That first time I dreamt of the almost indigo-hued baby elephant, I was in a dentist’s chair in Falls Church, Virginia, having a cavity cleaned and filled. The dentist had given me Novocaine, and I must have fallen asleep. How else to explain the sudden vision I had of a small Nilgiri elephant, barely a few years old, stumbling about in a circle while beside her a trainer yelled commands, wielded a baton, and then, horror of horrors, let fly so the hard steel rod struck the defenseless creature hard on the skull, the neck, the top of her delicate trunk. The little elephant lifted her trunk and let loose that fanned, ululating cry I have heard many times but always, before, in a forest. It is a cry a baby elephant uses to call for help, it is almost human, that cry.
In my dream, I was close enough to see the roundly crinkled and hairy folds of indigo-charcoal skin, to hear a fly buzz insistently close to a flapping, agitated ear. I saw her eyes brim with tears. I saw the water fall. At one point she crumpled over. The trainer beat her again. The child—for child it was— tried to rise. Her hind legs dragged. I saw now the torn skin and blood behind her ear, the four deep rings on her neck where skin had torn open, the pink flesh and dried blood at the opening, the buzzing flies that congregated at the strip. I saw the congealed blood in a vivid claret color, I even saw the flies’ bodies, iridescent. I dreamed in color now.Ever since I started taking painting classes at the Falls Church community center on Saturdays, I had found myself like Gauguin or van Gogh or even Matisse, seeing everything in vibrant, virulent color. Fuchsia, umber, orchid, and the everlasting indigo of skin. The color pulsed. For a moment the trainer swung into my view, and I saw his eyes: they were a pale, uneven blue and still as stones. He was lean, with pale blond hair at his eyebrows, upper lip, temples. The hair was crew-cut, close to his skin. His red plaid shirt and sharkskin grey pants were held together by a thin braided leather belt. He looked about fifty. As he leapt about, wielding that cruel baton, he looked athletic, absorbed in his sport. When the little elephant put her head down, and her trunk down, deep between her splayed legs, and did not move, the man reached for a bull-hook, a long thin rod with a curved steel hook at the end.
The drill whined in my ear and my eyes flew open. A masked man was bent over me with a hooked instrument in his hand. Instinctively I screamed, but because of the various paraphernalia in my mouth, this came out as a slurred gurgle.
I did not say anything to the dark-haired woman at the front desk as I pulled out my check book and paid for the visit. Perhaps this was to be expected, for the Novocaine half-froze my face anyway, into that peculiar grimace dentists bestow on us. I stood with my mouth pulled down, unable to erase the searing image from my dream.
I have known elephants since very young. Once, when I was a child, about eight, I witnessed a group of Asian elephants taking the sun in Mudumalai Sanctuary in the Nilgiris Hills of south India. We were in a mini-van—my mother, my father, my older sister and brother and myself, along with a group of other tourists and the driver—clattering through the scrubby forest, peering through the grime of glass windows, dry grass, stunted acacia, and wild fig trees. Quiet, quiet, hushed the conductor, although the van itself had been making the most noise, with its bumpy accelerations and tinsheet-banging turns. They are dangerous if we disturb them.
Out in a grassy meadow they sat, a small group, limbs splayed, backs to us. Two small calves moved about, using their trunks to rub up against the elders, occasionally wrestling with each other. There was one large elephant, which the guide told us was the group’s matriarch, two a little smaller beside her. Three younger ones. And the calves. They sat calmly, as if in placid ownership of the land. The bright midday sun poured over their vast grey beings.
I noticed they were unmoved by our presence, although they might have heard us. They invoked in us an equal silence, as we took in the sight. Here and there, a lazy ear flapped. The calves played and tumbled. Otherwise, all was still.
Since then, I have seen hundreds of other Asian elephants in the wild. (Often enough to know that, for all their slow-moving bulk, they are rarely still, the glimpse we had that day was a rare one.) I have returned to Mudumalai several times. I have been to Bandipur, which is not far from there. In my work as a wildlife biologist, both in India and now for a university in the US, I have observed elephants in Nagarhole and Wynad also in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. I have watched for long hours as they played, ate, travelled together. I have travelled alongside them in rickety Forest Service jeeps. I have witnessed the slow wasting death of a young elephant we were unable to save, and the sympathy extended to the mourning family group by other non-family members. I have seen how close they are and how social they are. They live and travel in small family groups, and the older ones watch the younger ones at play. They have several different calls that they use in play, and in traveling, feeding, gathering. My job is to listen, observe, note down and record, and I have learned for the most part how to be objective in this way, but it has often seemed to me they are like any human family, communicating. They are close, affectionate, vigilant. When a baby calls, even if from far away or out of sight, the mother and grandmother elephants spring into action looking for him, with more alacrity than all-day babysitters you see at any park here in northern Virginia.
