The hook’s blade caught the flames’ reflection and turned bright orange. Then it was all red.
“That’s not witches’ blood!” Ali said, looking at the bright red seeds in Kuttan’s hand.
“Liar Liar Liar!”
Appu’s eyes went back and forth between Ali and Kuttan as they argued about the origin of the manjadi seeds in Kuttan’s hand. Kuttan argued that when a witch’s blood touched the soil, it changed into bright red manjadi seeds. Ali wasn’t ready to accept such outrageous origin stories.
Sixty days ago, when school closed for the summer of ’71, the three friends agreed that on reopening day, they would bring back something that was a remnant of what they did during the holidays. Now they all sat huddled under the big Gulmohar tree in the middle of their village school, shaded from the tropical sun, eager to see what the others had gotten.
“I don’t care if you don’t believe me. My mother once told me that if you teased manjadi, the witches would haunt you at night. You’ll know soon.”
That shut Ali up.
“I don’t care about your stupid manjadi and the witches it came from. It’s all a lie! Imagine how boring your summer had to be to bring seeds to school,” Ali laughed.
“What did you bring?” Kuttan asked with a smirk on his face, knowing full well the witches would visit Ali in his sleep that night.
“I’ll go last. Appu, what did you bring?”
“Me?” Appu was hoping that the school bell would ring before it got to him. How was he supposed to tell them that he did absolutely nothing that summer? All he did was wake up every morning at six and go with his father to the coconut groves. His father climbed twenty or thirty trees a day and threw the coconuts down while he dutifully counted them. He hated it. Sometimes a blue hummingbird would fly past him as he finished counting fifty-six coconuts, and he had to do it all over again because he didn’t know if it were fifty-six or fifty-five, or 5,789. And as soon as he was about to finish counting the second time, a Koel bird would call out to him, and he would answer back. Oops! He lost the number again. If his father thought the count was wrong, he had to do it again.
Pick a coconut. “One.” Throw it to the left. Pick the next. “Two.” Left. Pick. “Three.” Left.
Appu’s back ached from bending low, picking up, and throwing the heavy coconuts. His eight-year-old body could only do so much.
“Umm..I actually….uh I forgot it back home,” Appu said.
“Well, what was it?” Ali asked, crossing his hands in front of him, skeptical of Appu’s excuse.
What did Ali know? His father was a muezzin at the village mosque who called the people out to prayer five times a day and got paid in kind due to how close he was to God. All he had to do was quote something from the Qura’an, and the rich and poor alike would fall at his feet and thank him for giving them God’s words while piling his kitchens with fresh banana plantains and rice from the fields. What did he know about climbing trees, and worrying about pests that kill coconuts and the rich but stingy landlords and heights and injury and falling and starving and…
“It’s a stone.”
“Oh! A stone. How special!”
“Yes. Very. I’m sure you found it inside a coconut,” Ali and Kuttan shot a quick glance at each other and burst into laughter.
Appu wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. He wanted to run. But all he did was stay. He had no one else in this world other than Kuttan and Ali, and his father. He missed his mother. He missed how she smelled like jasmine in the morning. Every time he returned from school, she choked him in an embrace that smelled like rice porridge, pickle, and sweat. But that was a long time ago. Or so it felt. Last year, his mother fainted in the fields while working. The landlord had a car but refused to waste the gas on a woman worker.
“She will get up when the sun hits her face hard enough,” he said.
But even after an hour, she didn’t wake up. The other women workers tried waking her up, but it was too late. The tropical heatwave was too strong, and she was dehydrated. It was an especially bad summer that year with a bad crop. His mother had given him her breakfast and gone to work with an empty stomach. And that’s how she died: on an empty stomach, in a field, with a parched tongue. She deserved better. Appu would do anything to get a hug that smelled like sweat from her one more time. If only he knew, he would have never broken their last embrace. His father had changed after his mother’s death too. He no longer smiled as much. He loved Appu—that he knew. But he was missing a part of himself, and both he and Appu knew it wouldn’t be back anytime soon. School helped Appu forget the loneliness, even if it meant hanging out with two dumb oafs that couldn’t care less. So he stayed.
The boys saw Appu’s eyes lowering to the ground. They saw his lips curl downwards, just a tiny bit. They understood the joke might have gone too far.
“Well, Ali, what did you bring?” Kuttan asked.
Ali slowly lowered his hands into his cloth satchel. He fumbled around a bit. Ah! Got it. He pulled his closed fist out of the satchel. Both his friends leaned closer to see what he had gotten. Ali opened the fist to reveal…
“Nothing? It’s empty?” Kuttan asked.
