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Sunday, October 14, 2012

An Andamanese Affair


I look at him, that massive fellow about whom I have only read so far, and have always wanted to meet. When he’s finally in front of me, all I can do is smile. He looks past me in an absolutely unconcerned manner. He is used to attention, and he’ll happily do without it. “We finally meet, Rajan” I say, hopefully in as less a dramatic manner as possible.

He does not reply.

The history of Andamans has always fascinated me. One night while reading about the islands, I come across the story of its elephants.  ‘The swimming elephants of Andaman’ is the title of the article. Curious, I delve right into it.

The islands have a lot of timber, and in the 70s, the Indian government wanted to procure some of it. But there were no easy ways to transport the timber between the many islands. Soon, elephants were sent over from the Indian mainland, and once trained, they swam between the islands, the timber sitting dry on their backs. Soon came the 90s and an order from the Indian government to stop cutting timber altogether.  The temples of the South are quick to demand the elephants be brought to them. And they are, where they will spend the rest of their lives doing hard work and be meaninglessly dressed up during festivals.

It is during the same time that Rajan is at Havelock Island. The owners from a popular resort, Barefoot, like him and do not want him to be ferried across to the temples. So, they ask his mahout to set him free. The man wants money, tells them that they can have Rajan if they pay for him.

How does one set a price for an elephant, any living thing,’ I wonder.

The people at Barefoot do not want to give up. Painstakingly, they write letters to every single person who has, ever, stayed at their resort and ask them to make any kind of contribution, little or big, anything that they can for it would help Rajan. There is an overwhelming response. As it goes, there are nice people all over the world, and money pours in, and Barefoot is able to buy off Rajan.

The article ends by saying that, all that Rajan does these days is roam about Havelock, yawn a lot and eat ‘like an elephant’.  Sometimes, he goes swimming in the sea with people. It is as much of a ‘happily-lived-after’ conclusion as possible.



A year after I read the article, I stand in front of this famous, venerable elephant. I pat his trunk, thinking that delightful display of affection might just make him warm upto me. He raises his trunk and rests it momentarily on my head. Is he trying to bless me? Does he think he’s God? Clearly, all this adulation has gone to his head!  We must stop calling these fellows ‘venerable’, I muse.

We move towards the sea, two girls, me, the mahout and Rajan.  The girls are from Switzerland and they look terribly excited, just to see him. Who am I kidding, I am as excited as they are.

We step into the water, and oddly, it feels cold. Odd, because the sun is beating down mercilessly on this hot October day. But it renders several colours to the sea, and I can see seven different shades of blue and green. I have never seen the ocean as beautiful as that in the Andaman Islands. Rajan waits on the sand, looking right at us as we plunge into the water. Maybe he is judging us, checking if his partners for the day can swim half as well as he can. The mahout does not hurry him, we have already paid the money. What was once a noble motive by Barefoot has now become glaringly commercial.

We play in the water, the two Swiss girls and I. They can’t speak a lot of English so we just laugh a lot. But we are all waiting for Rajan.

And then he comes, putting that first giant foot into the water, as if to part it just like Moses once did. Soon, he’s fully entered into the water. He looks beautiful.



I strike the water furiously, I want to stay ahead of him, see if he can beat me in a race. I look back once, and almost gasp as I see a huge elephant looming over me. He’s catching up fast. I go underwater, and it is as beautiful a sight as it is strange. Watching those giant legs inside water , it is almost as if they were rubber.  It is the most surreal thing ever. I go close and wonder how much more I can. In a moment of weakness, I decide that it is all okay and I go touch his body lightly. He moves on, gracefully. I have stopped swimming now, I just hold on to him and let him guide me wherever he wants to. I have let go of all my fears. He moves on, gracefully.

It is an unexplainable feeling. Here I am, holding onto a beast that can kill me with one sudden movement of his leg. But I feel absolutely secure. I am not even sure if he can feel my miniscule weight tugging on to him, but I feel that he is taking each step carefully, making sure I do not get hurt.  One false movement and I could perhaps die. But the truth is, I have never felt as alive.

It is an unexplainable feeling. This feeling of suddenly being aware of every single sense of yours, and letting go of it, all at once.  It is as if we are the only two beings livng, and everything else, for that moment is inanimate. The truth is, this sudden realization of feeling Alive is awesome. Some day you must try this adventure bathing experience, for there is nothing like it.

Half an hour later, we are all sunning ourselves on the beach. The girls are polite and ask me if I would like to join them for lunch, and I agree.  I drape myself in a towel and we walk up to Rajan. The girls gurgle some sweet nothings to him. I look past them, at the sea, and beyond it. 

There is no sign of the mainland.