The Rosewood elephant
The list of things that fascinated a young lad of early sixties growing up in southern Tamilnadu was not long. While trains and aeroplane marks its compulsory presence in any kid’s list, some items are specific to geography and time. For instance, visiting the only known skyscraper, the 15-storeyed LIC building in Chennai, was in the bucket list of most of my friends. The childish innocence that meticulously built that list might have long gone. Yet, some portion of the list trickles down and merges with you, making it a part of the self that you might ignore it had actually come from a kid’s list.
I might have been 7 years old when I accompanied my thatha (grandfather) to his friend’s house. In their drawing room, welcoming the guests stood a majestic wooden elephant. One look, and I was stunned. While wooden elephants are quite common in houses, the sheer beauty of that majestic elephant posing right at the entrance, standing peacefully on a corner table and staring silently was a bolt out of the blue moment for me. It was huge in size, probably my waist high and the magnificent gleam of the polished solid rosewood elephant revealing its beautiful grain pattern was alluring.
Whenever we visited Suchindram temple (one of the famous temples in Kanyakumari district), it was a ritual to get the blessings of the temple elephant, a symbol of the supreme lord Ganesha. I remember very well approaching the holy elephant with a little fear and a lot of excitement. The beast stood calm beneath the tiny mahout. I dared to touch it. The elephant was used to so many people and extended its warmth by looking for a hidden banana under my shirt. The tip of its huge trunk brushed along the back of my neck. God, its wrinkled skin really hurt. I wished I could warn all the people around never to believe the tourism photographs showing smiling faces of people hugging an elephant.
But the wooden elephant I was looking at was nothing like that. My hands traced the grain pattern on its belly with awe, pinched its stiff ears and reached its tusk- a cute little wooden polished nail painted in white and carefully inserted into a tiny slot, a fitting example of fine workmanship. My grandfather recognized the potential future damage to the tiny tusk and dragged me by my collar to his side.
Probably every kid has a fantasy for elephants. When occasionally elephants visit our village as a part of some festival, the kids run around the elephant all the time. The mahouts let us feed the elephant if we gave him raw rice and jaggery. When he brings the elephant to the river for a bath and then decorates its forehead with coloured chalk pieces, we used to hang around and form a procession until the elephant reached the temple ground.
However, the love I felt on that particular day at my grandfather’s friend’s house embracing that shiny rosewood elephant was something unique. I did not know whether other kids of my age cared so much for the wooden elephants. In fact, I cared not to know, for I took this obsession as highly personal and my ego didn’t want me to share the craze for wooden elephants with anyone. I feared even to discuss with my friends. I guess I probably might have been upset, had I known that such a craze for wooden elephants was actually not uncommon.
I thought of asking my parents to get me a new wooden elephant. Unlike today, parents of those days had too little money and too many kids to share it with. For instance, one never got a new shirt until you outgrew your shirt. There were no air-conditioned showrooms selling expensive imported toys. And even if the town had, not a single toy might have been sold out. The only toys we had were those that were made from coconut shells and from the remnant pieces of the village’s carpenter. So, to ask my parents for a new wooden elephant actually required a lot of courage. It took me more than two years before I went to my father. Appa was eating then. Appa doesn’t like to talk while eating. So, when I mustered enough courage to ask clearing my throat, Amma hushed and motioned me to keep quiet, giving Appa his tranquil moments of supper. I went to the next room and waited till Appa finished his dinner. My ears were attentive catching every minute disturbance around Appa. My ears traced Appa’s footsteps to backyard. The old brass mug released air bubbles gulping water when dipped into the stone water tank. Then I heard Appa’s gargle. My ears were tuned like an antenna. I even heard the sound of the sand particles dropping from his foot when he wiped his feet in the doormat. I was waiting in the corner near his ‘vettalai chellam’ (an old brass box to store betel leaves). He opened the box and picked a couple of betel leaves. His breathing was loud to me. He looked at me quizzically. I mumbled “Elephant”. Seeing his face expressions, I knew that I had told something that’s worth reprimanding. Yet, my love for that gorgeous rosewood elephant passed me some courage to ask again. Feeble, yet clear came the request from me, “Appa, I would like to have a wooden elephant”.
