fire-stick as the old Cow Elephant tried to rescue her calf. The bullets stopped her in her tracks at the edge of the pit and she fell to her death. The Bullfrog was quiet for a long time, then croaked softly, “She was the last of the Big Ones in our forest.”
All was quiet. It was as though even the woods paid tribute to the memory of the Big One who had lived there.
“Where is the Haunted Grove?” asked the hare breaking the silence. “You know the one Hoopoe spoke of.”
“Oh that? That’s a long story. I’ll tell it to you some other day,” and the Bullfrog dived into the pool, leaving a trail of bubbles to float across the water.
From The Pool in the Jungle; By Uma Anand; Illustrations by Amena Jayal; Published by National Book Trust, India