Fiction

Counting elephants

By Vrinda Baliga

30 August 2019

A short story
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Photo: Kenneth Arthur Owen / Flickr

Okay, I know you’re ROFLing wherever you are, to see me on my knees in the middle of a humid, leech-infested forest, my body slick with sweat and insect-repellent, taking measurements of a mound of elephant dung. Don’t even think of making some stupid pun about me “being in deep shit” <groan> or “finally getting my shit together” <double-groan>.

Anyways. I’m not doing this for the sheer fun of it, in case you’re wondering. This dung-measurement thing is for calculating elephant density in an area. They explained it–in great detail, unfortunately—during the volunteer training, showing us slide after slide about the line transect something-or-the-other with a lot of math and graphs and stuff that you would have loved. Back in Bengaluru, when I boarded the bus to Bandipur to be a part of the three-day elephant census, I was half-afraid I might be the only one who showed up. As it turned out, there are a whole lot of people interested in counting elephants, and the training auditorium was packed with students, doctors, software professionals, teachers and homemakers, all listening in rapt attention. I wasn’t one of them–one of those paying attention, I mean–but what I can tell you for a fact—thanks to the hand-made posters of elephant trivia that someone had helpfully sellotaped to the walls of the auditorium, illustrative pictures and all–is that elephants can recognise themselves in mirrors, do basic arithmetic, identify musical notes, communicate over long distances, understand body language. And they too mourn their dead.

Bhupathi comes over to scrutinise the mound. “Looks like a fresh bolus. The herd, or at least this individual, is somewhere close.”

Bhupathi is our forest guard–friendly, talkative chap, late twenties. We are a team of seven–five volunteers and two forest department employees–and we, like the other teams, have been assigned a block of the jungle for the census. Our block is supposed to have a high probability of a direct sighting; a group of seven or eight elephants is believed to habituate these parts–the herd Bhupathi is referring to.

Yesterday, we saw signs of their presence. We were on a hillock. From our height, we could spot the treetops shaking a short distance away. But the elephants were downwind of us and city folks aren’t the quietest of creatures. So, by the time we reached the spot, there was no sign of them. You wouldn’t believe how an entire herd of pachyderms can melt into the forest in minutes.

Gita, a doctor from Mysuru in her early fifties, fidgets nervously. “Are you done, Prakriti? Nagaiah and the others have gone ahead already.”

Nagaiah is a forest watcher, one of the casual employees hired by the stretched-thin forest department to help with surveillance and such. Among all of us, Bhupathi included, he is by far the most experienced with elephants. A lean, hardy man with surprisingly bright eyes in a weathered face, he was once the mahout of a temple elephant. For over three decades, he groomed, fed, trained, rode and looked after a regal tusker. When it died, he didn’t have the heart to carry on as usual with its replacement. He returned home to his village and joined the forest department instead.  He is in his sixties now, the kind you would call “rich in thoughts, miserly with words”, a complete contrast to Bhupathi. The two share an easy camaraderie and Bhupathi, despite ranking higher, defers to the older man’s judgement.

Nagaiah, like Bhupathi, wears a department-issue khaki shirt, but he pairs it with a casual dhoti. And he has flip-flops on, as though this were a romp on a sandy beach, not a trek through thick jungle. Yet, he sets the pace and the rest of us, bristling with our Nikes and trekking poles and Dri-Fits and what-nots, struggle to keep up.

I jot down the distance of the bolus from the transect line and retract the measuring tape. “Done. Let’s go.”

The other members of our team, three students from a commerce college in Dharwad, have disappeared over a crest with Nagaiah, and we hurry after them.

***

“I hope we’re not too far behind.” There’s a tinge of nervousness in Gita’s tone. “We should try to stay within eyesight.”

She’s no doubt thinking of the briefing session last morning where Bhupathi had warned us to be extra watchful and to stick together. This particular herd, it turns out, has been a bit of a problem for the forest department. It has taken to raiding the crop fields of the neighbouring village, and the villagers are up in arms. The forest department is trying its best to pacify them, but incidents are on the rise:  groups of villagers have been confronting the herd with sticks and firecrackers, and the elephants have got more belligerent towards humans in turn.

Bhupathi had said ruefully, at the briefing session, “Everything was going fine until the matriarch died.” The matriarch was hit by a passing train when the herd was crossing a railway line. The herd, Bhupathi told us, gathered around her carcass and would not let anyone get close. Finally, forest guards had to fire gunshots in the air to frighten them back into the jungle so the carcass could be removed.

