The Elephant Doctor (Short Story)
Author: Jeyamohan B
Translation: Vishvesh Obla
I can’t help getting annoyed picking up the phone when it rings at six O clock in the morning. I always sleep late. In this forest where except in the months of April and May when it is always raining, most people would go to sleep around 8 PM itself. The slumber of midnight falls on these villages around 7.30 PM itself!
The problem is that even the forest officials are asleep at that time. So, I take my jeep and go to a camp, pick up a few officials and go around the forest around 9 PM. I consider this as an important part of my work. It makes me feel like a Forest officer after the drudgery of the day when I have to wade through dull paperwork.
The telephone hung up. Unless there was something important no one calls in the morning in a forest. For, everyone in the forest offices knows the forest well. Who could it be? Was there any problem? But back to sleep, my senses were driving me. My thoughts were getting clouded and as I was in the verge of losing control and giving up, the telephone rang again.
Now I knew who the caller was and why he called me. I got excited. How could I forget it? Can I remember only the everyday routine of my work? I picked up the receiver. It was Anand at the other end. “You didn’t wake up yet?”, he asked. “No, I slept late last night”, I
said. It was cold. I pulled the blanket all over me as I stretched myself on the chair to continue talking with him.
“I knew it when the Cultural minister personally called me yesterday. I left immediately to see him. I had a scotch with him in his home garden. He was very impressed. Everyone in the committee was excited about it. He asked me if he could meet the Doctor personally. I told him that he was going to come here anyway to receive the award. He said that it was different and that he wanted to see him in his work environment. I asked him his convenient time to arrange for it”.
“So…?” “Well, everything is confirmed. The list has been okayed in the minister’s office and sent for the President’s approval. It will be on his table this morning and would be signed by 1 PM or 2 PM. The President doesn’t come to the office after his lunch. It will be on the press release at 4 PM and will be in the evening news at 5.30”.
I felt as if all the cells of my body burst like a bubble and that I was shrinking smaller and smaller till I disappeared. “Hey”, called Anand. I felt as if my voice was like a bubble in my throat and my attempt to answer only tried to burst it. “Thank You”, I could say that only in a feeble voice before I lost control of myself and burst into tears.
“Take it easy…” he said. I was trying to take control of myself. After a few emotional moments I said, “Thank You very much. I won’t forget this. Whatever my feelings are, it is immaterial. A wonderful thing has happened. Really, I am at a loss of words …” I was immersed in a deluge of feelings that overwhelmed me. It was as if a huge water tank above me burst open and poured its entire contents of cold water all over me. I felt like screaming, hitting something and dancing wild!
“Come on”, he said. I was now laughing and said, “I feel like dancing”. He laughed too and said, “Why don’t you? In fact, I am myself very much excited. It was eleven PM when I came home last night and I called you four times. You didn’t pick up the phone”. “I was in the forest”. “Right, that’s why I called you in the morning. I couldn’t help it though I knew it was too early. Actually, I couldn’t sleep the whole night…Nor could I speak about it to anyone before it got finalized”.
“You did a great job”, I said. “Well, this is our duty. We are paid only for this. But we do all kinds of unnecessary things. Only on rare occasions I feel like we are doing something related to our education. I should thank you for providing me an opportunity like this. I am feeling very content”. His voice was also breaking and I was now amused. “Hey, I think it is you who are going to cry now”. “Bye”, he snapped, and cut the phone.
For a while I was sitting dumb without knowing what to do. It was the first time I was feeling the weight of a contented mind. I felt I couldn’t stand up with that weight on me. After a few long breaths my mind became lighter. I lit the stove and made some black tea. I took it hot in a cup and opened the door and went outside. There was a faint light in the front-yard. Beyond that it was still night in the thick woods. The murmur of the forest was all around me.
The tea turned cold quickly. I was warming my hands rolling them on the cup and watching the pebbles in the front yard catch the morning sun. There was a crumbling sound on the roof of the house. A toddy cat looked at me from the edge. After watching me for a while it walked down the roof, got down through the pole that I used for tying a line to dry my clothes, and vanished into the jungle climbing the Teak tree at the other end of the line. I went inside and brushed my teeth. What can I do today? It is better to wait till evening. But I wanted to be with him. I felt that it was not a day to keep writing absurd letters. I wanted to be with him the whole day. I will take the transistor with me. When the news came, I should be the one to tell him. When he was least expecting it, I should fall at his feet and convey him my respects.
