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Book Excerpt: Elephant At Sea

06/01/2016 12:18 PM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:41 PM IST
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African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) swimming underwater in Thailand.

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In the late summer of 1979, the Second Secretary of the Indian embassy to Morocco received a cable that undid his considerable years of training and left him floundering. The message read simply: 'Elephant en route.' Was it some sort of code? Further investigation only deepened his confusion. The cable had come from the customs office in Cochin, a port in the south of India. No, the customs officials reported back to him, it wasn't code. It was an elephant--an elephant that along with its mahout, was now very much headed by ship to Casablanca. The Second Secretary probed: why send an elephant? Here at the customs office, the reply came, we handle only the movement of goods; for the movement of reasons, please refer your inquiry to the Ministry of External Affairs.

The Second Secretary telegrammed his colleagues in the ministry in Delhi. With telegrams to the ministry, it was important, first, to be terse so that you were considered economical and, second, to be sharp so that in the midst of reams of communication from outposts around the world, your message would be noticed. WHY SHIP ELEPHANT STOP EMBASSY ALREADY HAS CARS STOP. No one in the ministry seemed to know anything about the elephant. A flummoxed telegram returned to the embassy. WHAT ELEPHANT STOP IS THIS CODE STOP. Embarrassed, the Second Secretary finally consulted the ambassador, who knew through long experience that it was pointless to question the whims of the capital. Marvellous, the ambassador said smoothing his moustache, an elephant, just what we need, and they couldn't even send it to us, no, they're sending it to Casablanca. You'll have to arrange for the thing to be met and picked up. He sprayed himself with cologne and mused: If an elephant can even be picked up.

WHY SHIP ELEPHANT STOP EMBASSY ALREADY HAS CARS STOP.

That night the Second Secretary lay awake in bed, resenting the sheets, resenting the pillow, resenting the indifference of his work, resenting Morocco, resenting Arabic for its impossible, secret throatiness, and resenting, with what little bitterness was left to him, the unknown buffoon who would make diplomacy out of elephants.

The buffoon was not, as he imagined, some self-satisfied civil servant in South Block, but the princess of Morocco. Explanation arrived via telex from a friend in the ministry who owed him a few favours and so mustered the initiative to ask around.

The story of the elephant had begun six years earlier in the same Indian embassy in Rabat. At one of those habitual functions whose purpose seems so obvious in the preparation but disappears in the operation, the little Moroccan princess had come to the embassy and frozen before a picture of an elephant. It was among the many stock images--all approved by the ministry of tourism--that lined the lobby of the embassy: dawn over the Himalayan ranges; houseboats on the backwaters; the Taj Mahal rosy in its cushion of smog; a bright tractor devastating a field of wheat. The princess only had eyes for the elephant. Her wordless arm extended towards the picture, pointing. C'est un éléphant, said the embassy official tasked with escorting the princess. She remained transfixed. Vous aimez les éléphants? the unlucky man suggested. It seemed the princess did love elephants because she wouldn't move. The official, who had in previous posts offered counsel on trade policy with Indonesia and arms deals with the Soviet Union, looked around for help before lowering himself to her level. Mademoiselle, vous voulez un éléphant? he asked with the desperation stoked in him by all children--never mind the princess of Morocco. She turned, smiled, and gave him the smallest gift of a nod. It was enough. The official eventually spoke to the then ambassador who put in the request to Delhi, recommending the delivery of an elephant to satisfy the princess and to strengthen a bilateral friendship. The request passed through the appropriate channels at the usual speeds. Six years later, the creature was irrevocably on its way.

The Second Secretary received updates about the elephant's progress from various consular staff. In Yemen, it posed for photographs in front of the oldest coffee house in Aden. It bumped a football back and forth with boys on the beach in Alexandria. In Algiers, veterans of the war against the French held a reception in its honour; the Indian elephant was, in their words, a symbol of the ancient wisdom of a civilization that had inspired the global struggle against western imperialism. After it passed through Gibraltar, the Second Secretary got an excited telegram from the British naval high command. BRILLIANT STOP TOP PACHYDERM STOP.

What are we to do with it? they said. Casablanca's zoo has enough African elephants and there's no space for an Indian one.

The Moroccans were less enthused. What are we to do with it? they said. Casablanca's zoo has enough African elephants and there's no space for an Indian one. The Second Secretary protested. It's for the princess, he reminded them, she asked for it. Well, she may have, the Moroccans said, but she's away studying sociology in Paris now and has no interest in elephants. So you might have to take the thing back.

