Naina remembers an incident from her childhood when she was living in Assam.
As the rays of the early morning sun peeped through the curtains, I woke up to a little commotion outside the house. I went hurriedly to check and found a gathering of local people speaking to my Pa. My father was posted as the forest officer in that range and they came to inform him that a wounded baby elephant had been found by the riverside. Probably this calf had been washed away from its herd in the flash floods caused by a cloud burst last night. While one group of the tribe wanted to kill the calf and have a feast, another group thought it would be better to inform the forest department.
I remember my father leaving with the locals and in the evening he told us that the baby elephant was doing just fine and undergoing treatment at the local ranger office. It was yet another incident that I soon forgot.
However, after a week my Pa took us to meet the baby elephant, though it just looked too huge to call it a baby! It was a female calf and had been named Lohit Kumari (Lohit is the name of the river that brought her along to us; Kumari means princess). She looked quite friendly and naughty. Except for a few sores on her trunk and foot that had been smeared with some white medication that looked like patches, she was very playful.
My brother and I took an instant liking for her and she too seemed happy when we touched her. We began spending more time with her and she played football with us and loved to run after the ball and sometimes would pull out some small shrubs and throw a bunch of them at us. As days passed the option to set her free in the forest came up many times but the dilemma was would she be accepted by another herd or what if a rogue elephant would kill her?
One morning the news arrived that she was coming to stay with us at our home. Our family had kept elephants for generations and Lohit Kumari would be safe. And there she was one morning, arriving by truck.
The other elephants lived in the forest and helped pull logs to the plywood factory or to the nearest trucks. This tamed herd was trained to work but Lohit was too young to be taken to the jungle and my father decided that she better stay at our home for a few months. She was a real darling and everybody doted on her. We played with her most of the time and nobody really bothered to put chains on her for she was such a pleasant tempered calf.
In our ancestral home the kitchen was separate and located several meters away from the main house. The kitchen comprised of four rooms and anybody entering had to take off their footwear at the doorway. The first room was the dining area where everyone would take their meals seated on a bamboo mat that was especially placed during the meal hours and removed once meals were over. Adjacent to the dining area was the Pothi ghar, meaning the Bhagwad Geeta was kept there. Kitchen activities started only after lighting a lamp in the Pothi ghar every morning followed by a short naam, meaning remembering and praising the Lord. Interestingly the Pothi was not kept in a small temple or shelf but it was kept inside a huge wooden box and that box was hanging from the ceiling. Only on special occasions the Geeta was taken out and recited.
The dining area was connected by a big door to the kitchen where meals were prepared on firewood chulhas (cooking stove). Attached to the kitchen was the store room that also opened from outside the building. This room held all the food ingredients such as huge pots filled with grains and basketfuls of fresh vegetables. The store room also had a chang – an overhead storage area made of bamboo sticks and generally used to keep fruits such as bananas and vegetables like pumpkins and potatoes.
Since Lohit Kumari was the darling of the family she had easy access to the store room where she picked up whatever she liked by using her trunk, especially ripe bananas! But soon the time came for her to be released in the forest to be with the other elephants and get trained for work and she left with her mahout (the elephant’s caretaker).
Years passed and we kept hearing about her that she had grown into a beautiful adult, kind and very gentle. And finally one day we were informed that she was returning home for a couple of days for some work to be done. As soon as she arrived she headed towards the kitchen and hit the storeroom entrance bringing down the big door! Poor Lohit Kumari, little did she realise that she was grown up now and the door quite small for her size.
She had a very special connection with my father. He used to either visit her in the forest or asked the mahout to inform him regularly about her well-being. As time passed, 20 years to be precise, my father started to feel unwell, took voluntary retirement from his service and returned to our ancestral home. One morning he passed away. Everyone at home was busy with the last rites and rituals when the news came that Lohit Kumari has vanished from the forest. However, with all the preparations no one had to time to look for her and so three days passed. On the third day someone informed us that she was at the cremation ground near my father’s fresh earthen tomb. In Assam villages, generally a person is cremated in a nearby field and after the flowers (remains of the cremation) have been collected in a vessel, that area is covered with soil which gives the impression of being a tomb. Everyone from the family rushed there to bring Lohit back home but she did not move. On the thirteenth day when the death ceremony was concluded and the family members went to light the final lamp of farewell at the cremation ground, Lohit was found laying there, her body stiff with no signs of life. She left behind a little calf, whom we named Rani (meaning queen) and since then this queen rules everyone’s heart at home.