A Trunk Tale
1. Gajini, Off on Her Own
Bablu Kaka, the mahout, stroked thirty-year-old Gajini on her head. ‘You will be well looked after here, Gajini,’ he said offering her a ball of wheat and jaggery from the pile. He had specially made this, her favourite treat, that very morning and brought them along here to his good friend Shiva’s house. Shiva had agreed to ‘babysit’ Gajini in his friend’s absence.
Bablu Kaka had to leave for his hometown to help his wife make all the arrangements for his daughter’s marriage. He would only be back at the end of three weeks, after the wedding. The old mahout was not too happy to part from Gajini even though it was only for three weeks as he was extremely fond of his elephant just as much as Gajini was, of her master.
Gajini gulped down the treat, raised her trunk and trumpeted, as if to say ‘Goodbye, see you soon,’. She could understand every word her mahout spoke just as he could understand her elephant language.
In the days that followed Shiva made every effort to ensure that Gajini was comfortable, but he could not take Bablu Kaka’s place as mahout, nor could he build up the kind of rapport. He did all he could dutifully, feeding her on time, bathing her everyday too, but he could not understand her language at all nor did he fondle her, shower love upon her, like Bablu Kaka did. Gajini, on her part, didn't care to understand Shiva. She would never pick him up with her trunk and place him on her back like she did to Bablu Kaka every morning.
Besides, Shiva would have to leave her alone for long hours while he went to work as shop attendant at a grocery store every day. This made Gajini feel very lonely and she missed her mahout dearly. As the days passed, she began to wonder if Bablu Kaka would ever come back to her.
One day Gajini made up her mind to find her master, wherever he may be. Very nonchalantly, she walked out of the compound gate which Shiva had left open. All day she wandered, taking in the various sights, smells and sounds of village after village that she passed. People who saw her were agog at the sight of an elephant stomping past them but dared not try and stop the giant.
In one of the villages, on coming across a cartload of bananas, Gajini’s stomach rumbled with hunger. Bunch after bunch, she walloped the whole lot, much to the consternation of the cart owner. Some of the onlookers consoled the cart owner: ‘You should consider it your great fortune to have the Lord God feeding off your cart.’ For, among the Hindus, the elephant is worshipped as Ganesh, the Lord of obstacles.
Further afield, Gajini came upon a cart carrying an enormous vessel of watermelon juice. As if this too was an offering to her, she trumpeted with delight and dipped her trunk into the vessel, guzzling the cool, delicious drink, leaving not a drop.
Gajini was enjoying this adventure and had no intentions of returning to her baby-sitter. Shiva, of course, was sick with worry when he found the pachyderm missing. He spent three whole days looking for her in every possible direction, going from pillar to post, but finally gave up, hoping against hope that she had made her way to Bablu Kaka’s hometown and was back with him. It was no use trying to phone him as mobile signals didn't work in that remote place.
2. In a New World
By the time Gajini’s adventurous day ended, she found herself in very different surroundings. Aah, the sweet, delicious fragrance of greenery….. She extended her trunk and twitched the sensitive tip to take in the aroma. Moreover, she began to hear very pleasant sounds. Sounds such as those she used to hear long, long ago. Her ears flapped joyfully at this music – the nocturnal symphony rendered by the crickets with their chirping, the nightjars chuk-chuk-ing, the owls hooting and toads croaking. Her exhaustion after having walked all day simply evaporated on entering this paradise and she felt rejuvenated.
The new surroundings struck a chord within her and Gajini recalled her early years which she had spent in a similar home – a jungle. The old memories flooded back. Like all other elephants, she had a very good memory.
Gajini recalled nostalgically how, as a baby, she would always twirl her little trunk around her mother’s tail and follow her everywhere in the jungle, as if she was her shadow. Her older sisters would often tease her, spraying mud all over her. But soon she had learnt to enjoy that. She would try to retaliate and do the same to them, but they were too tall for her.
