The past is an immense area of stony ground that many people would like to drive across as if it were a motorway, while others move patiently from stone to stone, lifting each one because they need to know what lies beneath. Sometimes scorpions crawl out or centipedes, fat white caterpillars or ripe chrysalises, but it’s not impossible that, at least once, an elephant might appear…
José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey
It was not the first time a creature had lain languishing in the streets of Mumbai. Lesser animals: cats, dogs, the occasional crow and frequently, human beings, had found themselves stranded, unable to move, watching cars and feet hurry past. But on 12 June, when Bijli, a 4,700-kilo cow elephant lay writhing on the street, the people of Mulund paused. For once it appears an elephant is difficult to ignore.
The Elephas Maximus, or Asiatic elephant, is an endangered animal. It was not supposed to be here. However, pachyderms covered in paint, trunks curved in blessing, are not new to Mulund — peddling divinity is lucrative, and the old industrial hub is full of believers. The 60-odd mahouts, who had wandered through the area in the past 10 years, had all returned to the villages with obese elephants and bulging pockets.
This desperate creature on the road was not full of blessing. Hind legs limp, her endless dermis covered in sores, Bijli had returned to a primal self — an animal struggling for survival. Each time she attempted to raise her body, she would drag herself around in circles, eyes clouded with pain. The gathering, which had begun with two elephants, an old couple and three mahouts, had now swelled to hundreds. Even at this moment devoid of all dignity, Bijli, with her sheer heft, had consumed the crowd’s imagination.
Mumbai’s dailies, abuzz with news of the stranded elephant, insisted that her owners were ‘beggars’. But Rama Devi, 50, and Rathi Ram Goswami, 55, who own four elephants, three homes in Mumbai, and employ at least six mahouts aren’t exactly surviving on loose change. At 58, Bijli has served the Goswamis for 32 years — carrying grooms at wedding functions, accepting prayers in exchange for fruits and cash, and begging for alms on highways. Her daily seven-hour shift would earn Rs 2,000-7,000 for her owners. On special occasions, like marriages and festivals, the sum would triple easily.
Raised on a diet of street and wedding food, it is no surprise that both Bijli and her younger companion Lakshmi are about 1,500 kilos overweight. Once representatives from animal protection groups arrived at the spot where Bijli was stranded, their first task was figuring out a way to lift her to her feet. Dr Yaduraj, an elephant specialist from Agra who was flown in soon after, says getting Bijli to stand is critical to prevent the sores on her skin from becoming worse. “Our job now is to decrease her weight, monitor her vital signs, clear the crowds and normalise things as much as possible,” he says.
Yet the situation in Mulund is far from normal. If it weren’t surreal enough that Bijli has been held upright by a crane for the past 12 days, two of the three elephants she lived with for the past two decades have returned to the Goswamis’ village in Madhya Pradesh. Lakshmi, Bijli’s 18-year-old and youngest companion, already knows something of the strange ways of men — one afternoon in 2007, Lakshmi was taken to the Mulund Police Station along with Rathi Ram and her mahouts, for illegal begging. After a day of haggling, the policemen finally let her go, because they could not find a jail large enough to accommodate her.
Every once in a while, Lakshmi tries to enter Bijli’s enclosure, meant to shield the ageing matriarch from the mid-day sun. When gathered doctors and volunteers rebuff her attempts to do so, she prefers walking around the neighbourhood, surrounded by admiring boys, offering blessings and rides for free.
Without their stars, the mahouts and their employers — the Goswamis — have lost a large source of income. At Rs 18,000 a day, the crane parked outside the enclosure is not cheap. Bijli now sleeps on a bed of hay, changed daily, bought at Rs 3,000 for five kilos. Lakshmi and Bijli are on a crash diet of fruits and fresh grass — combined with the wholesale quantity of anti-biotics Bijli must consume, add another Rs 11,000 per day. But Bijli’s collapse has done what the meek forest department directive in 2007 was unable to do — draw attention to the plight of begging elephants in the city.
Now, a swisher Mumbai set surrounds Bijli, the newest social media sensation. It began with a tweet from Amitabh Bachchan, which soon spiralled into a #savebijli campaign. The steady stream of visitors also includes a few newfound fans, who claim they will not leave the elephant’s side until she is absolutely well — a bleak prospect given her advanced age (in the wild, an Asian cow would live up to 60 years. At 58, Bijli has already fought hard to survive the ravages of a polluted and artificial environment). Screenwriter Vinith Shetty, 28, was drawn to the spot by the elephant’s ‘wildness’. “She is like every struggler in Mumbai, drawn to a toxic life that will eventually consume her”. Businessman Rajzu Iyer claims he has been feeding Bijli “whatever she asks for” over the past 13 years, since she reminded him of the elephants at the Guruvayur temple in Kerala. Iyer now shows up every day to pump money into the enterprise and make sure she survives. Even so, keeping an elephant on its last legs alive is an expensive prospect. In spite of the flurry of activity online, the volunteers on ground belong to local animal welfare groups like RAWW, Animals Matter to Me and Swabhimaan. Visiting politicians pause just long enough for photo-ops. Religious men touch her feet, seeing only an elephant-headed god but not an ailing animal. Volunteers camp at the spot on all night vigils. Meanwhile, Bijli, the screen on which these projections are made, the proverbial elephant surrounded by groping blind men on all sides, looks at the sky, hoping for rain.