Ali smiled. Then in his signature Ali style, leaned back into the Gulmohar tree and moved his head from left to right.
“Look closer, boys.”
Appu and Kuttan almost missed it, but in the palm of his hand, over his palm lines, was a strand of hair.
“Hair? This is your special thing??” Kuttan asked.
“Guess who it belongs to?”
“Clearly not your dad’s. His head and my chicken’s eggs are twins”
Ali closed his fist shut.
“It is elephant hair,” he said proudly.
“And this is a lion’s mane,” Appu said, pulling a nose hair covered in snot and throwing it on the ground.
“Did you get it from its left braid or right?” Kuttan asked, not being able to control his laughter.
“So none of you idiots have heard about elephant’s hair?” Ali asked the two boys, who had now stopped laughing and were looking at each other with quizzical looks on their faces.
“No. What does it do?”
“Ahhhaah. The hair from an elephant’s tail is full of magic. If you carry one with you, you do not have to be scared of anything. If you are special enough and have the elephant Gods’ blessing, you can even talk to spirits. I will make a ring out of it or wear it as an amulet.”
Ali then went on and on about how he would talk to dead kings and find out where they hid their treasures. He would then go dig for it in the dark because the dark wouldn’t scare him anymore. And then he would be rich and eat only lemon candy for breakfast.
Appu didn’t hear any of this. He tried picturing an elephant’s hair on its tail. But he couldn’t.
Appu had never seen an elephant before.
Appu doubted if anyone had seen an elephant in the village before. They had elephants in the city for the Hindu festivals, but Appu had never been to the city. The boys in the city had textbooks with color pictures of animals, fruits, flowers, and whatnot. Appu did not. All he took to school with him was a black chalkboard, a chalk pencil, and a meal for the day covered in banana leaves. The meals were missing once or twice a week, but Appu never complained.
All he knew about animals was this: Lions walked on four legs like dogs but had a beard. Tigers were lions, but without beards and had stripes. Leopards were like tigers, but they had spots and climbed trees. Appu knew what a dog looked like, so he modified the image in his mind accordingly to picture every other animal.
But what about an elephant?
Did it have a beard? Did it have stripes? Did it climb trees? Was it brown or black or blue?
The Malayalam alphabet started with Aa.
Aa for Amma. Aa for Aana.
A for Mother. A for Elephant.
The image of one was etched so strongly in his mind it hurt him. The image of the other, absent.
“Ali, how tall was the elephant?” Appu asked innocently.
“As big as a coconut tree,” Ali said, pointing at a coconut tree in the distance.
“Poda! He’s lying. It’s not that tall,” Kuttan said, frowning. “It’s probably just bigger than a dog or a cow.”
Ali frowned. What did these idiots know about the outside world that was so full of wonders?
“An elephant is one of the biggest animals on the planet. It’s got tusks as big as you and feet like tree trunks! If you ever see an elephant, don’t ever say, ‘Hey, you’re bigger than a dog,’ or something stupid like that unless you want those words to be your last. Last year, an elephant went mad at a festival and killed three men on the spot! Did you not know?” Ali replied with the wisdom of a man who had daily newspaper service at his home.
Appu knew better than to trust both of his friends. So he assumed that an elephant was bigger than a cow but smaller than a coconut tree.
“Was it brown?” Appu asked again, trying to get a clearer image.
“It is black, but it turns blue in the sun,” Ali replied.
“It also lays eggs and flies on a full moon night,” Kuttan said, frowning at Ali for his terrible descriptions.
“No! Idiot.” Kuttan leaned forward, both his hands now supporting his head, which had to carry the full responsibility of being the only sensible person in the group.
The school bell rang.
The boys looked at each other and sighed at the idea of going to class to deal with numbers and the alphabet yet again. Kuttan and Ali argued about how big an elephant’s shit was. Ali said that it was as big as two pumpkins. Kuttan was sure that it was no bigger than a coconut. Appu couldn’t care less about elephant dung. Ok, maybe a little bit.
All day in class, Appu thought about one thing and one thing only. An elephant. He imagined a gigantic black animal with huge tusks and limbs like tree legs. He tried picturing it with a beard and spots and stripes, and with every change, he loved the elephant more. He didn’t bother much about the dung, but he knew it would be magnificent too.
Maniyan walked back home with a banana leaf package in hand. Banana Fritters. He knew Appu loved them. He couldn’t afford to buy the boy candy or toys or books, but he worked enough every day to afford the fritters once every week. He had climbed a few extra trees that day, and earned a few paise extra to save up for the boy’s birthday coming in a few months. This time, he would try and get a shirt. Or a wooden toy drum. Or maybe take him to the zoo in the city. He wouldn’t be able to afford the entry fee, but he hoped that the walls weren’t too high and that they’d be able to see an animal or two from outside.