Being the baby of the herd, her various aunts would mollycoddle her. And Gajini would wallow in it. All day they would stuff her with the most tender shoots from the tops of the trees as if she were starving.
Then, there was the heart-breaking incident of big brother Bhonu being ceremoniously made to leave the herd. Bhonu had reached the age of adolescence. He had grown temperamental and would burst into a rage every now and then. His temples appeared swollen, and he would rub them against the ground until a liquid oozed out. The elders in the herd had got most concerned about him.
Late one night they had a meeting while the youngsters were slumbering. Gajini, however, was wide awake. She had overheard Grandma, the eldest and the wisest in the herd who was also their leader, convey to the other grown-up females through stomach rumblings: ‘It is time Bhonu leaves the herd. He is now in musth. That explains his wild behaviour. He needs to find a female partner. Tomorrow we will bid him goodbye. He will no longer belong to the herd. It is the law of the jungle.’
The next morning, after Bhonu had eaten with the herd, all the older females communicated to him through much nudging and trumpeting that he was now old enough to roam the forests alone. The herd was only for females and young, helpless males. Gajini and her mother watched with heavy hearts as Bhonu trampled away through the foliage and melted into the dense trees, never to be seen again.
A few days after Bhonu’s departure Gajini’s life too changed. It was very hot, and their usual pool had dried up. So, Grandma would lead them early every
morning just outside the periphery of the forest to a large lake to bathe and drink. It was here that one day Gajini found herself being offered bananas by a man. Trustingly, she followed him. Unknown to the others of the herd, he led her right up a ramp and into a waiting van.
The van sped away, to her new home, a zoo. It was here in the zoo that Gajini met Bablu Kaka who was her appointed keeper. Bablu Kaka and the others in the zoo so doted upon her that Gajini had no cause to complain. She liked it when children accompanied by grown-ups visited her. They would squeal with delight and wave at her while she deliberately entertained them, drawing in water from her water tank and spraying it all over herself.
The zoo, however, soon ran out of funds. It had to close. All the animals except Gajini, were sold off to other zoos in other cities. In appreciation of Bablu Kaka’s sincerity and devotion, he was allowed to keep Gajini with him. That is how Gajini came to be living with Bablu Kaka, in the spacious backyard. Sometimes, her master would be paid a handsome sum to lead her in a procession for religious ceremonies, after being decorated rather grandly.
Gajini shook out of her reverie. She determined to spend some time in the jungle before resuming to look for her mahout.
The gentle giant yearned to belong to a matriarchal herd once again. There was so much of caring and sharing in a herd. With these thoughts buzzing in her head, she lowered her ginormous body onto the forest floor and fell into a deep sleep.
3. Gajini joins a New Herd
The next day Gajini felt the pangs of hunger. There was no Bablu Kaka to feed her nor was there a likelihood of her coming across a cartload of fruit to which she could help herself to, here in the jungle. So, she gorged on the wild foliage, like all wild elephants do.
Suddenly, her ears pricked – elephant rumblings. She walked in the direction and saw through the gaps in the foliage a herd of females surrounding a new-born calf. One of the hind legs of the calf was bent at an odd angle and it just couldn’t raise itself. No one noticed Gajini, a newcomer in their midst, for their attention was on the mother and her calf.
The others in the herd were trumpeting their encouragement while the mother was getting desperate, coaxing her baby to rise. The new-born was squealing its protest. Gajini couldn’t bear to watch the struggle. Much to the surprise of all present, she marched through the circle of elephants and pushing her trunk under the calf’s belly, she lifted it. She continued to support it for a full ten minutes, letting the blood circulate in the bad leg while the muscles snapped into position. At last, Gajini gently moved away her trunk. The calf tottered at first, but great joy! It soon began to walk. Taking its first baby steps, it went straight to its mother.
There was great joy in the herd. Having been impressed by her good deed, the matriarch of the herd, Aamma, welcomed Gajini to join them. This is exactly what Gajini wanted.
