The short documentary The Elephant Whisperers, up for an Oscar this year, is exactly the kind of story that I adored as a child.
It’s about the bond between animals and humans.
In the Bible, Noah saved the animals in their ark. That fits the paradigm where humans are the saviours, the animals the saved. Man had “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth”. But in The Elephant Whisperers, it’s not clear who saves whom. The humans and the elephants are part of the same family.
Bomman and Bellie of the Kattunayakan tribe in Tamil Nadu come together to take care of Raghu, a woebegone skin-and-bones baby elephant, orphaned when his mother is electrocuted. Soon Raghu is joined by an even smaller elephant, Ammu. It’s hard not to melt while watching baby elephants get their groove back. It’s no wonder that Bomman and Bellie fall in love as they roll millet balls for the elephants. When they get married, the baby elephants accompany the wedding party and it feels only natural that they should. They are family, after all.
As a boy, I would beg and plead to be taken to see films like this. My family did not have the patience for yet another documentary set in the African savannah. My indulgent uncle would take me to see those nature films. Born Free, Living Free, King Elephant, Hatari!—I watched them all and wept buckets into my popcorn every time the pride of lions cornered the gazelle.
My favourite books also followed the same basic storylines—humans exploring the world of animals. While friends loved their Famous Five and Five Find-Outers adventures when it came to Enid Blyton, I was more thrilled by the stories of the children of Cherry Tree Farm, who meet Tammylan, a wild man who lives in a cave and teaches them about snakes and foxes and hares. I learnt that squirrel nests are called dreys, a useless factoid that has stayed with me all my life. Then I graduated to Gerald Durrell and his Corfu adventures filled with animals—a tortoise named Achilles, a gecko named Geronimo and the Magenpies. I daydreamt about gardens teeming with wildlife that you could bring home. Long before Harry Potter’s Hedwig the owl, thanks to Durrell, I was fantasising about an owl that would live in my bedroom and go out hunting every night. I wished I too had a Rose-Beetle man who would sell all manner of curious insects and creatures to me.
The all-time favourite book, however, was a Russian one, Kids And Cubs by Olga Perovskaya, about a sunny Kazakhstan childhood filled with the wild animals Olga’s father would bring home—fox cubs, a baby donkey, even a tiger cub. I still remember the cheery tiger on the cover playing with pig-tailed little girls. I wanted that childhood. Later, I discovered I was rooting for a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Perovskaya’s own story was hardly cheery. During the communist purge in erstwhile USSR, she was sentenced to a labour camp in 1943, a sentence that was later commuted to exile. From 1940-50, her books were not published.
As I grew older, I realised there was probably much else that was wrong in those books I loved. The Children Of Cherry Tree Farm had few compunctions about bringing a wild animal like a baby hedgehog home because it was cute. Even Durrell was forever bringing wild animals and birds home, whether he was buying them off the Rose-Beetle Man or finding them in the wilderness near their strawberry pink villa. Even those of us who love animals find it hard to resist the idea of them as pets instead of letting wild animals just run wild because those animal-human love stories are undeniably heartwarming.
No wonder Instagram keeps feeding me reels of unusual human-animal bonds. I read (and forward) the story of an injured Sarus crane that attached itself to the farmer who rescued it in Uttar Pradesh. Now the crane is fine but rarely leaves the side of its farmer friend. A few years ago, Dimdim, a Magellanic penguin, became an international celebrity after Joao Pereira de Souza, a bricklayer in Brazil, found the bird covered in oil and nursed it back to health. He set the bird free but it would come back to visit him every year.
But human-animal interaction, even the most well-intentioned, is often far more fraught than we imagine. Even as The Elephant Whisperers was streaming on Netflix, news came in that Moti had died. Moti was a 35-year-old elephant found in a dire state in Uttarakhand after a life in captivity. He was a begging elephant whose job was to trudge from town to town, seeking alms for his mahout. The hard asphalt and concrete of city roads had torn his left forepaw asunder, exposing the raw tissue. Poor Moti could not even stand on his feet when the NGO Wildlife SOS reached him. The Bengal Sappers regiment of the Indian Army built a makeshift structure so he could stand and receive treatment. He became an internet cause célèbre. But Moti was too far gone. When he died, Wildlife SOS lamented that the death could have been prevented had we truly enforced the laws on care for elephants in captivity.
What’s embarrassing is that even 10 years ago, I was happily taking joyrides on an elephant on a holiday in Thailand. For all my professed love for animals, it never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with that. I had grown up seeing pictures of howdahs on elephants. Wildlife SOS says elephants’ backs are not designed to carry people or a howdah.
Most of the elephants we see in India giving rides were once wild. But their spirits have been broken through a process called phajaan, so they don’t protest when forced to spend the rest of their lives trapped in elephant tourism—until the day they collapse like Moti.
Yet it’s hard to talk about the simple welfare of an animal, even a national heritage animal, without instantly getting tangled in religious politics. Animal activists are labelled anti-Hindu because many captive elephants live in temples. The faithful don’t want to hurt elephants but they genuinely believe elephants are intrinsic to religious life because it has been that way for centuries. On a trip to a temple in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, recently, I met Mangala, a gentle temple elephant. Her mother too had been a temple elephant. She stood there peacefully, gently touching devotees with her trunk, scooping up her feed and currency notes. She seemed well-fed, even content. There was no reason to believe she was not well-cared for.
But when I look at my pictures with Mangala, I cannot help a nagging sense of disquiet. An elephant conservationist, Joyce Poole, once told me how she tried to save a sickly elephant calf in the wild during a drought in Africa. She would leave it water to drink but in the end she could not save it. When the herd moved on, the mother stayed back with the dead calf as long as she could. Finally, she came over to Poole’s jeep, stuck her trunk in and gently touched her on the cheek, as if to say thank you. When I remember that story, it’s hard to imagine what an animal capable of such nuance feels when stuck in a life where all they do is salaam tourists after accepting ₹100 notes from them.
Now comes news that the Sree Krishna Temple in Thrissur, Kerala, is experimenting with an 11ft robotic elephant with flapping ears and a swinging tail. One robot elephant, like one swallow, does not a summer make. But at least it shows that a conversation about change is possible if there is goodwill on all sides.
Baby (elephant) steps but that’s still a win, perhaps more important than an Oscar.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.