“The raids on the village are related to that?” one of the volunteers asked.

“That’s what the villagers believe. They think the herd has been angered by the matriarch’s death and the raids are their way of exacting revenge.”

“Really? Is that possible?”

“It’s easy to attribute human sentiments to elephants. They are very sentient creatures, after all. But if you ask biologists, they would say that the herd has lost its matriarch and the caution and experience that came with her years. There was another adult female who died last year of an infection. With this death… they are all young in the herd now, brash and inexperienced, prone to taking risks. The fields are an easy source of food, and they are unafraid or unaware of the consequences.” Bhupathi shook his head. “We see only the one dead elephant. That elephant becomes a number, a statistic in our records. But what of the damage that one death wreaks on those left behind?”

***

I’d told them a million times not to come to the station. So, of course, there they were when the train pulled in at Yelahanka. I had a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw them–Aai and Baba– waiting on the platform, looking slightly lost amid the milling crowds. We went through the usual routine of awkward hugs. Baba ignored my protests and wrested my bags from my hands.

“So, congratulations!” Aai said, kissing my cheek. “College done. You’re officially a big girl now.”

The usual commentary followed about how thin I had become and had I been starving myself all year. Though, in reality, it was they who looked gaunt and diminished, like they had shrunk over the last year.

Outside, ‘Baba’s third child’ waited, the old Maruti 800, looking just as it always has–the magnetic Ganpati idol on the dashboard, the wooden-beads acupressure cushion on Aai’s seat, the “I used to be cool once” bumper sticker you had pasted on the dickey to irk Baba.

“I told you not to bother,” I said, settling resignedly into the backseat.

Arrey, how can we not come? Of course, it’s no bother,” Aai protested, then promptly went on to list all the ways in which it indeed was–the terrible traffic, the station being so far from home, Baba’s worsening eyesight, his refusal to go in for cataract surgery, the car and its multiple mechanical problems.

My attention, though, was focussed on Baba. It wasn’t so much what he was saying, which wasn’t much beyond an occasional grunt at Aai’s prompting, but how he was driving. The jerky gear-shift, the sudden braking, the swerving; driving that couldn’t quite be called reckless, but bordered on it. That was new! You remember how the slightest scratch in the car’s paintwork used to cause him such heartache? How we used to joke that he cared more for his precious car than for his own son and daughter?

A motorcyclist zoomed past and cut across our path. Baba muttered under his breath and I felt the car speed up. At the next traffic junction, Baba managed to pull up next to the errant chap. Then he hauled down his window and began to hurl the choicest gaalis at the man! Can you believe it? Baba shouting abuse! And, guess what? Aai didn’t even look surprised.

“Let it go,” she said to him, a hint of despair in her voice.

Fortunately, the lights changed, and the moving traffic averted an all-out confrontation.

The sudden silence after all that yelling served only to underline the incident, so, naturally, Aai had to try and cover it up.

“Bengaluru’s traffic has become a nightmare,” she began. “People have no patience… you stop at a red light and someone will honk at you from behind! Now, they’ve even blocked the U-turn near our building. You have to drive three kilometres just to make the turn. Easily an extra half-hour in peak hours. The other day, I was crossing a street in Jayanagar–it was a one-way, mind you—and this rickshaw fellow driving in the wrong direction almost hits me, and then he tells me, ‘Why don’t you look in both directions?’ Both directions on a one-way! The cheek of the fellow! And every day, you read about these terrible incidents—”

“Oh, just shut up for two minutes,” Baba snapped in a tone you and I have never heard him use with her.

We travelled the rest of the way in silence, gazing out of our respective windows. I watched Palace Grounds go by, then Windsor Manor bridge, the Golf Course, Race Course Road, Cubbon Park, MG Road, Brigade Road–the city, so familiar, always different, ever-moving, ever-growing, ever-changing. Here, an impersonal underpass where once a stand of tabebuias streaked the street yellow, there the view of a lake now obliterated by a new set of high-rises, elsewhere a boulevard sacrificed to the rising pylons of the Metro network. An outsider would see only a bustling metropolis no different from any other; it takes an insider to recognise the umpteen ways it has changed since she last saw it, to get that feeling of the ground having shifted from under her feet. Sitting in the car with Aai and Baba I had the same feeling. I knew them well enough to understand that I could barely recognise them anymore.

