..who held the fort while I was away. My apologies for such a long absence; spent eight days in Sri Lanka and the next eight back in Delhi with a hacking cough and high fever, which reminds me: if you're ever in Colombo, cough or no cough, take that walk down the seafront. It's gorgeous.
One of the things I did in Sri Lanka was visit the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage
. Pinnawela's pretty well known; it hosts about 70 rescued elephants at this point, and has never had less than 50 pachyderms since 1997.
I had "seen" elephants in the way most urban people do. Cruelly, at the circus, where these gentle creatures looked so miserable sitting on painted wooden tubs. Penned up in zoos, which feels all wrong for animals that live in large herds and are used to acres of roaming space. Or making waves in Delhi's already-chaotic traffic as they marched down the road, on their way to a marriage procession.
The thing is, you never really LOOK at elephants; you look at their size, their bulk, sometimes at the decorations their mahouts have caparisoned them with.
If you look at an elephant closely, this is what you see. The skin is hard, wrinkled, often dusty, unless they're bathing, in which case it transmutes into a gleaming black shell. Their mouths are very large, their trunks capable of extracting a peanut from a pocket with the greatest of delicacy, or thwacking an errant hathi backside with some energy. Their eyes? Even the youngest elephants I saw--the babies at Pinnawala and the baby fellow with the topknot at Kelaniya--seem to be born with those sad, old, watchful eyes. They take in everything, especially if "everything" includes "bananas".
I love the way they splashed each other in the river. I loved watching the babies shuffle around spraying water in a slightly tentative fashion, and loved the way the elephants took turns protecting the babies from too much roughhousing. The Pinnawala elephants are used to humans, so they took not the slightest notice of the crowds watching them, unless we proffered fruit. They love the time in the water; they sulk when they have to come out and march crossly up the path, expressing their disapproval of short bathing times by smacking each other--and once in a while, the odd careless human who's strayed on to the path--with their trunks.
I suppose Pinnawela counts technically as "captivity", but the elephants there looked so much happier than the ones you see in most Indian zoos. They had friends and relatives in the herd. They knew their mahouts well. They had conversations with each other; they looked us up and down, and one young male cheekily patted me with his trunk in a terribly familiar sort of way.
The one who stands out in the herd is Sama, who had part of her left foot blown up by a land mine when she was just two years old. Sama limps, terribly, but if you drop bananas in the water by accident, she's the first to scoop them out of the waves with her trunk. Her spine is curved like a question mark; as she grows older, the curvature will increase, the mahouts said. The people at Project Lucky Sama
are trying to train Sama to accept and use a prosthetic foot. Meanwhile, she gets around, on three legs, as best as she can. And if you have a bunch of bananas secreted on your person, she'll sniff them out faster than any of the rest.