On assignment in Jaipur, India for the Indian Poetry Journal
I am here at the Elephant Festival in Jaipur, India, to interview one of the most venerable elephants of India, an elephant who has lived through the days of the British Raj in India and who can trace his lineage as far back as the ancient elephant armies of the Greek general Phyrrhus of Epirus and the Punic Carthaginian military commander Hannibal (247-183 BC).
His grand uncle, was none other than the legendary Lakaji the Elephant Elder, friend of Maharaja Ranjit of Nawanagar, and Randhava the Elder of Nawanagar.
You come from a long lineage of elephants who have served in military warfare. Have you yourself served in a military theatre?
Oh, goodness no! I have served, or rather performed, in the entertainment theatre of course, as I am about to do today. The more recent progeny of my family have been in the theatrical business. I have to say, there is no business like it. It is the business.
As I was observing your make-up sessions, I could not help marvel at all the magnificent colors applied to your being in honor of the Holi Festival.
Indeed it is what they call a ‘riot of colors’ and I must say I enjoy the process thoroughly. They have made me up to be a right dandy have they not?
Yes, they have. The entire atmosphere here is so festive and I am sure you must love the vibrant Indian sitar and tabla music they are playing now as well as the singing of the Indian ragas.
Well, you know, it has it’s own charm and it gets one through the day but… well, it’s hardly Mozart.
It seems ironic to me that here you are, a pedigree of an Indian elephant who can trace his lineage back centuries, and yet, you are distinctly British in your manner and many of your tastes.
Ah, well that’s because I grew up during the British Raj, you see. I realize that makes me rather an anomaly but there it is… The family that owned me when I was a youngster lived in the hill-station of Dehra Dun. I was ridden bareback by a young English boy. He would read aloud to me on balmy summer afternoons which is how I grew to appreciate English literature.
What are some of the writers you grew fond of? Rudyard Kipling?
Kipling! Oh, perish the thought! Have you ever read his ‘Just So Stories’? ‘How the Elephant got it’s trunk’? Honestly, it is embarrassing and it fills me with dread, I can tell you.
I mean, some of his other works are not so bad – I’m thinking of ‘Kim’ of course, which is, I daresay, a masterpiece. Only an English writer who was born in India like Kipling could have written such a book.
A ‘hybridity’ is what we used to call them back in the day. Anglo-Indians like Kipling.
Well, speaking of English writers born in India, what about George Orwell?
I think his essay, Shooting an Elephant, is absolutely brilliant.
It really sums up the colonial construct. Of course, that essay is part of the larger experiences he documents in his first novel, Burmese Days, which is nothing to write home about. He did rather get going after that though didn’t he?
Yes, he did. What about E. M. Forster?
Well of course, unlike Orwell or Kipling, Forster was not born in India, so he brought a quintessentially British hew to novels like Passage to India.
However, I did appreciate how, in the film version, David Lean created parts for a couple of my uncles in the elephant trekking scenes across the Marabar Caves.
What books are you currently reading?
I am currently reading The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.
The poetically tender relationship between the 12 year old Indian boy, Jahan, and the baby elephant, Chota, resonates with my own heart. Chota’s voyage from the Indian port of Goa to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul was an adventure I found thoroughly enchanting. I was at that point in Chota’s story until you came along and interrupted me with this annoying interview.
Before reading Shafak’s recent book, I had just finished reading Vicki Constantine Croke’s Elephant Company.
What makes you happy?
Well, certainly not trite popular culture magazine questions like that one!
Questions as trivial as that make me justifiably irritable. I shall however yield to the notion that I am never quite happier than when I am performing on stage or in front of an audience, as I am about to do in a few moments. Of course, I am by now what is sometimes referred to as ‘an old party’. Yet when I consider that Sir John Gielgud was still performing in a Becket play when he was 96 years old, I feel a resigned sense of comfort and hope.
Is there anything else that you enjoy?
Well, I do still relish the occasional chukka of polo.
What makes you sad?
Could you be more specific?
Most certainly I can. Just look at what you are doing to my African brothers and sisters.
The rate of slaughter of elephants for ivory on the African continent is absolutely atrocious.
You human beings, as a planetary species, ought to be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves for being so horrid and beastly!
Well, clearly you are not ashamed enough or you would stop the senseless slaughter.
Now you have me rattled and flummoxed and I have a performance to partake in.
You really are a nuisance aren’t you?
Well, run along now so that I can do my breathing exercises and calm myself before the festivities.
Some of us elephants are still breathing, despite you and your ruthless and bloodthirsty species.
Happy breathing then, and… thank you for the interview.