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Animal stories

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RIDING AN ELEPHANT

From the beginning it was clear that the elephant was planning rebellion. The morning had started harmlessly, in the hum of Indian forest wetness, in Jaldapara Forest Reserve, West Bengal. We had mounted the elephant from a wooden platform. The howdah which was strapped to the elephant’s back consisted of a padded iron frame, and two iron railings to which we clung. She was a tossing elephant, right from the first step, with a defiant head. It was a great and huge head, a compendium of power, a mighty skull stretched tight with grey creased skin, and I wondered if the heavy scarring on the left forehead, a lattice of pinkish ancient wounds, was an indication of former defiance, of bitter contests between beast and master.

The mahout himself was bare-footed, and sat astride the short neck of the elephant. In his hand he held a heavy iron ankush. It was polished from years of holding. Perhaps it had even belonged to his father. At one end the ankush was split into two. There was a large curved iron hook, which ended in a sharp point, and there was a flat heavy baton of iron.

And we were on an elephant, and high, and in the jungle, which was Indian, and everything was magic, and the elephant pressed its great body through the trees, and branches were bent and then unbent, and there were monkeys, and I wanted to thank the elephant, that we could ride her, but the elephant was not interested in us, nor even the mahout, who was merely a troublesome intervention.

You could tell because the elephant refused to walk down the path until the mahout cursed her and worked his feet and legs in a frantic display of dexterity to which she finally yielded. And you could tell because she would stop between green strapping and fronding, and defiantly tear at patches of thick shooting which was unfurling and rich, and when she stopped, and stretched out her trunk, and encircled the succulence with her extended musculature, the mahout slapped her with the flat end of the ankush, and told her not to eat, and to walk as she was told. But she took her time in stopping eating, just to be defiant, and to demonstrate her might, and she was waiting her chance.

And as she walked through the slosh and slipping, the elephant’s feet made sounds like plugs being pulled from laundry troughs, and the foliage slapped against her mightiness, and our faces were wet with the mystery of the forest.

‘I think I can hear an elephant calling from far away,’ I said to Jeremy.

‘It’s not an elephant. It’s a car on the road,’ he said.

‘But there’s no road.’

‘Maybe it’s thunder,’ he said.

So we listened some more and then suddenly I realised that the throbbing was coming from beneath us and that it was the sound of our elephant who was calling to other elephants, somewhere far away. She was searching for her kind. And it was the most majestic and magical calling, a silent calling that could not be heard and yet was heard. For her body vibrated with a sound of caves and jungle vines and tigers, and this empty, luminous, singing throb consumed her greatness, as our little, boned constructions perched upon her. And with her infrasonic call to her distant kind, I became merged in the ancientness and the wildness, and this song, this cry, this endless throbbing vibration of capture and reconciliation. And I was just an intruder, willfully perched and interrupting the eons of elephant ways. And I knew the elephant did not want us there, for we were just small, balancing interlopers, dropped into her endlessness of green trample and trumpeting.

But we continued to allow ourselves to be carried, and the elephant continued to allow us to be carried, and we journeyed further into the thickness, and there were vines like Tarzan, and deer that jumped like bottle labels with archery designs. And we came to a river, and it was clear water that ran between ferns and tufts of grass, and bushes, and the elephant stopped in the middle of the river, and took the water into her trunk, and rejoiced in the flowing, and did not want to move. But the mahout had to urge her on, in case she grew even more defiant.

Then there was a great clearing, and we could see in the distance, through several kilometers of fade that there were other elephants, in a herd. And there was also a man with an elephant. And the elephant upon which we happened to be sitting became excited, and began to trumpet to the other, distant elephant, and the mahouts called to each other. From far away the voice of the distant mahout came across the marsh which was open and flat.

But whatever calling the mahouts initiated could not be like the trumpeting of the elephants, who again and again filled the space of the earth with their yearning. And they wanted to be beside each other, and to touch each other, and to speak to each other, and not to be bound and controlled, and instructed and separated. They wanted to speak elephant words, and have elephant caresses and elephant news.

