My grandfather was a mahout. My father was too. When I was born, he named me Mani. Today, ‘Kaleem-Mani’ – is how I am known in the elephant camp at TopSlip. Such is the reputation of this gentle giant who is older than I am and in whose shadow I walk fearlessly among dark woods that has come to be my identity.
Kaleem was brought into the camp from the forests of Sathyamangalam when he was just six years old. My father-in-law, Palaniswami drew Kaleem into his caring arms and committed himself wholly to the responsibility of raising him to become an unflinching ‘kumki’ elephant. Kumki elephants are specialists in handling conflict situations. They are trained to negotiate tactfully with wild elephants when a conflict arises and assist in rescue too. In my father-in-law’s watchful embrace, Kaleem grew up to become one of the most successful Kumki probably in the whole country.
While I served as my father-in-law’s cavadi (assistant), my relationship with him had always been bittersweet. We worked together for ten years and our opinions had scarcely been alike. But to my surprise, one day, he called me home and said, ‘My time is done, I know it! I want you to look after Kaleem now’. I was taken aback. He chose me over his son, despite our differences, to entrust his beloved Kaleem to me. ‘I have been around Kaleem for almost decade as his cavadi. He still won’t let me anywhere near him. How will I take care of him?’ I asked. ‘It is going to be difficult for a while. But you should know that Kaleem is a very special elephant. You must persist. Trust the wisdom you have been passed down. Being known as ‘Kaleem’s Mahout’ will earn you respect and recognition,’ he replied quietly. I did not answer. One day, I watched him feed Kaleem for one last time before he returned home and departed forever. Kaleem longed to hear Palaniswami’s voice from the distance. He trumpeted in response every time he heard his guardian. He ate very little and lost weight.
I remembered the old man’s words and mustered up the courage to walk up to Kaleem with an assistant for aid. I trembled the entire time I was trying to unchain him. An ordeal ensued and finally I had somehow managed to unchain him and cautiously led him to another tree a few yards away. The word spread quickly among the Kozhikamuthi settlement as trumpets resounding through the forest. Everybody in our camp knew I had unchained Kaleem, an elephant everybody was always curious about. Soon, Kaleem had allowed me to sit astride him for a short while. As I sat in the same spot that Palaniswamy had sat and whispered in his ears for 30 years, I knew I was going to slowly be accepted as his Mahout, just like Palaniswamy had assured.
“.. you must know that Kaleem is a very special Elephant.”
– those words are remarkably true. Being a kumki elephant, he is only nine and a half feet tall. Sometimes the wild elephants in the forest are bigger and stronger than Kaleem. The camp has larger elephants too and yet he is the lead Kumki in most operations. That is because Kaleem is immensely strategic. Once assigned a task, he applies his mind to it and handles a given situation without displaying any sense of panic. There was a time when he rescued a tranquilized elephant by interlocking horns and walking him away from a cliff’s edge for more than a mile. I can sense him becoming restless if he has to wait during operations. Everybody knows Kaleem as the kumki who detests waiting too long on a mission – he is someone who wishes to get the job done and return home at the earliest.
The moment we begin the mission, Kaleem knows it. We are both quiet and no words are said. I communicate with him by gently nudging my heels against the back of his ears.
Sometimes, we are clearly outnumbered when there is a raging herd of elephants before us. With me being exposed sitting atop him, Kaleem’s experience takes over and he ensures I am safe throughout the mission. He is also quick to react and even makes sure that the assisting kumkis are not harmed.
Palaniswami always spoke to Kaleem. They went on long walks and he told him stories. Today, I continue in his footsteps. Two months ago, when I broke my leg, I told Kaleem, “I cannot take you on long walks anymore. I am growing old just as you are. In a few years you will retire and so will I. But we shall continue to be one. Because I don’t think of you belonging to the department or the government. You are mine. My very own.”
I know that he is listening to every word, though he may seem to be busily breaking branches and chewing leaves. The flap of his ears and the look in his eyes tell me he understands.