“Appukutttaaaa!” he called out as he reached their earthen home. “Look what I got today! Come before it gets too cold.”
He anticipated the boy would come running out, but nothing happened. He went inside to see himsitting beside a boiling pot of water, clearly daydreaming.
“Appu! What are you doing? The water! Move!” he shoved the boy and put the water aside before it boiled over and hurt his son.
Appu looked at his father, now up from his trance. He saw the banana fritters in his father’s hand but did not grab them as he usually did.
“My boy, are you sick?” Maniyan asked, surprised at the boy’s behavior.
“No, acha. I am fine,” he smiled. He took the fritters from his father and sat down at the corner to eat. There were two. He ate one and left the other for his father.
“You can have them both. I already ate mine on the way here.”
That was a lie. His father didn’t make enough to afford three fritters.
“I am full. Had a heavy lunch today. Kuttan’s amma sent boiled eggs and rice for us.”
The lunch was not heavy. But these sweet lies were an arrangement to somehow pass through life unhurt.
Appu sat at the house’s entryway, staring into the distant sun that was now setting over the Arabian Sea. His father joined him. When his mother was alive, she would massage both their heads with coconut oil, and they would talk about everything that happened that day. But now it was just silence.
“Acha…Have you seen an elephant?”
“Once,” his father said, still staring into the distance.
“Really? What did it look like? Was it big? Was it black? Did it have a beard? Or spots? Or stripes?” Appu turned to his father excitedly.
“Hahaha, easy. One by one. It is big. It has a black body that looks ashy. If it is a male, it will have long white tusks. No beard, spots or stripes. Just plain black. And it has a long nose! It grabs things with it too.”
Appu couldn’t believe his ears. How can you pick things up with your nose?
“Achaaa…I want to see an elephant. Please?”
Maniyan looked at the boy lovingly. He remembered the last time he saw an elephant. His wife was five months pregnant at the time. Laying in his arms one night, she said she wanted to see an elephant.
“It is not for me. It is for your baby. See! It’s kicking!” she giggled and slowly placed his hands on her growing bump.
He took her on a bus to the neighboring village with a festival. He remembered the lights of the festival dancing in her eyes as she stared in wonder at the elephant there. She was too scared to go close, but when she was back, she couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks.
And now she was gone. And the kick in her wanted to see the elephant. Again.
“There is a festival in the neighboring village next week. I will take you.”
Maniyan nodded with a smile.
Appu couldn’t believe his ears. He hugged his father tightly. Maniyan put a hand on the boy’s back. There is so much I want to show you, he thought. I wish I could take you everywhere. I wish I could show you everything. I wish this was all different.
The rest of the week felt like an eternity. Appu couldn’t wait anymore. On the day he was supposed to go, he wore his cleanest shirt and combed his hair three times. He excitedly told his friends about what he would do later that evening, and all they asked him to do was check the size of the elephant’s dung. He would. He would check the size of the dung, the width of its limbs, the length of its trunk, the sharpness of its tusks, and so much more. He was going to love the elephant. He knew it.
Maniyan borrowed a cycle from a friend and pedaled to the neighboring village with Appu in front. He told the boy that the festival would be busy and that he had to always hold his hand. Appu agreed to everything. He couldn’t care less about the shops and the crowd at the festival. He cared for only one thing, and for that, he was willing to give up everything else. Everything.
The duo reached the festival at around six in the evening.
“Where’s the elephant?” Appu asked.
“They only bring it out after sunset when the evening rituals start.”
Appu sighed. He had waited an entire week for this. But the extra hour was too much to handle. The crowd around him lit the temple lamps and crowded around the temporary shops that were set up. The women bought bangles and kohl, and the young children bought dolls and drums.
Maniyan got Appu a glass of lemonade from a nearby stall, and both waited for the magnificent animal’s arrival.
A sound like no other pierced the evening air, and all eyes turned to the temple’s entryway. Appu had never heard something like that before, but he knew exactly what it was: an elephant’s trumpet. He tugged at the edge of the father’s shirt and urged him to walk faster to the entryway to get a better view of the elephant. His father complied, and both rushed toward the front of the crowd. The elephant trumpeted again. This one is feisty, he heard someone say. It’s his first temple season. Appu and his father weaved through the crowd and finally reached the temple’s entryway. A few people were still blocking the view, so Maniyan lifted Appu in his arms.
