The Elephant Doctor (Short Story)
Author: Jeyamohan B
Translation:  Vishvesh Obla

I slowly got used to the forest animals through him. I learned how to climb up the Kumki elephant[1] pushing myself through its folded legs to its forehead and take a ride on it in the forests. It never ceased to surprise me to see an elephant measure its height along with the one who was riding on it. I touched the legs of a bear in respect when Dr.K once tied a bandage on an injured one. I gathered the droppings of the Sambars as samples for Dr.K’s study. In a month I had acquired the sensibility to treat worms as the infants of insects.

I would feel amazed to see the force of life in the fat worms that ate ceaselessly and kept crawling all the time. Were they little specks of life? They gave me flashes of knowledge that this universe was filled with an unknowable wonder. Their sole command was to eat. The wings and the eggs are inside those small beings. It possessed a collective conscience that was beyond human imagination to face every adversity, fight against it and succeed in living.

Dr.K would say that man shouldn’t fight with insects. The biggest mistake man did was to compare himself with insects as if they were seperate entities, whereas they had a collective intelligence and consciousness. There were millions of insect species that renewed themselves everyday in numbers and kinds. In sheer numbers they were a bigger population than that of man. The insect that fought against the pesticide was not a single life, but a swarm itself.  And the collective mind of the swarm as well. It will easily resist the pesticide. I would take a white worm in my hand. When it crawled on my arm, I felt the complex sensation of holding an infant. It was a soft and very simple form of life. But in it resided the endless possibilities and the wonderful energy of life. It was a representative of the great force that was behind all forms of life. Occasionally, I would bring the worm near my lips and look at its eyes — the eyes that did not see anything but food. But I would feel that it knew me. It had a micro-eye. And through that, the insect kingdom looked at me. I would pass it a smile. It was probable that it would eat me too to grow. It was okay. In this earth he and I were the same. I would feel like kissing it.

Dr.K had a great fascination for literature. Though he would never turned back any old tribal woman without treatment, nor postponed even for one day the treatment of any animal, he still found the time to publish research articles in scientific journals of international acclaim. The magazines that contained his articles were arranged neatly in his book-case. While the other articles in such magazines would be in a strictly scientific idiom that was hard to follow, his articles would be in a cheerful tone mixed with gentle humor and interspersed with beautiful poetry. Byron was his favorite poet.

Once when I went with him into the forest, he waved his hands for the driver to stop the jeep. In a bush that he pointed his fingers at, I could see the ears of a Wild dog. I understood that it was spying on us. He pointed me another spot. There was another Wild dog there. The entire picture became clear to me soon. There were six of them spread out in six directions safeguarding something in the centre.

“It is probably their chief or one in labor lying immobile there,” said the doctor in English. With his eyes fixed in that spot he whispered, “Please be here. Don’t move or raise your hands. I will go alone and see what was going on.” I didn’t want to let him go alone. He told me that he was familiar to them. But I further tried to prevent him saying, “I have heard that the wild dogs are dangerous.” “Yes, they are. But this is my duty,” he got down the jeep and started walking towards them.

A cold breeze passed over me. I touched the small pistol that I carried in my pocket. Its cold metal comforted me. The doctor climbed over the slope and went close to them. The first one in the bush raised its head and looked at him with its ears folded in the front. As he got closer, it pulled fully its nose and observed him. The other dogs were silently closing on him from both sides. In a few moments he was surrounded by the six dogs.

Dr.K went closer to the first one and stood without moving. Both him and the dog stood as if they were rapt in a silent prayer. Then the dog bent fully and came crawling towards him. It smelled him stretching its face. After a quick foot back it smelled him again in the same manner. It was making strange noises. All the other dogs were alert with their heads held straight.

The first one came close to him and started licking his boots. It placed his legs on him and smelled his hands. I could see its body language changing.  Its body relaxed and its tails started wagging. With its eyes on him and its tails wagging, it walked sideways for a while ran a little further and then came galloping towards him, stopped near him and ran back again to do the same. It seemed as if it treated the doctor as a special guest and expressed its happiness in that manner. That was how it probably expressed its joy.

