A for aana

ANITA NAIR

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FAMILY folklore has it that when I was taken to the Subramania temple at Palani for my annaprashan ceremony, an elephant chose to garland me. The elephant came unattended, went to one of the little shops that sell puja paraphernalia and picked up a garland of roses. My mother talks of being petrified at seeing an elephant walk towards her purposefully as she stood holding her baby daughter; and of my grandfather who stood horror-struck at the thought his daughter and granddaughter were about to be trampled. I have no memory of it myself but when the story is aired at family reunions, I am the sole voice of disbelieving dissent. ‘Did you see if there was a mahout lurking nearby? I am sure one of you,’ and there I would glare at my uncles, ‘tipped the mahout and had it set up!’

The grown-ups would frown and growl, ‘There’s not the point!’

The point being that it wasn’t just about an elephant had taken a penchant to a fat cheeked child as much as the fact that elephants were not seen in the Palani temple in the mid-nineteen sixties. Neither is the rhino-ceros or the camel. I am quite sure there wouldn’t have been as much excitement if either of these animals had been the ones to come bearing a garland of flowers. That it was an elephant made it significant. An elephant brought with it a wealth of subtexts. As the crow and the peacock, the snake and the horse, elephants in Indian folklore have a decided presence. An elephant is not just an imposing pachyderm, it is a symbol of power and might, of wisdom and goodness, and an epitome of dignity. An elephant is to be feared and revered, and not to be treated lightly.

For the Indian elephant goes back to the story of the cosmic churning. As the Gods and the demons churned the oceans seeking the elixir of life that would make them immortal, it is said that before the elixir came the navratnas (nine jewels) to the surface. One of these jewels was the elephant Airavata whom Indra, the king among gods claimed for himself. Several other gods in heaven and kings on earth used elephants as their vehicles. But the Airavata was special. He was regal in size and had ten tusks instead of just the usual two.

 

In Kerala where I come from, an elephant is more than just an animal. This thought is instilled in a child from the moment a child makes acquaintance with the alphabets. If world over the first alphabet in English ‘A’ is represented by an apple, in Malayalam, the first alphabet A is taught as Amma. The next letter Aa is Aana or elephant. The comfort of Amma is followed by the grandeur of the Aana, both of which the child is familiar with. And so, the child starts off by by seeing the elephant as part of its family.

That is how integral an elephant is to the Kerala psyche.

Thereafter when the child begins to read sentences, one of the first stories is of the elephant and a tailor. This is how the story goes:

The elephant as a baby was led into a town by its mahout and as they walked through a little street, many of the shopkeepers there offered a little something to the baby elephant. However there was a tailor, a malicious man, who inserted a needle into a banana and fed the baby elephant the banana.

The baby elephant’s tongue was pierced and he was in great pain for many days. Many years later the elephant now a full-grown tusker was brought to the same town. The mahout then led him into the tailor’s street and the elephant recognized an old man as the one who had fed him the banana with the needle. The elephant filled his trunk with water from a nearby drum and sprayed it on the man, wetting him and all the clothes he had stitched and kept ready to deliver to his customers. The subtext of the story being an elephant never forgets.

 

World over wherever elephants have a decided presence, folklore celebrates them and their innumerable qualities. A random search through the internet throws up several stories. One among them and a great favourite of mine is from Africa: In the beginning of time, the Creator brought forth all the animals of the bush and birds and insects of the air from the roots of a huge baobab tree. Most of the creatures look the same now as they did then, but some have since then changed in appearance.

One such animal is Elephant, who at first did not possess a trunk and instead had a pig-like snout. The elephant found it very difficult to eat. And so it had to eat continuously from dawn to dusk to fill its enormous belly. Drinking was even more complicated as Elephant had to kneel at the water-hole and gulp down great mouthfuls of water to quench his thirst. The poor elephant had a hard life indeed.

One day a group of elephants trekked a long way from their feeding grounds to a distant waterhole; the long dry season had dried up most of the smaller pans and springs. This waterhole was the home of a huge, old crocodile who had gone without food for a long time and was feeling particularly hungry on that day.

