The Circus Elephant

    Mahasweta Devi
    (14 January 1926 – 28 July 2016)[1][2] was an Indian Bengali fiction writer and social activist. Her notable literary works include Hajar Churashir Maa, Rudali, and Aranyer Adhikar.[3] She worked for the rights and empowerment of the tribal people (Lodha and Shabar) of West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh states of India.[4] She was honoured with various literary awards such as the Sahitya Akademi Award (in Bengali), Jnanpith Award and Ramon Magsaysay Award along with India's civilian awards Padma Shri and Padma Vibhushan.

    Translation from Bengali– Gautami Bhattacharya Das

    He is Parvat, the circus elephant. For last seven days he has been waiting; kneeling down on the dirt, watching the people around him through his crusty, foggy eyes, expecting with all his senses. He does not know yet when that moment will come.
    His dry, cracked skin is lined with raw, open wounds, infested with flies. Heavy iron chains cut across his pillar like legs, now oozing blood and pus. He is sitting under the scorching sun. He has not touched his food or water. Sitting in his tent the circus owner wrings his hands in agony. Smoking continuously Parvat’s trainer watches him intently. He can smell it. He knows the smell; it’s not the gaping wounds or the filth —it’s the smell of death. Before elephants die, as the time nears, they inform others of the imminent death by emanating this particular body odor. But the owner would not accept the truth. He wants Parvat to perform tonight!
    The owner has purchased the circus recently and is already worrying about loss. The trainer does not know how to convince him that Parvat is going to die no matter what. Owner is also worried about burying the huge carcass. It would cost him a lot of money to buy a suitable piece of land. “The elephant’s a gonner,” mumbles the trainer, “bury or no bury, he’s gonna go.” He spits on the ground scornfully. Parvat does not pay him any attention. For eighty years his eyes have seen people; now they seek green, a forest. He digs the dry dirt with his frail trunk to smell the earth, to feel some grass.
    Yet, his senses do not grasp any soothing smell or touch. For last few days he has been getting the signal from deep inside his body. The signal crawls through his huge body; it creeps up along the nerves and veins numbing him, paralyzing him. A strange sensation resonates in his heart—that time is almost here, he will have to go any moment now.
    Time finally comes around sun set. The trainer tries his best to arouse Parvat by dousing him with water, forcing him to drink, and pushing him up off the ground. Holding a colorful parasol the owner’s wife mounts Parvat as he walks into the arena.
    Drum roll! The loud music snaps Parvat up from his reverie. He feels an earth- shaking urge to be free, to go back to the abandoned forests of Tripura. No, it’s not just a shaking that he is feeling; it is a blow. Something inside him is hitting him with sharp blows and breaking the iron chains, one after another. They bound his body with chains and ropes. Did they even bind his heart inside with tangled knots? Parvat becomes restless and dizzy. In front of him he sees the high bench where he is supposed to lift his front legs, the heavy iron balls that he is expected to roll. Do they really expect him to do these? To follow all these rules to live a measured life of a puppet? Parvat shakes himself. No. Not any more. The chain is finally broken. He has to get out. It’s so crowed here, so many people. He needs space, some lonely place.
    The audience starts screaming. The clown, the Band, owner’s wife, the chairs, everything in the whole gallery explodes. Where is space? Parvat runs outside desperately dragging the tent and its ropes along. He extends his feeble trunk as far as he can to smell something familiar. Nothing… all he smells is dirt and people. The gate crashes under hundreds of feet scramming to get away from the crazy pachyderm. “The elephant’s gone mad,” People are screaming. Parvat does not hear anything. He is running blindly along the tree lined path. In his rush he stumbles upon bullock carts retuning from the local markets, grinding the merchandise under his feet; he dashes through the old cemetery, bolts over the train tracks; he runs and he runs. Holding his trunk upwards he tries to get a whiff of something that is not there. His utter frustration comes out as shrill, gut wrenching screams. His eighty years old grievance against humans starts to gush out of his mouth as frothy foam. How can he not get back to his forest, his grassy silent nook? To him, it is the ultimate treachery. At one point, he outruns the humans. He is coming closer to his familiar surroundings. Although he has not reached his dense forest, he finally gets the scent he has been craving for. There are shrubs of wild plants all around him. He senses the still water of a nearby pond. He is standing in the midst of a rice field, an ocean of young green rice plants all around him. With all four of his legs he stomps on the crops as he digs his trunk into the fallen crops. He fills himself with the scent he has been running after; the smell of freshly squeezed plants, the smell of earth, the enchanting smell of nature, soothe his soul. He stands still. No more movement. His Time has finally come. For centuries, his fore fathers had stood still waiting for this moment inside the dense, dark caverns of the forest. He also waits.
