Geeta Khadka

This is a story from my childhood, which took place in Bardia, the Far Western Terai Region of Nepal, where we had a farm. Though our ancestral home was in Baitadi, Far Western Hilly Region of Nepal, the family spent many wonderful winters on the farm. Having two homes, most of my childhood was spent shuttling between the two locations. I spent most of my time on the farm, named Dhobinipur, (a sprawling place that derives its name from the earlier belief that it was inhabited by "dhobis," or laundrymen).

I lived in a large extended family with four mothers (my father had five wives) and sixteen children. Some of them were already married with children by the time I came along. The family moved back and forth between our two homes. My summers were spent in Baitadi and winters in Bardia. My stepmothers and their children spent most of the year in Baitadi, where the summers were cool and the winters severe. During winter they came to the farm to escape the cold. My mother, however, helped her husband’s eldest son (only three years younger than she was) to run the farm and take care of the family business, often shuttling from one place to another with my three brothers and me. Little, though I was, I knew and cherished every nook and cranny of the farm. I dearly loved to run around wild, climbing trees, prancing around the fields, rivers and small canals. Sometimes I grazed the goats, sometimes rode water buffaloes with a "tharu" (natives of that area and workers on our farm) friends and God forbade if any of my "didis" (nurses) caught me playing with them. The tharus were our farm hands and for me to play with them was unheard of!

My busy day included accompaning my mother wherever she went, milking cows, feeding the goats, chickens, ducks and the other animals. We made rounds of the village to check if any of the workers needed help or medication. After all her visitations she would take me to my favorite place of all, Ramkali’s den. Ramkali was our elephant, and she was my friend, sister and soulmate. Among all our many farm animals, she was closest and dearest to my heart. Often I would stand a few yards away from her den, longing to touch and feel her, but I dared not go near her without Kaluram, the mahout. Even now I can feel her presence and smell her peculiar odor. I still remember, as if it were yesterday, how she used to pick me up gently with her trunk, and carefully place me on her back. The joy of being with her surpasses any other I’ve had and in my life. Later, when I went to boarding school in India, it was Ramkali who carried me across the river Ghaghra (a tributary of the river Ganges) to the other side to catch a train. It was always a tearful goodbye.

On my return from my school, knowing how attached to Ramkali I was, my mother would make sure that Ramkali would be on the other side of the river, to greet me when I came home during my vacations. In school, it seemed I had nothing to talk about but Ramkali. The Indian girls of my age would be curious to hear my stories, but at the same time make fun of me and snigger every time I mentioned her. They were under the impression that I was inventing a story. For them Ramkali was only my fantasy. But I knew better. She not only carried me, but every member of the family on her back to wherever we wanted to go. No matter what the weather was or how swollen the rivers Karnali and Gerawa were, with determination and ease, she would take us to our destination. Sometimes, while crossing the overflowing Karnali in the monsoon season, Ramkali would swim across the river with only the trunk visible above the water. With anxiety and apprehension we sat on her back, our legs and knees touching the water. My mother never once doubted Ramkali, she was sure she would ferry us to safety. She had done so innumerable times.

Ramkali was more than a friend and a big sister to me. I shall always remember her kindness, her intelligence, her obstinacy, and, yes, even her foul temper when annoyed. Here is a true and amazing tale, which shows, among other things, how sagacious our friend, our protector Ramkali the elephant was.

Our story begins on a stormy night, when I was about five years old. Ramkali, as usuall, one leg tethered, was in her special shed, some four to five hundred meters from the house. All of us were huddled together around mother in our two-storied farmhouse, while outside, a gale was howling, interspersed with thunder and lightening. The trees in the mango grove were creaking and breaking, and the thatched roofs of the nearby houses were flying in every direction. The frightened bleating of the cows, buffaloes and goats, the shaking of their bells, fluttering and the cackling of hens and the geese, were barely heard over the gale and thunder.

Winds rising above it all, were the sounds of Ramkali’s loud trumpeting. This was strange for Ramkali had never behaved like this in previous storms. She would get restless, but a bit of soothing from Kaluram had always calmed her down. All of us were anxious and kept wondering why she was behaving in this strange manner. What was it about this particular night that kept her going on and on, endlessly trumpeting?

Meanwhile, mother was also restless and anxious. She longed to be near her animals, comforting them. They loved her, and depended on her. She was most troubled by Ramkali’s lamentation. Eventually, despite the tempest outside, mother went out with her eldest stepson and with Kaluram, Ramkali’s Mahout to comfort the animals she loved and who depended upon her. The other farm animals, they found, were scared but safe. Ramkali, however, looked not at all happy. The thatched roof above her head had blown away. As soon as she saw them, she wildly trumpeted, raised her trunk and tried to break the chain around her leg. Her eyes were full of anger and frustration, and she looked defiant and dangerous. No amount of my mother’s kind words of consolation or Kaluram’s threats could sooth her. Kaluram was upset at Ramkali’s uncanny behavior and her refusal to obey any commands. She was a like child to him, yet, at this moment, he was afraid to go near her. She was unapproachable. Nothing could pacify her. With a sense of frustration, the two returned drenched, troubled, and engrossed in their own thoughts. Ramkali continued to wildly trumpet the whole night even after the storm died down. The villagers as well as the whole household was awake. A search around the farm and its surrounding area was conducted, but no one was able to fathom what poor Ramkali was trying to convey with her relentless trumpeting. Everyone was perplexed, anxious, and mystified by her unusual conduct. Sleep, certainly was unthinkable.

