Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The elephant keeper

Mahout Bhaskaran Nair has devoted his life to looking after Chandrasekaran

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, during the festival at the Sree Poornathrayesa Temple at Tripunithura, a mahout angered an elephant named Jaganathan. The elephant tried to gore him, but, by the grace of God, he missed. Another mahout, Onakkur Ponnan, who was standing nearby, hit Jaganathan’s back with a stick to distract him. As expected, Jaganathan turned around and chased Ponnan.

On the other side of the temple stood mahout Bhaskaran Nair, 49, with an elephant called Chandrasekaran. Ponnan ran between the front leg and the trunk of Chandrasekaran towards the dining hall. “As soon as Jaganathan came near, Chandrasekaran put his trunk around the body of the other elephant and held him so tightly that Jaganathan could not move,” said Nair. “Because of his swift action, he saved the life of the mahout.”

When he recounted this incident, Nair gave an affectionate slap to Chandrasekaran, who having just returned freshly scrubbed after a six-hour bath in the nearby Madhekil river in Kakkad, near Piravom, is chewing palm leaves with gusto. “After the bath, he is very hungry,” said Nair. “An elephant is an eating machine. In 24 hours, it will eat 450 kgs of fodder and drink 250 litres of water. It sleeps for only four hours a day. The rest of the time, it is eating.”

Sometime earlier, when owner Balakrishna Shenoy, 57, arrived from Kochi in his Santro car, Chandrasekaran showed his excitement by flapping his ears and extending his 3’ penis. Shenoy, who has interacted with elephants from the time he was ten years old, went near the elephant, tapped him gently on the side, and said, “How are you?” He bent his head, as if listening intently and says, “Okay, okay, I will give you something special to eat.”

But Shenoy began talking with a visitor and the minutes ticked away. Chandrasekaran gave a reminder by gently tapping Shenoy’s shoulders with his trunk. “Okay, okay, I am getting the stuff,” said Shenoy, as he instructed Nair to bring the bananas, which weighed 10 kgs, from the car trunk. When Nair returned, Shenoy began to insert the bananas, in bunches of four, into the mouth. The elephant’s eyes danced with merriment.

The bananas were vanishing fast, 6 kgs were finished when Shenoy called for a halt and told Chandrasekharan, “The remaining is for Srinivasan.” The other elephant was standing 100 metres away and was not at all in a good mood. He was about to enter musth.

Shenoy explained what musth was. “There is a gland just above the eyes,” he said. “Once a year, this gland gets swollen and it will start oozing out a liquid through a hole above the eyes. It is a mystery why this happens. Some analysts say that it is to attract females, in order to further reproduction. During musth, the male elephant has ten times more male hormones than normal and the sperm count is very high. If it indulges in sex during musth, there is a strong chance of a pregnancy.”

Incidentally, the duration of a pregnancy is 24 months. After a delivery, the she elephant will be ready for the next pregnancy after four to five years. That means, a female elephant can produce a baby once in six years. However, the ladies liked to have sex every three months, and, like all men, the male was always ready for sex. “When this gland expands, the circulation to the brain is reduced and the elephant feels mad,” said Shenoy. “It is a risky period.”

But Nair said Chadrasekharan had an even temperament and remained calm during musth also. The mahout smiled and said, “Elephants, like human beings, go through a range of emotions. They laugh, they cry, they get angry or depressed, they feel jealous and can be selfish at times.”

There was a touching rapport between mahout and elephant. So, what are the qualities of a good mahout? “He should be sincere,” said Nair. “You have to be with the elephant for 20 hours a day.” He gave some astonishing statistics: from 1980 to 2007, the only time he has been away from Chandrasekaran was for a fortnight in 2004, because he had an eye operation.

“The mahout’s job is not a job,” said Shenoy. “It is a lifelong service, the way Mother Teresa looked after the poor and the downtrodden. They cannot spend much time with their families.”

And what does the family think about the situation? Nair’s daughter, Sowmya, 22, says, “This is my father’s livelihood and we have got used to it. We know that Chandrasekaran comes first.”

Because it is the off-season, the elephant was staying in front of the mahout’s house in Kakkad. Once the season begins, they will be traveling from temple to temple. In the off season, Nair gets paid Rs 250 a day, while during the season, he gets paid Rs 1100 a day, a part of which he distributes to two assistant mahouts.

In public places like temples, Nair has a trying time dealing with the public. “The public has good intentions, but there are a lot of drunks who want to kiss the elephant or touch the tusk. As it is, the elephant is tired, after standing so long in the sun, so it gets very angry.” Shenoy said the tusk is an important symbol of the elephant’s vanity and “he hated it when people touched it without his permission”.

So, the mahout has to ensure that nothing untoward happens. However, these are not good times for mahouts. Quite a few of them have been killed recently by elephants.

Nair has an explanation for this: “Before I became a mahout, I did an apprenticeship for several years. Nowadays, within a year, a person becomes a mahout. He has no idea of the psychology of the elephant and hence does not know how to tackle it. Even owners have no idea. For them, an elephant is just a way of making money.”

In a whisper, he mentioned that Shenoy is a humane owner and loved the elephant. The owner and the mahout were emotionally attached to the elephant but what about the animal? Did he have any feelings?

Nair told a story of an elephant which fell seriously ill for many days. The mahout had been looking after it for 10 years. One day, at midnight, it grasped the hand of the mahout very firmly with its trunk, without hurting the man, and wept silently for a long time. “A few hours later, the elephant was dead,” said Nair. “He knew that he was dying and this was his way of saying goodbye.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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