I walked in sunshine to my car and drove home to the music of Garou singing Sous le Vent. But I kept hearing, through the deep seduction of his voice, the soaring, fragmented sounds of the desperate elephant. I thought back to everything that had happened around the time of the Arena King circus trial, where I had testified. I had never met the trainer, Otis Milburn, although I had seen his picture in the Washington Post. In the few days we were in court together, the staff and lawyers at Arena King (The Planet’s Greatest Ring), the lawyers from Humans for Animals, and Cal Locke, the assistant trainer who was the key witness, and myself, the elephant biologist, Otis Milburn and his bull hook had been carefully kept out of the courtroom by Arena King.
That night, I drew the curtains first in my son Sandesh’s room, and later in my daughter Gitanjali’s, and switched off their lights. As I closed my eyes and drifted on clouds of sleep, I wondered about this man, what kind of family he came from. It is not that I had not thought of this before, but the intensity of the dream that afternoon made me think again of him.
And again that night, I dreamt of the elephant.
Past midnight, I woke. A waning moon lit the European birch framed in the window. The leaves gently oscillated, and slowly, the dream returned. This time it began differently, I was drawn into another scene, but as harrowing. I was in a cramped and tiny stall, the ammoniac smell of animal dung almost overpowering. Beneath my feet strafed something rough and granular. I looked down and saw: dry grass and old dung, packed on top of finely-hacked, but still coarse and grating sawdust. I moved, and the smell of dung soared to my nostrils. I turned and felt the icy steel links of the chain then, tight around my ankles. Each leg was pinned, and when I looked, I saw the chains pull out from my limbs toward the sides of the narrow stall, short, unyielding chains so I could not move much, either backwards or forwards, to my left or right. Despair spread through me. I pulled, the night was thick as a shroud in my mouth. All around pressed a close, cottonwool dark. I threshed and pulled. I wanted light. I wanted release. And I could not move.
Underneath, as if this sound had all along been playing, in a deep percussive beat, came the muted sound of shouts, the baton bearing down without mercy on the skin, bones, trunk. The elephant baying her fear, the long trumpeting plea for reprieve. Then, as if a searching spotlight had picked her out she came into view, the cowed, hapless creature, shrinking and flinching as the baton lunged toward and shattered her. The trainer leapt into view, I saw his eyes again, the chilling coolness in them, icy as mountain streams, dead as blue mountain stones. For all the public spectacle of it, the shouts behind that let me know there were others there, watching, absorbing what was happening, I felt a weight of privacy impinging on this moment. I was an outsider, looking in. I was not supposed to be there, looking. Even in the dream I felt that fear of discovery, as if I might be surprised in an unpleasant way by a guard or official. I hung back in the shadows. I could not help what I saw. The seared-open strips of flesh rose stark into view. The elephant cried, that almost-human, pitiful cry. She raised her head and looked unsteadily out from the trainer, toward the darkness, to me. Our eyes did not meet. Her vision seemed glazed by tears. She did not know I was there, looking. But I felt, uncannily, as if she was looking for me, or someone like me, seeking an eye, a consciousness as alive as hers, a receiving.
At the time of the trial, I did not properly understand the outcome. I am not an attorney and I find it difficult to comprehend the niceties of the law, especially when it appears to be twisted to suit one’s purpose. To me, the case was much simpler than the court determined. My involvement also began simply. I was asked by a fellow biologist to testify in a case involving a badly-beaten circus elephant. The circus was the esteemed Arena King, and two years earlier, when it had happened, I had followed, like everyone else, the news reports about the incident. The elephant was a young female named Daisy. She was seven years old. At a performance one night, she had baulked at sitting on her bottom and raising her forelegs in the air with the other elephants. The trainer had then assaulted her several times with a baton, gracefully, dancing around her as if this were part of their act, then hustled her off-stage, forcibly using the bull-hook behind her ears to move her in the direction he wished. The trainer’s assistant, one Cal Locke, came forward the next day to the prominent animal rights group Humans for Animals to say that Daisy had then been beaten further that night and the next morning to the point of collapse as a form of punishment for non-compliance in the ring. He also testified that the animals in his care were constantly chained, bull-hooked as a matter of course on all their walks, private or public, and often beaten. The group and Cal Locke sued the circus for cruelty and harassment of an endangered species and that was when the news media reported it first.