By then Appa had already settled in the easy chair with his ‘vettalai chellam’. I knew well that he would be in a reverie then and it was not for my good to brood the topic further. I wasn’t actually frustrated; not getting something one desired for is nothing unusual for a middle class family of 60’s and 70’s. I knew this reality factually after several years of adulthood later. However, unlike the sports shoes and toy train which I wanted badly and hadn’t asked out of fear, this episode on wooden elephant is better. At least, I had the satisfaction of making a representation. Nobody at that time was capable of understanding the peer pressure a kid faces. At school, when we were sitting under the neem tree the previous week for lunch, Gopal was talking a lot about his toy train his uncle got him from Singapore. No one believed him when he said that he actually went to the railway station and his uncle took him inside the steam engine. “Wow Gopal, how lucky you are”, I exclaimed. God, this damn Gopal should die soon, else he would enjoy everything that kids can only dream of. I looked around and could sense the same feeling floating in the air beneath the innocent smiles of my friends around. People never understood that a kid needed things to tackle the Gopals around them. I secretly thought that this rosewood elephant was my gateway to boost my status in lunch group. I did not belong to the ‘Gopal’ group. Rather, I belonged to the rest of the common folk kids. So, any achievement of anyone in this common group is the victory of the group against that idiot born with silver spoon.
When I slept that night, I was confused whether Appa actually heard me. I had just mumbled twice and clear, “wooden elephant”. But there was no reaction from him. No! His eyelids didn’t move, nor did he get up from his easy chair and there were no hand signs to gesture disapproval. This emotional struggle went on for three nights and then I forgot. After about two weeks, when I came home from school, I traced the fragrance of peanuts being fried in kitchen. That was Appa’s salary day. Appa liked peanuts a lot. During a merry family moment between tea and peanuts, I had learnt that Appa buys a kilogram of raw peanuts on every salary day. On some solitary moments these days, when I think about the past, I used to wonder about this and felt that the pittance he earned for his qualification then was symbolical to say that he actually worked for peanuts.
After his tea, he opened his bag and gave me a small piece wrapped in an old newspaper. I was surprised at this unusualness and curiously opened the pack to find a cuboid of about three inches. A solid piece of wood. I was puzzled. As I turned the block on the otherside, I noticed some scratches, as if someone have scribbled with a nail. On careful scrutiny I realized that those scribblings possibly with a nail actually was a crude drawing of an elephant. I suspected that Appa himself took a piece of wood and hurriedly scratched it with a nail. I still didn’t understood why he gave me this piece of wood. Slowly, after the tea turned cold, it dawned to me that this was the wooden elephant Appa has got me. I had in fact forgotten the episode of asking him. I was speechless. I didn’t know what to do. Should I be happy that Appa actually listened to me that day? Or should I be upset that this ugly piece of abandoned wood was what in store for me instead of the beautiful rosewood elephant. How would I even talk about it in our lunch group? I was thoroughly disappointed. But again, unlike these days, parents of those days didn’t work too much on child psychology. When I see my daughter Sheela discussing so much when buying a small piece of toy or a t-shirt for my grandson Varun, am Appalled that parents take so much stress about kids. In fact, I told Sheela that she is spoiling Varun. She gave me an hour long bull-shit of child psychology against my will. She perhaps should also read something about geriatric psychology.
That was my second sleepless night that month. What should I do with this piece Appa had bought? It’s actually a disgrace to the beautiful elephant I loved. Now, when I think about it, I try hard to recollect my exact emotions, and wonder whether I had any sympathy for Appa acknowledging his sweetness for remembering what I had mumbled. But, I don’t remember any such feeling. I, in fact, was constantly thinking about getting rid of it, to throw it in the firewood stove next morning. But Appa’s wrath, if discovered, demotivated me from such drastic measures. The rosewood elephant got sunk as a quicksand within myself that night. I hadn’t known then that the yearning desire for rosewood elephant was not easy to get rid of.
Years passed and as I completed B.Sc chemistry in Hindu college, the eighties had lot of new changes in it for me. I started wearing a neck tie and shoes for the first time. Within a couple of years I got transferred to Bombay. Soon, I even discarded dhoti for pyjamas at night. The casual conversational acknowledgment in Tamil, ‘oho, cheri cheri’ (ஓஹோ சரி சரி !) got replaced with Hindi’s ‘achcha’. Apart from these important changes, I also got married to Gayathri and we together brought Sheela to this world.
Gayathri is from Trivandrum and we have a long practice since our marriage to have a compulsory south Indian trip every year, of course to Gayathri’s home in Trivandrum and if time permits, a brief, very very brief visit to my ancestral house. During our Trivandrum visit we never miss the famous Shri Padmanabhaswamy temple. I remember our first trip to the temple together very clearly. As we crossed the ‘Padma theertham’ (temple tank) on our right, past the navarathri temple on the left, gazing the ‘metha mani’ the famous clock, I was suddenly under a jolt. I felt like getting up from a long coma and looking around asking “where am I? It was the rosewood elephant that I had long forgotten, but which was carefully adorned in a corner of my heart without my knowledge. It was innocently staring at me from the handicrafts shop. I could see it clearly now, the exact same replica, the exact height, the exact shine, the exact beautiful wood grain pattern, it was as if the same elephant which I fell in love with once. Concerned Gayathri asked me timidly “what happened?” I showed the elephant and asked her whether we could buy it. She was surprised for a moment. Then she slowly came with me to the shop and looked at the price tag. I didn’t look at the price. My eyes were fixed on the elephant, its sheer beauty and its majestic silence. With a flicker in my eyes, I looked at Gayathri and enthusiastically exclaimed “let’s buy this”. I didn’t get a response that supported my enthusiasm. Gayathri pursed her lips and smirked. That was our first year of marriage and I almost loved everything she did. Gosh! I can’t believe now that I even enjoyed her silly body language like her twisting her nose when she gets irritated. But I have to admit that it doesn’t look so ugly when Sheela does it.