He should never know that I was behind it. He should know it only in course of time. What would he do if he knew it? He wouldn’t say anything. As is his habit, he might say “Thank you, very much” without seeing me, then smile at me a little later and turn back again. Or he might start talking about Byron or Kabilar without any context. That smile alone would be enough. It would be an acknowledgement that I also had human feelings. It would be like a gold coin on a beggar’s bowl.
I got into my sweater and a windcheater, pulled on my gloves and started my motorcycle. In the tourist quarters there were a few youth standing in their sweaters and monkey-caps. They were probably waiting for their jeep. They were least aware of the necessity of silence in a place as that. There were behaving like excited monkeys jumping and screaming.
I entered into the jungle roads. The leaves over my head were shedding water. The sound of my wheels on the dry leaves over the road alerted all the small animals and they started running around. In the distance, a Nilgiri Langur made the muffled sound of a trumpet. It was keeping a watch. Perched on the top of the tallest tree it looked around all directions.
Its muffled sound became faster and louder as I went near that tree. The other Langurs that sat in the lower branches hurriedly climbed to the top. I saw the dark tails of a few monkeys hanging from two trees. There should be around twenty monkeys. I could feel that they were all watching me. When I drove past them, the one that kept watch started making sounds in specific intervals. Hearing that sound the Sambars would come out of their hiding and start grazing again.
I went past the dam. There was a layer of steam on the surface. The metal road that went sliding along the dam was laid by the Britishers for riding on a horse. A jeep could go on it with difficulty, but not a motor-cycle. Four years before on that road where it met a slope, I came across the ‘Elephant Doctor’, Doctor Krishnamoorthy. I had joined Forest Services only two before. I had worked in Coonoor for a year, eight months at Kalakaad, two and half months at Coimbatore and I had come to Topslip.
Four days passed in trying to make sense of my office. The first major work came up when on a morning Marimuthu announced that the forest officials had found the carcass of an elephant. My boss and his assistants had left for the spot early in the morning.
I was a little late to arrive there after my bath. I didn’t realize the gravity of the news. I even stopped for a while in the grassland on my way and watched a group of Bisons grazing there. When I arrived at the spot after a bouncy ride over the horse lane scattered all over with rocks, I found that I was late. I asked Marimuthu who were there. In his elaborate style of conversation he replied that the DFO was there, for he was in the nearby guest house. And the ‘Elephant Doctor’ as well, for he lived in the Elephant camp. The elephant doctor, he explained, must have been the first to arrive.
That was the first time I heard the name ‘Elephant Doctor’. I guessed that it was the name of a veterinary doctor who was appointed at the Elephant Camp at Topslip. I started smelling the sickening stench as my jeep was nearing the spot. It hung like a layer that I had to pierce to get inside. As we drove further I felt that not only my nose but my entire body was revolted by it. My body was shaking with the repeated sensation of throwing up. I covered my mouth and nose tight with my hand-kerchief.
I threw up the moment I got down from the jeep. I couldn’t do anything for a while. When I stood up, I was feeling dizzy. But I didn’t want to show my weakness and hence I pretended to walk straight. The regular government employees always grudged officers like me recruited directly by the public service commission. While they had to climb the ladder of their career the hard way uphill, breathlessly fighting a fierce competition, we were thought of landing at the summit through an examination!
It is true too. We can function only through them. But we have to control them through our brain power. Though we were dependent on them we had to create the impression of the converse. We were trained for that. The powers that were above us and which controlled them needed us as a liaison. We were spies of some kind, a mouthpiece or even the lashing end of such powers.
