ONCE UPON a time, and the times were as good or as bad as they always had been, there lived an elephant. Because he was an elephant, he could not forget. And this was his blessing and this was his curse. And every day, his shoulders drooped a little more from the weight of his memories. He could not smile from all the sadness he remembered, and he was always laughing from all the happiness he could not forget.
Now this elephant would do nothing all day except walk down every road he happened to see. He met many people he knew along the way and would call out greetings to them, but they all avoided him because he remembered too much and because he was always laughing but never smiled. And he saw many beautiful buildings along the way, but he never went into any of them because closed spaces filled with people frightened him. So he walked all day down every road, not speaking to anyone and not going anywhere.
And when night fell, he would walk back home and try to sleep because that’s what nights were for. But he could not sleep because he remembered too much.
ONE DAY, the elephant did step into one of those beautiful buildings along the way. If you asked him why he did so even though closed spaces filled with people frightened him, he would say he did not really know, that he was sorry but he really had no idea. And there couldn’t have been a reason — if there was, he would have remembered.
Before stepping in, he stopped to read the letters that hung large and bright and happy above the large door.
A – Q – U – A – R – I – U – M
And the elephant scratched his head with his trunk because he did not know what all those letters meant even though they were large and bright and happy
When he stepped inside, it was so dark that he had to blink many times before he could see where he was. And when he saw where he was, he scratched his head again. It was a large room with windows high up, near the ceiling. The elephant wondered if this was all there was to aquariums and turned to leave with a vague sense of disappointment.
Before he could reach the large door and step into the sunlight though, the elephant felt a tug on his tail. It was an authoritative tug — a tug used to being obeyed, a tug that may not be denied. So the elephant turned around and saw a man in a cap who looked like a walrus. He had whiskers like walrus-teeth and teeth like walrus-whiskers and he was waving the elephant in. The elephant looked more carefully this time, and out of the darkness a door appeared. And from that door shone a watery light, and it shone by turns greenly and bluely with just the perfect touch of golden. The elephant was enchanted and walked to this new door and was just about to pass through it when he felt that familiar tug on his tail.
It was, of course, the man in a cap who looked like a walrus.
‘What?’ said the elephant.
‘You can’t just go in there,’ said the man in a cap who looked like a walrus. ‘You have to pay. How many people are you?
How many people are you? Now the elephant was confused. What sort of question was this? But since he had been asked, he had to reply — and he had to reply correctly. So he thought long and he thought hard. And he did additions and subtractions and divisions and multiplications in his head and then he did them again. But he always came up with the same answer.
‘One,’ he finally said, somewhat sheepishly.
‘Hah! Liar!’ the man in a cap who looked like a walrus shouted. ‘There must be at least 10 people in that costume. Ten tickets to go in or you can march right back out!’
The elephant was indignant. ‘But this is robbery!’ he said. But the watery-green and the watery-blue lights that shone from the little door were so enchanting that he swallowed his anger, bought the 10 tickets and squeezed in through the little door.
HE FELT as if he was walking under water.
‘Wonders never cease,’ the elephant said to himself as he walked through the long tunnel made of glass.
The sun shone darkly through the water all around him and sometimes it shone green and sometimes it shone blue and it cast strange shadows upon the floor. But if the elephant had been even a little frightened when he entered this enchanted place, he wasn’t anymore, soon mesmerised by the wonderful creatures that surrounded him. And as he looked at them, he felt that they too were looking back at him. And saying nasty things about him because that’s what people say about elephants that look like 10 people in a costume.
The octopus was indifferent though, as he sat with his arms around a plywood violin, playing a watery sorry tune and shedding sorry inky tears.
There were the sharks that had started hooting the moment he entered and gathered at the wall of the tunnel grinning madly and licking their lips. Some of them (these were the hammerheads) rushed towards the glass wall that separated them, as if to break it. They all seemed to want to eat him, so he didn’t linger on.