Only the Indian ambassador's persistence at a cocktail party won their grudging cooperation. It was agreed that the elephant would be specially housed in a portion of the royal gardens in Rabat. How it would get there was another matter altogether. The Moroccans insisted they had no trucks big enough to carry the creature between the two cities. This was a time of war and their heaviest military vehicles were all rumbling around the south. Worse, thanks to the mischief of Polisario terrorists, the single rail line between Casablanca and the capital was broken. But these inconveniences, the Moroccans claimed, shouldn't be a problem. After all, the elephant is its own means of transportation.

The Second Secretary was sent to Casablanca to escort the elephant back to Rabat. It took some time to find an appropriate launch in which to ferry the creature to port. When it finally disembarked, the small police band awaiting its arrival had grown sour in the heat. They rushed through the welcoming ditty and swiftly packed away their trombones. The reporters also sped through their work. They found the mahout altogether too clothed. As he perched on the elephant's back, they had him remove his shirt and roll up his trousers to look more convincing for the cameras, all knobby knees and gleaming skin. Instead of asking the mahout questions about the elephant, they surrounded the Second Secretary--he was wearing a suit. We are proud to share the joy of elephants with the people of Morocco, he said. The haathi belongs not to one nation, but to all.

What little the Second Secretary knew about elephants came from an urban childhood of zoos and encyclopaedias. As a measure of their robust memories, elephants hold grudges and harbour very finely developed notions of revenge. Elephants have sensitive feet capable of feeling through the earth, from long distances away, the approach of other elephants, or of rainstorms, or of bulldozers. Studies have shown that they can recognize their own reflections, suggesting that, however rudimentary, there may exist among elephants an amorphous theory of mind.

Ninety of their Moroccan kilometres or ninety of ours? What are you talking about, the Second Secretary said, there's no difference. The mahout shook his head. You and I may not be able to tell the difference, but the elephant can.

In sum, these scraps formed an altogether surreal idea of the elephant, one incommensurate with the full being in front of him, dappled with cooling splashes of mud, blinking restlessly and curling its trunk around the legs of its driver. The mahout supplied more practical information. In its present ship-weary condition, the elephant could walk at most forty kilometres at a single stretch, probably no more than twenty-five. How far is it to the capital? he asked. He spoke no Hindi and the Second Secretary spoke no Malayalam, so they talked in a manner of English. A little more than ninety kilometres to Rabat, the Second Secretary said. Hoisting himself on to the elephant, the mahout surveyed the road leading out from the docks through the flat outskirts of Casablanca. For all the immensity of this unknown continent, the world always seemed more manageable from the back of an elephant. He smiled at the Second Secretary. Ninety of their Moroccan kilometres or ninety of ours? What are you talking about, the Second Secretary said, there's no difference. The mahout shook his head. You and I may not be able to tell the difference, but the elephant can.

In consultation with the two Moroccan gendarmes assigned to them, they agreed to break journey several times en route to Rabat. The convoy set out from Casablanca in the middle of the afternoon. The gendarmes led in their battered white car, its red lettering chipped and peeling. The Second Secretary brought up the rear in the embassy's sedan. In the middle, the mahout set a gentle tempo. The elephant wore an anklet that, wrapped around a man, would have had all the thickness of chains. Its every step tinkled with the jewellery of another land.

Perhaps because it was on its way to await the uncertain pleasure of a princess, or perhaps because it had already travelled so far, the elephant chose not to exert itself. But it quickened its pace whenever the coastal road veered west towards the Atlantic. The change would have been imperceptible to observers--and there were many on the busy highway--but the mahout felt it in his thighs. Each time the cobalt ocean wheeled into view, the creature's muscles seemed to quiver with new desire. It was an urge all the more palpable in its restraint; elephants are polite creatures of typically conservative temperament. Yet it was enough of a rumble and churn for the mahout to sense that his mount was already missing the sea.

Golf can only be improved by the intrusion of an elephant, even a snoring one.

At dusk, the elephant drank from a pond in the golf course of Mohammedia, a pleasant enough beach town that brushed up against Morocco's only oil refinery. The last of the day's players lofted their balls in long arcs overhead before descending on the fairway and finding the creature asleep in a bunker. It lay on its side, flanked by the apologetic guards, its heavy breathing raising little tempests of sand. Nobody protested. Golf can only be improved by the intrusion of an elephant, even a snoring one.