I could see the tails of the other dogs wagging as well. A different dog now took the position of the first while the other four went back to their positions. Dr.K was bent and looking at something in the bush. He sat down on the ground. I could only hear some sounds that puppies make. He returned after half an hour. He got in the jeep and ordered to leave.

“What happened, Sir?” I asked. “Its chief was lying there wounded,” he said. “A cheetah must have attacked it. It had ripped its left leg. It might have torn the bone too.” “What can we do?”, I asked. “We need not do anything. It is their world and their lives. We can only look for a couple of things. If it was man-made, we have to find who did it and bring him to justice. Or if it had any contagious disease, we should take the necessary action immediately.”

“Won’t it die, if we left it like that?”, I asked. “It won’t die. But it won’t be the chief anymore. The one who took me to him would probably become the chief,” he said. “Why don’t we treat him with some medicines?” I asked further. Dr.K laughed. “What medicines? Our usual antibiotics? Do you know the resistance level of wild animals?  If we get them used to antibiotics, we will have to construct primary health centers even inside the forests, one in every three kilometers distance.”

“It quite amazed me to see the dog recognizing you,” I said. “What do you know about a dog? It is such a Divine animal. Man thinks so high of himself. He thinks that animals don’t have a soul or any rational sense. And in the heaven and the God that he created with his despicable intelligence he has no place for animals! Nonsense!… Dr.K was angry when he said that. “There is a poem by Byron titled Epitaph to a Dog[2] . Have you read it?”

“No,” I said. His face was still flushed with anger. He started reciting the poem as if he were chanting an incantation:

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth…

These lines became imprinted in my mind as a reminder of his face from that moment through the animation I saw in his face as he expressed it.

But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone…

I wondered if these lines were the message of his life itself. From that moment onwards I became aware of the bondage through friendship defining the animal’s soul that animated its entire being and seemed to be telling me, “I am yours. You are me. You can rely on me, as you would, on any God, you believe. For, if there is a belief of a divinity, I can only be an overflowing drop of it”.

There was a vile human being near the dog, looking at the skies entirely oblivious of it and yearning for something. It was me — yearning for power, pleasure, distinctions, the various ways to attain them, the false faces I had to put on and the meaningless words I had to utter. Man, vain insect: I could hear Byron’s roar through Dr.K’s angry face. With the roar of lightning and thunderbolts, the skies seem to point a finger at man and say:

Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy words deceit!

My senses went numb and my eyes filled with tears. I felt ashamed at myself. It was as if I was stinking with dirt covered all over me. I wish I could shake myself off all the dirt in me as if I could remove a dirty shirt and gallop all over the pristine grasslands. The wind and the sun would then embrace me as one of them.  There would still be pain and disease. And, death as well. But there would be nothing vile. Nothing, base.

Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!

I couldn’t continue driving the jeep. Tears were flowing down my cheeks. Dr.K was sitting motionless, his eyes averting me.If you want to see man’s depraved nature in its stark reality, you should be in a forest. The tourists who come there would mostly be educated people and would also be well-placed in their professions. They come from their cities carrying their liquor and spicy snacks. All their way they would be eating and drinking. They would throw up, they would blare their horns in the silent slopes, they would play their stereo players in the loudest volume to accompany their unruly dance, they would even scream profane words at the silent mountain space.

They would insult every wild animal. They would feed the monkeys fruits that had chili powder inside them, they would throw stones at the deers, and if the elephants came on their way, they would blare their car-horns and scare them. It was entirely beyond my understanding why they would violently throw empty liquor bottles in the forests! I have inspected many vehicles and when I found liquor bottles, I have lashed the tourists with my belt in frenzy. I have even made them stand shivering in the cold with only their under- garments. Even then I couldn’t control the broken bottles getting gathered inside the forest.

More than any other animal, it is most dangerous for the elephant. Its feet are like sacks of earth. These bottles would lay broken under the trees. If the elephant stepped over it, it will enter fully into its leg because of the animal’s enormous weight. If it walked a little further, it would get jammed inside its feet. The elephant cannot walk after that. It will get infected in two days. Worms would spawn into it. They would pierce into the flesh through the pus. If they could get to the blood vessels or the bone, then the elephant can only die.