Everyone in that small crowd was standing on a small rising on the ground with their faces covered in a hand-kerchief dipped in eau-de-cologne. I was given one too. I felt as if the inner membrane of my nose went aflame by the eau-de-cologne after wearing it. There was another wave of intense stench in the air. The small crowd parting, I saw what was before me. I couldn’t make sense of anything for a few moments. On a muddy pit around twenty feet in length and ten feet in breadth there stood an elderly man wearing gum boots and hat, holding a large knife. All over his dress, hands and face, he was covered with mud that was also dripping. It was as if he had dipped in that pit that contained an excretory material.
In a few moments I understood what it was. It was the rotten carcass of an elephant that died many days before. It was torn open and spread like an open tent on all four sides. All its legs were stretched on its sides. The trunk and the head showed up beneath its spread skin. Inside its body its rotten flesh looked simmering. I also noticed a few movements inside it. It gave an impression of mud boiling with bubbles. They were all worms. They were crawling all over him up to his knees. He was shaking them off his hands and neck as he worked.
I couldn’t stand there after seeing it. I backed out unable to fix my eyes on a sight as that. I didn’t know what happened. It was as if someone pulled the ground under my feet. I fell backwards. I heard alarmed voices carrying me to the jeep and laying me there. When I tried to raise my head, I threw up on the person who was carrying me. My hands that were holding him were shivering. I closed my eyes again. It was as if I was falling into an endless abyss.
“Take him to his room and let him rest”, the District Collector was saying. They laid me in the back seat and took me home. Whenever I opened my eyes the foliage above me appeared like the layer of water that was green colored with algae matter passing behind me. The bright sun that came in between the leaves glared my eyes. I sat up suddenly. Sitting on the seat, I looked at the floor of the jeep. I shuddered mistaking a cigarette butt for a worm. I shook my shirt and the seat. Unsure yet, I removed my wind cheater and shook it. I didn’t feel like wearing it back on.
I came back to my room and went to my bed. “Can I make tea?” Marimuthu asked. I refused. I had the constant sensation of throwing up. I closed my eyes. I tried to force my memories elsewhere. But the huge dissected carcass kept looming in my vision. The carcass with the dark chunks of its rotting flesh, and beneath it, the bones and ribs still retaining their shape! I twisted and turned. No, let me think of something else. But, it was in vain.
I could have eventually fallen asleep. But I awoke alarmed dreaming of falling into a pool filled with worms and drowning in it. I was drenched in sweat and was shivering. I got up, opened my wardrobe, took out the the whiskey bottle, and looked for a glass. I mixed it with some water in the tea cup and gulped it. I was badly shaken. I kept on drinking. It was four times the quantity I would normally drink. My stomach burned. My hiccups only brought the acid to my mouth and made things worse.
I start feeling as if my neck cannot support my head anymore. I lay down on my back. The roof appeared to have slid down a so close that I could touch it! My hands and legs felt as if they were apart from my body. Sleep was weighing hard on my eyelids. My mouth was constantly feeling bitter. I felt like getting to drink some water. The thought didn’t seem to connect with my body. I lay down helpless!
I woke when a worm slowly climbed on me and rubbed on my face. It should be midnight. The door was locked. Marimuthu had set the mosquito net over me. When I stood up, my legs were shaking like rubber. I held the wall for support, went to the toilet and peed. Holding the wall all along, I walked to the kitchen. When I saw the food in a closed container, I felt hungry.
Sitting at the dining table, I started eating some food. Even before half way through it, the entire quantity of rice looked like white worms. I threw up right on it. I dumped the plate in the sink and rinsed my mouth. On a sudden impulse, I started slamming my head with my hands. I felt like rushing in my car to Pollachi and further drive to Tirunelveli and to Nanguneri and cry in my mom’s laps. Shaking my head, I kept muttering, “I am dying”. Tears rolled from my eyes.
I finished drinking the remaining whiskey in a frenzy, though my lungs, stomach and nostrils burned, and tears were flowing. I sat in my bed waiting for sleep to overcome me. I was feeling the worms all over my hands and legs. Their mere touch burned my skin and sent a shiver in my spine. My bed seemed made of worms. I fell on the worms and got buried in them.