When Crocodile saw the herd approaching, he slipped quietly from the sandbank, where he had been sunning himself, into the murky water. Swimming slowly along, with just his eyes and nostrils showing above the surface, Crocodile cruised over to where he knew the elephants would drink, without making a ripple on the pool’s smooth surface. Not even the inquisitive vervet monkey, feeding high in the nearby trees, saw him swim to where he lay in ambush.

The elephants made their way down the well-trodden game trail to the sand beach. There they laboriously sank to their knees and started to gulp down the refreshing water. Crocodile saw his opportunity, and with a huge splash he lunged with terrifying speed at the young bull elephant drinking closest to him.

The other elephants lumbered to their feet, squealing in fright, and turned to run away. All, that is, but the young bull, who had Crocodile’s vice-like jaws clamped over his pig-like snout. A terrible tug of war then started. Try as they might, the other elephants could not get a decent hold on the young bull to help set him free. Crocodile used all his great strength and weight to try to pull the young bull elephant into the water. Elephant was also strong and heavy, and despite the pain in his snout, he used his great strength and weight to save himself.

 

For hours both these great creatures pulled and tugged in their desperate battle, and bit by bit the only thing that gave way was Elephant’s snout. With each pull and tug Elephant’s nose stretched a little. On and on went the battle and more and more Elephant’s nose stretched until Crocodile’s energy was spent. Exhausted after hours and hours of pulling and tugging, Crocodile suddenly let go of Elephant’s nose and slid back into the quiet pool. So sudden was his release that Elephant sprawled back in the sand, surprised by Crocodile’s surrender.

The other elephants gathered around, relieved at the young bull’s escape. But when they realized that he was not badly hurt, they started to laugh at him. The young bull was mortified by this, especially as his poor, torn nose was very tender and painful. When he looked at this reflection in a shadow pool nearby, however, he had to admit he was the strangest looking elephant he had ever seen.

Instead of a short snout he now had a long, rubbery trunk that stretched down to the ground. No matter what he did, he could not get it to shrink back to its normal size and he had to suffer further jeers and taunts from the other elephants.

 

As time went by the wounds healed and the pain subsided, but he was still left with an embarrassingly wobbly, useless trunk. He spent more and more time on his own, away from the herd. Eventually he came to terms with the fact that he was stuck with his strange new appendage. Slowly, but surely, he learned how to control his trunk and to put it to use.

He learned how to use it to make feeding and drinking much quicker and easier, allowing him more time for relaxation. The trunk was most useful in enabling him to cross rivers that were deeper than head height and to scent breezes to check for danger, or other elephants. He could pull down the most succulent fruits and leaves from the highest branches, uproot the tenderest grasses, and pop them all in his mouth! He could even pickup sticks to use as backscratchers to relieve the most awkward of itches!

The other elephants soon stopped jeering at the young bull when they saw what an advantage a trunk was. Rather than admit that they had been wrong, one by one they would sneak off to the crocodile’s pool and present their snouts for extension. They all considered the danger and discomfort of the operation worth it to gain the advantages of a marvellous, flexible trunk. No one knows what Crocodile thought of all these exhausting bouts, but one thing is certain, he still went hungry! To this day it is pointed out that all new-born elephants take time to learn how to use their wobbly, hosepipe trunks. They suckle from their mothers and kneel to drink from pans with their mouths, just as their ancestors did before they learnt how to master the use of their versatile trunks. (From When Elephant was King and other Elephant Tales from Africa by Nick Greaves)

 

Strangely enough the elephant and crocodile battle is part of Indian mythology too. For years I had heard my various cousins chant a mantra as part of their evening prayers. Some evenings after the prayer was said, my grandmother who was a fine artist could be persuaded to show off her party trick. She would draw three straight lines of one centimetre length on top of each other and within those three lines she would draw an elephant. An elephant that was less than a centimetre in height. And on other days we would persuade her to tell us an elephant story. Some were drawn from the Puranas and some she made up as she went.