There were the balloonfish that moved about by filling themselves up with air and then going, ‘Poof!’ Of course, this meant that they couldn’t control where they were going, but they were very fast indeed.
There were the catfish, and some of them lay curled up on the floor of the aquarium and others chased after the squeaking, scurrying ratfish or rushed about with the yelping dogfish after them.
There were the guppies that always moved in groups, and if you went too close to them you could hear a clamour of little voices all saying different things because they were all always talking and never listening.
There were the tuna and the sardines, and they all looked glum and moved very very slowly, because they knew, as soon as they were born that they were meant to be packed into small tin cans and end up in someone’s sandwich.
Another morose one was the crab, and he was worse because he had no reason to be. He sidled along the bottom of the aquarium and if any of the catfish were in his way, he would pinch them till they moved — the impudent ones got their whiskers snipped and became the laughing stock of the aquarium for a week. Or you could see him in the corners or near some rock, burrowing in, trying to cover himself with sand. And if you said ‘Hello,’ he’d snap his claws at you and say, ‘Leave me be!’
There were the bananafish that were green when they were little and turned yellow as they grew big. And they glided about looking like unpeeled bananas. But they could swim fast too, especially if the monkeyfish were after them, and then their fins spread out so that they looked like peeled bananas ready to eat.
There were the clownfish all dressed up to be in a circus, with red nose, white face and all. And they looked really funny but they were actually very sad because clownfish are happy only when laughed at. And no one who’d seen them more than once would laugh because, you see, the tragedy of the clownfish was that they each knew only one joke. So they were happy when they saw the elephant. And as he passed by them, a huge chorus went up of ‘Know the one where…’ that soon degenerated into an incoherent babble because all of them were talking at once. So the elephant passed by them without even a giggle.
And then there were the angelfish and they were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. They floated about on their beautiful wings and gave off a little light. And they spoke to very few people because very few people were special. And they spoke very softly because whatever they said was important. They passed by the elephant without a second look.
Now the elephant was nearing the end of the tunnel. And here, there was a tank that was kept separate from all the others. This was for the firefish that, every few minutes, would let rip a huge belch of fire that would boil the water around them. And though they could stand it, the other fish that happened to be near could not and they would be cooked and float to the top of the water, very dead.
AT THE very end of the tunnel was a large bowl of glass, almost spherical, and inside it was a little goldfish because goldfish are always kept in large, almost spherical bowls of glass.
The elephant walked slowly to the glass bowl in which the little goldfish was circling, looking rather bored. Then he circled round the glass bowl and stopped once he came back to the front.
‘Hello, little goldfish!’ he said.
The goldfish stopped circling and her eyes grew very wide. Then she closed her eyes, rubbed them and looked again — and was still surprised. The elephant thought she was the sweetest little thing he had ever seen.
‘Was that you who spoke?’ she asked the elephant in a trembling little voice, and the elephant thought it was the sweetest little voice he had ever heard.
‘Yes it was, little goldfish,’ the elephant said. ‘And can I be your friend?’
When the goldfish heard the elephant’s soft voice say this, she was not scared anymore and laughed in relief. And little bubbles of laughter went up to the surface of the water and burst with little tinkles. And the elephant thought it was the sweetest little laugh he’d ever heard.
‘Of course,’ said the goldfish. ‘But tell me, who are you Mr Funnynose?’ And she let out another bubblytinkly laugh.
‘I,’ said the elephant, ‘am the elephant’ — a little hurt because the little goldfish had laughed at him. But he did not say anything and was not rude because he was used to it.
AND BESIDES, he was already in love with the little goldfish.
Why he should have fallen in love with the little goldfish, he did not know. Why, when there were others more beautiful, when there were others that were smarter, and others still that were smarter and more beautiful? He did not know — one never does. If you asked him, he would only be able to tell you that everything about the little goldfish made him go weak at all four knees and made him want to tie his trunk in knots.
