The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Joyrides on elephant back in a fairyland village
- Celebrated writer recalls how those early years shaped her psyche and attitude towards animals

Novelist, teacher, social activist and, now, peacemaker ' Mamoni Raisom Goswami shuttles between these roles with the same fluidity that marks her writings. In the first of a series of fortnightly columns exclusively for The Telegraph, she goes back in time to relive her childhood years

I spent most of my childhood in Guwahati and Shillong, but the place closest to my heart remains our ancestral village Amranga, in south Kamrup. It used to be like a fairyland for me. My forefathers were the adhikars of the Satra (Vaishnavite monastery) and it was a tradition to keep many elephants, both for work and travelling. We had several elephants and I still remember the dhuri (cow) with the single tusk, which my grandmother used to take out for grazing to our backyard, just like a cow with a jute rope tied around her neck.

Whenever we visited Amranga, we were given an elephant for joyrides and to play with. In fact, that elephant was the last one we possessed. There was a time when the elephants and cars co-existed. The village roads were too bad for cars to move along at a normal pace and they would get stuck in the mud. We used elephants to pull cars out of the mud and also to travel on their backs.

I have been a great lover of animals since I was a child. It was this love that made me write the novel Chinnamastar Manuhtu (The Man from Chinnamasta), protesting against the practice of buffalo sacrifice at the ancient temple of Kamakhya. In the 2000-year history of the temple, it was the first protest against the ritual of animal sacrifice and elicited violent reactions from several quarters.

Going back to the playful elephant I was talking about, it became me and my elder brotherís favourite companion during our trips to Amranga. On his back, we would travel to places far and near. The mahout of the elephant was Kaltu. He would take us along whenever he took the elephant for a bath to the Jagalia river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The experience used to give us immense pleasure. As the elephant came out of the water, innumerable leeches would stick to its body. The three of us would then get busy pulling off the leeches. It seemed that the elephant enjoyed the outing, too. It would lie down on the ground and let us do our work. It was Kaltu who told me that during World War II, our village was a transit camp for foreign soldiers and that a contractor became rich by supplying leeches to the black soldiers in the unit!

One afternoon, when everyone in the house was fast asleep, I happened to be awake and came out to the verandah. The elephant was tied to a pillar that supported the roof over the verandah.

The elephant had lots of banana tree trunks to eat. I climbed onto the wooden railing and saw the huge stomach. The skin of the stomach, I discovered, didnít have any hair on it. But to my surprise ' I was a small child, after all ' I found that the lower side of the stomach had some hair. I wanted to remove those few hairs, too, and therefore began pulling them off the skin. It was such a huge animal'I thought that it would not feel the plucking at all.

The elephant continued to eat the banana trunks, least bothered about what I was doing. It left me feeling quite fearless about the whole thing. So I stood on the railing, holding on to the pillar for balance, and began plucking his hairs even more furiously. Suddenly, to my utter consternation, the elephant turned around and banged his head on the pillar. It was just a token banging for the elephant, but the whole house shook as if in an earthquake! It wasnít just me who was shocked, but everyone else in the house, too. I fell off the railing and collapsed on the floor of the verandah. I got up and ran inside.

Everyone in the house rushed out, bewildered at what had happened. Probably Kaltu had seen me with the elephant and told the others that I had been playing with him. Everyone began looking for me; but I wasnít to be found anywhere till I came out of hiding. I stood in the verandah, in tears. I told everyone what had happened. My mother flew into a rage. How could I think that the elephant wouldnít feel its hairs being plucked' She was even more furious when it dawned on her that the elephant could have chosen to shake me and not the pillar! The incident later became a family joke.

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