I remember those reports because they seemed so sanguine. The TV anchors, a man and a woman, didn’t seem to be aware they were reporting a sensitive story. They aired brief interviews with both Humans for Animals and Arena King, and they showed brief clips of elephants performing in the ring, elaborately dressed elephants standing on stools, standing on hind legs, then sitting on hind legs with fore-legs extended, like oversized puppies begging for a treat. The anchors’ intent seemed to be to mention the case alright, but return forthwith to their main event, a continuous riffing with each other. They cracked weak jokes throughout, and the man said, Let’s hope they resolve the case soon, I wouldn’t want my kids to miss going to the circus to see those elephants perform! They Are terrific performers, concurred the woman, in a measured, news-relating voice, as if their news story had been about that, to start with, and with this odd segue, they turned to something else.
It took two years for the case to come to court. After several grueling days of testimony, argument, and defense, the judge pronounced that the plaintiff had no standing, and in effect, threw the case out of court.
This meant the circus was not held accountable. This meant the question of cruelty was not even discussed in the verdict.
This notion of standing, it was explained to me, was something courts, citing constitutional law, often refused to allow plaintiffs in environmental and animal protection cases. Plaintiffs have to be personally affected to sue anyone—that is what standing comprises. Animals and the environment, not being able to sue anyone themselves, cannot be plaintiffs. Humans suing on their behalf are restricted by this criterion of an archaic law. Essentially, Cal Locke was disbelieved by the court. What he suffered personally by witnessing the abuse, was not considered valid. And therefore, the case could not be heard, meaning, tried.
And yet it was heard! In that courtroom, we all saw the video footage, heard the witnesses. How could there be any doubt about this case? I could not understand it.
In the early years of my work, when I had just completed my doctorate and started my research with the famed elephant expert Dr. S. P. Venkat Rao on family and migration habits of small clans among the Nilgiri elephants, I dreamed often of being an elephant. I did not record this in my journals, but it is hard to forget. By day I watched, wrote notes, travelled. By night I dreamt. Not merely of the faces I saw, the slightly hairy skin, the tremulous, tactile trunk, the sensitive, travelling feet, the vibrations of dozens of different sounds from a low complaining rumble to high-pitched excitement, wailed. I dreamt the raw feel of crusted extrusions on the closely scored skin around my eyes, rasping feel of my trunk on bark, taste of sweet peppery leaves torn from the highest branches, rough, sliding gravel and hard tar under my feet on paved paths through the forest. Idle swing of a mother’s tail in front of me, satin rub of warm flesh, skin against skin, as we nuzzled. We walked and the swirl of sunlight through leaves glittered. I felt as I were swimming underwater. The understory of light in a forest can feel like that, green, restorative. The crunch of leaves underfoot, slow, heavy tread of feet. Our feet, which can feel the thunder of an approaching storm in the ground, or the shudder of a passing train, or a clump, arriving, of footsteps. The sound of birds around us, short and sharp, or screeched, repeated, sung, parrots who followed us, bulbuls, mynas, passionate warblers, tiny finches. Cool wraps of fog, the clearing morning air. In mud, in water, the cool pour of spray and liquid over my head, my own trunk extended. Smiling, in sunlight, walking in a group, close to others, their slow lumbering beside, around me.
It was not strange to me now to dream of the swaying train, my own body only partially still, slats of starlight hung overhead, the two elephants in front of me swaying incessantly, moving side to side, lifting their feet, obsessively, over and over, bobbing their heads, back and forth and endlessly. No sound, but the swaying, incessant, all through the night. Each of us chained, front leg, back leg, short-chained to the walls of the train so we stood, a whole day, a night, stood, travelling from one American state to another, across rivers, gorges, chasms and level fields, small towns where human children rode out on bicycles to wave, and human mothers called their names, and the human words hung on the peach sunset air as the train clanged and shuddered by, the rhythmic clatter of rails, night and day, a constant assault on our ears. The pungent smell of dung, our own dropped and baking excrement inexorably in my nostrils. In the dream I was deeply quiet, the life in me pushed far inside so although I looked out of my throbbing skin with seeing eyes, and heard each sound with a hearing ear, the self in me was rolled into a fetal ball so small no part of it could be visible to an external observer. The old sadness was rolled in there with me, the fear, the lostness, mute surrender. For years, I sensed, I had rolled myself away like this, while I stood on drums or tiny stools, lifted my forelegs into the air, knelt and lay and rose on command, struggling to keep my forelegs in the air as the light burned my eyes and the children clapped, and the electric prod or the bull hook slid and pierced behind my ear, beneath my chin, jerking me forward, toward submission.