The next day when I went to my office, I enquired about the Elephant Doctor and found details about him. Everyone had a story to say about him. Dr. V. Krishnamoorthy  came there as a veterinary doctor thirty years before. His duty was to provide medication for the wild and domesticated animals there. But slowly he became a specialist in treating elephants. After some renown as an authority on elephants in Tamilnadu Forest department, he was sought for consultation wherever there was a problem with an elephant. Not only in India, but all over the world as well.
I was told that Dr.Krishnamoorthy could have done surgical procedures for more than a thousand elephants. He had conducted delivery for more than three hundred elephants. He had done post-mortem for hundreds of elephants. In fact, he was the one who created the methodology for doing post-mortem on elephants. He had successfully implanted metal bones for fractured ones in more than ten occasions.
It was the regulations that Dr.Krishnamoorthy created for treating elephants that are used today by the Indian Forest Department as guidelines. I was told that similar guidelines based on his formulation are being used for treating the Rhinos in Kaziranga forests. He was known as Dr.K to all those all over the world who had an interest or did research in elephants. He has been mentioned in hundreds of books. The internationally famous wildlife documentary producer Harry Marshall had produced a documentary titled Dr.K for BBC. He was a living legend.
When I went to the elephant camp two weeks later, Dr.K passed me in a jeep the opposite direction. When I gave way for his jeep, he smiled at me and asked Marimuthu to bring him some ginger when he came to see him. He smiled at me one more time before he left. He had a long face without a moustache. His forehead was an extension of his bald head that had dense grey hair on both sides. He had a firm nose and the enthusiastic eyes of a curious child. There was some hair protruding from his ears. There was a deep line on both sides of his small mouth that made his face look intense, but his smile with his well-formed teeth was winsome.
Only after he left I realized that I didn’t smile back at him, nor did I say a Hello to him. I cursed myself for that. “What Sir?”, asked Marimuthu. “Ants”, I said. Marimuthu started elaborating: “Yes, Sir. The flower is covered with it. If it falls on you, it will sure bite you. Though it is a small ant, you will have a big swelling.” I had been thinking of him all the time for the past fifteen days. He was there in my conscience all the time. But when I met him in person, I lost my senses. It was like the shock one receives when one sees a picture from a book suddenly smiling at you.
What would he have thought? I was a higher ranked officer than him. Would he have thought I was arrogant because of my position? Would he have been hurt by it? From his facial reactions, I guessed that he didn’t care for all such things. I wanted to meet him again and convey him the respect I held for him. In fact, I wanted to ask the driver to turn the jeep but I didn’t have the nerves for it.
Ten days went so. In those ten days I had offered my apologies to him in my mind in hundred different ways. But I felt I didn’t have the nerves to speak with him in person. Twice I went as far as his house in my jeep but returned. I didn’t understand the reason for my hesitation. In that forest, he was loved by everyone and was also close with them. Half of them got medicines from him for their fevers and injuries. Every morning I saw tribal old woman in old shawls carrying their bottles to him to get their medicines.
“They has no disease, Sir. They are going to him for the biscuits and sweet flour he gives,” said Marimuthu. The office clark Shanmugam said, “True, Sir. He will enquire about their health and if these women blabber something he would listen to them patiently and say a few good things. They are going for that. Whatever, he is a blessed man. You can’t refuse it. When I had a blister in my legs he removed it, gave me some medicines and cured me.”
“They are all medicines meant for the cows, Sir,” said Marimuthu. “What?” “Yes, Sir” agreed Shanmugam, “It is the same medicines for both animals and men. Only the dosage would vary. Sometimes he would just inject some water and give some herbs.” Marimuthu continued, “When he can treat such huge beings as elephants, what is so surprising that he could treat human beings who are so small in comparison?”
I once saw his jeep passing the employees quarters and all the children merrily following it and excitedly calling him by the name he was known there. He stopped the jeep and asked each child something to which they were answering him with glee amidst laughter. I shut down my jeep and watched it till he left.
I was getting more and more impressed by such images of his simplicity and dedication, but these impressions were keeping me away from him as well. I wondered if he would look at me from another time frame I had no knowledge of. Something like an Ashoka, Akbar or a Gandhi speaking to me? How would I face it? I didn’t have the right words. But I prepared them to speak with him, in various patterns. In course of time, I started enjoying them and would immerse myself in them.