    Then he remembers. Eighty years of life flashes through his mind. Three years old Parvat was roaming through the hilly forests of Assam and Bhutan following his group on a moonlit night; they all went to lick the salt hill by the bank of the river, Raichak. As soon as their leader got a whiff of humans, he led his whole group away. His mind goes back to the day in Assam, the day he was caught, the day he fell in love for the first time, his ‘fatal’ attraction, the day Kunki, the temptress, his love, introduced him to the human world. His new enslaved life began. His human master, Kumar, really liked him, especially his white tusks like the crescent moon. Kumar named him Parvat. He remembered how he was pampered then. His human caretaker fed him choice crops and delicious sweets. He sees himself fighting with another elephant with huge tusks. What was his name? Yes, Bahadoor. After the fight, Bahadoor left in a frenzy losing half of a tusk as a token of defeat. But could he really escape? No, he came back. He came back for the same reason Parvat got caught—love, infatuation. At night, whenever Bahadoor heard the calls of Kumar’s caged female elephants, he came stealthily on dark nights, sneaking through the outer limits of the town. Then, on one such night, he was shot dead by the Police Commissioner. Despicable humans! How he despises them, the hunters, the murderers. Even now Parvat can smell the stench he always smelt around these people. He reminisces about the time when he was shot and wounded by one of them. That day Kumar went into the forest to hunt. As usual, he was perched on Parvat’s back. Parvat had to protect themselves from another wild elephant who charged them with his saber like tusks. People are so stupid! As soon as the fight started, Kumar dismounted and his gunmen shot at both the elephants. The aggressor died right away, but Parvat got wounded. Kumar had no use of a lame elephant, so he was sold to a circus.
    His mind travels back in time when mammoth pachyderms roamed around the earth, through its magnificent forests, along the fast flowing rivers, up and down the hills and valleys, under the wide, spotless sky. Roaming the earth fearlessly was their birthright. Long after, the humans came and betrayed all. They are destroying everything as they had destroyed him. Parvat feels a deep connection to all the life forms that came before humans. Since their arrival, they have been indiscriminately destroying the earth and killing all the inhabitants, including their own kinds. But do they really think they will be the winners?
    Parvat fills himself with a deep breath of cool night air. He has won. He is free. The indignity of last eighty years is finally over. His forefathers always found their own sacred space to embrace death. The fact that he has been able to find his own space calms him down and unites him with all who came before him. Now he must be still. He lowers his trunk in a final bow. Against the vast, eternal sky, his enormous body stands still.
    The small town does not sleep that night. Roaring motorcycles carry urgent messages about the dangerous stray elephant to the Magistrate, the Superintendent of the Police, and the District Commissioner. People are warned. Armed police hear the blaring alarms. They are informed and deployed with long guns to tackle the fugitive. All by the rules.
    In the dim pre-dawn light Parvat is found. The Police chief orders his men to advance carefully. They start on their heroic journey with pointed rifles through the mud. They come creeping through the muddy rice field without a sound and surround Parvat from two sides – every one of them elated about his mission.
    “Fire,” bellows the chief. The guns fire in unison. Bright crimson flows silently on the green. Before his shivering body hit the ground, Parvat lets a shrill cry that spreads through the sky like ripples.
    How far did the ripples reach? Did anybody hear that final cry, his loud complaint against the astounding cruelty of human beings?
    As the day progresses the sun rises as usual. The whole picture becomes clearer now, the dead animal and the successful heroes. The chief puts his muddy booted foot on Parvat’s body for a photo shoot. Only Parvat’s old trainer, who followed the search team, spits bitterly on the ground for this cruel and senseless act. Only he knows that Parvat warned all the earth dwellers of the imminent danger. A flock of birds also get the message as they fly towards the sky leaving the blood soaked earth below.