In the days that followed Gajini became like a Godmother to the little elephant calf. In the evenings when the herd rested, the little fellow would sit by Gajini’s side urging her to tell him stories of her past – of her life in the zoo and then with Bablu Kaka. Each time she spoke of her old mahout she felt a twinge of guilt for having abandoned Shiva, to whom he had entrusted her in his absence.
Gajini earned even more respect and admiration from the other herd members when she rescued the little calf from the clutches of a hungry leopard one night. Their implicit trust in her made it even more difficult for her to leave them. Aamma, of course, was a little disgruntled about the adoration the herd showed towards Gajini. It wouldn’t do for the herd to look up to Gajini instead of her. After all, she was the main matriarch.
As time passed, the jungle began wearing an unhappy look. Many of the trees had turned bare. This is because Gajini’s herd and other elephant herds had been devouring tons of foliage every day to appease their ravenous appetites.
‘We need to move on to another forest,’ proclaimed one of the older females one evening. ‘This place has hardly any food left.’
‘But my little one has got so used to this jungle,’ said the calf’s mother. ‘He has befriended the squirrels and monkeys here.’
‘We can return here many moons later when this place has revived,’ said her sister.
Then spoke Aamma, their leader: ‘It is no longer safe to step out of the forest for us. Humans have built grey pathways in the green corridors that we used to walk through, to reach other jungles. Those pathways can hurt the delicate soles of our feet if we walk on them. Besides, the humans move about in four-legged monsters that run at great speeds on those unnatural pathways. They can easily collide into us and kill us.’
‘But Aamma, the herd will soon starve if we stay here any longer,’ Gajini protested. ‘Moreover, unless the jungle is given some time to revive, it will cease to exist. If you permit me, I can lead the herd to another forest. I have been through those pathways and have seen those monsters before.’
‘Hear, hear!’ cried all the others. ‘Gajini can lead us.” Aamma had no option but to agree.
Next morning the herd began their long march under Gajini’s leadership. At first Aamma refused to join in the migration. ‘I will stay alone here.’ But the rest of the herd cajoled and pleaded and finally she agreed, trudging at the tail end, instead of taking the lead.
4. The Reunion
Gajini and the rest of the herd was pleasantly surprised while on their march, to see that the grey pathways that had cut through their green corridors were no longer being used by humans in their speeding monsters. In fact, they had been overgrown with a lot of wild flora that made them almost invisible. There were deer prancing about and hare peeping at them inquisitively from their burrows. But strangely, they could hear the vrooming of the monsters somewhere close. It was coming from above their heads. They looked skywards. There was a long structure that cast a shadow. The monsters were actually going above their heads, using an overhead bridge.
‘See?’ Gajini rumbled to the herd. ‘Humans have abandoned this corridor to allow us to move through safely! They have made a new pathway for themselves up there.’ All the elephants, including Aamma, trumpeted jubilantly.
‘You were right, Gajini,’ Aamma admitted. ‘Humans are not so bad after all.’
And then, Gajini extended her trunk upwards and sniffed the air. She picked up a very familiar smell. Surely, it couldn’t be – was it really Bablu Kaka? She trumpeted shrilly and loudly, making all the rest of the elephants jump.
Indeed, it was Bablu Kaka on the bridge above, returning from his hometown. He too jumped out of his skin when he heard the trumpeting and recognised it.
The old mahout pleaded to the bus driver to stop at next connecting stairway. Lugging his bag, he sprinted down the stairway while at the same time, Gajini too raced towards her master. What an amorous reunion it was. The pachyderm picked up her master in trunk and placed him on her back to show him off to the rest of the herd. After a lot of nuzzling and cuddling, Bablu Kaka jumped off the elephant.
‘Gajini,’ he spoke tearfully. ‘I can see that you have joined others of your tribe. They seem to be adoring you. You belong to them and to the wild. Stay on with them, my good friend.’ Having said that, the mahout turned around and walked back to the bus on the bridge overhead which was still waiting for him.
Gajini, overjoyed to have met her master at last, continued on her way, proudly leading her herd to a new home.