Aditya Rajaraman The elephant It was nearly five in the morning and my parents decided to drag me to the temple in the middle of the city. I do not have anything against temples, but to visit them when the entire world is in deep slumber is just not for me. Especially when I spent the whole of last night beating away those thirsty blood suckers, also called mosquitoes, it is hard to get up at three. Wait a minute; three in the morning is in the middle of the night. The journey to the temple was uneventful. I am not surprised with that considering the fact that I was dead to the world as soon as the car left the house and I was woken up as the car pulled along the entry to the temple. If I had not fallen asleep, I guess that I would have realized what I was to face that day, rather night. It seemed to be some festival, trust my parents to pick the one day in the calendar when there are like a zillion people in the temple. Apparently, my mother had taken an oath that if I pass my engineering and get a job, she will adorn the goddess of this particular temple with a sari that is purchased with my first salary. The fact that the sari cost a little more than the entire first month’s salary of mine did not matter to my mother. It was an oath and she was going to keep it even if it meant that her son became broke. The line of people at four in the morning is stretched out on to the road. Imagine this if you can, a temple that has place to stand for around five hundred people is filled to the brim with surely a lot more than five hundred people inside and there are more people standing on the roads, in an orderly queue to obtain darshan of the goddess. I guess that the goddess has the power that no one has, to make us behave in an orderly fashion. However, there is sometime where in a frenzy to have a proper darshan, people forget they are one in the queue. My parents, having a special mission to satisfy, decide to take the quick and less painful route. There is this facility where in one can spend a few extra rupees and can gain access to the inner sanctum without having to spend eternity in a queue. Do not ask me now how can some be more important in the eyes of the lord, how they can bribe her and get to see her quickly and comfortably. That is not for us mere mortals to know. In addition, they had to get the sari registered - something to do with making sure that it went to the goddess and not to the priest at the end of the day. The problem here was the line of people who were waiting for the ticket to the sanctum and not for the sari registration. They were not willing to let us hog the line. We had to wait until there was a lull in the line to get the sari registered. Being the staunch devotees that my parents are, they had no problems in waiting. Here I was, in the middle of the night (it was not yet five), having had a bath, smeared with ash (supposed to be sacred) and standing in a place where the entire city seemed to have Aditya Rajaraman The elephant gathered. I could not bear it anymore and went to sit a few feet away, hoping to catch a few winks when my parents got the ticket. As I sat down, I heard the sound of bells. The sound of the bells was not one that came from the sanctum. This was more caused by the movement of the person or thing that wore them. Like the cows in the fields who wear bells so that the farmer knows where they are just by the sound of the bell. As I looked around to see who was causing the noise, I saw it enter. From the entrance in front of me came this huge dark mass. It was gray and was big. They were bringing the temple elephant to have its morning darshan of the goddess. According to me, elephants are one of the most beautiful animals that were ever created. They are also the most misplaced animals in the midst of us humans. It always seems to amble wherever it goes. With the big ears flapping, the trunk searching for things to eat all around and the entire being seemed to suggest that it is not bothered by what goes on around it and is living in a world that we cannot see. However, this was not a grown up elephant. It was one of the small ones. Hardly as tall as my mother, the eyes of the elephant seemed to show the mischievousness that every kid has. The eyes were darting everywhere and were constantly on the lookout for something to catch hold of with its trunk. The mahout, the person who is in-charge of the elephant, walked a few steps in front of the elephant and he was guiding it along. Every time that the elephant strayed or stopped, all the mahout had to do was lightly prod the elephant with the stick. Immediately it was back in line behind the mahout. It seemed to me that the elephant was scared of the stick from the look in the eyes when it was prodded, no matter how gently. I looked towards my parents to see if they had obtained the tickets. Heart of heart, I hoped that they had not gotten the tickets. I wanted to sit here and look at the elephant. Thankfully, they were still some distance from the counter and seemed to me that they would take some more time. As the elephant came in, everyone parted to let it go by. The young kids looked at it with a look of curiosity and their elders with a reverence. The amount of reverence that they seemed to give to the elephant was immense. The very young kids held on to their parents and the older ones began to venture towards the elephant. They came as close as they dared to and stopped there. The crowd around the