***

The forest looms around us, a living presence, at once commanding and soothing. I can feel its breath on my neck, its multi-hued thoughts, its sighs and whispers. There is life everywhere, camouflaged from our untrained eyes, manifesting only in a sudden flutter and dash of colour high up in the branches, or in the crack of a twig and swish of leaves deep in the undergrowth.

Back at the forest lodge, the walls are covered with pictures of the forest’s fauna–tiger, leopard, sloth bear, antelope, wild boar, crocodile, osprey, hornbill, bee-eater, drongo–but all we’ve managed to see so far is a lone male gaur standing next to a watering hole, with horned head held high like he were the king, and sole occupant, of the whole jungle. Walking along the transect line, we have to satisfy ourselves with the lichen-covered tree trunks, the mushrooms poking their heads out of the mulch, and the beetles scurrying across our path donning their coppery-gold carapaces like burnished armour.

Nagaiah and the others continue to maintain a lead over us, and Gita, trying to hurry, is out of breath. I feel obligated to slow down and keep her company. Not that I particularly want to; she’s a veritable minefield of personal questions. Yesterday, out of the blue, she asked, “So, who all in your family, Prakriti? Any brother, sister?” And there I was, staring at her like a fool, unable to speak.

Gita is needlessly worried about being left behind, because Bhupathi is still with us. Between the two of them, Nagaiah and he make sure that none of us strays from the path or wanders off alone. Involving volunteers in the elephant census is theoretically a good initiative to get people interested and invested in the welfare of wildlife but, on the ground, I suspect, we are more hindrance than help. Bhupathi, though, is a patient guide and keen on our participation.

To avoid being interrogated by Gita, I turn to him and ask, “This herd… what will happen to it if the raids continue?”

Bhupathi shrugs. “At present, the forest department is compensating the farmers for their losses. But if this continues…” He is silent for a moment. “There is pressure on us to do something. Capturing a few juveniles will scare the others from straying out of the forest,” he says, finally. Seeing me wince, he adds, “We’re hoping it won’t come to that, though. Nagaiah is optimistic. He’s speaking to the villagers, telling them to give the new matriarch some time. He’s convincing them that the raids will peter out once she finds her feet, that she bears no ill-will against them.”

“But will they listen?”

“They might, to one of their own,” Bhupathi says. Then he smiles. “Besides, everyone knows of his old connection with her.”

The story is from way before his own time here, he tells us. There was a period of severe drought and the elephants had emerged from the forest in search of water. In the dark, a calf fell into a dried-out irrigation ditch. The herd tried all night to pull her out, but the infant kept falling back in. At daybreak, the villagers came out to the fields to investigate all the noise. The exhausted herd moved off into the tree cover, but remained close, reluctant to leave the calf. The villagers were afraid to approach the calf with the herd so close, so they called the forest department. By the time the forest guards arrived with a few trained kumki elephants to keep the herd at bay during the rescue operation, they found that one of the villagers had got down into the ditch with the calf. It was Nagaiah, then still a mahout, visiting family in the village. The calf had understandably been panicky, but he had spoken to her, given her water, calmed her and stayed with her. Thanks to his intervention, it was a smooth operation to get her out unharmed and she was soon reunited with her family.

“That calf is the daughter of the matriarch who died in the train accident,” Bhupathi concludes with a flourish. “By our estimates, she’s an adult now or at least on the cusp of adulthood. Nagaiah has kept an eye on the herd ever since he became a watcher. He says she’s been an allomother to a couple of juveniles in the herd. And after the matriarch’s death, she’s seamlessly taken over the care of her orphaned calf. He believes she’s the oldest in the herd and, therefore, its new matriarch.”

We walk in silence for a while, taking all this in. Up ahead, Nagaiah and the others seem to have slowed down, and we begin to close the distance between us, to Gita’s visible relief.

“I kept you back,” she says to me, apologetically. “You would have had more fun with your gang.”

By “your gang”, she means the college students. I hardly know them, but because of my age she automatically clumps me with them. As far as I’m concerned, they’re kids, mere freshers in their first year of college. To them, a graduate probably means a financially independent, working professional, a member of the adult world. Unfortunately, I don’t fall into that category either.

***

“So Malathi, which company is Prakriti joining? What’s the starting salary? Are they giving a good joining bonus?”