I thought I would come across him by accident, and so it happened. One day when I was viewing the forest I heard a whirring sound and I looked at the sky. I was surprised to see a Great Hornbill. My eyes followed it. It sat on the branch of a tall tree. I had known this bird, but I hadn’t seen it. It was a bird that looked like a bald man who wore a black coat over a white dhoti. It had the size of a big turkey.
When it came flying by and settled down on the tree, its wing span was very impressive. Its beaks looking like a big wooden spoon inverted on its head, it was squawking as it sat on the branch. I knew that this bird would always be with its mate. The one on the branch was a male and the female was somewhere around.
Looking for the female, I found it sitting peacefully in the bushes. I couldn’t see it clearly. I moved around and something strange happened. It was like an electric shock. My body and my forearms had a burning sensation. I wasn’t sure if it was pain or irritation. But the moment I saw the plant that touched my feet, I realized the cause of my trouble. Its leaves were like those of a Hibiscus plant but were thicker and had minute thorns. Was it a Senthatti plant?
I didn’t know what to do. Senthatti was a small plant. This one was up to my waist and had big leaves. Was it some other poisonous plant? I felt as if the itchy feeling was growing more and more every moment. More than that, it was the fear that overcame me. I went to the housing quarters that were nearby and asked Marimuthu. He said, “Let’s go to the Elephant Doctor”. I asked him, “Can we try any other Doctor?” He said, “For that we have to go to the city. He is nearby. In five minutes he can give you an injection and you will be alright. You have come from the town, but we have been living here all the time. Nothing of this kind happens to us”.
Even before I refused he had started the jeep and started driving towards Dr.K’s house. It is all for good, I thought. I now had a valid reason to see him. But I was excited. In the expectation of meeting him, I even forgot the irritation I was suffering from.
As expected, Dr.K was in his clinic, which was a tin shed. There were a few reindeers which were walking around excitedly inside a cage. Outside the shed a sad looking elephant was picking up a sugar-cane from a bunch patiently and chewing it. The mahout was sleeping on a bench near it.
Dr.K was squatting and carefully drawing something in his pipette. When he saw me, he smiled and continued his work. Marimuthu told him that I was bit by the Senthatti plant. He was elaborating that I had entered into the forest, that such plants don’t affect him, and since I was new to that place I was having the itch, but he wouldn’t have the same, and that he had requested and brought me there.
Dr.K turned back at me and said, “This one is a plant in this forest. It is a different version of Senthatti. I can give you an anti-histamine injection. But if you prefer so, you can keep washing it with ice water. Either way, it will be alright in an hour.” He kept the pipette in a fridge and checked my arms and waist. “Nothing wrong. In one hour it will subside. It will be fully gone by tomorrow. Did you scratch?”
“Yes,” I said. He smiled. “Let’s do one thing. Try not to scratch. It will be itching, but watch intensely that itch. Why is your mind alarmed? Why do you want to be cured immediately? Think of all such things. Can you do that? I will give an injection if you insist.” I said “No, I don’t want it. I will do what you said.” “Good, let’s have a tea”, he said.
“What happened to these reindeers?’, I asked. “Some infection. That’s why I wanted to bring them to me. I want to see what happens in a four or five days. Just now I have taken a culture sample. I have to send it to Coimbatore. Are you from the South?”, he said. “Yes, Tirunelveli…Naanguneri.” “My mom’s native is also that. One of the NavaThirupathis…The Perumal there has a beautiful name. I remember it … Magaranedunguzhaikaathan.” I said it was Thenthirupperai, the name of that city in the NavaThirupathis the Perumal resided at. “Yes, been there?” he asked. “Many times. It is a beautiful Temple”. “Yes, there is a big Agraharam…still retains the antiquity. Please sit down”, he requested.
He was making a tea for me. Lighting the stove, he continued, “It is a good habit to observe pain. There is no meditation equal to that. Pain will clearly show who we are and how our mind and intelligence functions. What is pain? It is a different state from our normal state. But our mind rebels to come back to that normal state. That is the complexity behind pain. Half of the pain in pain would vanish if we learned to observe it. Well, there are unbearable pains no doubt. They are only proofs of the fact that man is not a great being and that he is only just another animal.”