He could talk to her as he could talk to no one else. And so they talked, the elephant and the goldfish, till it was closing time. And when they’d said their goodbyes and the elephant slowly turned around, resolved to come back the next day, the goldfish said in her sweet little voice, ‘You know something, elephant? I think I love you.’
The elephant spun around. His heart skipped with joy, jumped into his mouth and leapt into his trunk. And tenderly, with the tip of his trunk, he patted the little goldfish’s little head and said, ‘I love you too, little goldfish.’
‘So,’ the little goldfish started to say but she had a violent little fit of coughing and the elephant thought it was the sweetest little cough he had ever heard. ‘So, elephant, will you marry me?’ the little goldfish finally managed to say.
The elephant blushed so hard his ears turned pink forever. ‘I will, yes I will,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow!’
At this, the little goldfish let out another one of her tinklybubbly laughs which were the happiest laughs in the world. And she turned cartwheels in her fishbowl and leapt into the air like a dolphin.
And the elephant, as he went back, was smiling. Even the sniggering sharks who had been shamelessly eavesdropping couldn’t wipe off his smile. And he didn’t lose his smile even when they said, ‘Looks like our dumb blonde has found herself someone even dumber.’
For the first time in his life, the elephant was really and truly happy.
AND HE came back the next day, the elephant, all dressed up and ready to get married to the little goldfish. He bought his 10 tickets and went straight to where she was circling around, quite content, in her glass bowl.
‘Hello, little goldfish!’ the elephant said.
The goldfish’s eyes turned as large as saucers, and then she laughed her bubblytinkly laugh and said,
‘Hello Mr Funnynose! Do I know you?’
‘Of course you do, little goldfish! I’m the elephant,’ said the elephant, thinking that the little goldfish was having her bit of fun and how sweet she looked while she was at it. ‘We’re going to get married today, remember?’
‘You don’t say!’ said the goldfish, truly shocked and almost jumping out of her bowl. ‘How could I marry you?’ she said, circling furiously. ‘I don’t even know who you are!’
‘I’m the elephant, little goldfish. Don’t you remember? I came to see you yesterday and we talked all day till closing time and you said you were in love with me and I said I love you too and we decided to get married. Don’t you remember me, little goldfish?’
‘Really?’ the goldfish said and started laughing, and she laughed so hard she started coughing. And the elephant still thought they were the sweetest laughs and the sweetest coughs he had ever heard, even though he was starting to get upset.
The little goldfish saw the look on the elephant’s face and realised he wasn’t joking. She stopped and screwed up her face and thought very hard indeed.
‘I don’t remember,’ said the goldfish, finally, and started circling round in her bowl, quite content.
The elephant started to cry. He had only ever cried by himself, when at night he couldn’t sleep. And he felt embarrassed about crying where people could see him, but he couldn’t help it. And the goldfish saw the elephant cry and she felt very bad for making him sad, so she started talking to him in the sweetest little voice he’d ever heard.
And once they started talking, the elephant began to forget he was sad and that he had been crying. And they talked like they had the day before, and they talked till it was closing time and the elephant had to leave.
‘Listen, elephant,’ said the goldfish, as the elephant turned to go. ‘Will you marry me?’
The elephant spun around and his heart skipped but it did not skip quite as hard, and it jumped into his mouth and then into his trunk, but it did not jump quite as far.
‘Of course, little goldfish,’ said the elephant. ‘That’s what I’d come here for!’
‘Oh!’ said the little goldfish. ‘Oh!’ she said again.
‘But it’s closing time now, so it’ll have to be tomorrow.’
‘So, tomorrow!’ said the elephant.
And he was happy once more, but not quite so happy. For he knew in his heart that this would happen again, and he did not know whether his little goldfish was cruel or just forgetful…
RAHUL SONI is a writer and translator based in New Delhi. He is the founder-editor of Pratilipi, a literary journal, and Pratilipi Books, an independent publishing imprint. His works-in-progress include a documentary, a novel and a book of non-fiction.