You guessed right: your most favourite person in the world, our friendly neighbourhood gossip, Prema Aunty. Whenever I see her, your dead-on imitation leaps to mind and it’s hard not to chuckle. Luckily, they were in the kitchen and I was eavesdropping from the living room, hidden behind the newspaper.

“Oh, she has applied to several companies,” Aai said, her nonchalance sounding a tad forced. “It’s all her choice, of course. We don’t interfere in it.”

There was a pregnant pause, and in it I got the distinct feeling that certain tall claims had been made, claims that I have not lived up to. I wouldn’t put it past Aai to have extrapolated whatever expectations she had to reality. After all, I had been using all kinds of imaginary ‘projects’ and ‘interviews’ as excuses for not coming home last year. But now I was back, minus any campus placement offer and with neither the grades nor the inclination for higher studies. Decidedly an awkward situation for Aai.

In a parallel universe, she would have expertly deflected the conversation over to you.  One of the (few) perks of having a big brother like you: I always managed to fly under the parental radar. The minor blips of my life barely registered against the soaring crests of your trajectory. Your prestigious university, the highly-coveted degree, the tech job with the dollar income and the stock options, the suburban home, your latest road trip in your newly-acquired Lexus–so much material for Aai to fall back on. For good measure, she would have forced upon Prema Aunty some of the gold foil-wrapped chocolates or perfume bottles from your last visit home.

“Why do you do that!” I would have protested later, after Prema Aunty had left. “It’s so embarrassing. Aai, this is not the India of the seventies. You can find all this stuff right here, you know, in any bloody supermarket.”

“Remind me of that the next time I’m thinking of getting you something,” you would have cut in, over Skype, laughing.

“Suit yourself,” I would have retorted. “Sorry, but foreign-returned relatives bearing gifts of chocolates and electronics and perfumed toiletries are no longer automatically conferred demigod status.”

“What!” you would have said, in mock disappointment. “I’m not a demigod then?”

“Prakriti, Mohit,” Aai would have said with a practiced sigh. “Will you two never grow up?”

Now, I am the only one left. Suddenly visible. Worse, in the spotlight. All my faults and fallibilities out in the open. But so too are the sudden fragilities of my existence in this home where the fact of being alive will never again be taken for granted. I almost pity Aai–she is bound by nature to criticise me, but now feels compelled to do so with kid gloves.

And Baba? Well, Baba leaves me alone. Baba leaves everyone alone. He sits glued to the computer all day long, not saying a word.

For the first few days, an effort was made for my benefit. We sat down together for dinner. In a burst of energy, Aai made all my favourite dishes–dalithoy with rice, taushe salad, cabbage ambado. soal kadi, spicy and garlicky, just the way I like it. After so many months of hostel life and mess grub, for a brief while, those familiar aromas and tastes did evoke a sense of home. But ultimately, they could not mask the fake buoyancy in Aai’s tone as she plied me with great helpings of beetroot upkari and covered the uncomfortable silences with nervous chatter, intermittently tossing a question Baba’s way which she would immediately answer for him, “…you remember, don’t you, last month, how the sewage treatment plant broke down?…Yes, of course he does…the flush water stank so bad. The residents’ welfare association has gone downhill so fast under that Narayanan. When Baba was in charge, he never let things get to such a state…”

The two of us pretended not to notice Baba simmering silently at her inanities even as we each braced for an eruption. As you can imagine, those dinners didn’t last long, and Baba went right back to having his meals in the study.

The other day, on a whim, I opened the browser history on the desktop. “Sikh man faces harassment because of turban.”; “Indian grocery vandalised.”; “The ‘American Dream’ turns nightmare.”; “Indian-origin couple allege discrimination by airline staff.”; “Racist bullying of Indian-American schoolkid goes viral.” And on and on, a veritable repository of hate crimes.

You remember how as kids we would learn a new word, and then suddenly that word would leap out at us from everywhere? Newspapers, books, TV, just everywhere? It wasn’t magic, or even coincidence, you explained in your irritating knowledgeable-big-brother tone. The word was always there, we were only noticing it because we now understood what it meant.

The new word in Baba’s vocabulary? ‘Hate!’

***

Up ahead, Nagaiah raises a hand in warning. We inch forward, careful not to make a sound. The reason for caution soon becomes apparent. There is a clearing in the distance ahead, where a lone elephant is foraging in the tall grass, making a low, barely audible rumbling sound.

“He is in musth,” Nagaiah says. His voice is calm, quiet, but the warning note in it is unmistakable.

