There's more to V. Bellie than the Oscar-winning The Elephant Whisperers

Bellie is the first woman cavady in Tamil Nadu

72-V-Bellie V. Bellie | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

It is a balmy day in Gudalur, a small town near Ooty in Nilgiris district. The 34km stretch from Gudalur to Mudumalai hill station in the Western Ghats is a traveller’s paradise. Walking down the serene forest path, you will have inquisitive langurs, elegant deer, speedy leopards, chirpy birds and majestic elephants for company (mostly unseen and sometimes silent). The road leads to a sparse forest as we enter Mudumalai. Off the forest main road is a muddy path that brings you to a quaint little tribal settlement, home to Bomman and Bellie―the couple from Oscar-winning The Elephant Whisperers.

Clad in a blue-and-white floral print sari, a beaming Bellie welcomes me to her home. “This is my bungalow. Come in,” she says, as I look up at the sunlight streaming in through the tiny holes in the asbestos sheet roof. Utensils, clothes and bamboo baskets are strewn on the muddy floor. A few of the wooden panels that make up the wall are broken―thanks to Raghu, the orphaned jumbo star of the documentary. “He would lie down here. He only broke the wall,” says Bellie, grinning.

Last August, in recognition of her services towards orphaned elephant calves, the Tamil Nadu government appointed V. Bellie as the first woman cavady (assistant to the mahout) of the Theppakadu elephant camp. The new job means a steady income for Bomman, a mahout, and Bellie, who fell in love while co-parenting Raghu. “I do not even know that I am the first woman cavady,” says Bellie. “I have been doing this job since Raghu came to me. The job helps me buy medicines, [send] my grandchildren to school and buy books for them.”

Before last year’s appointment, Bellie was working as a temporary caretaker at the Theppakadu elephant camp, which was established in 1917 and currently houses close to 25 elephants. “I love my job,” gushes Bellie, 51. “The elephant calves are comfortable growing up when women raise them.”

Bellie’s tryst with elephants began in 2017 when three-month-old Raghu was brought to the camp after its mother was electrocuted. Raghu was grievously injured and was not comfortable with the mahouts in the camp. This is when the forest authorities roped in Bellie to look after Raghu. “It wasn’t an easy task in the beginning,” admits Bellie, who was a housewife till a few years ago.

Hailing from the native Kattunayakan tribal community of Ooty, Bellie was first married to Sennan, who used to work for the forest department; he would help with carrying out the wildlife census. “He could identify any animal passing through the forest with its sound and smell,” recalls Bellie. She had three children―a son and two daughters―from her first marriage, which ended with her husband’s death; Sennan was killed by a leopard in the forest. “After his death, I came into the elephant camp to earn a living,” says Bellie.

Initially, Bellie had little knowledge about animals. Sennan’s death had scared and scarred her. But Raghu healed her; today, she is an expert in taking care of elephants. “If the elephant is sick or down with fever, its eyes will water nonstop,” she says. “Its ears will turn warm. Elephants are just like human beings, and feel the same towards us like children feel for their parents.”

Under her care, Raghu and Bommi, another orphaned elephant she cared for, were fed milk and ragi balls, as per the instruction of the veterinary doctors at the elephant camp. She would take Raghu out on walks in the forest and also train him to live in the wild. “It is not easy to raise elephant calves. I had to dedicate a major part of my daily life to that,” recalls Bellie. Most days, Raghu would accompany her home, which was outside the elephant camp. It was on one of those trips that he broke the wooden panels of her home.

You could call Raghu clingy, but he was a baby and an orphan at that when Bellie walked into his life. He did not even let her visit her dying daughter, who had set herself ablaze, in hospital. By the time Bellie had calmed Raghu down and reached the hospital, her daughter had died. But Bellie does not hold any grudges. She is a mother, after all. She is, in fact, grateful for Raghu―it is thanks to him that she found love again, in Bomman.

Bellie raised Raghu for five years and later handed him to the camp authorities. “My work as a caretaker got over after I handed over Raghu. I work in the temple associated with the camp these days,” says Bellie. “Now I don’t come into the camp when Raghu is here. He will not go away if he sees me. He will run around and even hit everyone if he sees me.”

The world may know of Bellie because of the Oscars, but her world remains the same. “I only know this camp, the elephants here and the Western Ghats,” she says.