I woke with that sadness wreathed around me as in a grave, and was disoriented as I lay, testing my grief, wondering where it had come from. Then the dream yielded to my recall, and I saw again the lost, swaying elephants in front of me on the train, the cold intrusive weights of chain on my legs, and I remembered.
I first saw swaying elephants in a train on video taken by Cal Locke. The view is over the young, shorter Daisy’s shoulder, and shows the two elephants in front moving compulsively, shifting their massive weight, one leg to the other, heads lowered, incessantly shifting, side to side. No sound but the brush of their feet on the hay in front of them. The raw daylight poured down in stringy white from the paced skylights on the cabin’s ceiling.
Not once in my twenty-four years of observing Asian elephants had I seen such odd swaying, I told the judge. I was only confirming what other biologists have confirmed before me: this is a behavior not seen in the wild. It is something captive elephants do when restrained to such extent, forced to stand for hours, unable to travel, unable to shift their ponderous weight, unable to rest their painful, often-cracked and infected feet. It is termed stereotypic. In a human it would be termed schizophrenic, a schizos induced by the extreme nature of the captive elephant’s experience.
That night, and the next, and for the whole week, the beaten child-elephant returned to my dreams.
Always the shouts, the cries of the handlers, passive silence of the watchers. In the middle, the blue-eyed trainer with his prod, his baton, his bull-hook, barking commands, leaping about, flailing and wielding his weapons, until the elephant fell to her knees, and bled, and could not rise again. The air filled with her panicked, trembling cries.
I woke sticky with sweat, or shaking. The room bathed in delirium. Walls seemed to sway, side to side. Even the bed was creaking a long protesting cry.
That week was spring break at the university, and the week after that we went back to school. I had barely slept. The first day of my return to teaching I woke late after being awakened twice in the night, having ignored the alarm, unable to open my eyes. I tore to school, blouse unironed, hair barely combed. I stood in front of the class full of eager-eyed seniors with dreams of doing fieldwork in Botswana, Sri Lanka, Wynaad, and could not say a word. I passed copies of articles around on mother-child bonding in elephants, I looked out at the sea of faces and I saw the dark eyes, over and over, the folded, drooping shoulders. I saw the beaten, bloodied body sink slowly to the ground.
That day, after my two morning classes were done, I called my sister’s friend, Prema Rajasekharan, a psychiatrist, whom I would not have dreamed of consulting otherwise—I was brought up to believe one never consulted a psychiatrist, you dealt with your problems alone—but this was an emergency.
I could not understand what was happening to me. Everything had ended, hadn’t it? At least the trial had ended. Nothing could be done, could it? Perhaps Humans for Animals was doing something for this poor elephant, making an appeal, pursuing the case in some way. I didn’t know. I didn’t know, most of all, what I could possibly do about it.
After the trial was over, I took long walks on the bike path trying to put the whole thing out of my mind. I was seriously disturbed, yes. After years of observing elephants, I feel not merely a kinship with them, I feel I know them, as beings, as personalities, almost as people. It made me ill, watching those videos of beatings, bull-hookings, chaining, and keeping chained. Elephants are sensitive. They are so tender with each other. Their babies are like human babies. Even the grown ones, in a way, like children. They are playful like children, and unruly like children, and prone to little temper tantrums like children. But they are mostly very gentle creatures. I normally could not bear the thought of all those elephants kept imprisoned in circuses and zoos, and it hurt me more now to know of this particular elephant, beaten the way she was.
But what could I do?
Prema and my sister had gone to medical college together. They chose different specialties for their residency and beyond, psychiatry in Prema’s case and Ob/GYN in my sister’s. But, like all the other girls in their set, they had remained close friends. Now my sister and her friends no longer practiced in Madras, where they had studied. A scant few remained, those who had inherited family practices in Madras, or, with parental financing, set up on their own. Variously seeking higher education, jobs, experience, adventure, the rest became part of the India brain-drain of the ‘80s and ‘90s. They were scattered across Europe (meaning mostly the UK) and the US, in prestigious universities and hospitals, with quite a number of them practicing on the East Coast. When I came to the DC area to teach, she put me in touch with quite a few of her friends. In Madras, we had got into the habit of seeing her friends for medical issues—Chitra for skin problems, Deepa for GI flare-ups, Ganesh for contact lenses. It was no different here. I had a list of her friends to call, and, especially because of my two children, who were now eight and twelve, I called on them occasionally for advice.