The Second Secretary was given accommodation in the clubhouse, in a room glowing with trophies and the lidless glare of the nearby refinery. He smoked and dipped at a plate of zaalouk. The mahout came in but declined the invitation to share in the dish. He had already eaten with the policemen. The Second Secretary gestured to a couch for the mahout to sleep on. The man looked restless. No, I'll stay with the elephant, he said, this is our first night back on land after weeks... It will rest poorly without me, and I without it. The Second Secretary shrugged and returned to his puréed eggplant, only to be surprised by the touch of the mahout's hand on his shoulder. In the parallel universe of their own country, such contact would be almost unimaginable, a movement far too intimate to cross the wide gulf of rank. Indians turn into more equal beings when not at home.

Tell me truthfully, the mahout leaned forward, are there no other elephants in Rabat? The Second Secretary sighed. I've told you already, it will have to be kept by itself. The royal gardeners can only manage one elephant. It will have all its creature comforts...don't worry. The mahout listened, see-sawing his head from side to side. This was the strongest and happiest elephant he had ever known, but he feared that it would struggle with its solitude. Like humans, elephants yearn for other elephants. It will be lonely, he said, it will need distractions. Annoyed, the Second Secretary promised they would make sure that it was the most distracted elephant in Africa. He unlaced his shoes and stretched out to sleep.

A few hours later, with the red and orange light of the refinery's towers angling upon his face, he awoke to find the mahout sitting cross-legged in front of him. I'm sorry to disturb you, the mahout said, but promise me something: you won't let them use it in the circus. In the circus? The Second Secretary said. The mahout climbed to his feet and paced about the room. In the circus, yes... I have heard about the way the firangs treat elephants, like dolls, like puppets, like cartoons. He grew more animated still. They make them dance, they make them ride cycles, they make them stand on their heads... Sometimes, they think it is amusing to have the animals sit down to tea as if elephants were old women...this can't be its fate. The Second Secretary sat up. We won't let that happen, he said. Besides, you have nothing to worry about; these people aren't firangs, they're Moroccans, they're so much like us...just go to sleep.

But mahouts sleep as fitfully as elephants, and when the Second Secretary rose at dawn to perform his ablutions, he found the man at the door of the clubhouse, standing in a pose of total stillness, at war with the anxious writhing of his eyebrows. The mahout burst into speech at the sight of the secretary. These royal gardens, are they near the water? The water? The Second Secretary blinked. Yes, the water, the ocean. I have no idea, the Second Secretary replied. The mahout held the Second Secretary's hand in both of his. The elephant...for it to be happy, it must be near the sea.

As he shaved, the Second Secretary muttered to himself about the mahout. All the man has to do is deliver the elephant to Rabat and then the government will give him a tidy cheque and send him home by plane. How many mahouts ever see the inside of a plane? He'll never again get to be in a plane. He can tell his parents, his wife, his children, if he has any, his grandchildren in the future, that he was in a plane. And they'll tell all their friends and enemies and the mahout will be famous forever throughout his village. Yet this madman keeps me awake all night with his ridiculous demands for an elephant nobody actually wants. If he fusses any more, we'll return him by boat. What glory is there in a boat?

What the Second Secretary did not know--and what the mahout found impossible to explain was that, for the elephant at least, travel by boat was utterly glorious. Before they left India, the mahout had worried about the creature's well-being. How would it cope in steerage for all those cramped weeks? Would it endure the din of the ship's innards, the engines and pipes pumping at all times, soot-faced engineers swinging like monkeys from the levers? Surely, the clamour of a mechanical universe would depress a creature that loved nothing more at the end of the day than lowering itself into mud. The only consolation the mahout could find was that he too was terrified of the ship. There was a solidarity to be had between two beings who had never travelled further than Kozhikode, two beings for whom the rusting expanse of an ocean-going ship was only ever something to behold, not enter. In its salty dark, the mahout imagined, they would comfort each other, leaning close, pressing head to trunk.

While the mahout lurched from deck to deck vomiting, the elephant thrilled to life at sea.

It was not to be. While the mahout lurched from deck to deck vomiting, the elephant thrilled to life at sea. It trumpeted every time the captain sounded the great foghorn. The ship's sailors fawned over the creature, playing it music, showering it with nuts and chocolate. There were pleasures to be had even in its hold in the cargo bay, which rattled with the vigour of the ship's machinery. One morning, the mahout discovered the elephant rumbling. With its usual half smile, it produced a low and eerie noise that seemed to come from its most interior parts. The mahout rushed to its side and held it as best as he could, trying to calm the animal. A moment's listening dispelled his fears; in perfect pitch, the elephant was merely mimicking the sound of the engines, as if through imitation it could bridge the divide between thought and matter and speak with the grey monstrosity of the ship.

