Short Story: The Elephant Ride by Arunima Hoskote
“Elephant!” Gautam shrieked, raising his voice by a few decibels, stretching his seven-year vocal cords to the maximum they could reach. His joy knew no bounds as he saw this huge pachyderm come out of the corner, magnanimously waving his royal trunk to and fro.
Megha and Rishi knew there was no controlling him with an iron fist anymore. They must get him an elephant ride before their picnic at the children’s park was over, or else they would be subject to a wailing that would break all previous decibel records. There was no escaping this one, they thought, as they rolled their eyes at the magnificent animal in front of them, carrying a bunch of excited schoolchildren and gently ambling his way around the park.
Elephants are liked for many reasons, one of them being that they are a rare sight, even in India, which is a famed destination for elephant rides and elephant trunk baths. They are usually a favourite among young children, who like everything about them, including listening to their favourite stories of the elephant-headed god Ganesha. Their huge, paunchy bodies and frivolously swaying trunks add to the curiosity and intrigue they pique in young children, especially the ones like Gautam, who have grown up on their fair share of their favourite Lord Ganesha stories.
Both parents knew they could not dodge their way out of this one. Megha reluctantly approached the ticket counter and asked for a single ticket for the elephant ride.
“Age?” came the raspy voice from the ticket window. “42”, she said before realizing that the man at the window had Gautam’s age, not hers. She corrected, “7”. A moment later, she squared her shoulders and said, “My son is 7 years old, and he would be taking this ride alone since neither my husband nor I want to be on it. Please club his ride with other children.”
The voice from behind the counter replied indignantly, “Madam, we don’t send small children alone on elephant rides. Don’t worry; he would be allocated a ride with the next batch of schoolchildren.”
And then he added, as an afterthought, “Today is a busy and tiring day, as they have sent two different classes of children from St Mary’s School and we have only one elephant in the park!”
“Huh?” Megha added, almost nonchalantly, slightly amused why the counter staff would even bother making a polite conversation with a complete stranger.
“Have you bought a ticket?” Rishi asked when she returned to where he was standing with Gautam, who was excitedly squealing away about his elephant ride, or what he, by now, was fondly referring to as Ganesha ride.
“Yes, of course. It’s a busy day here, and the ticket counter staff said they would club him with the other school children waiting for their turn. Let’s go join the queue,” she said, shrugging her shoulders, secretly wishing they had never come to this side of the park and seen the elephant.
She had to get back home and do a lot of work. Rishi was too busy with his professional life to give her a helping hand at home with domestic chores, and she had to manage the house and her job adroitly. She was tired, and there were dishes to do when they went back. But the joy on her only child’s face was worth every trade-off in the book. Both she and Rishi had started to pamper him even more after they came to know about his serious blood disorder.
“A serious blood disorder?” she had almost jumped up a few months ago shouting at the doctor, half getting up from the plush sofa seat she was seated in at his swanky clinic in the city’s busiest district.
“Calm down, Mrs. Kapoor, and I will explain,” the doctor had said with the same guarded fortitude he had displayed many times in similar situations with close family members of patients. “Please be seated again. Do you want some water?”
“No, I want to know what’s wrong with my seven-year-old child, how soon he will get better, and when you say serious, how serious is his condition?”
“Well, if you ask me the incidence of this disease in children, only one in a million are affected by this disease. It is not life-threatening yet as we have caught it in the early stages of development. Sustained medication should take care of it, although I need to run some more tests before I can give you a clearer picture.
“Mummy, another injection?” Gautam’s innocent tear-filled eyes had questioned her a few weeks ago when she bribed him with ice cream for getting his finger jabbed a few times for the blood tests the doctor had recommended. Now, more tests meant more ice cream and many tears.
Megha had suddenly felt she would faint in the clinic’s lavish sofa chair, which felt like a morbid merry-go-round seat, with the walls of the room reeling around her, closing in, and leaving her gasping. She closed her eyes for a few moments, while the doctor kept trying to console her and Rishi, but none of it was registering on her mind, which only wanted to hold the thoughts of her son at that moment.
“There is nothing to worry yet,” the doctor’s voice pierced through her mental gymnastics and brought her back to the present moment. She looked at the doctor, pretending to listen. “We can start his medication immediately, and I would need to run a few more tests. Hopefully, we would see some positive outcomes in a few weeks,” the doctor had said in a bid to comfort the parents.