With its swollen legs the elephant would wander for many days in the forest. At one stage when it cannot walk, it will support itself bending on a tree and stay put. In five days, the elephant that is used to drinking thirty liters of water, eating two hundred kilograms of food and walking fifty kilometers every day would be reduced to a skeleton of bones. Its backbones and cheekbones would start showing through its skin. The constant movement of its ears would come to a standstill. It will support itself on its trunks for a while standing on its hind legs. After that it will support itself on its forehead. A day later it will fall on its side and with its belly rising up like a rock from its other side. It would lie shivering with only its tail and trunk moving around and it eyes slowly blinking. The other elephants would stay around it shaking their heads and trumpeting.

The elephant would eventually die. Even after the last time its trunk showed any movement, the elephant group would be wailing around it for many days. They will then leave it and move to a place many kilometers away. Because of the density of its skin, till its flesh rotted, no animal in this forest can eat it. The wild dogs would be the first to find the rotten carcass and would tear the trunk and the hind portions and eat them. The vultures would slowly begin to land on the carcass. Hyenas would then come in groups from afar for their share. The king of the forest who had a hundred and seventy times more the number of Neurons would finally be reduced to a heap of bones.

Once when we got the news that there was an elephant wandering with a swollen leg in Mudhumalai, I went there with Dr.K. The Kurumba tribe who were natives there had spotted where it was wandering. Along with a few of them we went to the spot in our jeep. It was also through a rugged horse-lane. After driving a long distance, we stopped the jeep and I went into the forest along with Dr.K. Two armed Forest guards and two of the Kurumbas carrying a few things accompanied us.

Dr.K was moving forward without any difficulty parting his way through the bamboo leaves that could cut your skin. The roots that were intertwined all over the ground made walking behind him difficult for me. I held the trees for support and followed him. Though he was nearing seventy, Dr.K had a good physique. The forest was to him as water was to a fish. In a few moments we could smell the presence of elephants. We knew that they had noticed us. We could hear their faint roars. In a short while, we found that in a green piece of earth beyond a pond that had a thick growth of bamboo on both sides, where the sunlight itself appeared green, there was a group of twelve elephants.

Searching for more elephants around we found that there were another six that were grazing in the bamboo bushes. We also spotted four baby elephants. Dr.K equipped himself with all his gadgets. One looked like an air-gun. The bullet was in fact an anesthetic tablet. He was looking intensely at the injured elephant through his binoculars. I guessed that he was calculating its weight. He could determine the strength of the anesthetic to be administered only after determining its weight.

I was observing his focused manner of work. After he was all set, he said, “All of you stay here…I will go and check.” I knew well that I couldn’t refuse his orders. He continued, “It is standing under a tree. If it fell down, it will get hurt. I have to bring it to the marshes. The other elephants wouldn’t know what I am trying to do. So they will resist.” I asked him, “Do the elephants know that the injury was caused by man?” He said they sure knew it and that he had to deal with the situation.

Dr.K slowly walked down the slope, crossed the pond and set his foot on the swamp. The footprints of the elephants had made big holes all over the swamp. He carefully stepped over them on their edges and went close to them. The big one in the center suddenly made a loud noise.  Hearing that all the other elephants also trumpeted loud. One of them turned towards him. Its ears were moving fast. Shaking its head it came fast towards the doctor. Dr.K stood without moving. The elephant shook its head more and took a couple of feet towards him.

It was a warning sign that an elephant would attack when it shook its head. I stood frozen. I could hear even my heart beat. I felt like rushing to the doctor and standing by his side. If I stood there doing nothing when the elephant tore him to pieces and if I would have to carry his dead body, I thought, I would regret it my whole life. And yet I couldn’t move. I felt as if tongue went dry and was pulled inside my mouth that was empty now!

Dr.K stood there for a few minutes without moving. The elephant too now stood motionless. It appeared as if all the other elephants were watching him. Dr.K started walking towards it. The elephant too resumed walking towards him, slowly though. It didn’t shake its head now. Its head was bent. Which was also a warning sign! Dr.K went straight towards it and stood before it. It stood silent. Time crept by.  I didn’t know what was going on. I felt as if many hours passed by.

