My Years with a Killer Elephant

Animals

My Years with a Killer Elephant

T

he quiet at Bhau Daji Lad Museum is broken by a loud trumpet every few hours. When the looming chandelier trembles due to the racket, the staff knows that it is lunch time for Lakshmi. Hunger makes the oldest inmate of the Mumbai zoo irritable and the 56-year-old elephant, whose pen is located right behind the museum, is famous for her temper.

But then Lakshmi is no ordinary zoo animal. She comes from circus blood so dramatics should be expected. The Jumbo Circus of Kolkata wanted a hippo, the zoo bargained well and in exchange of one hippo, they got three elephants: Laila, Radha, and Lakshmi. The other two have since succumbed to disease and old age but Lakshmi, always the fighter, always the drama queen, is thriving.

In 2010, her drama went a little overboard. She responded to a nosy intruder by grabbing him by the waist and smashing his body into the wall of her enclosure, until finally, the bloodied corpse had to be pried from her. The scene was played out before an enthralled audience — after all, it was a free show and what could be more exciting than murder? The intruder turned out to be a homeless drug addict and the case died a quick death like him.

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Both Sajid and Lakshmi love bath time, even though the mahout’s arms hurt by the end of it.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Lakshmi was in quarantine following the incident, ten days of solitude to ruminate over her sins, and then she was back, more famous than ever. Now, along with those magnificent ears she also had a dark past. The days in solitary seem to have done her good and of late, the middle-aged beast didn’t seem to be as temperamental as she once was. Now when children shriek, she admonishes them by shaking her great ears. Her days of thrashing bloody corpses into walls are behind her.

Or so Sajid promises me.

***

Sajid is Lakshmi’s biggest fan, her devout mahout, her indulgent dad.

“Abhi teatime khatam hua hai na, toh Lakshmi khush hai,” he laughs, pointing to the stack of sugarcane which is served as a snack to the elephant in the evenings. Sajid makes it a point to drink his afternoon tea around the same time. Sharing a meal strengthens their inter-species bonding, he believes, though I have a feeling that this bond was formed way before tea ever came into the picture.

Sajid was born in a concrete room that shares a wall with the elephants’ enclosure. He was six years old when Lakshmi entered the pen next door. And he grew up with her, getting used to the sounds and smells of the beast. A young Sajid felt no fear at the sight of his neighbour and the two took to each other immediately when his father, Shakir Khan, then the zoo’s mahout, introduced them.

Sajid had not planned on becoming Lakshmi’s mahout and it might never have happened had Lakshmi not insisted. After dropping out of school at 13, Sajid had started working as a cleaner in the elephants’ stable, which housed four animals at that point. It was only a part-time gig supplemented by other odd jobs: tourist guide, cigarette peddler, laundry boy. Then a sudden illness put him out of commission for ten days. The zoo authorities employed another cleaner, but they soon found out that their temperamental ward wouldn’t let him in. They had no choice but to let the stable remain unwashed until Sajid became better. When he returned to his shit-cleaning job, he was surprised to get a hero’s welcome and a permanent job offer.

After years of cleaning up after Lakshmi, he was now her mahout. “Sab sandaas se shuru hua (It all started from crap),” Sajid laughs, sipping at his tea.

Lakshmi, in his eyes, can do no wrong. He seems to have no concept of danger around this beast, which is surprising, since Sajid knows very well what it is like to be attacked by an elephant.

According to Sajid, Lakshmi has obeyed only three people during her five-decade stint in the zoo – his father, his uncle, and him. When confronted by a fourth person, she made her displeasure clear. In between, there was another mahout, but the poor guy got nowhere. Lakshmi would charge, as soon as she detected his approaching shadow. If he called out to her, she would let out a menacing screech. But now, when Sajid calls out her name, she responds with a low trumpet and the acknowledgement brings a smile to the man’s face.

Sajid and Lakshmi start their day at sunrise and the first order of business is a temperature check – two fingers held gently behind the elephant’s ear. Breakfast follows, bread, carrots, and garlic grass, and the next four meals weigh in at a whopping 75 kilograms. In between, she gets a dose of protein powder and her favourite dessert, jaggery mixed with black pepper. All of it hand-fed by Sajid.

In between, Sajid must find time to bathe her. The ritual takes place right inside her enclosure next to a giant water tank and is scheduled for the cooler hours of the morning. Sajid splashes her with buckets of water, as Lakshmi scrubs herself with a pumice placed in her trunk. They both love bath time, even though Sajid’s arms hurt by the end of it.

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Lakshmi is the main attraction at Mumbai’s Byculla zoo and Sajid makes sure that the 56-year-old pachyderm is a happy camper.

Pratik Gupta/ Arré

Sajid speaks of Laksmi as if she is nothing more than a demanding, playful child. His demeanour does not acknowledge that this is the animal whose anger has claimed a life. Maybe it’s because Sajid was not there to witness her bloodthirsty ways. He was on holiday, and yet he confidently puts the blame squarely on the victim: The addict must have gone out of his way to provoke her.

Lakshmi, in his eyes, can do no wrong. He seems to have no concept of danger around this beast, which is surprising, since Sajid knows very well what it is like to be attacked by an elephant. He remembers the Sushil Kumar episode vividly.

Sushil Kumar was a tusker from Assam. A giant among his own brethren, he also stood out for his hushed demeanour. While the others swayed and strolled, Sushil would stand still for hours. When Bollywood actor Raj Kumar died in 1996, the zoo chose to eulogise him by renaming their biggest animal after the superstar. And surprisingly his manner too changed.

That fateful day, Sajid began his mornings at the stable as usual. Rajkumar charged and Sajid found himself strung on his tusk. The gash was leaking blood steadily, but he managed to get out of the angry animal’s way by jumping into the pond in the enclosure.

Sajid was in a coma for two days and remained in hospital for a month. By the time he returned to take care of his trunked wards, the zoo had shipped off the errant elephant to a wildlife park in Karnataka. He brushes the episode away as if it were a minor scratch. “Haathi ka dil bada hota hai. Maine bhi Rajkumar ko maaf kar diya,” he says, explaining why he does not hold a grudge against the elephant.

Sajid will retire in another four years while Lakshmi, healthy and agile, is expected to fulfil the Asian elephant’s lifespan of 86 years. The adoring mahout claims that over the years, he has received numerous offers from zoos abroad: Kenya, Dubai, and the United States too. But the draw of a sarkari naukri kept him tethered to Mumbai. Now, he has his heart set on Australia.

And what about Lakshmi, I ask.

“Usko bhi saath le jaoonga,” he laughs.

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