the week that went

A tame elephant in Malnad (Malenadu)

Right of us, across the street, an ambulance bobbed about like a dead beetle borne on a mass of ants undecided on the right route. Its wail was wimpish and, eventually, when things cleared, it came to life and made toward the Forum Mall and the bikes and the cars went lurching with it, squeezing into the space by its sides, jutting ahead of it, tailgating it in the hope of stealing some speed. Traffic was particularly bad Tuesday this week, even if the rain that confounds Bangalorean traffic only teased from above and never fell.

On Sunday we saw big others brought to submission, at the elephant camp by the Cauvery. The elephants carried weekenders on short rounds, dragging their feet, halting and heaving every few moments, saying in many ways that they wanted out. The humans atop the elephant—some nervous, some squealing—and the ones on the ground who gazed and and clicked away at the chained elephants accepting football-sized food-balls that the maavuts tossed throw-ball-style over sagging lower-lips, everyone, it seemed, loved the elephant. The question was: Who would be their friend?

Every day, after feeding, the elephants are taken a half-hour into the forest and let loose there. They are then free to roam, and forage, and do the things they can, now after the wild is plucked out from them. In the evening the maavuts return and search for them, like shepherds. We went with them till where they were freed, walking with Ajeya, a handsome fellow yet unconquered, even after six months with the maavuts—because the memory of the wild has not left him altogether, which his taut ears tell, and the tension in the brow, and his eyes, and occasional ominous exhalations. Vijaya and Basavaraj are his maavuts; last week they had an incident with him.

They were riding him when a young one came in at them for play. Ajeya didn’t know this kind of a game offered by a tamed one and after a while became nervous and shook off the two young men seated on him and started to run. After some distance, none can tell why, he turned and, seeing his keepers on the ground, came bounding after them. His sight focused on Vijaya, much frailer of the two, and he began to assault him with his trunk but the other maavuts came soon enough and Vijaya was saved.

The bruises were as though from yesterday on Vijaya’s shins. His left ankle was swollen. He limped, but his smile came easily despite the pain, and when narrating the incident, he assigned the cause for that day’s terror and this enduring pain only to that young elephant that came at Ajeya. Toward Ajeya he feels only indulgence.

Our maavuts were jenu-kurubas, and Ajeya—named by the foresters—is Ajjayya to them, god and protector of their community. He is on the rowdy-sheet for killing three men, so they went after him and took him in six months ago. How do you train a rogue elephant? “There are spots in them which when you handle make the roughest beast a cow.” It is a terrible process to watch, they told us, the beast resisting every moment of the long time it takes, and the screams rent the earth.

Ajjayya has been trying to break free: there are inch-deep wounds beneath the chains which have cut through his armor-skin. His maavuts carried bottles of oils which they slapped on the wounds and gave a rubbing round the wounds. Then they wiped their hands on his sides and on his cheeks and down his eyes until they were dry—Ajjayya is slowly beginning to accept their love. Soon he will accept the two men completely and will then be theirs. Each elephant will answer only to his maavut; a maavut approaches another’s elephant most anxiously.

During the workweek in Bangalore I sat in a serene boardroom with a businessman who proposed a strategic alliance. He began his presentation not from when he founded his company, but from where he was born: in a village six kilometers from Sitamahi, where Rama’s Sita was born. “A temple can be built there first”, he said, “there is no dispute there, unlike in Ayodhya.” I looked into his eyes. They were placid, and they testified that there weren’t more meanings to the things he said. His village is situated where the ancient kingdom of Mithila was, which King Janaka ruled, whose daughter Sita he gave to Rama. The businessman’s mother-tongue is Mythili. “We are very near Nepal; but of course there was no Nepal then; everything was India.” He challenged my secular mind with his pleasant grace, and then I realized I should respect his sacred context, and the beatific Hindu past of his imagination which is the backdrop to his thought—I must think upon it.

We walked along the golf course to a restaurant near his office, in a five-star hotel, empty of foreigners, and only two tables taken. I worked hard to be polite and gracious as him.

The week has ended and my mind has drifted to that night last month when at midnight when I stood on the Galata Bridge and watched the Topkapi Palace floating high in a cradle of yellow light. There were a few people on the bridge—one of them a woman—catching small fish with long rods even at that hour. I am overwhelmed by a need to go quickly and lose myself in another place so far.

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