Suddenly, the elephant started to retreat. The big one in the centre of the herd after roaring at Dr.K coiled its tails and cooled down. One by one the elephants in that herd started to climb the slope and disappeared into the bamboo grove. I stood befuddled, staring at the sight, unable to believe what I saw, till the last elephant’s rolling tail disappeared into the greenery. Dr.K signalled with his arms to come to him. We went to him crossing the pond.

Seeing us, the injured elephant tried to charge at us shaking its head. But it faintly trumpeted and stood there. The doctor wanted us to come further. The forest guards stopped there. But I and the Kurumbas went forward. The elephant shook itself from the tree it wassupporting itself on and started walking towards us. Its hind leg was swollen and was twice the size of its other legs. It was dragging it as it tried to walk.

The doctor shot the bullet tablet at it after it moved four feet. As the bullet landed on a soft spot a little above its shoulder, its body shook and it stood frozen. It stopped moving its ears for a while and started flapping it vigorously. That movement too slowed down eventually. It then seemed to shake itself on its forelegs. And it fell suddenly on its side in the grass splashing the mud. Its trunk was rolling on the grass as if it were another animal. It tried to sniff us through the end of its nostril in its trunk when it lost its conscience.

Dr.K got into action briskly, sitting beside the elephant. I helped him. I could feel the sharp eyes of the other elephants from the bamboo groves around us. I was wondering what would happen to us if the elephants felt that we were doing something wrong!

A broken beer bottle, half of its entire size, had got into the elephant’s leg. There was pus formed all around it. The colony of worms that inhabited it had created a beehive like abscess. When Dr.K cut it open, it burst like a pot of yoghurt and the pus gushed out. Inside the abscess were cellular structures like those inside a beehive that had white worms wriggling. With his axe like tool he cut open the entire infected area. There were worms everywhere and on my hands too. I tossed them aside. After cutting open the entire infected area, he carved aside the flesh around the beer bottle, spread it apart and pulled out the broken beer bottle. I was surprised to see that the broken bottle was of the size of my palms.

“It shouldn’t be more than a week, so it survived,” he said. More pus was flowing from the wound. He sliced off the entire flesh and threw it out. There was now the smell not so much of pus as that of blood. When the blood started to overflow the wounded area he took a pillow sized quantity of cotton, dipped it in medicine, stuffed it in the wound and bandaged it tightly with a band. The band had a glue that stuck on to it tightly. And he pinned it further with stainless steel clips on its skin that was like the rugged cloth of a tent. And finally he covered it entirely with the mud that lay around.

We got up after placing in its ears the signaling device for locating it. There was pus and blood all over our hands and dress. We shook off the worms, gathered our articles and started to leave. When we were washing our hands in the pond, the other elephants came down one by one trumpeting and surrounded the injured one. An old elephant rubbed the bandage with its trunk. It made a kind of approving sound after inspecting it to which all the other elephants responded loudly. A few elephants were sniffing the blood that was spread around. One of them stared at us with its ears pushed forward.

“It won’t remove the bandage, right?” I asked. He said, “It knows. But the elephants don’t like white color. If I had not covered it with mud, it would have been scratching its leg restlessly.” I asked him further if it would get cured. He said, “It will be back to its old self in fifteen days. The elephant has enormous resistance. Even a simple antibiotic would work very effectively”. “What a divine being!” the Doctor was exclaiming on our way back to Topslip. “The day we lost all the elephants in Tamilnadu would be an insult to our Tamil culture itself. We will have to burn the entire Sangam literature[3], if that happened.”


[1] Kumki is the local name for captive, trained Indian Elephants. These are used mostly for taming and training of newly captured wild elephants and also to lead away wild elephants that stray in to human settlements.

[2] Epitaph to a Dog – Byron

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth, Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth,

The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe, And storied urns record who rests below.

When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,

Not what he was, but what he should have been. But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,

The first to welcome, foremost to defend, Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,

Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone, Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,

Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth – While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven, And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour, Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –

Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust, Degraded mass of animated dust!

Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat, Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy words deceit! By nature vile, ennobled but by name,

Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame. Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,

Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn. To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise; I never knew but one – and here he lies.

[3] Sangam literature has a lot of poems which glorify the elephant.

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