Standing in the queue for the elephant ride now, she hugged Gautam close to her body, not wanting to miss any chance to hold him closer to her. After that week at the clinic, true to his word, the doctor had run several more tests and started Gautam’s medication. Several months had passed. Each time they went back to the clinic, they hoped to hear something positive and reassuring. Megha waited for the doctor to say that her son was out of any looming danger and he would live a long, healthy life, until his old age. But she was disappointed. The doctor gave her standard replies, stock phrases trite from rehearsing, but he did not once utter what she wanted to hear.
The outcome of this revelation though was that they started pampering Gautam much more, taking him for picnics more often, giving in to all his tantrums, not quieting him with stares, letting him play on their mobile phone, and allowing him everything that he was not allowed to do earlier.
As if all the pampering would signal to heavens not to dare to break up this lovely, small, close-knit family. Now standing in the queue, giving Gautam his first elephant ride was another way to indulge his whims. In normal times, both of them would have said a loud no, frightening him so much with their bulging stares that he wouldn’t dare ask them again. So much for sending the right signs to the heavens!
After the doctor had given them the news, they had driven home in silence. But Megha broke down the minute they opened their front door and entered the living room. She had felt strange claustrophobia which she usually only felt in crowded places. She had rushed out into the garden and wept some more.
Strangely, Rishi had not even said a few kind words to her or tried to console her. He did not cry either but just observed a stony silence, which was totally uncharacteristic of him. But from that day onwards, he joined Megha in trying with every iota of his being to keep Gautam happy, fulfilling the smallest of his demands.
“Megha, where are you?” Rishi’s soft voice once again interrupted her thoughts. “It’s Gauti’s turn next on the elephant. Do you want to sit on the bench while he goes for his ride?”
“I am fine. Yes, sure, let’s do that. I am a bit tired as well,” she replied.
Rishi lifted his son and perched him on the canopied seat on the elephant’s back. “Gauti, don’t worry if you are alone. Just enjoy the ride. Mama and Papa are too old to join you. Make friends with other children,” he advised his son before moving away to let other children board their ride. Gautam’s face dropped for just a second as he realized his parents wouldn’t join him for the ride before he started squealing along with other children, as the pachyderm started to lift, heaving and shuddering his massive frame and shaking the canopy, much to the absolute joy and delight of the enraptured riders. It was better than any other ride Gautam had taken, and it was his first elephant ride!
“Mummy,” he squealed once more, “See my Ganesha! I am riding on the Ganesha.”
Rishi and Megha looked up proudly to see Gautam sitting on the front row and patting the elephant’s forehead lightly. His own forehead was beaming with utter pleasure and thrill as he experienced his life’s first elephant ride.
Soon the elephant turned around the corner and was out of sight. Megha suddenly relaxed her shoulders. Since the doctor had announced their son’s illness to them, she had managed to keep a plastic smile on her face 24/7. But now Gautam and the elephant were out of sight, and she could momentarily give in to melancholy until his return when she would paste the smile back on her lips.
Both she and Rishi maintained an aura of normalcy around him for they were not emotionally strong enough to answer his innocent questions like what was wrong with him or would he die and go to heaven like his grandfather? When Rishi’s father, who lived with them, had passed away, it had become an enormous task to explain to Gautam and answer his incessant questions about grandpa’s sudden disappearance from their lives.
“Megha, are you okay? I have been noticing you, and you don’t seem to be too well,” Rishi intervened her thoughts.
“I am just a little preoccupied and thinking about the dishes that I need to do when we go back. I have a lot of office work pending as well,” she lied to him. “I am fine otherwise,” she added.
“Megha,” Rishi said, putting his arm around her shoulder, “You have been very brave about Gauti’s illness. I know you have a lot on your mind. If you are tired, I will do the dishes tonight, while you can have an early night.”
This concern from her husband took her by surprise, and she did not hesitate to jump at the offer immediately. “Sure, I will put Gauti to bed as we get back and go to bed early tonight,” she smiled, genuinely this time, not faking it.