But Prema was all booked up that week and the next and it didn’t seem like a good idea, spilling the whole story over the phone.
Then she said she had a friend, a young psychiatrist in training, whom I could see if I liked. He was going to join their practice, and he was a slightly unconventional sort, but he was fresh out of college and full of enthusiasm, and they needed young American guys anyway, just like him, to relate to the younger crowd, especially to the recreational and prescription drug addicts and alcoholics they saw frequently.
I wasn’t sure if I felt comfortable with all this information, but I decided to take a chance on him. I called the office and made an appointment with the trainee, Dr. Andy Hatcher, and went straight after school one morning to see him.
It had been two weeks now, and the dreams hadn’t stopped or slowed down. I was tired, irritable, drowsy all day, because I could not sleep at night anymore. I woke up at night and stayed awake for an hour or more, staring at the birch leaves outside the window, the slowly diminishing moon. The dreams were vivid, sensorily loaded. I heard every sound as if it were occurring at my bedside, the clang and rattle of chains, the moans of elephants, the sharp, barked commands of the trainer. I flinched at the thud and strike of the bull hook, the piteous, drawn-out cries. Again and again I saw the row of scars, the open skin, blood and purpling of the bruise, shiny bluegreen flies at the neck. Close-up I saw the crumpled eye, wetness of despair swimming in them. I saw the step backward, confinement of the chain, impossibility of escape. These things played out in my mind incessantly when I woke. I lay restless till the birds began their song at five. Sometimes I sank into a troubled sleep.
Dr. Hatcher listened to the story of the dreams, and then, because he asked, the story of the trial. He sat hand on cheek, elbow on his desk, looking earnestly at me. He did not wear a white doctor’s coat or polished doctor’s shoes. He was casual, rather, in grey cargo pants, a grey and yellow Hawaiian shirt patterned with rainbow-colored cockatoos, and a brown corduroy jacket which hung open to reveal a dangling black rope, a shark’s tooth pendant at the end. I found this laissez-faire distracting. His surfer blonde hair was pulled back into an untidy ponytail, and one ear sported a gold earring, a rather tastefully-knotted ring, really, but so peculiar on a man, I thought secretly to myself as I stared helplessly at it.
There are several theories about recurrent dreams, he said, eventually. They could be fantasies, enacted; they could be threats, simulated undercover of sleep. Or they could be sensory information incompletely dealt with in real life, worked out by the subconscious. They could be re-workings of an event, re-imagined. They could just be a glitch in one’s memory, a neural going over the same occurrence, as if, when your subconscious is cleaning out its nightly quota of images and events, it gets stuck.
I found his matter-of-fact delivery reassuring. But puzzling. Why would it get stuck?
He looked at me thoughtfully. He balanced a pen on its tip and looked down at it. Trauma of any kind tends to dig in, he said. If someone suffered abuse of any kind, it tends to sink deep into the subconscious, even if it is dealt with in practical ways in daily life. At night, our dreams often expose those intensities we tend to suppress.
But this is not a dream from my own past, I said, from my own life.
I stared at him. I have had a very happy childhood. My parents loved us unconditionally. They are both doctors. We were given anything we wanted—well, within reason. They let us pursue any subject we wanted. We went to the best schools. I spent my childhood reading, playing with friends. I remember picnics, summer trips all over the country, birdwatching, hiking. To become a wildlife biologist is not a common thing in India, especially for a girl. But my parents encouraged me.
You don’t recall something traumatic from your past then? A loss, a disaster, abuse? He tacked that on the end, casually.
I frowned. There was nothing! I was emphatic.
Perhaps it’s simpler than we think, he suggested. You are someone very close to elephants, no?
Yes, you could say that.
You have watched them for years, you have written about them. You are sensitive, you are empathetic. In court, you stood up and advocated for captive elephants.
But I was unable to save them!
He looked meaningfully at me. Don’t you see what has happened?
No. I shook my head. I said what I could, we fought for those elephants, and at the end of it all, the judge threw the case out of court, saying the plaintiff had no standing! The real plaintiff was the elephants, and animals don’t have a voice in our society, no legal standing!
Exactly, said Dr. Hatcher, and you have been strongly affected by this whole case, haven’t you?
I did not follow what he was getting at. Of course, who wouldn’t be!
You have felt powerless, unable to do anything to change the outcome.
Yes, I said. I can’t imagine what I could possibly do!
But you are sympathetic. You were a voice for those elephants. You have heard about Jung’s collective unconscious, he prompted.
