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Growing Up in India. Dreams of Elephants

By Thomas Palakeel / February 8, 1989



FOR a middle-class boy growing up in the 1960s, in a Roman Catholic pocket of the southern Indian state of Kerala, the most acceptable ambition was to become a missionary. My mother was probably thinking that I might even become a bishop. Once, as I was pretending to be asleep, I overheard her whisper to my sisters that I was the most innocent of her boys, that my face itself was the manifestation of innocence, that I really had the Great Call, the Vocation. But I had decided to become an elephant hunter. The autobiography of a walrus-mustached elephant hunter named Ittan Mathewkutty, being serialized in the Sunday paper, had such an impact on me that I started dreaming about dropping out of school and going away with a mahout. When my cousin ran away from home, I envied him and shocked everyone at home by describing him as a brave boy.

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Once I followed a domestic elephant a few miles and finally worked up enough courage to talk to the mahout about my interest in becoming an elephant hunter like Ittan Mathewkutty. The sinister-looking mahout smiled as he chewed betel nuts, exhibiting all his teeth dripping with red betel juice, but he did not say a word. Except for his periodic commands to the huge animal walking ahead of us with about a ton of palm leaves tucked in between its tusks (its dinner), the whole atmosphere was quiet.

About an hour later, we reached a river that was drying up very early in the summer. The mahout asked the elephant to step into the water. The animal turned around and looked at me with its tiny eyes, laid down the palm leaves, and obediently entered the pool. The water level rose and soaked my feet. I backed up. The mahout also stepped into the water. With a coconut husk, he started scrubbing the endless black mass submerged in the greenish water. I observed him studiously, admiring his hard work; soon he started wiping sweat off his forehead. When my legs ached, I perched on the low branch of a jackfruit tree and watched the mahout make the elephant turn sides and scrub the other side.

After the elephant was bathed, the mahout himself took a dip in an upper corner of the pool. When the majestic black elephant, with pink spots on its massive earlobes and humungous trunk, and the long, well-rounded, swordlike tusks shining after the wash, emerged from the pool, I applauded in great joy. I knew that I would certainly dedicate my life for one such indescribable beauty.

This time the mahout looked up to the tree I was perched on and smiled: ``What do you think?''

``My dear tusker,'' I said.

``This one belongs to the gods.'' The mahout meant that the elephant was the property of a Hindu temple.

``I want to become a mahout,'' I said.

``Didn't you want to become an elephant hunter awhile ago?'' The man laughed.

``That's when I grow up,'' I said.

``These boys!'' he said. ``Go home and study.''

``Could you give me an elephant hair?'' I asked.

Now the mahout was buckling up the huge metal chain elephants wear around their backs. I loved the deep clanging of these chains, and I heard this sound often in my dreams.

``An elephant hair to make a ring for my mother,'' I added.

The mahout smiled again, unsheathed his fierce-looking knife with his right hand, grabbed the elephant's moving tail with his left, and cut out a long hair from the end of the tail. He handed it to me with a smile. ``Go home and do your homework.''

As I stood there gazing at the miraculous, strong, wirelike elephant hair resting on my palms, the mahout walked ahead, uttering those mysterious commands which the noble animal obeyed like a child. And I ran home with the elephant's hair.

The elephant's hair had provoked serious discussions in our family about my divine future. My sisters confirmed that I wouldn't settle for anything less than the immortality of the walrus-mustached elephant hunter. And I was banned from reading the autobiography of Ittan Mathewkutty and the Mandrake the Magician cartoons.

The censorship was painful, especially because I was feeling deprived of heroes to identify with and to mold a fanciful world around. The previous several years' heroes, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, and Michael Collins, were not in the newspapers anymore. Man's historic landing on the moon had become just another date in history. However, I could always go back to my Apollo 11 album that I had created with black and white pictures cut out of newspapers and magazines.