In the first of a series of fortnightly columns written exclusively for The Telegraph, novelist Mamoni Raisom Goswami recounted how an elephant became her favourite companion during her childhood years in a remote village of south Kamrup. Picking up the thread of the story, the writer gives voice to the pain of parting with all things close to the heart
Sitting on mahout Kaltu’s lap, I would watch him make rolls of opium to smoke. He gave me a puff on one occasion, though it did not become a habit, as with Kaltu!
My grandmother had a fondness for the hookah. She would even have an attendant to help her with the hookah. Thus, stretched and relaxed in a cot, and with the attendant beside her, she would continue smoking and releasing puffs of smoke in the air. The noteworthy aspect of this activity was that she would do it sitting on the front porch of the house, where everyone, even outsiders, could see her. The act of smoking a hookah and the manner of doing so was beyond the imagination of a conservative family like ours. But nothing bothered or affected my grandmother. She was probably the first woman, and a rare one, in our family to have taken to smoking the hookah.
Moments of sadness in childhood remain deeply etched in the heart. They never fade away, not even with the passage of time. And they emerge from time to time from some dark corner of the heart, leaving behind melancholic feelings. The elephant I wrote about in my first column was my favourite one, and a multipurpose one at that.
He lugged logs in the forest and also carried our family members to various places. I vividly remember that on occasions like a marriage in the mahajan’s family, my father and uncle would bring out their ceremonial attire and order the mahout to smear our elephant with sandalwood paste and put a crown of flowers on his head! I also remember the ceremonies when he used to be sent to the Zirang forest to pull boats and to the elephant mahals at Rani in south Kamrup, where he was used in the deep forests with other kunkis (tuskers trained to catch wild elephants).
Our elephant used to participate in hunting expeditions, too. At midnight, my mother would wake me up to see the few dead wild deer piled atop the back of the elephant. Even as a child, I never liked that sight, and felt very strange about it. An inexplicable sensation invariably ran down my spine. And there would also be the huge guns that were placed neatly next to the deer brought from the shikar. I used to be very curious about the huge guns. Those days, the guns were different from the 303s, 500 double-barrels and 470 US carbines that are used now to hunt animals. I remember being very surprised to know that we made weapons to kill. “Why'” I used to wonder.
I cannot think of our ancestral village of those days without the image of our elephant before my eyes; so deep was my love for the elephant'But things changed. One day, we were informed that he had broken free of his chains, having become musth. He roamed wildly in the nearby forests and the hills. He destroyed trees, crops and finally killed a village woman. And it was the killing of the villager that led to the proclamation that the elephant needed to be shot.
A famous Assamese shikari arrived to perform the deed. We knew that had the elephant not killed the villager, his life would have been spared. But that wasn’t the case; we knew that, too. The elephant had become very violent, especially towards humans. My father, brother and uncle once spotted him in an open field, from a distance. They looked at one another and realised that it wasn’t anymore our dear elephant'
A few days later, the shikari ' perched on a tree ' shot the elephant dead. That was the day when, for the first time, I saw my father cry. And I' The incident felt like an arrow shot at me by the unknown in life. And what did it leave behind' A deep wound in the heart, still fresh, still throbbing, and perhaps never to be healed.