Growing Up in India. Dreams of Elephants

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.

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.

My favorite ones were the three family photos: I admired the Armstrong-Aldrin-Collins boys and girls, revered the wives, and deified the great astronaut trio in those pictures. The picture of Edwin Aldrin descending the ladder of the lunar module never failed to intrigue me. There was another newspaper picture of the trio in Bombay a few months after the landing on the moon, and this particular picture made me impatient about my boyhood. I wished to grow up fast.

The tension about me at home was aggravated one night when I did not return from my father's village store, where I was sent to pick up groceries. On my way back, I met a gang of Hindu boys who were going to a temple festival. Even though Christian boys were not welcomed to enter the Hindu temple, my good friends invited me to join them. Though I was taught in catechism classes horrible things about the myriads of Hindu gods, I decided to follow my friends to the festival.

When I returned after midnight, my father asked my mother not to feed me: The punishment was first of all for going to the Hindu temple, and then for returning home late.

Ashamed by the punishment, I went to bed, but my mind was filled with the vivid scenes of the festival: decorated elephants bearing Hindu icons wrapped in red silk, a dozen drummers orchestrating the loudest ritual tunes, conch blowers, the Brahman priests, two old men fanning the deity atop the elephant with a pair of exquisite fans made of feathers, women dressed in golden-brocaded saris leading the procession with oil lamps, and thousands watching their lord pass by with attentive devotion.

In the morning, I declared my fasting protest to the whole family and hid myself in the attic. I was seriously planning to starve myself to death. I had read in my textbook how Gandhi did this and brought the British to their knees. When I didn't go down to the kitchen, turning down both breakfast and lunch, my mother came to the attic door late in the afternoon and said that she accepted defeat.

I clambered down the ladder without speaking a word. My sisters were all watching this from different vantage points. Lunch was ready for me on the table.

``This child hasn't eaten anything for the last 24 hours,'' my mother said as she served more curries on my plate. After I had eaten a few rice balls dipped in the curry, my mother asked my sister Molly to bring a banana for me as a dessert.

Molly went up the ladder and screamed, staring into the attic where only a bare banana stalk was hanging from the roof beam: ``Mom, he ate all the bananas!''

Everyone in the household laughed and rushed to the dining room to see the new Gandhi. My mother laughed, too. I didn't. When my father came home from the store that night, my mother told him about my fasting and about the two dozen bananas that had disappeared from the attic. My father also laughed, but he said that if I was let out freely into the village anymore, I might end up like a filthy mahout: low class, crude, immoral, eventually poor.

When everyone talked about my mahout-heroes in such abysmally low terms, it made me wonder what could be more adventurous than becoming the absolute master of an elephant.

In the tempestuous monsoon at the end of that summer, our century-old school building collapsed. In the new school year, about two-thirds of the students were to be accommodated in the Catholic parish hall and the rest in the small auditorium at the Hindu temple.

I learned that my parents were planning to send me to an English school. I hoped to avoid going to the school by winning my mother's confidence. I would bribe her with a secret gift: a ring made of fine gold, threaded around the elephant's hair. But my parents wanted to save me from class degradation and elephant worship that threatened my future. Soon I left the safety of Thidanad and my Malayalam world and was sent to the English school.

Tomorrow, Palakeel's story continues with ``The English School'' and ``The Smell of the Earth''


The writer grew up on a rubber plantation in Thidanad, a village in the heart of India's Kerala state. He has published articles and short stories in both his native Malayalam and English. Palakeel received an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University at Spokane. He is pursuing his doctorate at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and finishing his first novel, `The Rock Sutra.'

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