Travels On My Elephant

By Mark Shand

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‘Am I right in assuming that you want to buy an elephant?’ the voice from New Delhi shouted down the telephone to me in London. Even through the hiss and static of the long-distance connection I could detect the apprehension in the voice.

‘Yes,’ I shouted back.

I was restless again. The last time I had been restless, I ended up being pursued by cannibals in Indonesia. This time, I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant. This idea evolved from a drawing I had discovered while clearing out my grandmother’s house after she had died. The drawing was of an infuriated male elephant about to charge a little Indian mahout or elephant driver. I took it with me and forgot about it – at least I thought I had.

A few days later I opened a book on India. Staring jovially at me from the page was a bewhiskered gentleman, wearing a dashing plumed hat, sitting nonchalantly astride an elephant. It was Tom Coryat, the eccentric Englishman who travelled to India overland in 1615, on foot, on twopence a day. When he reached the court of the great Moghul Emperor Jahangir, he wrote: ‘I have rid upon an elephant since I came to this court, determining one day (by God’s leave) to have my picture expressed in my next booke sitting upon an elephant.’ I was now obsessed. With or without God’s leave I was determined to have my picture expressed in my next book sitting upon an elephant.

I rushed to the library where I read a few classics on elephants. From the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, I received sound information: The great elephant has by nature qualities which rarely occur among men, namely probity, prudence and a sense of justice. They are mild in disposition and are conscious of dangers. If one of them should come upon a man alone who has lost his way, he puts him back peacefully in the path from which he has wandered. It is so peaceable that its nature does not allow it willingly to injure creatures less powerful than itself. If it should chance to meet a drove or flock of sheep, it puts them aside with its trunk so as to avoid trampling upon them with its feet; and it never injures others unless it is provoked. They have a great dread of the grunting of pigs and they delight in rivers. They hate rats. Flies are much attracted by their smell and as they settle on their backs they wrinkle up their skin deepening its tight folds and so kill them. How could I go wrong? It seemed I had chosen a most practical and agreeable travelling companion.
Now I was telephoning a friend in New Delhi. ‘Yes, I want to buy an elephant,’ I shouted to him, as if this was the most usual of requests.

‘You must be mad,’ his voice echoed. ‘Still, I suppose it’s possible. India is full of elephants, but what are you going to do with it when you leave? I don’t see your parents taking kindly to it residing in Sussex. Think of their beautiful garden. Why don’t you rent an elephant?’

‘Rent one?’ I yelled. ‘It’s not a car.’

‘All right, I’ll see what I can do.’ I could hear the resignation in his voice. ‘Meanwhile I suggest you contact Pepita. I think she has an elephant.’

‘Thank you so much. Goodbye.’

‘Mark,’ he shouted frantically. ‘There’s just one other thing. Where are you going to go on it?’

‘Well, um … er …’ I stuttered feebly. ‘To be frank, I haven’t really given it much thought yet.’ In fact, I had not thought about it at all. I just imagined myself climbing aboard and setting off.

Pepita Seth is an unconventional English woman, married to one of India’s finest actors. A scholar and talented photographer, she spent ten years in Kerala documenting the religious rituals of southern India. There she became obsessed with the elephant that so enriches Kerala’s ceremonies and festivals. Now she lives in Delhi. I wrote asking if I could buy her elephant. Pepita replied promptly. Her writing paper ‘elephant owners’ association’ announced what surely must be the most exclusive club in the world: No, I could not buy her elephant, she wrote indignantly. ‘On the other hand I know where you can get one. The Sonepur Mela in Bihar, the world’s largest animal fair. Elephants, cattle and horses have been sold there for centuries. I went three years ago and must have seen three hundred elephants. It happens sometime at the end of November, depending on the full moon.’ It was now the beginning of August and the Mela was not for another four months. I couldn’t wait that long. I decided to leave for India immediately certain that I would find an elephant once I got there. After all, I now had a goal – a place to sell it. I just had to find one and ride to the fair.

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