The elephant is a full-grown tusker. Through my field glasses, I can see liquid oozing from the side of his forehead, a sign of the periodic testosterone surge that we were told about in the training session. He is clearly restless and irritated, rubbing against tree trunks and taking occasional angry swipes at the surrounding foliage with his impressive tusks.

“He can be pretty unpredictable in this state,” Bhupathi says. “We had best lie low.”

We retreat to a nearby hillock from which we can safely observe the elephant. Bhupathi jots down his distinctive physical features and takes a few pictures for the census records.

“Is he part of the herd?” Gita asks.

“No. He’s an adult. Herds are mostly made up of females, infants and juveniles. When male elephants reach maturity, they strike out on their own.”

The tusker is in the direct path of the transect line, and there is no way we can get past without attracting his attention. The only option is to stay put till he moves away. So, we settle in, grateful for the rest, while Bhupathi keeps a close watch on the tusker, ready to order a quick retreat if he begins to move towards us.

The college kids form a tight knot as usual, talking and laughing quietly amongst themselves. Gita settles back in the shade of a tree and closes her eyes. So, I head over to Nagaiah instead and settle down on the ground next to him. He smiles in acknowledgement but makes no move to start a conversation. With him, though, the silence is not awkward, and we sit comfortably, our backs against a rock. I watch a large spider engineer an intricate web across two low-hanging branches while Nagaiah gazes absently at the selfie-clicking college kids. Perhaps we are both thinking of the same thing, for he instantly intuits who I’m talking about when I  ask, “Do you think she still remembers you?”

“Yes, she remembers,” he replies, the local dialect generously mixed in with his Kannada. “I see her many times. On my rounds. Always she knows I am there before anyone else in the herd. But she does not go away. She does not tell the others. That is trust.”

I feel a strange kinship with her, this young elephant, thrust into a role she is not ready for, faced with challenges she does not fully comprehend. “Do you think she will stop the crop raids?”

“She is very quick, very intelligent,” Nagaiah says, tapping his finger against his forehead. “See yesterday? How fast they all disappear when we are coming? Soon, she will see the fields are danger.” He is silent for a while, then shakes his head sorrowfully. “What these innocent creatures will know about trespassing? The elephants, they don’t even know such boundaries are there. It is we people making these lines on the earth.”

***

“Keep Out! Anyone below ___ years not allowed.”

Every year, you would change the number on that stupid sign to exactly one year more than my age at that time. Not that it ever kept me out of your sacrosanct territory!

That sign is gone now. But other boundaries have crept in, invisible and unsurmountable. Aai and Baba live under the same roof, but on different planets. When Baba is out on his morning walk, Aai finishes her breakfast. When he’s reading the newspaper over breakfast, she’s taking her bath. When he’s in the bath, she’s reading the newspaper. When she’s taking her afternoon nap, he watches TV, clicking through the news channels, fuelling his hunger for all that is wrong with the world. When he’s out fetching groceries in the evening, she watches her soaps with their multi-tiered webs of deceit and betrayal. The contours of their routines circle warily around each other, never touching.

In the silences of our home, the only thing that speaks is your absence. It permeates every surface, whispering in the shadow of every thought and action. But it speaks the loudest in Baba’s eyes, in the lines on his face. It’s as if the hate-filled bullet that took your life on the other side of the planet ripped a hole through the very fabric of space-time and lodged itself in the heart of this gentle, jovial man, filling it with a rage that now spans the breadth of the whole world.

Once-friendly neighbours avert their eyes when Baba walks past. Even Narayanan Uncle; you know how close they were! Narayanan Uncle, incidentally, has become the president of the residents’ welfare association after Baba was forced to step down when he got into fisticuffs with some visitor for inadvertently parking his car in our slot.

“Find a job in Bengaluru itself,” Prema Aunty tells me when I bump into her and two other neighbourhood ladies in the park. “Stay with your Aai-Baba. How will your Aai manage alone?” And with that ‘alone’ she expertly manages to emphasise everything that, for the sake of propriety, she has to leave unsaid.

Meanwhile, Aai has latched onto my purported job hunt with a tenacity bordering on obsession. She seems to believe that if only she hammers hard enough at this particular nail, the rest of our home will somehow rebuild itself. “Have you heard from anybody yet?” she asks, like a million times a day. “Have you got any offers yet?”

The very air at home is like a pillow held down over my face.

So, when the half-page ad appeared in the newspaper calling for volunteers to participate in a census of the elephant population in the state’s reserve forests, I grabbed the opportunity to get away, if only for a few days.