Yes, of course. Thoughts hovered in me. Of those times in the forest, after days of observing the wild elephant tribes, when I had dreamt I was one of them. And the dream of the elephants on the train, when I was no longer observing, but experiencing what it felt like.
But surely it was absurd to think we were all, animals and humans alike, plugged into a common consciousness.
Tell me about yourself, he invited. What kind of person would you describe yourself as? Are you a dreaming, ruminative kind or an active, doing kind? When you see something that needs to be done, do you go after it, or do you put it off for later or hand it to someone else?
I go after it immediately, I said, with a trace of indignation in my voice. I don’t sit on things! I never have. I was first in my class throughout school and college, you know. I didn’t get there by putting things off!
Dr. Hatcher was shaking his head. It’s really very simple, Thara.
Yes. He leaned forward, and his gold ear ring caught the light and glittered. I was not prepared for what he said next. This dream is calling you to action. You must do something.
On my daily walk, the next day, I paused briefly to rest by the stream at Madison Manor Park. What I recognized immediately as invasive Asian bittersweet hung over the clouded, leaf-strewn water.
I looked deep into the tangled cameo of leaf and reflection and saw again the owner of Arena King speaking to a reporter, smiling, as he said, As long as people keep coming, we’ll keep our wild animals. People come just to see the animals in Arena King. There is nothing wrong or unnatural with our circus—they know that!
I was walking along the bike path, close by Four Mile Run. I had crossed 66, passed the Metro, crossed over from Falls Church into Arlington. Spring foliage was green and reassuring about me. In my mind’s eye, I saw again the video playback online at the Humans for Animals’ website of the transported elephants walking from the rail tracks toward the tents, and men leading them and men following them, men armed with bull-hooks and whips, which they used freely, hooking each elephant’s tender ear, dragging, hitting. And a policeman on a motorcycle, accelerating beside them, and the terrified young elephants stumbling, disconcerted by the noise, the babies and children letting loose a volley of varying sounds, from a crying for help to a confused trumpeting. And the handlers, silky-haired, young, with new haircuts and shaves, looking all-American on camera, smiling, looking natural, and saying, It’s natural for them to feel confused when they get off the train. They need to be guided to their tents. Nothing to it! And the young guys laugh, and behind them the others are still working—it is a masculine thing, I think, this quality of I’ve-got-this-under-control these guys wear on their muscled shoulders with the red plaid of their shirts, this quality of all-in-a-day’s-work and we’re-all-men-here. Except there’s a woman behind them, also dancing around with a bull-hook, and she’s got that attitude down pat too. I kept on walking because I couldn’t come up with a solution. Dr. Hatcher was wrong. There was nothing I could do. I was not a reporter or an attorney. Not an animal protection advocate or a rights activist. All the fuss over the case had already died down. The media had vanished. I was alone in a dark alley with a dark wind blowing eerily down. Street debris flying, the tops of trash cans, unkempt plastic bags, glittering bits of broken glass. No one to help guide me to a better location.
Ironically, as a child I had known that self-same feeling of powerlessness, and it is what propelled me toward becoming an elephant biologist. I saw elephants poached for their tusks. In Mudumalai, I once saw the disfigured carcass of a grown male, the gouged-out holes in the trunk where the tusks had been, black velvet spill of clotted blood from the wounds to the head and stomach. I was seven years old, the sight has never left me. The guide who stumbled on the remains, just two steps ahead of us in the low grassy scrub dotted here and there with ragged acacia and fig trees, could not protect us. We broke into the scrub. The wind turned, the seasick smell of death rose in a cloud. The butchered, mounded gray lay unnaturally still. Like the other children on the trip, we were silenced at first. Then we asked questions. But no one could answer them. The guide told us poaching was still a problem in the sanctuary, that elephants were still being killed for their tusks, their ivory smuggled and sold to countries in the Far East, where they were still carved into swords, soapboxes, fat Buddhas, white grasshoppers, for an unsuspecting yet complicit domestic and tourist industry. This elephant was young, he said, a young teenage male. Bull elephants tended to wander off by themselves, exploring, and this one must have been stalked for days before it was felled. It happened often, he said, the government couldn’t stop it.
I felt grow in me then a large anger, which spread each time I heard a new story of an elephant killed or orphaned. It was the child’s frustration with an adult world at first, the frustration of not knowing what to do nor how to do it. It was over time that I began to realize what I wanted was to become a voice, to speak for these animals felled by human hands for paltry human purposes, to speak out against the use of animals. I became an elephant biologist wanting to become that voice.
