ASHOKA, ELEPHANT BOY, Age 17
Excerpts from Mother India’s Children by Edward Rice
Sometimes India reminds me of the ocean. It looks like one great undifferentiated mass of people, like so many identical waves. To the tourists who jump from Calcutta to the Taj Mahal in Agra and then to Bombay, it is. All Indians look the same, just as all Americans must look the same to a foreigner on a live day visit. But soon, even quickly, people separate into cultures and groups and families, into tribes and languages, into light and dark, simple, sophisticated, gentle, sweet, friendly, rascally or opportunist. Many groups are never seen, even by other Indians. Quite by chance I heard about a group of tribals in southern Mysore, jungle people who antedate the early Aryan warriors who swept over India. In a very broad sense the tribals are the equivalent of the American Indian, original inhabitants who were pushed back and partially destroyed by foreign invaders.
There are many types of tribals, from the small dark people who resemble the Australian bushmen, to many who seem no different from the average Indian, to others who are definitely Mongol in type and are related to the Far Eastern races. The Aryans drove the tribals out of the plains and into the recesses of the jungles; they lost their homes, farms and ways of life. Many of the survivors still live in the jungles, as hunters and nomads. Some are quite wild, and others have made clearings and are farmers. They have had to survive in what was once a hostile environment. Though originally animists and spiritualists, a number of tribals were converted to Hinduism (a process that is still continuing, with resistance), and many to Christianity. But tribal life is still vital and strong. There are fifty million tribals-nearly ten percent of India -but they are in effect separate nations, with customs, religion, desires that make them quite unlike their Hindu masters.
The tribals I was told about are elephant people. As far back as any one can remember, they have taken care of elephants. They understand elephants as no one else does. They grow up with elephants, and the elephants with them. They are so skilled with elephants that when the British wanted to use elephants in Burma, they sent some of this particular group of tribals, the Korubas, to Burma, where they still live in the jungle with their elephants.The elephant is a way of life in the great forests of southern India. The jungles are heavy and dense: they are thick with flowers, snakes, birds, wild creatures of all kinds, rare woods, teak and rosewood and other great heavy trees that can bring as much as $7,000 for a large full-grained straight log. Elephants root them out and pull them down. Only an elephant can do this properly. Machines could be used, but they damage the wood, and the elephant is far superior. He can move on cat feet through the jungle, hardly bruising a fern, but when he is coming back from a hard day’s work, on his way down to the river, he emerges with a joyous crash that lets everyone know his day is finished and now he’s going to have his bath.
At this point the elephant’s keeper, the mahout, turns his elephant over to a boy, the khotal, whose job it is to care for the elephant. Often the khotal will be the son of a mahout. Elephants are relaxed and gentle, but when mistreated they can be mean and difficult. Of all animals, elephants are the easiest to train in adulthood-might even say, to civilize-and they are the most human in their responses and intelligence. They suffer from indigestion and the common cold, are affectionate, friendly, and warm in their personal relationships, with each other and with people, and form undying attachments with those they love.
Late one afternoon I go to the waterhole with some friends of mine and a local Indian who speaks Hindi and Kanada, the common language in the area, to see if we can find an elephant boy willing to talk to us. We watch the elephants coming down to the water. They are in the charge of teenage boys, though some of them are being led by children who seem barely old enough to toddle. The earth shakes, but the tiny children run fearlessly beneath the elephants’ feet.
One teenage boy seems particularly bright in the way he handles his elephant. Govind, the local man, calls him over. He comes reluctantly. His name is Karea. His father is a mahout, but Karea only bathes the elephants. He is thirteen now, and has been helping care for elephants for the last three years. He doesn’t go to school, and hangs around the village during the day when the elephants are working. Suddenly he bolts away.
“He thinks you are a government inspector and are going to report him,” says Govind. “Tribals are very shy,” says one of the people with me. “They just go.”
Another boy has been watching us covertly as he washes his elephant. When he is finished, he turns his elephant over to one of the children, calmly goes to a bush where he removes his wet clothes and puts on a white shirt and black shorts, and walks by us. He seems very apprehensive, but obviously he wants us to talk to him. Then he sits down about ten feet away. Meanwhile elephants are walking back and forth close to us, shaking the earth and towering above us like great trees. It is somewhat unnerving, because I had been told earlier in the day about a wild elephant who had cornered a man and his son and killed them.