On deck, the elephant stormed from side to side, relishing the heave of the ship, the rise and prostration of the bow as it carved its mass through the blue. The mahout studied the joy of the elephant with awe. He thought the elephant would grow bored--as he swiftly did--of the sea, but the wonder never wore off. As the wind sprayed it with foam, the creature seemed to admire the uninterrupted ocean in a kind of a rapture, a dervishlike ecstasy. It once occurred to the mahout that this might be the closest he would ever get to touching the divine: the elephant forgetting its elephant-ness in the vista of the sea, the veils of moksha parted, the creature poking its trunk into the beyond and feeling its way towards cosmic oneness. Then the motion of the vessel shook the mahout's insides loose. He staggered to the rim of the stern and emptied himself into the deep.

The sailors also felt the magic of the elephant's presence. Once, in the Indian Ocean, a solitary whale bobbed into view. This was hardly an unusual sight for the tanker's crew but they watched as the whale crested the surface and snorted through its blowhole. They hoped at that moment for a response from the elephant, a trumpet, a bellow, a spout of water from its trunk, some little signal of recognition. After all, what was the whale but the elephant of the sea? These two creatures were kin in bulk and grace, breathing the most air through the largest lungs in a world rightfully made for them. There could be no better omen than that shared understanding. For men who commit their bodies to the ocean, who surrender childhoods on paddy fields and factory floors for the education of currents and gales on the shipways, the communion of these beasts would be a vindication of their lives. But the sailors were disappointed. Standing on the starboard side, the elephant had not seen the whale at all, or if it had, it chose to ignore it, keeping its eyes fixed instead in contemplation of the water.

Perhaps this sad-eyed creature merely looked at the pond and thought: What a miserable excuse for a sea.

On the golf course, the mahout found the elephant by the pond, its trunk lingering at its feet. He massaged the hard knot of muscle on its lower back, the corbelled arch that lifted the creature's mass from the earth. As he readied the elephant for the onward march, he wondered whether a journey across the seas had the ability to change us. When the elephant regarded its reflection in the still water, did it see a being transformed? Could it? Maybe it was presumptuous of the mahout to think so grandly of the elephant's capacities, its self awareness, its very sense of the possibility of a self. Perhaps this sad-eyed creature merely looked at the pond and thought: What a miserable excuse for a sea.

The convoy reached Skhirat in the early evening. On the way, the mahout had suggested to Adil, one of the Moroccan gendarmes (he had learned their names; the other was Marouane), that he come sit on the back of the elephant. Adil stripped off his uniform jacket, approached the elephant from the front, hesitated, crept around the side and kept creeping till he made a full circle, and looked imploringly up at the mahout. The mahout laughed. He scratched the back of the elephant's head and pressed one knee against its neck. It dipped to the ground. Adil tried to look the creature in the eye for reassurance, but it stared beyond him up the road, its ears flapping like fans. He grasped the mahout's forearm and heaved himself up, gripping the hairy hide with both hands as the elephant rose to its feet and lurched on.

Elephants respond to confidence, the mahout said, to certainty. You do not need to charm them so much as direct them... Like us, they are logical creatures, and like us, they understand that the order of the universe dictates to them a certain place, a certain rank, a certain dependence on the demands of others. The mahout spoke in Malayalam, but Adil listened to the tumbling words anyway, trying his best not to look at the road swaying beneath him. The truth is, the mahout continued, that driving an elephant does not require intuition or special intelligence, only a willingness to command...more than that, a belief in your command.

Command was in his blood. The mahout was raised to ride elephants, as was his father, and his father's father, and as far as he knew all the males of their line snaking back to some letter-less past when man first wrestled the beast into obedience. No better life had presented itself to him than that of ordering elephants. He was aware that many in his village were jealous of his trade, the princely work that saved him from the drudgery of the fields. When the news arrived that he would be sent with the elephant to Morocco, his family lit many candles to fend off the evil eye. You'll come back a big man, they said, and nobody wishes well for big men. What nonsense, he laughed them off, I'll come back just the same...this isn't my journey, it's the journey of the elephant, I'm only an appendage of flesh. Adil squirmed behind him and cars passed, honking. How true, the mahout thought, I am commanded to command. I am an instrument of command. I am an instrument.

