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

Dr.K was in his house. Outside his house, under a huge Teak tree, a Kumky elephant named Selva was standing. With its boat shaped huge tusks it was scratching the barks of the tree. As it saw me it raised its ears and sniffed me raising its trunks a little and wished me a Good morning with a muffled sound and then proceeded to flapping its ears.

I was surprised by seeing the Doctor there at that time. He told me to come in hearing my foot-steps. “How are you here at this time?” he asked. I said, “That should be my question. How come you are here?” “I had a surgery on a Kumky. Raman is his name. He had a big blister in his thighs. He is an aged fellow. I have been acquainted with him for thirty years. Very patient and also has a good sense of humor! He will last for another ten years,” he said.

The Doctor asked if I wanted tea as I sat down. “I will make it myself,” I said. “Then make it only for yourself,” he said. I was feeling pretty excited as I was making my tea. My hands were shaking and I thought I would drop the cup. Looking at my excitement, he asked, “Have you fallen in love or what?” “No, Sir,” I said. “Have you observed that the description of Nature would be correct in Sangam literature[1]? But Kabilar is an exception. Look at this,” he said and quoted a line by Kabilar.

“What is its meaning?” I asked. “It says that the elephant which gets scared by the spark of light falling from the burning torch of the Kuravan[2] who is guarding the produce of the jungle would also get similarly scared by the stars in the sky”. I was delighted by the comparison. He continued, “Not only the elephant but all the animals possess intelligence in such things. If you point a toy gun at a monkey for the second time, it will recognize it. An elephant would recognize the change if you recorded the voice of another and made it listen to it.” He paused, and looking at me he said, “What is going on? You are not listening.”

“Nothing,” I said. “No, you are acting strange. Come on, what is the problem?” He asked. He insisted on letting him know. I hadn’t kept anything away from him.  I started telling him how I had this thought two years before: that he should get a ‘Padhmashri’ award. I had collected all the information about him and sent it to the Cultural Ministry. His name hadn’t appeared in the list that time. No one had given any importance to it.

The next time, I had started ‘lobbying’. I had three friends who were working for English journals. I had a few others working in the Central government. For one year I kept working on it. I used all my friends. I found many avenues for it once I started looking into it. The various avenues of bureaucracy were familiar to me as the various avenues in a forest were to Dr.K and I could hence take my case to its destination.

In fact, it was Dr.K’s personality that helped me more than anything. I could easily grab the attention of anyone who could lend his ears and could also touch his heart by portraying Dr.K’s personality. I could convince him that it was an opportunity to realize that he still had a human heart to involve in a fine deed of his life to recognize someone as Dr.K. I made him feel that he proved himself as a good human being in considering his case. Quite a few officials were moved by him and started speaking high of him. A few of them told me that they revered a person as him.

Now there was only a few more hours left for the announcement to be made public. “I want to be with you at that time, Sir,” I said. He didn’t offer me a smile and brush it aside as was his habit of response to a complement. Nor did he look indifferent to it and continued doing his work. With an exasperated look, he took a book. I looked at him eagerly. He stared at me. I was taken aback by the anger in his eyes. I told him faintly, “You didn’t say anything about it.” I saw that he was hesitating to say what he felt and I persisted on telling me.

“I didn’t know that you had so much of interest in the power game. I had different expectations about you,” he said. He stopped me when I was about to say something. “I am not arguing. I am not good at it. Leave it…” he continued in an angry tone I had hardly heard from him. After thinking for a while, he said, “Look, I must have seen around fifty officers in this forest. Everyone would leave the forest in a while. They would move to the city for some reason. They would only mentally get away from it as they physically left. The forest then is only a set of data for them.”

“I have thought a lot about it. There is only one reason. There is no power game in a forest. A man can enjoy the sensation of power in two different ways. He can use it on those who are below him.  Or he can become ambitious and keep aiming for more of it those above him possess. Both have their titillations for him. But there is no way for either in this forest. It is only written in a paper that you have this forest under your power. But in reality, you are under its command. Look at him outside the door. Do you think Selva is under your command? He is the king in this forest. The six foot tusk in his trunk is his scepter. If he is getting along with human beings it means that this King has good regards for them and loves them …”

“There is no way upwards in your career for you here. When you are here you would always feel that those in your rank are going ahead elsewhere. Hence, you keep running. Running away from the responsibility you have towards the forest. I thought you would be different. Well …” he appeared unsteady for a while as he walked. He continued angrily, “What was its name? Brahmashree?”. I told him that the name of the award was Padmashree. “Okay”, he continued, “What do I do with that in this forest? Can I tell Selva that he has to be respectful with me since I am a Brahmashree?”