“Rishi, I want to suggest something,” she chipped in, wanting to make the most of her husband’s generous mood. “Let’s take a vacation abroad, maybe to Disneyland, early next year with Gautam. It would be his first time abroad, and I want him to experience life and see the world,” she said, stopping herself short of saying “before something happens to him”.
Rishi was quick at guessing her thoughts. He squeezed her shoulder once again, his voice soft and full of concern.
“Megha, please relax; the doctor said Gauti was going to be fine and healthy and live a long life. We will have a lot of vacations abroad. Don’t worry.” Megha could not recall the doctor having said that even once, but she did not argue with Rishi about it. She knew that they both knew the doctor had not given them the reassurances they were looking for yet; his staccato “we are doing our best (treatment)” would crush all hope and optimism which she mustered up before each trip to the clinic.
Yet, now, she smiled back at Rishi, in a quiet acquiescence of what he had just said. A doctor or no doctor, she thought, I will save my child from the jaws of death, and fight with the heavens, if I have to, for that.
“Yes,” she said to him, “we will” and once again gave him an effortless big smile.
The bench they were sitting on was surrounded by a grove of pine trees, and the mildly chilly February weather lent a nip to the spring air.
The only time Rishi and Megha had ever been alone on vacation was after their marriage, on their honeymoon. They had Gautam in the first year of marriage, and ever since then, their lives had been routine drudgery, and the brief romance after their marriage now seemed like a distant dream. But Megha had reconciled to the grind, knowing she was not the first wife in the world to have felt this way, nor would she be the last.
She had known Rishi for a year before they got married. She was candid in the admissions at that time, throwing all caution to the winds and speaking her mind out frankly. But the nuptials had changed all that, changed her, as her best friend Rakhi would tell her. She had learned the art of gently accepting the situation without ever giving in to the appeal of winning an argument. Her boldness and impudence were all but gone. Her friends could barely recognize her anymore. Her personality had undergone a 360-degree transformation, an unavoidable, absolute, and veritable consequence of quietly settling into domesticity.
Motherhood had changed her further. She no longer thought about herself, but all her decisions put the welfare of her child first. Before marriage, she was an independent girl who took bold and risky decisions but now the mother in her had toned her personality down a few notches, forcing her way into her mind, capturing it completely. She may have lost the battle, but she had won the war, she thought, as all mothers would tell you.
Her ego had become inconsequential after Gautam was born. She could hear the voice of her own mother, reminding her how many sacrifices she had made for her kids. Now, sitting in the park, snatching a few moments of tranquility from the dreadful city life, she pondered over how motherhood had changed her.
She and Rishi had grown apart mentally, maybe not physically, but Gautam was the thin thread of fragile bonding that was holding their marriage together. She would not say this aloud to him, but the fact was the love and passion were over. She did not mind admitting it to herself for that was one person she could never lie to.
Of course, her life was too busy for her to mull over the state of her relationship with Rishi constantly. She woke up at dawn, prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner, dropped Gautam off to his school bus, packed Rishi’s lunch for the office, and worked hard until late evening at her job. And with insatiable energy, she finished dinner every night, cleaned the dishes, put her son to bed, and then caught some more work before turning off the lights. Who has the time for romance, she thought wryly, with a slight smirk.
“What’s wrong with you?” Rishi interjected her train of thought. “A few minutes back, you looked beat and tired, and now you are smiling. Please share the joke.”
“It’s nothing really. I was just thinking about Gauti, and that brought a smile to my face,” she blatantly lied to him, which was now a habit, for her mental world had no place for Rishi anymore, though physically they shared a house, bed, and a child.
“Liar!” Rishi hissed softly and good-humoredly, almost to himself, for he knew his wife better than that.
He knew she never spoke her mind out to him aloud. He knew she would never divulge what she was thinking. Yet, if he caught her smiling to herself, he would always ask her the reason, knowing well that he would not get an honest answer. Megha ignored his comment.
“It’s been 10 minutes, where are they?” She tried to change the subject. When you have been married for eight years, you learn these puerile games which couples usually play; when to give in, how to get away with a lie, when to change the subject and leave your spouse confused.
“This park has a diameter of two kilometres, and the elephant walks at a slow pace. It would take its time. I think they should be here in another 10 to 15 minutes or so,” Rishi said, well-aware of her intention.