It was when I grew a little older that I began to seek the source of the mantra. Once again the trail led to an elephant. Gajendra Moksha is a Puranic legend from the 8th Skandha of Bhagavad Purana, one of the most sacred books in Hinduism. And this particular segment is one of the more famous exploits of Lord Vishnu.

There was once an elephant named Gajendra who used to live in a garden called Rtumata which was created by Varuna. This garden was situated in the beautiful mountains of Trikutain. Gajendra ruled over all the other elephants in the herd. On a hot day, he proceeded with his herd to a lake to cool off in its fresh waters. Suddenly a crocodile living in the lake attacked Gajendra and caught him by the leg. Gajendra tried for a long time to escape from the crocodile’s clutches. All his family, relatives and friends gathered around to help him, but in vain. The crocodile wouldn’t simply let go. When they realized that ‘death’ had come close to Gajendra, they left him alone. He trumpeted in pain and helplessness until he was hoarse. As the struggle was seemingly endless and when the last drop of energy was also sapped, Gajendra called to god Vishnu to save him, holding a lotus up in the air as an offering. It is believed that Gajendra’s foot was held by the crocodile for over a thousand years. Hearing his devotee’s call and a prayer, Lord Vishnu rushed to the scene. He used his Sudarshana Chakra to separate the crocodile’s head from its body and Gajendra prostrated before the Lord. Vishnu informed Gajendra that he, in one of his previous births, was the celebrated King Indradyumna, a Vishnu devotee, but due to his disrespect to the great Sage Agastya, he was cursed and had to undergo this life.

Because Indradyumna was a chosen one, Lord Vishnu had him born as Gajendra and made him realize that there is something called, ‘Kaivalya’ which is beyond Svarga and Urdhva Loka. Indradyumna could attain Moksha finally when he (as Gajendra) left all his pride and doubt and totally surrendered himself to Vishnu.

The prayer made by Gajendra on this occasion became a famous hymn in praise of Vishnu called the Gajendra Stuti. [wikipedia]

 

With the change in technology, elephants stepped out of oral folklore to the big screen. Most people of my generation will never forget the scene with the baby elephants in Hatari. Or the vicarious thrills of imagining oneself in the place of Raju (Rajesh Khanna) in Haathi Mere Sathi. Malayalam cinema has used elephants extensively. But a true elephant film that treated the elephant as a complex character and bought into elephant folklore was a Malayalam film called Sindhura Cheppu (The Sindoor Box) made in 1971. It was an unusual plot developed around a problem elephant taken in by a mahout and tamed to submission with love rather than corporal punishment. However the mahout’s daughter develops a great fear for the elephant based on a prediction that it would kill people. The fear grows as the elephant’s has severe mood swings. The chilling climax is drawn from an elephant myth that an ant sent up an elephant’s trunk will drive it berserk causing it to die.

Thirty years later I saw the film again and the elephant of the film still left me bathed in a cold sweat. The elephant was as much as a character as the actors.

When the TV entered the drawing rooms of homes, much changed. What didn’t was the role of elephant in the mind of a Malayali. To the Keralite who cannot perhaps imagine a life without an elephant in the periphery of his vision now found a new series to replace grandma’s elephant tales E for elephant showcased the various domestic elephants of Kerala. It was the ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’, albeit for elephants.

Our lives have irretrievably changed but what stays a constant are some images. They represent a continuity from ancient times to the future. They symbolize nobility of thought and can teach us many life lessons.

The elephant to me is one such image. Lumbering and short-sighted, hunted down for their tusks and ill-treated in the name of religion, the elephant has had a long history of mistreatment. But one hopes that the elephant will survive and will not remain just a character in folklore.

 

* Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress, Lessons in Forgetting and Cut Like Wound. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Idris will be published in November 2013. She was awarded the Central Sahitya Akademi award for her contribution to children’s literature in 2013.

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