Suddenly there was a loud thud and the whole house shook. "It is the end of the world!" my didi exclaimed. "I think it’s an earthquake!" my sister shouted. My mother waited and sighed with her eyes closed, resigned, anticipating the worst. The rest of the family ran to the door and was amazed to see Ramkali, unshackleded followed by a frantic Kaluram. She was in our front yard, her trunk wrapped around one of the wooden poles of our house and was vigorously shaking it. The "jamun" tree in front of the house lay on the ground. No one knew whether it was Ramkali or the storm who had broken the tree. No amount of Kaluram's coaxing and enreaties or the family’s soothing words would make her return to her den. She stood defiantly and with her trunk caught hold of my mother’s sari and began pulling her as if asking her to follow. Mother’s instinct told her to comply. She followed Ramkali to her den, and then only did the elephant let go off Mother’s sari. Nobody understood Ramkali’s urgency and Kaluram was angry and annoyed with Ramkali. Everyone, even those who loved her dearly, were upset with her behavior, while she sadly and speechlessly tried to make herself understood.

I do not remember a night as sleepless and restless as this one. Only in the early hours of the morning did the howling of the winds stop. Ramkali eventually became silent too. There was an absolute silence and the family gratefully shut their eyes to rest. But, rest was not meant to be. It must have been in the early hour, about seven when I woke up, rubbed my eyes and nudged my ‘didi,’ to wake up and take me to the bathroom. Grumbling and annoyed, she mumbled, " Have you not had enough of last night, without getting up to more mischief?" I ignored her and warned her, ‘If you don’t get up, I’ll do it here!" She scrambled up and carried me outside the door. While she sat in the door way yawning and scratching her head, as usual I frisked off farther than I was supposed to be. I was startled to see papers scattered, boxes ripped open and a big mess caused by the storm. I was excited and jumped up and down screaming my lungs out, "Didi! didi !" but she had dozed off. Since there was no response from her I yelled, "Ma, Daju, look, look—come and see what I have found!" "Everything is scattered, soaked and muddy!" I gleefully told my brother, " Your briefcase is torn, now you cannot hide money and things from me!" My shouting and screaming startled the family. Everyone except my brother came running to the door to find me jumping around, excitedly pointing out to the scattered papers and suitcases. My mother shook me by my arm and angrily exclaimed, "Always up to mischief!" "When did you have time to go to your brother’s room and throw these things around?" She went further and examined the suitcases and again turned to me with a pleading and tired look "Oh! Geetu when will you ever grow up?" She chided. I was hurt and perplexed. While she was still pondering over my misdeeds, my brother began frantically calling out from his bedroom and hurriedly we made our way up the stairs to his room. As soon as we entered, we saw that the mud wall was slit open and that his guns and the briefcases containing important family documents and money had vanished.

At long last we deciphered at long last Ramkali’s behavior. Back at her den, we saw her returned to her usual calm and obedient self and happy to see us. Only then did we see footprints sunk deeply into the mud next to her den. The footprints were fresh and did not belong to our barefoot farm workers, they had to have been left by intruders (men) wearing leather soles. Indeed, later that day the police told us of a few other recent burglaries in our area. Everyone now fussed over Ramkali and gave her treats, remorseful for having failed to understand her message, and thus allowing the thieves to get away.

Days passed by, without sign of finding the burglars or the missing guns and documents. By now, we had given up all hope. The usual daily routine at home and around the farm resumed. Just then, my brother had to go to Tikunia, an Indian town across the border, to purchase supplies. As usual in those days in our part of Nepal there was no other transport except for bullock or buffalo-carts. In our case, however, it was powerful Ramkali who carried him on his journey. Kaluram brushed, oiled and fed her. When she was ready, the three of them set off on their daylong journey, with her bell sounding its typical slow, melancholy farewell music.

We waited eagerly for them to return. Our ears would ‘stand’ at any sound of a bell. We would get excited and then disappointed when we realized it was not Ramkali’s bell. After what seemed like an eternity we heard the tolling of her bell. As always, Ramkali’s bell now sounded joyous—just like us! We were happy to see the three wanderers, of course, but happier still with the supplies and gifts they brought with them. Unlike other occasions, this time there was nothing of brother’s customary teasing and joking. Instead, he ignored all of us and briskly walked to the older members of the family and waited for us to be assembled. He then proceeded to enthrall us with another chapter in Ramkali’s amazing life.

Following his customary routine in Tikunia, my brother began bidding farewell to the shopkeers and other business associates, and alighted Ramkali. Meanwhile, Ramkali, for her own part, was basking in the admiration and worship of the people around her. For these people she represented Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of peace and prosperity. Some were touching the ground she walked on and using her footprints to put "tika" on their forehead while the others were lavishing sugar treats and offering coins in reverence.

This charming scene was violently broken. Ramkali began trumpeting fiercely and loudly and shook her back so vigorously that my brother and the mahout nearly fell off. Kaluram desperately tried to control her with his ankus but in vein. Remembering her conduct during the theft, they were convinced that she again was trying to tell them something. So, Kaluram surrendered and gave her free rein. In a second she advanced to a nearby shop and grabbed a man, with something tucked under his arm, by his waist. The man was terrified and screamed for help. People gathered around, and two policemen arrived at the scene and scolded my brother and the mahout for keeping a mad elephant. Ramkali was oblivious of all around her, except that frightened man. Kaluram soothed her gently on her head and near the ears and bent down further and whispered something in her ears, which no one but Ramkali understood. She let the man go, but her eyes still darted in his direction; she was obviously alert, ready to dash after him had tried to escape. One policeman got hold of the man, but his attention was still focused on Ramkali. The man, with a sigh of relief and muttering s few curses, freed himself and ran for his life towards towards the densely populated Indian town. While running, he was unaware of anything except for the saving of his life. In his desperate escape, he dropped a rolled scroll of papers from under his arm. My brother jumped off Ramkali’s back and examined the papers. To his utter amazement, these were the papers that were stolen from our house on the night of the mighty storm.

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