“You can do something for this forest only when you understand it. And if you want to understand it, you have to live in it. And if you want to live in it, you have to give up the lust for power, fame, money etc and etc that govern your world and live like the monkeys and elephants here. These should be your kith and kin. Go and have a look outside. Look at Selva, do you think you can have a relative as him? If you knew its noble mind and its boundless love, you would know who mattered more to you. If you had felt it was an honor to be acquainted with that elephant, would you have ever thought that a piece of paper written by some idiots was greater than that?”

I saw that burning face after a long time. He was burning with indignation as he did when he read Byron’s poem for the first time to me. I could hear him roaring, Man, vain insect!that sounded like the loud trumpeting sound of a big Tusker. I was burning with shame. I left suddenly when Dr.K came behind me asking me to stop. Seeing me hesitating he said, “I am sorry.”

I became emotional. With my heads bent, I said, “I didn’t think so, Doctor. I just wanted people to know you. Till I came here I didn’t have any idea that a life blessed as this existed. I never knew that I would be seeing a new world. Please believe me. I promise you that I will never pollute the memories of all these years of my life with you by doing anything that will tarnish your name”.

“I didn’t know till I met you, nor was I taught in my school and college, that a life different from what is perceived as a successful one by my generation existed. To make money, to establish a status, to succeed in school only to end up going abroad, were my drives. Those who ended up in America and made good money alone were symbols of success for me. There are thousands like me growing up in India. It is a generation without any ideals. A generation that knew not what sacrifice meant. A generation that didn’t even know that the finest sources of happiness existed right under its feet…”

“The person who throws a beer bottle in the jungle is also the same person who is grown up in this society. He works in the software and the multinational industry. He earns one lakh rupees a month. He speaks English incoherently. He thinks he is a born genius. It is beyond our control that our country is in his hands. I wanted at least a ten percent of such people to know that a life and a world wonderful as this existed.”

“We haven’t had a cursed generation as our children’s in India. The people who shape their minds are those who never had any mind in them. They are those who have succeeded in life through hook or crook. An entire generation is running after them today. I wanted to show that there still existed a possibility of an idealistic life. That there still exists a condition for a Gandhiji to live among us. It would be a wonderful thing even if ten people were impressed by it.”

“I am not so dumb to think that I can honor you with a silly award. But as a student paying his master, I wanted to do something from my part. I wanted to show you that I and my generation recognized you. Anand helped me. I am sorry if what I did was not appropriate.” The more I spoke, the more my mind cleared. Dr.K was surprised at my eloquence. He said, “Enough of it, Shakespheare. I am going out now. Do you want to come with me?” Those words were sufficient for me.  My mind lightened as a tree became lightened after it shook off the snow that covered it. We took Selva to the elephant camp. We saw that he was also having the urge to go there by the way he quickly responded. When we reached the camp there were quite a few trumpets to welcome him.

“He is a real Tusker, a Casanova,” said the doctor. I smiled at him. As he entered there were forty eight trunks that rose up and welcomed him. He got into his work after embracing them all. He was creating his reports examining each one of them. I wrote the notes as he dictated them. And as always, there was a featuring of Shelley, Kambar, Paranar[3] and witty anecdotes from the American Nature Study Society in between. We washed our hands a little later and ate Roti rolls. Mine had chicken inside it. The doctor was a vegetarian.

I had forgotten the radio till that evening. At four-thirty Selvaraj came in search of me and said, “There have been a lot of phone calls for you from Delhi, Sir. I told them to call you here at the Doctor’s house.” I drove to the Doctor’s house and called Anand through his phone.  The first thing he said as he picked the phone was, “I am very sorry.  I don’t know how to say this.” Though I knew on my way there that I had expected this, I still felt terribly upset. Unable to stand, I sat on the chair. “The minister had added some other name yesterday itself. To hide it and pacify me, he had spoken so nicely yesterday. He is cunning as a fox. I am still unable to believe it. They are giving that award to even cinema actors who have nothing to do with it! I am very sorry, let’s try it next time too…”

“It is okay, what can you do?” I said. “That old sly fox…” he continued. I cut it short saying, “Foxes don’t do such things. Bye now…” and cut the phone. I sat for a while holding my head on my hands. The Doctor would be least bothered by it. I need not even inform that to him. But as I was driving back to him, I was fully occupied by it. What did I expect from them? Why am I so disturbed? Hadn’t I known their true colors?

