The biggest offenders, too dangerous to be dealt with by dogs or children, were elephants. Every year, when Madhubangaon’s corn or rice lured the pachyderms, the men of the village would climb into tongs, tree houses or towers, and spend the nights sleeping in the fields. If an elephant (inevitably male) interrupted the night, the men would awake and begin hollering, “Hoy, the haathi has come! Haathi ayya ray! The elephant has come from this side! Hey, Adhikaari Naani – wake up!” until all the other men and often the rest of the village was up and shouting at the intruder.

Akshu would join the women and children on the village’s paths and look out at the elephant in the crop fields, illuminated by moonlight or torch or battery-powered flashlight, alternatingly making noises at the elephant to scare it away and speaking admiringly of the marauder. “Aaaaiiii! Oooooh! Look at how big the haathi is!” the children would say. “Such a big haathi!”

For the children of Madhubangaon, the fact that elephants were taking a share of their food was not something that immediately tarnished the crop-raiders in their minds.

Elephants were still a source of real wonder in the village. On rare occasions, doll haathis – herds of female elephants and their young – would even emerge near the village during the day, and the villagers would all look on in awe as the calves played with their siblings, aunts, and mothers.

Akshu loved to watch the elephants’ ears flap as they grazed, to see their giant tongues as they chewed. The village adults tolerated the elephants, often resigned to the fact that god, in the form of an elephant, would take some fraction of their crops as patronage. The villagers with farms on the outskirts of the village would do a puja over a section of their fields, offering it to lord Ganesh in a ceremony that, as Akshu understood, basically attempted to negotiate with the deity. “Ganesh bhagwan, don’t damage our crops, OK? This is your share, so eat this.”

As Akshu began to connect the dots between his family’s poverty and their inability to accumulate resources, including food, his feelings toward male elephants began to shift.

Akshu’s family could only afford to buy him one set of clothes a year; to preserve it, Satyavati would often have Akshu run around wrapped in just a gamcha.

The Atris couldn’t afford soap, so they used dried rita and pangra fruit when they bathed, boiled ashes to clean their clothes, and mud after having relieved themselves. As there were no power lines in the village, the Atris didn’t have electricity, and they couldn’t imagine owning a phone.

Satyavati and Motikar suffered many familiar challenges of the poverty trap – for instance, they did not own a plow, and they did not have savings to pay for a trip to the doctor when they or their children got seriously ill – so they were repeatedly forced to take out loans to make ends meet.

The moneylenders charged interest in the form of rice – about 200 kilograms per year for a Rs 1,000 loan – meaning that most of the rice the Atris successfully defended from the elephants would go to their bankers, leaving the Atris mostly corn to eat. Some families, like that of Om and Narad Ojha, didn’t lose nearly as many crops from their lands, which were closer to the centre of the village, buffered from attacks from the jungle by farms like those of the Atris.

Akshu protested when the moneylenders took his family’s rice, but he also began to associate his family’s problems with the elephants that raided their fields.

Once, Akshu saw Narad’s mother giving leftover rice to the dogs that lived on their property. “Even the dogs in Narad’s house get real rice,” Akshu complained. “But we only get cornmeal.” Satyavati – who was probably both amused and a little saddened by this reality – mentioned her son’s comment jokingly–seriously to Narad’s mother.

In response, the latter called Akshu into her home later that week. “Come,” she said, offering Akshu a plate full of rice, dal, and vegetables. “Eat as much rice as you want! All the rice you want!” Akshu gorged himself with rice, but it was a one-day offer. From the next day, he was back to corn – and, now, having just had a full meal of rice, he hated the corn more than ever. Sometimes, he idly wished that all male elephants would die.

If Akshu was beginning to resent the animals that raided their crops, his brother was downright indignant that they had to deal with the elephants at all.

“Why am I having to eat corn? Why did you leave Madharihat?” Chander demanded of his father. “You had such a nice, salaried position there. Why did you bring us to this damned jungle to live amongst the elephants? If we had stayed in Madharihat, by now we would have become rich! Instead, we are stuck here.”

His anger overflowed onto his sisters. Once, dissatisfied by the quality of the vegetables they had cooked, he scolded them relentlessly. “What can we do?” the girls asked. “We just cook the vegetables we are given. If you bring us good vegetables, we will cook them.” Unhappy to get such lip from his little sisters, Chander continued to yell at them. Akshu spoke back to him that day for the first time. “They’re right!” Akshu observed. “They didn’t buy the vegetables, they just had to cook what they were given!”

“Oh, so you’re on their side too now, are you?” fumed Chander. He grabbed a piece of wood and made toward his siblings as though to beat them, and they all fled from the kitchen.

It was ever so small a rift that formed then between Chander and Akshu. The little boy could not possibly know how his defiance toward his brother would shape the rest of his life.

What’s Left of the Jungle: A Conservation Story

Excerpted with permission from What’s Left of the Jungle: A Conservation Story, Nitin Sekar, Bloomsbury India.