And now, with this trial, I had learned even this voice was useless—all my words, like everyone else’s who had worked on this case had blown away like so much chaff in the wind. When it came down to it, really, it seemed I had no voice.
Perhaps there is someone else, I told Andy Hatcher, a lawyer who can devise a clever argument, or someone in the news media who can write a compelling story. I am not the one who can “do something.” I tried, and nothing happened. They have better tools at their fingertips.
But none of them has a dream, said Dr. Hatcher, fresh-faced and earnest. None of them is having a dream, over and over, of a single elephant.
I stared at him. The dream had come back to me the night before, and its central image was so strong in me I had to say, Of a single elephant transfixed in a single moment of time in a single paroxysm of violence, over and over, you mean.
Dr. Hatcher held my eyes, leaned forward. Please, tell me what you see in your dream again.
I told him. Over and over, the image of the small child-elephant, cowering, trying to face away from the blows, lifting her trunk and trumpeting piteously, while the hook slashed down on her, and her skin tore, and the red came through, her blue body shuddering, how she sank to her knees, how it was all I could see.
There were other dreams, I said. The swaying in the train cabin came to mind. But this one comes back.
It’s iconic, he said. It’s the center of this spiral, the vortex.
It’s surreal in its color--strange, burning colors. Indigo skin, the room burnt magenta, chains a sizzling, royal blue, the flashing hook steel and silver. And the blood bright-tomato-red, realistic.
Dr. Hatcher looked down for a moment at his notebook, as if he were reading his notes. Then he looked up, and his eyes were serious. I never like to direct my patients toward one particular thing, Thara, he said, but I will say this at least: the answer is in you. It’s in that image.
I did not go to see Andy Hatcher for a long while after that.
In some ways I felt arrested, turned to stone. I went to my classes, made copies of research articles for my students, lectured on migration patterns in Asian elephants and historic migration routes in the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, set up research positions in India for my American students to intern at wildlife reserves. I worked by rote, trying not to think.
The dreams did not abate by the time I caved in and called Cal Locke, who had used to work for Arena King. If anything, the colors intensified.
Astonishingly, the first thing Cal said to me was: Thara, good timing. Did you know Arena King is coming to town next week?
No, I had not known that.
Fairfax, Virginia, he said, they’re coming to perform at the Citizen Center.
At my university. On my campus. Really? Universities were approving of circuses now?
The campus animal rights group is organizing a protest, he said. They’ve been trying to get the university to stop it from happening. But it is not being stopped. Two days from now, the elephants will be walked from their train to the stadium. Do you want to come with me to see it?
Yes, I said. Yes.
So that is how I got to be a witness at Fairfax Station Road in the cool pre-dawn April wind with my thirteen-year-old daughter Gitanjali, who had insisted on coming. Cal brought us coffee in a thermos and we drank out of paper cups, blowing on the hot coffee, warming our hands.
There was a straggle of people on the tracks by the station. Eventually the circus train with its elaborate carriages pulled up, and the circus people emerged and began to move around. We had to wait about fifteen minutes for them to approach the elephant carriage. There seemed at first to be a deathly silence. Then men with bull hooks and a steel slide approaching, the screech of bolts being pulled back.
The slide was mounted. The first trunk swayed, retreated, returned. How often I have seen this. Elephants test the ground in front of them with their trunks, moving the trunk from side to side to test for obstacles, gradient, weather. The first elephant emerged, shaky on her feet, leaving the darkness of the carriage for the gray morning air, whistling unsteadily with her trunk. From somewhere behind this elephant, in the dark, unexpectedly, a young elephant called out, as if in fear, for his mother. His high, shaken cry a study in desolation.
I have heard baby elephants cry like this in the wild, when they think they are lost. The mother elephant answers as she rushes toward him. Here of course there were no mother elephants. The baby had surely been torn from his mother when he was born, and had endured the stringent training all circus elephants undergo, in order to force him to do the unnatural things circuses have devised for him. I tried to imagine his life and failed. He had just spent possibly more than twenty-four hours chained in a dark cabin which had roared through cities, towns, and open country; his train had hurtled alongside other trains replete with their cornucopia of crashing sounds; now bull-hooks urged him out, to another city, another series of loud, jarring performances, before he was to be shipped back, on the circus train, to his next assignment, in another American city. He howled again, and the sound tore through my bones literally, from the bottom of my feet up to my soul. I jerked, the coffee spilled. Careful Mom, Gitanjali cried, reaching for my cup. But our eyes met and I knew she too felt what I felt. I shook my head, wordlessly. I watched as the disoriented baby elephant emerged, butting his head sideways, hooked awkwardly by the handler who urged him down and toward the first elephant, so he could loop his trunk onto her tail. Again, the baby baulked, pausing at the end of the steel slide, looking wildly about him. The handler raised his hook.