The sky suddenly became overcast and cloudy, and Rishi gave Megha an ‘it’s-going-to-rain’ kind of look which she acknowledged.
“Let’s get out of here before it starts raining,” she said. Her husband noticed her worried face and her laugh lines, which had become more pronounced over the years, giving her face a more wrinkled appearance than her age merited.
“I hope we have time to leave the park. I did not even carry an umbrella, and I don’t want Gauti getting wet and catching a fever.”
“Don’t worry Megs. We will be out of here as soon as he is back.”
Although it was late afternoon, the dark and gloomy sky appeared as at the time of twilight. The effect of weather on human moods is mind-boggling. In a minute, you can swing from happy to sad and worried.
The rising sun always comes with a peculiar sanguinity of hopefulness and cheer. The setting sun brings a spell of gloom and obscurity, laughing at humans who think they have conquered the world or at least their day. Cheer and gloom coincide with the rising and setting sun, the rain and lightning further mocking us. Nature often reminds us of the futility of our existence, guffawing at our false sense of egos, stripping us bare with one stroke of misfortune sometimes. But we don’t learn or see it, Megha thought. We hide behind the façade of our spurious lives, convinced that it is normal, until one day it all falls apart. The doctor’s announcement to them about Gautam’s rare disease was just that.
“Mummy!” Gautam’s shrill voice cut into her reverie. Rishi and Megha looked up to see the elephant mooching down the cemented pathway.
“Ganesha has become my best friend, mummy,” he shrieked again, with the mahout smiling at all the parents eagerly waiting to take their children home.
“Mummy, look at my friend’s big ears,” he said as the elephant ambled closer to the finishing point of the ride. The elephant rolled his trunk and raised it, baring his huge upper lip, as if to say to Gautam, “I agree, friend”.
“Mummy, can I take one more ride?” Gautam urged as Rishi lifted him off the back of the elephant and put him on the ground. When his son wanted something badly, he asked his mother, for chances of him getting it increased by leaps by asking her rather than him.
Just as Rishi was about to shake his head in a no, Megha rushed in saying, “No sweetheart, it is going to rain, and we need to get back home. I have an ice-cream waiting there for you.”
Gautam was confused whether he wanted one more ride on Ganesha or an ice-cream, but one look at Rishi’s face told him he was not going for another round on the elephant this evening.
“Mummy, can I feed him?”
“No, honey, next time, please. We have to get back now.”
Rishi paid a tip to the mahout and asked him, “What’s his name?”
“Girijashankar, sir, but I call him Giri. Children in this park are very fond of him, and this is our main attraction. Although, sir, these days the animal rights-wallahs protest against the reducing population of elephants. Our profession has become difficult,” he blurted.
“Sir, your child likes his friend Ganesha, please bring him back for more rides.”
“Yes, sure. You speak good English.”
Sir, I learnt. Speaking English brings more customers.”
“Ram, sir, my name is Shivram or Ram,” Then as an afterthought, “Sir, many difficulties these days, financially not good time.” He paused for Rishi’s reaction.
Rishi took out his wallet again and this time removed a wad of notes and paid him generously. Smiling from ear-to-ear, the mahout thanked him and bid all three of them goodbye.
“Let’s rush, please,” Megha mouthed, hoping they could make it to the car before the rain started. As they moved out of the park towards the car stand, the skies opened up, and it started raining. All three of them quickly huddled into the car, Gautam at the back, safely tucked into the seat with his seat belt.
As Rishi accelerated to dash out of the car park, Megha fastened her seat belt. She was glad they were going back home. She was gladder that her son was alive and well in the car with them. Whatever the weather was like, the memories of this day would be long etched in her memory, reminding her never to allow a gloomy sky to dampen her spirits, for as long as she lived.
She may have lost small battles, but she would win the war. As any mother would tell you, she thought, before closing her eyes and slouching further into the car seat.
About the Author
Arunima Hoskote is a published poet with Muse India. She is editing and writing professionally for 20 years, running her own content writing firm and a digital magazine. She has also authored and published two books recently: Heirloom Treasures: the Cultural Tapestry of India (on Indian heritage and travel) and Ellipses: a Book of Poems. She has been composing poetry since a young age and, in more recent years, has diversified into writing short fiction. She is a Mumbai and Cambridge University alumnus.