He brought the tea and sat down near me and continued: “In fact, man is the weakest animal. If you witness the majesty with which other animals can tolerate their pain, you will get emotional. Even if the pain was mortal, the elephants don’t scream or writhe. Its eyes would shrink and a few parts of its body alone would shake. It will be so patient that you can conduct delivery without any anesthesia. What a being! God must have created it when he was in a good mood.”
I remembered having heard that that he would invariably start talking about elephants in a few moments after he spoke with anyone, and was amused by it. “Not only the elephant, but also every other animal as the bison and the Cheetah. They know it,” he continued, “I have conducted delivery on a cow. Only its eyes would be rolling and its head bent down. They all know that this is how life is…only Man makes a big scene of it. He would start running for medicines. Tries something or the other and creates more problems…he is a pathetic being. By the way, do you read books?”
“I do,” I said and he continued. “You should read Gandhiji. He is the only thinker who has the power to influence the thoughts of this generation. He would have said something original on everything he wrote on. My favorite writers are Gandhiji and Sri Aurobindo. And I read whatever I can lay my hands on.” He handed me the cup of tea as he was talking. A sudden thought shook me. I couldn’t hold the cup in my hands. I felt as if it was dirty outside and had a layer of worms inside.
What a wretched thought? He is a doctor and would know how to keep his hands clean. And that autopsy was conducted a month before. But, there could be dirt in his finger nails… What is happening to me? I was unconsciously rubbing a small speck of dirt on the cup. I couldn’t take the cup to my mouth. Is he noticing it? I was mentally sick. He doesn’t have any such horrors. But he might have touched the excretory stuff of some animal even a few minutes before. Did he wash his hands? He should have, but …
I closed my eyes and gulped the entire cup of tea. My throat and tongue burned by its heat. “Oh, my…” the doctor exclaimed, “Has it gone cold? I will make another cup. I drink tea very hot, but you seem to drink hotter than mine.” As the tea went inside, I had a thought arising. Why such horror? I have the same excretory stuff inside me too. The same body fluids, mucous, fecal matter and urine. I am also like them all. But …
“You fainted that day, right?” he asked. I was surprised that he was able to read my mind. “For thirty years I have been advocating post-mortem on every animal that dies in the forest. However rotten it is. It wasn’t so before. One in three big animals that die is through murders. The reason is man,” he continued, “In olden days half of the animals would die before any transmittable disease started spreading.” “What if the carcass had rotten too much…” I asked. He said, “There should be some evidence. There is a methodology to identify it. I wrote it.” I said I knew that.
“You were scared by the worms, right? Many people get scared by worms. If they observed why they were scared, they can get over it. One can get over horror, suspicion and cowardice through introspection. You should have seen a black colored fly the size of a tamarind seed. It should be there in your house too”. “Yes,” I said, “I live with them. I have seen them falling in my food too. I take care to check my food before I eat and drive them away if I find them.” “The worm that you saw that day was the baby of that fly. Why be horrified with the baby?” he asked.
I was taken aback. “All worms are like infants. They can’t walk or fly. They just keep on crawling. The only thing they know is eating. They keep on doing that. It is like our children…If you compare with an infant and eat accordingly you would have to drink thirty liters of milk a day”, he continued, “They have that command, that is, to eat quickly whatever they get and grow up.” He stopped and asked me, “Does it appear like crack-pot philosophy?” I said I didn’t find it so. He continued his discourse.
I talked with him that whole day. I hadn’t seen a conversationalist as him before. His conversation touched on humor, literature, philosophy and science in turns. I felt like what James Bond did as I listened to him: hop into a chopper from a car, fly a while, jumped on a boat, sail in the lake and then sped in a motorcycle parked ashore. From that day onwards, I met him at least thrice a week. He would give me books and discuss them.
 Kabilar is one of the well known poets of Sangam period of Tamil Literature (600 BC to 300 AD).
 Read http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/the-elephant- men/introduction/2312/ for an article by Harry Marshall (for PBS.org) that has some information on Dr Krishnamoorthy.