Standing in front of Padmanabha swamy temple with the rosewood elephant beside me, I couldn’t decipher the meaning of her smirk. Was it an amusing acknowledgement appreciating my craziness with love or was it the thought- wondering why she married a crackpot like me. I still do not know the meaning, but I knew immediately that it was not a favourable smirk. She slowly walked away and started looking around other things in the shop. I got the cue. I accompanied her to the temple and walked home empty handed with a heavy heart. Why? Why did I not protest her? That was a wonderful opportunity to behold my beloved rosewood elephant. I consoled myself that I atleast then knew where I could find the elephant and thought that I could slowly convince her.
Years passed and soon Sheela too became a part of the gang. Every year the ritual followed when going to Padmanabhaswamy temple. Second year Gayathri affectionately told me, “not now dear, later for sure”. Gayathri was and is still beautiful when she is affectionate. I was too fragile in front of her love. Next year she said “should we need it urgently now? Our furniture and curtains are still pending. Once we finish all our important purchase, we shall think about it”. After all, she had a point and I yielded. Next year Sheela’s school admission was more important than the elephant. And in the later years Sheela’s music classes, housing loan, gold chit for Sheela’s marriage etc flooded. There never seemed to be a dearth of reasons from Gayathri why that elephant was not important. All along, the elephant and I exchanged secret glances promising each other to meet next year. Every vacation I thought that I would be coming back to Bombay with my rosewood elephant but every vacation ended with the hope that the beautiful moment would come next year. I was not tired of bringing this every year. Finally Gayathri gave up giving reasons. She simply said, “Are you a kid? Are you not ashamed?” and walked briskly into the temple leaving me and my elephant alone outside. I knew that my chances were bleak, but I whispered into the elephant’s ears “don’t worry, I will come soon to fetch you”. The elephant seemed to have understood me. I sensed a small smile under its trunk near its tusk.
Sheela got married to Ashok and soon Varun came to our life. These days kids are different. I don’t understand half of what he says. He is not interested in ‘Chandamama’ and doesn’t want to hear Ramayana and Mahabharata stories. I was appalled. But Gayathri and Sheela weren’t. They behaved as if they were born along with him. They speak his language and discuss about some lousy cartoon characters. I can’t believe that any kid could hate ‘Vikam and Vedal’ stories. When I told this to Sheela, she again gave me another nonsense lecture that Varun belonged to a different generation. What rubbish is this? Didn’t she belong to a different generation when she was born? She used to jump when my Amma told her the mythological stories and would beg me to buy her ‘Chandamama’. I tend to distance myself from such thoughts.
When Varun was 7, we went to Trivandrum along with Sheela, Ashok and Varun. We walked past the ‘padma theertham’, ‘navarathri temple’ and ‘methamani’. My legs slowed. Varun was holding my hands. I yearningly looked at the rosewood elephant and slowly walked towards it. It was stunning to look at it gleaming its rosewood grain pattern under the dusky Trivandrum sunlight. I was awestruck and led Varun to the rosewood elephant. I took his hands and brushed the belly of the elephant and traced its trunk, pinched its ears and slowly touched the white polished tusk. This time the shop keeper cleared his throat to refrain me from any potential damage. When I stopped to explain and ask for the price, Varun left me and ran to Gayathri. To my dismay, he wasn’t interested. Really, Varun? You didn’t like it? How could you see this and still not fall in love? At his exact age, I was going crazy about this. More than the fact of not having an elephant, Varun’s lack of interest pained me more.
I looked back. Gayathri, Sheela, Ashok and Varun were looking at me. Gayathri’s face twitched near her jaw. I knew the meaning of every minute expression of Gayathri. She’s embarrassed. Perhaps, the scene I created there, or perhaps wondering what Ashok may think of me. The revised hope of going back to Bombay with Rosewood elephant became bleak. I looked back at the elephant. It seemed to understand my plight. Still its smile didn’t fade. Neither its beauty. I went inside the temple, looking back at the elephant for the hundredth time.
(Image courtesy : http://www.maalini.com/)