Later it occurred to me that the victims were Indians and not tribals. Govind begins to talk to the boy. He is straight and slim, with dark skin and regular features. He is a little nervous, but courageous. What he tells us soon indicates a daring as unusual as if an American teenager had gone off to the moon unprepared.
“There are twenty-five of us in our village. We have six elephants to care for; they belong to the government, but we are the mahouts. There is another village twenty miles away. We are clearing land and bringing in timber. When the job is done here we will move to another spot.
My father is a mahout. My name is Ashoka after a famous Indian emperor. We are all members of the Koruba tribe, a sub-caste of the Sudras. We Korubas stay together. We know the jungle and the animals and the other jungle people, and we stay away from outsiders. I’ve never seen a light-skinned person before, either. That’s why I came over to you; I was curious.
Until three years ago I had never been outside the forest. When I was fourteen I decided I wanted to be a forest ranger. So I got a few paise [about one or two cents] and walked out of the jungle and along a dirt road and then on the paved road to the village where the bus stops, and I took the bus to Coorg, which is 27 miles from here, and enrolled in the Forest Rangers School. I am in the third standard. I am learning to read and write in Kanada [the tribals’ own language is unwritten], though I cannot read the newspapers yet. I’ve passed all my examinations and next year I will enter the fourth standard. It’s a twelve year course. The school was established by the government to help the tribals. It’s free- everything-classes, meals, the room. We get no money, but there is plenty of food. Here we eat ragi [a millet] which we cook in hot water with vegetables, but in school there is rice, lentils and coffee. Sometimes we see movies and there is a radio at the school.”
His knowledge of the world is woefully inadequate. He says that he learns things in school, like the name of the Prime Minister, which he forgets when he returns to the jungle. The entire course takes twelve years-he will be 26 when he finishes-but he is not sure his parents will allow him to continue. They may want him to marry a girl from another Koruba village. If he is fortunate, the parents will let him return to school after marriage.
The jungle is his life: he knows the paths, the animals, the course of the seasons, the other tribals, who when together are not shy but uproariously gregarious. And above all he knows the great friendly elephants, who are his brothers and his gods.
“Our god is Ganpatti, the elephant god. [He is usually known as Ganesh elsewhere.] We put pictures of him in a shrine in our homes, with coconuts and flowers, and then we do puja [worship]. As I see pictures of the gods, so do I dream. Sometimes the animals come to bite me, then I kill them. Otherwise I just sit and look. Once Ganpatti was angry [in a dream], once he came to help. But he is our god. Ganpatti is the elder son of Shiva, the lord of the Universe. We pray to him when we begin something. Ganpatti is the god of wisdom and prudence, very cheerful and fat from eating good food.[I ask Ashoka what he would like most in the world. He thinks for a long time.] Mangoes and fruit, things like that.”
He tells me that with the information I have and the photographs I have taken, I’ll go abroad and tell other people what the Korubas are like. He says he wasn’t nervous. When he first sat down, Govind asked him, “Are you going to be frightened like the other boy and run away?” he replied, “No, I’m not scared.”
He tells me that his father, Gedja Mistry, is a good man, and so is his mother a good woman. He has a sister ten, and one nineteen, but obviously the ages mean nothing, and Govind is merely guessing when he translates. Then Ashoka picks up his wet clothes, signals in some way to an elephant, steps on the curled trunk and is swung up on the elephant’s back and rides away.
Source: Edward Rice. Mother India’s Children: Meeting Today’s Generation in India.
Pantheon Books, 1971. ISBN 0-394-82036-3
“[A] common perception of conversion, prevalent in India, is that all conversions take place only among deprived lower caste or tribal groups, which are considered more susceptible to allurement or coercion. The reality of upper caste conversions is ignored in this climate of cynicism.”– Ivy Imogene Hansdak in Pandita Ramabai Saraswati: the convert as ‘heretic’
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