From the trailing sedan, the Second Secretary watched the spectacle of the Moroccan gendarme clinging to the elephant. He was surprised to feel a degree of envy. No invitation to mount the elephant had been extended to him. If anyone should first get a turn on the elephant, he thought, it should be me, not that fellow. He filed this grievance away as yet more proof of the strangeness of the mahout and as further evidence, if he needed any more, of the unending injustice that was the daily life of a Second Secretary.

At Skhirat, Adil slumped nauseous from the back of the elephant, attempted a few steps, and tumbled to his knees. The children of the village roared at his collapse and flocked about the elephant. Marouane, the other gendarme, dispersed them as best he could, but they remained bubbling in the corners of the village square, pantomiming the elephant and its minders. Skhirat's mayor, who was also its lead cleric, came to shake hands with the visitors and admire the elephant. In normal circumstances, the village was used to strangers passing through; it was a stop on the Casablanca-Rabat rail line. But since the interruption of rail service, the place had grown dustier and quieter. Its people were happy to produce a welcome fit for any occasion. They brought trellised tables into the square. Pitchers of fresh juices, cups of tea, and miraculous tagines came steaming from nearby houses. All the village's luminaries--its post office clerk, its librarian, its accountant, its letter-writer, its chief constable (its only constable), its doctor, its farm veterinarian (who kept his distance from the elephant, eyeing the creature with trepidation), and so on--assembled to have a meal with the Second Secretary, who was made to repeat, over and over again, in slow French, the basic facts of his life and of his world. The children cheered as the elephant munched carrots dipped in harissa. The gathering continued till late in the evening. When the day's last azaan interrupted proceedings, the elephant raised its trunk towards the minaret and bellowed in its own fashion the call to prayer. All the men of the village made their way to the mosque except for the librarian, who patted the Second Secretary on the back and smuggled him home to share a bottle of arak.

During the night, the Second Secretary snored drunk on the librarian's sofa. Adil slept on a bench. The mahout tucked his chin into his knees and dozed against the slumbering bulk of the elephant. Marouane stood awake, vigilant for any mischievous children lurking at the edges of the square. Nothing happened until an hour before the morning azaan. A shape formed in the provincial gloom and drifted towards the elephant. It was the cleric-mayor. Peace be upon you, Marouane said. And you, the cleric-mayor returned. He rolled up the sleeves of his robe and worked his way around the horizontal elephant. I just want to check, he said half to himself, I just want to check. Marouane watched him dubiously. Check what? The cleric-mayor had already knelt by the elephant's loins. He startled. Well, I'm just curious if the creature is Muslim. In three strides, Marouane had grabbed him by the collar, dragged him away, and dropped him to the ground. You fool, he looked down on the older man, you bumpkin... Be decent and keep your crazy ideas to yourself. Does a donkey have religion? Can a donkey be Muslim? How can this animal be Muslim? The cleric-mayor straightened up and jabbed a finger into Marouane's uniform. Boy, he snarled, have some respect...that peaceful creature is more of a man than any of your kind will ever be.

The commotion woke the elephant and the mahout. Alarmed by the animal's surging to its feet, the cleric-mayor made apologetic noises and ghosted away. The mahout saw Marouane's agitation. He pointed at Adil sleeping on the bench, urging the gendarme to follow his colleague's example. Marouane nodded and slumped off. The elephant snorted. It stamped its feet. It wrapped its trunk around the mahout's waist, hugging the man close. Whatever beliefs it did possess, it certainly disliked being roused from its dreams.

Sleep well, my beauty, sleep well, my prince. If you dream, don't dream of home and don't dream of me. Dream of the sea.

The mahout stood for a little while, stroking the elephant's trunk until it subsided once more to its knees, then rolled on to its side. They were alone in the village square. At this time before dawn in the mahout's own village, the roosters would be outdoing one another, the potholed roads would already be clanging with traffic, his family in their multitude would be scratching and groaning and clucking in the shared sleeping space. Morocco had so much room, so much silence. The mahout watched Skhirat take shape in the leavening dark. There was an enviable modesty to the even spread of low buildings, the humble bakery warming its ovens at the edge of the square, the grace of the mosque's silhouetted minaret, the peace of all its obscurity. He knew that this was a tiny country pinned between desert and sea. He knew that his own country was large by any estimation. And yet the calm of this small place felt infinite. The elephant nuzzled his hand and murmured in its sleep. He buried his face in its ear. He whispered: Sleep well, my beauty, sleep well, my prince. If you dream, don't dream of home and don't dream of me. Dream of the sea. You and I are now so alone in this world... Dream of the sea, my life, dream of the sea. The elephant slept, but its trunk remained wrapped around the body of the mahout. It refused to release him. Only as light began to escape down from the eastern mountains did the elephant loosen its grip and let the mahout go.

