THE ELEPHANT HANDLER

Portrait of Rajasthani girl in colourful clothing, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

In a busy suburb in Mumbai, I was waiting for the cab when a young woman approached me. She inquired if I knew anybody of the Animal Welfare Board. I asked her what the matter was. She said a biker had trampled a cat’s leg broken. She wanted to inform the Board to take care of the hapless stray cat. Being new to the town, I told her to ask others. She hurried to the person next to me, inquiring.

As she went by, I looked at her closely. She was 20, wore salwar and kurta and had her oiled locks of hair tousled enough for a dozen sparrows to nest in.  The tattered end of her brick red salwar flapped at her paltry plastic slippers. Her rumpled blue kurta had many pea-size holes. She seemed heading from one households’ mopping, to the other. I wondered if she were possessed.

And, possessed she was!

She made me recall Jaan Baksh. He was one more possessed. He was an unread village man. I had met him by chance. I was in search of the causes of conflict of man with the elephant.  And I had found him in that search. He was a mahut – an elephant handler. He had been mahut for 45 years when we met. He was 60 and a pious Muslim. He held that elephant were as humane as we were. And he was mad keen on elephants.

The name of his elephant was Shiva. He would not eat before feeding his ward. He would not miss a day to bathe and scrub the animal. He would never fail to cut its toe-nails each fortnight. And he would not sleep at night if Shiva were awake in pain.

One evening there was an episode of a tiger-hunt. A number of captive elephants were to do the drive. Shiva was also the part of the herd. Jaan refused to cross a swollen river due to the smaller size of Shiva. Crossing would have wetted cushions on Shiva’s back. It would have made the animal sick. Jaan said he would rather wait for the boats than risk the health of his ward. And the boats were to arrive only the next morning. It was only then that the cushion of Shiva could go across the river.

The fellow mahuts warned him of tigers lying in wait. They mocked his madness about the wellbeing of a beast. Jaan laughed them off. They all left with their elephants. Jaan slept his night away in that tiger-infested grassland. Shiva guarded a snoring Jaan against the roaring tigers. The man and the beast trusted each other so well!!

But their friendship did not last long. Shiva did a mishap. The authorities ordered its killing. They asked Jaan to give a certificate that Shiva had gone mad. Jaan refused that. Rather he endorsed Shiva as normal. But they ignored Jaan’s claim. And they shot Shiva dead. The image of bullet-ridden Shiva falling on the ground shattered Jaan’s psyche. He resigned his post. And he went back to his village. He had resolved not to work with elephants any more.

But the mahut in him would not let him rest in peace. And he could not keep his resolution. Six years later, he left his home to be with elephants once more. He did not tell anyone about his leaving. He went back to his family 15 years later. They had all thought him long since dead. In the meantime, he had revived a young female elephant from its death bed. And he had trained 200 mahuts and as many calves.

Jaan knew elephants as well as Dr. Amal knew the bones in the body. Jaan was as mad about elephants as Rahman about his duty. He had stalled the funeral of his son to attend to his duty. Not many would do that.  Is it not it?

Jaan has since retired. He lives in a hut close to an elephant habitat. I wonder what a giant soul lies hidden in such a simple man. One of these days, Jaan would die. What a treasure trove of knowledge of elephants would die!

The honk of the cab jolted me out of my reverie. When I looked last at the girl, I saw her talking into her cell phone, agitation all over her. She had got the Board Official’s number, and got him.

If we wish to take care of hot issues, we would need persons who are mad about them.  They have to be as mad as Jaan and the girl about care for animals. We need them if we wish to undo global warming, make air and water usable, and set right a hoard of others.

I trust so long as such mad ones are around us, we have hope.  

Do we?

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