I’ve just written about something that actually happened to me. About 5 years ago I went to India for the first time and was driven at night from the airport at Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu to my destination, a yoga retreat near Coonoor.
The journey was a bit of a hair raiser, as the road was full of lorries driving at breakneck pace, with headlights on full beam and horns blaring. Every time we pulled out to pass one there was another bearing down on us in the opposite direction and I spent most of the time with my fingernails dug into the palm of my hands and my eyes tightly shut. Indian lorries are very pretty – they paint the cabs and the trailers in a manner similar to Romany caravans, frequently featuring gods or Christian saints – or a mixture of both.
I was relieved when we left the plain and began to climb steadily into the mountains. The roads had fewer lorries – although they now also had hairpin bends. I decided there was nothing to do but trust my driver: an elderly man who I reckoned if he’d survived thus far would doubtless survive a bit longer. Suddenly, in the middle of the forests he pulled to a sudden halt and I saw we were at a sharp bend in the road and there was a long train of cars, buses and lorries in front of us, all halted and with a few people outside their cars. Everyone was looking up at the steep bank of trees on the angle of the bend and my driver told me there was a young elephant there. I looked up and there it was. An enormous creature. Or at least he seemed enormous in the dark of the night and lit up as he was spookily by car headlights. After a couple of minutes the elephant, who seemed confused, managed to turn around and crashed off into the forest behind him. The driver assured me that we had been very lucky – both to see him and to come to no harm as the animal had been lost – split off from his herd. It all happened so quickly that I didn’t manage to take a photograph. Anyway now something similar has happened to Ginny my heroine.
I also read in the book The Story of Munnar, about an incident in the 1970s when a young man, returning on a motorcycle from his visit to the hospital where his wife had just given birth, encountered an elephant on the road. A bus full of small children had pulled up as the elephant was wandering about the road. The young man abandoned his bike and went to hide in the ditch, but the elephant was too quick for him and picked him up in his trunk and threw him up in the air and down onto the road. He was killed in front of the schoolchildren. Not a happy story.
The elephant in the painting above was from Periyar last year and it was domesticated – used to carry tourists about. I preferred to paint them than ride them.
As well as writing about elephants, I’ve been checking out methods of contraception in the 1930s as I needed to send Ginny off to get fitted up. This of course, being 1936, requires the essential donning of a wedding ring – even at Marie Stopes (that’s her on the left). It reminds me of my own experience in 1973 going to the doctor to get the pill. It was not available to unmarried university students like me, so I had to tell the doctor I needed it for period pains. Before writing me the prescription he sternly quizzed me as to whether I intended using it for contraceptive purposes, as if so he couldn’t prescribe it on the NHS. He repeatedly asked me if I was in a relationship and whether I was having sexual relations. I had to lie through my teeth or risk being sent away empty handed. His parting words to me were “If you do have intercourse you need to come back and tell me and you will have to pay privately for your next prescription.”