But I had expected something else. I thought that such great ideals would touch the innate sense of goodness in man. Gandhiji acquired his strength through that. All great ideals depend on it. Did I try to test it in my conditions? Did I vainly imagine that its roots would still be alive today?

I stopped on my way at a valley and got on my feet. The greenery was soothing. The small flies that were buzzing around reflected sparks of light. My eyes were flooded with that greenery. Moisture creates vegetation… Life signifies moisture… My thoughts were running wild. They only pierced open the mental controls that held me. I burst into tears standing in that valley. I was crying as if I wanted to get rid of the entire feeling of emptiness in my mind through my tears.

After many moments when I became self-conscious of the state of silence that my mind had transcended into releasing myself thus, I drove back. I was feeling very tired as if I had run many kilometers. I went straight to the doctor who was measuring the size of a baby elephant. The moment he saw me, he knew it. “What, has the balloon burst?” he asked. Smiling, he continued, “Shall we continue with our work?”

His presence lightened me. We had work to do till it became dark. We then returned together in our jeep. All our way, Dr.K was speaking about a new research paper on the elephant he was working on. The elephant needed to be domesticated at one phase of the history of human life. Man needed it for carrying and moving heavy loads. Without the elephant, the magnificent Temple of Tanjore wouldn’t have been possible. But man doesn’t need elephants anymore. Ours is the time of mechanical cranes that are much stronger than the elephant. In our time the elephant is needed only for decoration and religious ceremonies. And as specimens in the Zoos.

“They should be banned from being kept in the Temples. They are not the place for an elephant to live. It should always be seeing greenery. In our past, they were treated for carrying the Kings. Today they are brought up fed with rice! They are treated as beggars begging for money. What nonsense! The vile creature that man is, he should be ashamed to offer alms to a mighty being as that! There is no other animal that is humiliated as the elephant brought up in the Temples. This should be banned.”

“There will be a lot of resistance to it in the name of Religion. But there was resistance to so many other things a hundred years before that are not anymore in practice today. We should let the elephant free. He is the king of the forest. To treat him as a porter and a beggar is an insult for mankind. Our people won’t understand such things. What do they know about a forest?  They come to a forest only for boozing and prostitution. I should bring up this issue in European journals. Our people listen to them when they take it. Even today the Europeans are their masters!”

Right after arriving at his house, he gave me his big thesis to me and said, “Read this. Even today morning I was working on it.” It was seventy pages of type-written matter. I started reading it. He had gathered a lot of information of his experiences over several years. He had listed the information of the physical and mental health conditions of two hundred elephants that were brought up in various Temples in India. The major issue was corruption in their maintenance expenses. They were fed less than necessary. Their food mostly consisted of the remains of the devotees’ food.

It was late in the night. “Are you leaving? Why don’t you stay for the night? You look tired,” he said. Since I have had the habit of staying with him in the night, I had my own bed and a blanket. I continued reading his thesis, sleeping in my bed. Dr.K prepared dinner in half an hour. We ate silently. The wind was howling outside. “I don’t think they would accept to a ban right away. This is a democratic country. Our courts would stand in between. It can only proceed slowly. But why not give it a start? It should be settled sometime…” he said.

“I have a plan till then. Once a year all the Temple elephants would be taken to a nearby forest and kept there for a month. They would recover quickly in a month’s time inside a forest. The elephant is a wild animal. It yearns for the forest always. It would become cheerful the moment it saw the woods and water bodies. Did you see that part of the report? The Temple elephants are always tense. Most of them have severe diabetes. Hence they never recover from the wounds in their legs.”

Dr.K had that alternate plan ready. He was about to submit it to the Government. He had charted out the maintenance expenses of bringing them to the forests and then taking them back to their respective Temples. As always, it was an exhaustive report that had accurate details. “I gave a report once to the Paris Zoo. I used that as a proto-type for this one,” he said. I couldn’t help feeling one more time how much he deserved that award. It would have taken him up further. His words would have acquired more importance.