Dawn came with the first azaan. Adil shook awake, as did Marouane. The village crawled into its quiet, habitual motion, making the small adjustment for the sleeping elephant at its centre. The Second Secretary staggered to his sedan for his toiletries. By the time he finished brushing his teeth next to the well, both the gendarmes stood before him, delivering the news as best they could that the mahout had disappeared. The Second Secretary was incredulous. Disappeared?

Impossible. Skhirat was mobilized to find the mahout. Children swarmed over the rooftops. Scooters buzzed down the road in both directions. Farmers turned over their cauliflowers. The chief constable furiously blew his whistle. There was no trace of the man. At the post office, the Second Secretary sent a message to the embassy. MAHOUT ABSCONDED STOP PLEASE ADVISE STOP. The Indian ambassador rang the post office. He's vanished, has he? The Second Secretary said he had. That's a real pity, the ambassador lamented, but what to do. It's pure physics... You propel an object a certain distance and you just can't expect it to come to rest, it will keep going forward. You take a man this far from his benighted village and he'll lose all interest in going back...so it goes. But, sir, the Second Secretary interjected, what do we do about the elephant? I don't know, the ambassador said, Rabat isn't all that far. Yes, the Second Secretary agreed, but how do we move the elephant? Why are you asking me? the ambassador snapped. If I were a mahout, I wouldn't be having this bloody conversation with you, would I? Just do whatever it is you need to do.

The Second Secretary sat on the hood of his sedan, staring at the elephant. It looked back at him, long-lashed and indifferent. He imagined the various means at his disposal that would convince this accumulation of flesh to proceed down the last stretch of highway to the capital. Perhaps he could lay down a trail of carrots all the way to Rabat. Or maybe if all the children pushed hard enough together, they could inch the elephant up the road. Or better yet, why not just leave the elephant here for the people of Skhirat? Why not be generous and gift them the problem?

Pitying the glum resignation of the Second Secretary, Adil was stirred to provide the solution himself. He came forward to the elephant and placed his hand behind its head, speaking to the creature in Arabic. It bent down. Gingerly, he clambered on top. The elephant returned to its feet. Adil's prodding steered it on to the road. For the first time in two days, the Second Secretary smiled. Allons-y! he cried. Allons-y!

It was imperative to get going before Adil's luck ran out and the elephant decided to stop cooperating. The convoy reassembled and bid a hasty goodbye to Skhirat. All the villagers waved, except for the cleric-mayor. From the window of the mosque, he had seen the mahout slink away in the early hours, seen the alien gleam in his eyes, the rootless abandon of the wanderer. It was a sad spirit, one the cleric-mayor could not comprehend and dared not interfere with; who was he--who had never seriously left his village nor contemplated doing so -to judge the actions of a stranger come to a strange place? So he kept his peace. God be with you, the cleric-mayor said to the departing rump of the elephant, God be with you.

They had reached the outskirts of Rabat when the handlers from the royal gardens finally emerged and relieved them of the elephant. For the cameras, the ambassador posed in front of the creature with Adil, the hero who saved the day and strengthened the bonds between the people of India and Morocco. It was reported to the newspapers that the mahout had been incubating a mysterious tropical disease that had killed him en route to Rabat. The ambassador asked the Second Secretary to ensure that Adil's wife received a very tasteful flower arrangement. The Second Secretary did as he was told.

When the princess returned during her holidays, she was enchanted by the elephant. She would lie next to it and read aloud her books of philosophy and critical theory. She introduced it to champagne. The princess was so enamoured of the creature that she insisted it accompany her on a trip to the beach. The elephant hurried over the dunes at the sight of the ocean, the clarion call of its trunk warning the waves. Everybody laughed as it played in the surf. It seemed to enjoy being knocked over in the shallows, finding its feet, retreating to the beach, and then wheeling its bulk around for another charge against the sea. It all seemed a pleasure, but the elephant was sad that no matter how earnestly it plunged into the water, the tide always drove it back to shore.

Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company from the book Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories by Kanishk Tharoor.

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