***

We are in Cubbon Park–you, me and Baba–playing catch. Baba throws the ball alternatively to us, easy throws for me, challenging ones for you. It’s my turn, but the ball comes in too high and goes into the bamboo thicket behind me. At nine years, you are the designated fetcher of runaway balls. You go off into the thicket. We wait and wait for you to return.

“Stay here,” Baba says to me, finally, and follows you into the thicket.

I stand there, a five-year-old, alone and scared, as the light grows dimmer and the greenery around me thickens and morphs into dense jungle.

“Baba…?” There’s a tremor in my voice.

How far have you gone? And how far has he gone behind you? Doesn’t he know he has left me all alone?

Suddenly, the giant bamboo stalks begin to shake, and an elephant emerges from the thicket. The tusker, still in musth-drenched rage. He comes at me, and I know instantly there’s no point in trying to run. The ground shudders under my feet, and I squeeze my eyes shut, bracing for impact. An eternity passes. When I open my eyes, the elephant towers over me, inches away, but it is not the tusker. It is a female elephant that looks down at me. I meet her eyes and find recognition there. All at once, I know her too. I rescued her once, when she was an infant, and she remembers. That was years ago, though, and a lot has happened since. She is angry, and with good reason. I see the struggle in her eyes: her memory of me feuds with her mistrust of my kind, and the battle can go either way.

I jerk awake and sit up, covered in sweat. The ceiling fan here in the forest lodge has stopped–a power failure. In the bunk next to me, Gita’s gentle snores reverberate lightly in the still, muggy air.

***

It is late afternoon on the final day of the census. We are on a machan, high up on a tree, staking out a watering hole. This is our last chance of a direct sighting of the herd. But we’ve been waiting several hours now, in vain. My attentive watchfulness has given way to a half-hearted scan every few minutes, the ennui broken only by a few deer who come for a quick drink before disappearing into the trees.

I idly scroll through the pictures I have taken on the DSLR. The lake. The deer. A pair of bison. The tusker from yesterday. Wild mushrooms. Perfect chiaroscuros effected by sunlight filtering through branches. Picture after picture of verdant tropical forest.

And then, suddenly, there is a snow-laden neighbourhood, white streets, trees and rooftops shrouded in silver. I freeze, stunned for a second by the sudden contrast.

It was a conscious decision to bring your camera along when I came out here. The camera that came back with the rest of your stuff. With the body. I know this picture, of course, it’s not the first time I have looked at it, or the others on the camera, pictures that can no longer be deleted because they were the last ones you clicked.

I scroll through them–white, stark, beautiful. Between them and the chaotic green of my own photos lies the whole chasm that stretches between us now, unfordable and infinite.

We are about to give up hope when they arrive. At first, there’s just a single young female, then a juvenile bull appears, and then the whole lot of them emerge from the trees on the opposite bank of the lake. Bhupathi takes down observations at a furious pace, noting gender, approximate age, characteristic markings–three adults/sub-adults and four juveniles, the youngest about four years old, the dead matriarch’s calf. Spontaneous smiles erupt on our faces as the younger members of the herd frolic in the water, splashing, clearly having fun, while the others lazily hose water onto their backs.

“That’s her,” Nagaiah says, pointing.

She stands slightly apart from the rest, not joining in the fun. She maintains a protective proximity to the calf, periodically reaching out to it with her trunk. But apart from that, her posture is still, attentive.

She is looking right at us. She senses our presence up here on the machan, hidden by the branches of the tree. She is alert, but not afraid.

At long last, when they have finished drinking and splashing, an invisible signal seems to pass through the elephants and, almost as one, they turn to leave the lake. The young matriarch waits for the last one to come out of the water, her trunk protectively following the calf that waddles about her legs. Then, with one last look towards us, she turns and leads her herd back into the trees.

***

~Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad, India, and is the author of the short story collection Name, Place, Animal, Thing. Her work has appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab International), Asia Literary ReviewThe Indian QuarterlyNew Asian Writing, ColdnoonMuse India and other literary journals and anthologies. ‘Counting Elephants’ will appear in her forthcoming collection Arrivals and Departures.

One Response to “Counting elephants”

  1. Malathi says:

    A beautifully written story about loss and the daily struggle to live with it. The interweaving of the young elephant matriarch was deft and evocative. I look forward to reading the author’s new collection.

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