I slept at 10 PM itself. As I slept, my self-pity and the emptiness in my mind occupied me again. I was afraid if I would start weeping again. My mind was wandering as I kept my eyes shut. Before they extended as thoughts, I fell asleep as I was tired. When I woke up there was light in the room. Dr.K was putting on his sweater. I woke up and asked him what the matter was. “I hear some sound outside. I smell elephants too,” he said. “Do you think that there is an elephant herd outside?” I asked. “They won’t come on this side without any reason,” he said as he took his torch and was about to leave.  I woke up, put on my sweater and followed him. We put on our boots and got into the woods. There was a spotless darkness that hung like a screen before us. We then noticed a few stains in it that gathered together and formed the boundaries of the forest and also the dark sky above. Behind them the dark woods loomed.

Dr.K had noticed the elephant already. “A baby,” he said. “Must be two years old.” “Where?” I asked. At the spot he pointed in the dark, I found a baby elephant in a few moments. Its small white tusks became visible. It should be my height. I could even see its flapping ears now. “It wouldn’t come alone at its age. Let’s go and see” he said. We didn’t want to use the flash light since its light would make invisible the surroundings. Hence we went in the dark. In a few moments even the blades of the grass became visible to us.

The baby elephant faintly trumpeted as it tried to sniff at him. “Easy, Easy” said the Doctor as it came slowly forward. It appeared as if it was limping. “I think it is injured,” I said. “Yes,” said the Doctor. The baby elephant stopped again and trumpeted that sounded like the mooing of a Jersey cow. It staggered as it started moving forward. Dr.K told me to stop and went forward closer to it. The baby elephant welcomed him swinging its trunk and shaking his head quickly. When he touched its tusk it placed its trunk on his shoulder, which slid on him as a heavy snake.

The Doctor called me to come closer to him. He calmed down the baby elephant patting it repeatedly. With its small trunk it tried a few times to pull further from his shoulder and sniff me. I took a step backward. He said “I have to put him to sleep. He won’t understand it. Please bring my medical kit.” I ran to his house and brought him his kit.

Dr.K gave an injection in its mouth. In the typical manner of baby elephants it started swinging its trunk between its forelegs and to its front for a while and then shook its body. It also tried to sniff me a few times shaking its head sideways. Slowly its movements stopped. It slid on its sides slowly and lay down with its stretched legs. Its rapid breath through its nostrils touched my cheeks.

“Light please,” the Doctor asked. It was what we thought. A beer bottle again. This time its lower end was pushing out of its legs. Since the baby was not heavy yet and since it had happened only very recently, the bottle hadn’t gone deep inside. The doctor pulled it out. The blood soaked his hands. He rubbed his hands all over the sides and said “I don’t think there is any more inside.” But still he was rubbing softly his hand all over the flesh to check if he had missed anything. “Well, he is almost clean. He is lucky,” he said and bandaged the leg with cotton soaked in medicine.

“He will wake up in an hour and will return to Mudhumalai in the morning,” he said. “What, go to Mudhumalai?” I asked. “Yes, he has come from there. You have seen him too,” he said. I was surprised. “Yes, do you remember that incident at Mudhumalai one and half years before when we removed a similar beer bottle off an elephant’s leg? He was the one standing under the huge Morinda coreia tree.  He was tiny then, had the size of a baby bull.” “How did you know?” I asked. “Can’t you now recognize a man you saw there?” he replied. The Doctor wiped his hands with the cotton and put them all in the paper bag. “He came all the way? It is amazing,” I said. I have known that elephants had a sharp sense of direction. They can track the direction for even three hundred kilometers. They don’t forget even minute details. But I didn’t understand how they tracked the way from Mudhumalai. They might have memorized our scent in that forest. Or else they might have come here previously.

But I was surprised that a baby came all the way. The doctor peered at the dark forest after we stepped on the porch of his house. Some movements were showing up in the darkness before us. We could discern a big herd of elephants in the dark. It was the one that we had seen at Mudhumalai. I was about to switch on the flash light. “No,’ said the Doctor. I could recognize the elephant we treated there through its slanted manner of walking. They were all standing in a semicircle with their ears flapping.

“They will take him with them, let’s go,” he said. When we turned, suddenly we heard the loud trumpet of twenty elephants together. A pleasant sensation ran upon my spine. I stood there speechless moved to tears. They all raised their trunks and repeatedly trumpeted. It was as if the heavens had opened wide and the skies were singing the Lord’s glory that pervaded the entire universe with his blessing.

“Let’s go inside,” the Doctor said.

  1. The earliest available Tamil literature (600 BC – 300 AD)
  2. The nomads who lived mostly in the jungles and who prominently feature in early and medieval Tamil literature.
  3. Another poet of the Sangam period. Dr.Krishnamoorthy admired Sangam Literature and Byron.

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