Translated by: Nakul Vāc
Ranganathan could sense his anger and irritation exceeding their bounds. He had already raised his hand and almost gave the child a thump on its back. The child, as if it were taking up Satyagraha refused to budge from the old man who had laid out his ware of plastic dolls right in the middle of that dusty street where people always jostled each other and which reeked of rotting vegetables and sweat. He grasped the child’s hand forcefully and the anger that was simmering within him caused him to breathe heavily as he harshly said to the child “Are you coming with me now or should I walk away and leave you here?” The child looked up at him its eyes glistening like dragonfly wings. “I want that elephant Daddy” it pleaded with a distressed voice.
Ever since he had taken the child to look at an elephant at the Kanchipuram Temple it had kept up this refrain day and night. I want an elephant, I want an Elephant Pa! It took him two weeks just to get the child to understand that his financial situation precluded any possibility of feeding an elephant. It was only during the last four days that he had managed to forget the elephant and yet here it was, back again.
After giving the old sidewalk hawker a bitter look he said “There are no elephants here, come, let’s go home” and tugged at the child’s hand. “Look, there is one right here” the child stretched out its hand and pointed towards a corner. Surprisingly there really was an Elephant there with a parrot-green body, gold filigreed back, rosy mouth and solid lemon-yellow tusks. Showing the rose colored underside of its lifted trunk it was standing in a ‘Saluting’ posture. Cursing the sharpness of the child’s vision that had managed to spot the elephant amidst all those worthless knickknacks he reached for money in his pocket with an intent to buy the damn thing. As his sight fell on that elephant again something tickled his aesthetic sense, that sense he was very proud of. It felt as if that elephant was lifting its trunk and showing its rosy mouth to mock him. Not just him, but it felt as if that green elephant were mocking elephants past present and future including the mytho-religious ones from Iravatham to the one at Varatharajar Temple. Suddenly, he felt towards it an uncontrollable surge of anger and rage.
“Chee! Not this, it looks yucky. Whoever heard of a green elephant? I will buy a black one tomorrow. Come let’s go home now.” He said and tried dragging the child once again. The child lifted its face and looked at him wide-eyed.
“Promise, you wait and see”
After he had made his promise both of them started walking towards their home.
Although he probably would have, that child didn’t let him forget the elephant. “Where is my elephant, where is my elephant, you promised to buy me one… “It pestered him relentlessly.
“The ones in this town are no good. I will get you one when I come back from my trip. Promise”Only after this reassurance did it stop nagging him.
He did keep his promise. It was a wooden elephant. Even though it wasn’t an astounding work of art it was at least black- well, almost black. It had a trunk and white tusks but did not have a rosy mouth. It definitely did not mock him and the entire race of elephants.
One of the fallouts of all this was that the child and the elephant became inseparable. The elephant had to be served food during meal times and the child would go to bed only after ensuring the elephant had gone to sleep. The elephant’s likes and dislikes, its stubbornness, anger and playfulness all of these turned the daily life of that household upside down.
He felt that there was something sinister in all of this. Although a kid, the child was still six years old. That doll elephant masquerading as a real one and creating a ruckus in the house as if it were a spoilt brat of an elephant just didn’t feel right. It was a doll, just wood… It didn’t eat sugar-candy or drink Horlicks; it couldn’t ask for peanuts or sugarcane; he repeatedly tried telling these to the child which threw temper tantrums all day long, insisting that it was indeed a real elephant and not just a doll. The next day both the child and the elephant refused to speak with him.
After three days of distress he couldn’t take it any longer and apologized to the child “This is a real elephant, it was my fault that I didn’t look at it carefully earlier.” Beaming with joy the child immediately replied “See you didn’t get what I said” “It has a trunk, has tusks. Look at its ear, like a winnow. Black body… Who can say this not an elephant… the elephant loves you so much, see how it is coming to pet you… ” The child went on and on.
From that day forward the elephant had two friends, the child and Ranganathan. They would give it a bath, feed it, and go hunting with it. They would dress it when it got hurt and beat it when it angered them. They would mete out punishment by starving it and when it pleaded with them in repentance they would even give it words of advice. They would hide from it when it was angry and would teach it circus tricks when it was in a friendlier mood. The upshot of all these joint activities was that Ranganathan became very familiar with the elephant. Its moods, likes and dislikes, by now he knew all this by rote. Sometimes during the child’s absence the elephant would come to play with him or stand with obstinate restiveness.
He had to go out of town once again on an official trip. Throughout the return back home he was assailed by memories of the “Child Elephant”. He had even fully thought out a brand new game which involved training the elephant to catch fish. It had to waddle its trunk in the mud and fetch lampreys. Instead of bait they would attach a worm to its trunk and lure the fish. And so much more….
When he reached home from the railway station both the child and the elephant were nowhere to be seen! He assumed they must have gone outside to play. He had to go out on an errand and by the time he returned home it was quite late. The child had gone to sleep. Oh Well! I will teach them the new game tomorrow, he tried consoling himself.
Next morning as soon as he saw the child, he immediately noticed that it was not holding the elephant in its hands and hence the first question that popped out of his mouth was “Where is the elephant”. “It must be somewhere” the child replied without much enthusiasm. Not being able to make head or tail of it he felt both disappointed and angry.
“Did you make it disappear or did it run away to the forest?” he asked. To his ears it didn’t sound like an ordinary matter of fact question. Perhaps he was bullying or crying?
” Bah! It must be lying around someplace here” it replied and went off to brush its teeth. ”
“Hey, I found a new elephant game… A game where we catch fish ” he followed it.
He spotted the elephant lying forlorn in a corner amidst dirty unwashed clothes. “Poor thing, looks like it’s sick, do you have fever… Shall we go to the hospital and get you some medicine? ” “Hey, look, the elephant is right here” he informed tenderly and as he bent to pick up the elephant the child’s reply startled him and he straightened up
“What are you saying Dad, nothing will happen to it. Is it a real elephant? Whoever heard of a doll getting fever and dysentery ” the child replied and opened the cupboard.”Have you seen this? It has real tires; do you want to see how it goes? ” It showed him a red metallic car with mini tires.” I won’t give it to you, the woman next door gave it to me,” the child boasted.
Unable to make sense of what was happening he stared at the child. With a mischievous smile it was trying to hide its hand behind its back while the car it was holding bared its metallic teeth and made a fool of him.
He turned his head and looked down at the dead elephant’s corpse. “I am just a piece of wood. Not an elephant” it murmured and died again. He couldn’t make sense of it at all.
“Dad, did you say anything?” the child asked as it tried to make the toy car go.
He still couldn’t make any sense of it.