BENGALURU: He misses his big friend, and clearly she misses him too. He was just five when he met Rani, the elephant, and 20 years later, the bond between the two has only grown stronger.
Syed Hafeez, who comes from a family of mahouts, decided to pursue higher studies and left home in 2013. When he went home three months later, he says, Rani behaved just like a puppy. “They say dog is faithful and man’s best friend. In my experience, elephants are friends for life. When I went home after three months, Rani came to me and gave me a gentle hug. She recognised my smell and grew excited. She acted like a small child. It was difficult for me to tear myself apart from her to go and pursue my goal,” he said emotionally.
In 2013, when he was just 21 years old, Hafeez came to Bengaluru along with elephants for a big fat wedding. Wildlife activists convinced him to pursue his dream of studying Biochemistry. And that advice changed his course of life.
Hafeez, a native of Honnalli in Shivamogga district, was born and brought up in a family of mahouts. They moved to Haveri in search of jobs and his father worked as a mahout in a mutt. “Everyone in our family is a mahout — father, uncle, grandfather. No one in my family went to school barring my uncle who is seventh standard pass. I am the only one in my entire family to have stepped into college. I studied Science till PU and took up BSc with Microbiology, Chemistry and Zoology. When I completed BSc first year, I was told to help my father in his work. I used to work as mahout since childhood. I quit college and became a full-time mahout,” he said.
During the same time, he came to Bengaluru. He was the mahout who had brought an elephant from the Sadguru Basavraj Deshikendra, a mutt in Airani, Haveri district, to Bengaluru for a wedding. It got him into a legal spot initially but turned his life around too.
Sharath Babu, a wildlife activist, says they learnt that Hafeez was a BSc dropout. “We gave him some advice. We did not know he would take it so seriously. We are not just happy, but proud too,” Sharath said on Hafeez now wanting to do PhD.
This was a turning point in Hafeez’s life. “I decided to give up mahout work and continue education. My father was very angry; in fact he is still angry with me for leaving the family tradition. We are not on talking terms too. A cousin is a lorry driver and I joined him. He used to travel from Hubballi to Mumbai to deliver goods and I used to accompany him. After doing this for nearly two and half months, college reopened after vacation. I joined second year BSc at the same college (Sahyadri College). My friends and Shobha madam, our lecturer, helped me pay the fees which was more than `2,000. I moved into the hostel,” he said.
Hafeez’s project was selected under Vision Group on Science and Technology (VGST), a state government initiative that encourages and promotes Science and Technology education and research in the state.
“My proposal was among the 40 that were accepted. I had proposed to prevent kidney stone using banana extract. I was given Rs 40,000 fellowship and I completed my degree with the same money. My mother used to come and meet me at college, but not my father,” he said.
After graduation, Hafeez did MSc in Biochemistry. He wants to do PhD at University of Geneva. “I am interested in immunology (study of immune cells). I have applied and got a call too. My professors are my support system,” he said.
While Hafeez is happy about his academic achievements, he wishes to share his happiness with Rani. But Rani is miles away. “ I have not seen her for the past four years. I miss her,” he said.