In the land of Lord Ganesha, the elephant is both worshipped and viewed as a common commodity, a member of the workforce. I have spent endless hours in and around the forests of southern Karnataka and northern Kerala, and come across my fair share of both wild and domestic elephants. While many captive elephants are well cared for by their mahouts, others are cruelly whipped and chained, mere echoes of the majestic, intelligent pachderms that wander wild in those same forested lands.

This piece is written from the perspective of a captive elephant who has finally been pushed to her breaking point.

A young captive elephant and its caretaker in Mudumalai TR, Tamil Nadu

The Strings of Time

The white-hot singe of pain is an old friend now. He used to stop his hand before, if my memory proves me correct. But now, he lets his arm swing freely, making contact with my side. Sometimes it is my leg, because he knows mine are particularly weak after that bout of sickness I had many monsoons ago. It’s funny the things he remembers. I’m used to being the one who never forgets. But in his own way, he doesn’t forget either. He remembers where it hurts the most to feel the iron rod. He remembers the glint of fear in my eyes when he levels that red dancing flower on a stick with my foot and gives the command for me to raise my leg. I am a puppet, after all. A voiceless puppet dangling by the strings of time.

I remember his hand being gentle when my insides were roiling in unbearable pain. He walked me constantly then, back and forth in the pouring rain. I was blind with the pain and he was blinded by rain and darkness, but together, our steps were stronger, more certain. With one hand on my neck, he guided me forward. His hand was so soft and comforting. I was certain that he would stay this way. How could someone who had such a hold upon me possibly let me go? In those days, he would feed me bundles of fresh grass and bananas, oh, so many bananas. He would leave me unshackled, allow me to follow him around the courtyard as he drew water from the large ditch in the earth and hung out his wet skin to dry. I used to enjoy prodding the back of his head when he was bent over his curiously-deep water hole, pulling out buckets of cold, refreshing water. He would laugh and swat me, but there was only kindness in his hands in those days.

I wonder why those days are a thing of the past.

An up close view of an elephant’s eye

The whip slaps against my side again and this time, I cry out in pain as the wire cuts deep into my wrinkled skin. He relentlessly swats me again and again, shouting a variety of commands that I have faithfully obeyed for far too long.  Crimson beads trail down my sides, picking up speed as they rain down on the damp soil. The shackles around my legs are smouldering coals, and my ears wave in agitation, fanning this slowly-burning anger into sky-high flames. He is shouting curses at me, waving his hands. Something is wrong. But, now that I come to think of it, nothing has been right in a very long time. More and more often, I find myself staring out into the distance at the emerald hills where my relatives roam freely. Perhaps there is room for me out there. At any rate, there no longer seems to be any room for me in the human heart.

He is so puny in front of me. Why am I still so afraid of him? What hold does he, and his race, have upon me?

The stick rises before my eyes again, and something inside of me snaps. Blood rushes into my head, dizzyingly freeing. Maybe he senses that something is amiss, for his eyes widen and the arm holding the stick goes slack. The rage is building, a volcano that is bound to erupt. There is a sweet singing in my head, louder than the buzzing of the flies that swarm around me as I cool myself in the mud. It drowns out the small part of my brain that remembers the kindness in his hands, the way he used to touch my forehead reverently with his own.

One of the captive elephants in Nagarahole TR

The strangled trumpet that erupts from me is unbridled, untamed, and I rear up with a powerful jerk. The puny chains which have held me back for so long no longer can contain me. They cut deeper into my legs, but the fire is burning, flames leaping forth. No amount of water or air can douse them now. He stumbles backwards as I lock my gaze with his, challenging every moment that he believed I was his to control. The burn of his whip, after all, cannot overcome the fire coursing through my veins. As I surge forward, he falls backwards, landing hard on his back. The whip is no longer in his hands. He raises a hand, words forming on his lips as sweat beads on his swarthy forehead. I can smell the fear emanating from him as my shadow sweeps over his lithe, bony body. His eyes, however, never leave mine. He is saying something, repeating it, but the words are drowned in the ocean of my freedom.

The crunch of his bones beneath my immense weight is what brings me to a sudden halt.

That, and the terrible scream that slices through my rage, washing away the embers in a cascade of shock and pain.  I shake my head, suddenly desperate to clear the clouds from my sight. Where is he? What have I done?

His eyes are still on me, though the light in them is rapidly fading. No longer is there any irritation or frustration in their depths. I can see myself in their depths, even from my great height. When did he become so small? He always seemed a looming presence, one I could not escape. But now, he is escaping me too fast.

There is no satisfaction in this revenge.

A muddy elephant in Rajaji NP, Uttarakhand

He is saying my name. There is no anger in his voice, no strength left in this man, who was my compass since time immemorable. His blood is spreading, pooling in the dirt. His body is broken. His spirit, too, I have crushed, just as he crushed mine.

But he is not truly cruel, is he? For he had saved me from men far crueller than he had ever been. He gave me a new life, albeit a life in chains. But isn’t everyone chained in their own way? My brethren in the wild are chained to a fate over which they have no control; mankind continues to destroy their land, building dams and bridges and hutments where the jungle once stood tall. We all are forced to dance to the tune of a higher power. In their case, it is mankind at large. In my case, it was a man.

And even now, as he tries to touch my foot, I cannot help but keen a low mourning tune for this man who once was my world and who will always have some hold upon my soul. For, although he cast me in chains, he was once the only man who gave me freedom. I danced willingly to his tune once. Now, I hang alone by the strings of time.

There is no peace in the aftermath of my madness.

A family of wild elephants near N. Belathur village in Nagarahole TR

Further Reading and Viewing:

  1. A gorgeous video of elephants in the wild can be found here
  2. An informative article on human-elephant conflict in Kerala and compensation for the same
  3. An article by the super-cool Janaki Lenin on human-elephant interactions!

You can also check out my previous posts featuring elephants (below):

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