So this was when the elephant whom we were riding became switched and clicked to other elephant dimension, and did not hear any more the mahout, and remembered only her ancestry of mammoths and herds by lakes, and this was when, instead of proceeding towards the Forest Lodge, she swung backwards towards the jungle, from which the sound of calling elephants blew from distant silence. And I understood everything that was happening in her mind, for she faced a pivotal moment in her life; she could chose to defy all tradition and training in order to be her true, unfettered elephant self, or she could chose to obey, as an ultimate sacrifice to those who had brutalized her.

So the mahout shouted, but she did not take any notice of him, and kept going in the wrong direction. Then with all the might of his body, knees gripping her neck, he raised the ankush above his head and with a tremendous blow sunk the hooked end of the iron implement into the elephant’s temple above her eye.

Then she bellowed with pain and with rage, and lifted her head backwards, in order to try to lessen the pain as he pulled at the ankush. And I saw her anguished eye, deep with the crossings of choice which confronted her. And she knew she could bolt to freedom, but it would not be an eternal freedom, and only temporary, for they would come and take her again from her own kind and from her own ways. So, because the mahout had the power of a human mind, which was able to throw a switch in her own mind, and because she knew and could plan and could wait, the circuit was broken, and she took two steps in the direction that the mahout had commanded so that he knew he had won command.

But then again the calling of the elephants engulfed her longing, and some white unseen switch clicked in deep layers of brain, and she swung back again towards the call of the jungle. And this time the mahout with all his strength beat her repeatedly with loud cracking thuds on the top of her head with the flat heavy end of the ankush. And she was roaring and slapping her trunk on the ground, and lurching, and stamping her feet, and bellowing, and we were sliding around in the howdah which suddenly became only a fragile appendage and not at all secure.

And we were caught as the surprised witness to this battle of wills, the battle between the wild greatness of the beast, and the puny determination of the dark, lean-limbed mahout clinging to her neck and beating her with the ankush. And if the elephant won, we would probably have died. And thus we lurched, amazed in the rocking howdah.

‘I want to get down,’ I said to Jeremy, who was behind me and who could not see the torture.

‘How do you think we could get down?’ Jeremy asked with logical lawyer’s words. Because although he had stopped being a real lawyer in an office he still could not properly forget that he was trained in lawyer mode. It was true that if the elephant would not even walk in the right direction, she certainly would not want to kneel down to allow us to gracefully slide from her back. We were high above everything, and in the middle of nothing, suspended onlookers while the elephant and her master, in full understanding of each other, fought for their own will to triumph.

And it happened that eventually the mahout won, and the elephant, after much shuffling and commands, was bullied and beaten so that the tumbled flashings of the past like clothes knotted in turning dryers were gouged from her being, and her mind was pressed into a subservient shape.

By blessings of fate, the mounting platform suddenly appeared among trees, a beacon of hope, a distant destination which it seemed could never be reached. The whole mammoth dynasty and the standing of genes seemed to loom as an impenetrable wall between ultimate salvation and the present uncertainty.

And for some reason, the elephant now resigned herself to an ending and separation from that of her kind, and forgot how close she had been to ultimate deliverance, and she trotted obediently towards the wooden platform, and then, with murmurings from the mahout, stepped sideways so that we could climb from her back onto the platform. And I did not feel at all that we had been saved, but rather that she had chosen to ignore the wonder of her world, to redeem us and deliver us back into our own human world, a world she did not understand.

And I wanted more than anything that the mahout should thank the elephant, and give her food, and speak kind words, but he was in a hurry to escape, as he did not want me to photograph the deep punctures on her forehead which were oozing dark red blood, so he backed the elephant, and she shambled down the road, to a place where he tied her to a pole. and then walked away, not once saying any kind remark to her nor making any gesture of gratitude.

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