The boy could not believe what he saw. In the distance, he saw the elephant silhouette walking through the crowd toward the entryway. It had a golden headdress lined with red tassels and golden bells hanging from its tusks. The head priest sat on top, with the deity of the temple in his arms. The mahout sat behind him, holding the venchamaram. The white flowing tufts and the elephant moved in tandem with the sound of the temple drums and trumpets. This was nothing like what Appu imagined; it was so much better! Never in a million years could his mind have created this exact image from somebody else’s words. The elephant wasn’t carrying a God. The elephant was the God.
Maniyan looked at his son’s face. The boy wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t even blinking. He knew Appu was awestruck. A sense of pride filled his chest. He had never been able to afford toys or books for his child. All he did was work from sunrise to sunset, hoping there would be enough to put food in their bellies. Some days he starved, but he tried his best not to let his son go to bed hungry. He had never seen such happiness on his son’s face before, and at that very moment, he thanked God.
The mahout grew more nervous by the moment. The crowd was larger than he expected. The elephant wasn’t trained for large crowds and was not used to being around fire lamps. The temple seemed to be covered in a curtain of lit lanterns, and a few idiots in the crowd also had torches in their hands. The temple authorities had given him five hundred rupees for the day for the elephant.
“How is a temple elephant different from a timber elephant? It’s the same tusks and trunk and everything, no? Just bring in the animal at night and leave in an hour. You will not make this kind of money lifting logs into trucks,” they had said.
So here he was, with a timber elephant in a crowd of hundreds of people, wishing the animal wasn’t as nervous as he was. But he knew he was wrong. The elephant had trumpeted way too many times than he usually did and walked with a different speed.
Guruvayur Appa! Kaatholane! Oh Lord! Please take care of me.
The elephant was twenty meters away from where Appu was when it happened. A drunk rogue pushed through the crowd with a flame torch in his hand to catch a better view of the elephant. He waved the torch a little too close to the elephant’s face, and before he knew it, one of the tassels on the headdress caught fire. The elephant trumpeted and shook its head, confused and scared. The flames caught on, and the animal desperately tried to get the headdress off itself. He moved around desperately and tried to find a way through the crowd. But there were people everywhere, and the elephant grew desperate. It trumpeted loudly and tried to push the people around it with its trunk. The crowd panicked and ran in every direction.
The elephant is mad! They screamed.
Maniyan did not have time to process what was happening. The crowds rushed towards the entryway to find sanctuary inside the temple. Maniyan and Appu tried to do the same, but the entrance was too small for two hundred people. He looked around and saw the temple kitchen a little away from the entryway.
“Appu, run!” he pointed at the building and put the boy down. “I’m right behind you. Run.”
Appu tried to move through the crowd to where his father was pointing, but the people around him were pushing too strongly. He sobbed. His little frame weaved through the people, hoping his father was behind him. He heard someone scream in the distance. The elephant had killed someone.
Maniyan saw the elephant pushing through the crowd, throwing people left and right with its heavy trunk. The mahout was nowhere to be seen. He was the only person that could control the elephant now. Maniyan had lost sight of Appu but hoped the boy reached the kitchens. He looked back to see where the elephant was, but his eye caught something else in the ground. The elephant goad! The sharp-hooked goads were used to train and control the elephants, and the mahout had lost it in panic. Maniyan realized that if he could wield the goad and get the elephant’s ear, there was a chance that the elephant could be controlled.
Appu reached the temple kitchen and looked back to see where his father was. He saw his father in the distance, running…towards the elephant? Appu was confused and scared. Achaaaaa!! He screamed, only for it to be drowned in the sea of a million other screams. He saw his father bend to pick something up. It was a long stick with a sharp hook. The elephant was now charging toward his father, who had his back to Appu. The hook’s blade caught the flames’ reflection and turned bright orange. Then it was all red.
Maniyan was too short for the elephant. He tried to hook the goad to its ear, but failed. The elephant didn’t miss. The strong sweep of its trunk got Maniyan off his feet. The goad fell from his hands. He hoped the boy was safe. Maniyan stared up at the sky as the massive limb of the elephant landed on his chest. Then it was all red.
Appu wasn’t blinking. He wasn’t running. He wasn’t crying. He stared at his father’s corpse. It was all red.
You could’ve run. You could’ve hidden. You didn’t have to try and save people. All you had to do was run. Hide. Run. Hide.
When he went back to school, which he wouldn’t, he would tell his friends about the elephant.
The tusks were long.
The ears were huge.
The trunk was strong.
The limbs were massive.
It was black as night.
It didn’t glow blue in the moonlight.
But it had a blood-red stain on its right limb.