elephant did not permit me a good view and I had to stand up. Aditya Rajaraman The elephant It was then I noticed that one of the elephant’s legs was chained. I did not understand this. They generally chained either one of the legs to a hook in the wall or they chained two of the legs together. Just as I was thinking, the mahout removed part of the chain from the leg and tied it around the other. This prevented the elephant from moving around. It was so bad. I felt like asking the mahout how he would feel if someone tied his legs up. However, I did not. I do not have the guts to do that. The elephant stood there, in front of the sanctum, chained forcibly and with the want for freedom in its eyes. It first lifted one of the front legs. It then went on to place this on the ground and then lifted one of the back one. It seemed to me the elephant was just like me, shuffling in one place, restless. It could not do anything; what can one do when they are surrounded by a sea of people and you are chained in a corner. What really surprised me was the total lack of fear in the eyes of the elephant. I supposed that it was used to being in the presence of people. Else, how can we explain that amidst the din, it was quite and peaceful? If it were I, I would have created a bigger din. First, the head priest of the goddess came to the elephant. He had a few bananas with him. These were mostly the ones that people offered in the archana (the worship where the devotees offer flowers, fruits and coconut to the god and are blessed). The elephant gleefully accepted them. Now do not ask me if I know to read elephantine emotions. I do not. However, the eyes sparkled. I go by that. The elephant took the entire bunch of bananas and put it into its mouth. How big must the mouth be, to be able to eat the entire bunch, peel and all in one gulp? It takes me forever to eat a single banana. I have driven my mother crazy so many times in eating those cylindrical things. I guess that my mother would wish seeing this that I was an elephant, at least when it came to banana. It then did the usual thing that we are used to seeing. It placed its trunk on the head of the head priest, a blessing. The priest walked away, happy in the thought that he was now blessed by one of the mightiest gods in the Hindu pantheon. I guess that the lord signified by the elephant is one among the many gods that was created by the beatification of the elephant by our ancient ancestors. How else can we explain a half man and half elephant? However, the best about this god, was the simplicity and peace that he seemed to give. The head priest was then followed some of the elder children who had weaned from their parent’s pockets a rupee or two. This was the main utility of the elephant. It was used more like a beggar. The children came up to the elephant and placed the coin in the hollow of the trunk. The elephant would then lift its trunk and place it on the head of the child. The child would cower with a little fear. “What if the elephant decides to crush me with the trunk”, they would think. They never knew that the elephant was so well domiciled that it would never know what it was to hurt a person. In fact, I will not be surprised if it thought of itself as a human rather than an animal. Aditya Rajaraman The elephant Then the parents of the smaller children brought them out. These smaller kids were holding on to dear life to the dhotis and saris of the parent. It was as if their life would end if they let go. I could completely empathize with those kids. I am still scared to approach an animal that can easily crush every bone that I possess just with one foot. As and when it took each coin, it dutifully deposited the same with the mahout. He took them and put them in his drawers. I watched each kid come and take the blessings of the lord. What can be there that can cause fear in this creature. Does it even have anything to fear? How brave were we, keeping it chained, poking it with a stick and making it do things on our bidding? The only time I saw a hint of fear in the eyes of the gentle giant was when the mahout struck it with the stick. It was as if the elephant was so scared of that stick, it would do things that it would have never done otherwise. I guess that it has been on the receiving end of that stick innumerous times. I could have sat there and watched that creature for the entire day. However, my father called out. “Ani, where are you? We have the tickets for the sanctum and the registration. It is getting late. Come on now.” I had to leave the elephant to go and visit the goddess, who according to my mother was the only reason I passed engineering. Any atheist would immediately turn the staunchest theist if they ever saw my academic performance in the first few years of college. They would say that it had to be by the grace of some god that I passed. “Forget passing, it was nothing short of a miracle that I was able to get a job”, they would say. Any which ways, when I came out of the sanctum, the elephant was not there. Apparently, they had taken it to the streets, where even more people can come and obtain the blessings of the lord in animal form. As I left the temple, I do not remember the temple, the queues or the hot and humid inner sanctum of the goddess. All I remember is that kid elephant, lost in a jungle of humans, leading a life alien, driven by animals that are puny in comparison.
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