Instinctively I shouted, Don’t hurt him!
At that moment, a lithe, blond-haired man in a grey jacket leapt into view, and I felt a strange sensation, a cramp almost, descend the curve of my spine, as I saw who it was. Otis Milburn, whose likeness I had seen only in newspaper photos. His light blue eyes, as intense as in my dream, burnt into me. Stand back lady, he shouted, stand back! He was waving his bull-hook in the air, like an Olympic baton.
I was standing back. I was in fact nowhere near the elephants. Don’t hurt him, I repeated. My hands were trembling. I was not cut out for this. Where were all the animal activists when you needed them?
Otis Milburn came closer to me. No-one’s hurting him, he said, in a belligerent way. He fixed me with his hypnotic blue glare. This is normal disembark procedure.
The elephants were flapping their ears. They lifted their heads slightly, looked sideways and around. They were aware of us. They were picking up the tenor of the emotions furrowing the air between us. In despair, I thought: they are looking for help, I cannot provide it. I crumpled up my paper cup, thrust it, shaking, into my coat pocket.
Otis Milburn edged backwards to the handler, who was guiding the baby elephant down with his stick.
The sun came out through the clouds. More elephants were brought out, more people joined us, even, finally, a small group of activists with raised signs: Keep Elephants Wild. Keep Elephants Free. The handlers urged the first elephant forward.
The elephants moved in a train, handlers beside them. Silently, we fell in. For the next half-hour, we all walked in silence with the elephants, the handlers with their cordoning-off ropes and bull-hooks, the activists with their signs, the holstered policemen on foot, out from the station and up Ox Road, toward the stadium. I was swept by feelings I could not control. A few feet from me, step after lumbering step, walked the sadness of centuries in old, tired eyes. Their heads bobbed and swayed, they occasionally called out, trumpeting, as people ebbed around them, children shouted. I saw policemen hold out their cell phones, taking pictures.
I went home to an empty house after dropping Gitanjali at school. I went up to my office and clipped a canvas to my easel.
I was no longer thinking of what I could or could not do.
I dipped my paintbrush in the deepest of fuchsia I could create on my palette, I poured liquid strokes onto the canvas. I painted the indigo-blue of the baby elephant, the split-open skin at the neck, scarlet gash of blood, the shining ankus, the umbered fuchsia room, deep, pleading eyes, the whole of my still-recurring dream.
I stayed up that whole first night, painting, and fell into bed, exhausted, just as the clatter of dawn-birds began in the pinkly-blossoming dogwood outside my bedroom window. When I woke at noon, I painted again, using a palette knife and wad of cheesecloth to rub down, smudge and sharpen, obliterate, hone the brilliance of the acrylic to a smooth and glossy finish.
I did not expect anything would come of the painting. I simply poured into it my unhappiness at being unable to help these beautiful creatures I had loved and watched and written about for years. I did it automatically, out of the feeling welling upward from my subconscious. I know about this thing some people do, write letters to people in which they put everything they feel, then burn the letters, so nothing is left, no feeling remains. Maybe I expected this to happen. I don’t know.
After the painting was done, I stood back to look at it. The elephant is half-turned, looking behind her to the viewer. Her eyes are searching the darkness crowding in on her. There are questions burning in her eyes, you can see them.
I did not expect anything further to happen.
But Cal Locke saw it when he came to our house that afternoon for a cup of tea and conversation, and spent long moments just staring at it. Then he said he knew what he could do with it. He said he thought this image could spearhead a new movement.
I looked dubiously at him, but I let him take it.
That evening he took it to his friend at a print shop, who replicated it a thousand times and put it on posters for the animal rights groups, and in flyers to leave at Metro stops and DC area college campuses. This happened literally overnight. The next day someone who saw the image on a flyer called Cal’s printer friend and said he wanted to make a video featuring the image. This too happened at lightning speed, with Humans for Animals donating footage.
Things became a blur. The painting invoked reaction, almost instantly, in ways I could never have imagined.
Suddenly the protest expanded. By the third day of the circus visit, the protest had grown to astonishing proportions. Where only a few straggling members of the campus animal rights group had been involved, now hundreds of college students from all around DC thronged the campus, the access roads to the stadium, the entrance. Campus police came out in droves, along with the city police, but they were no match for the swelling numbers holding placards, shouting slogans, and clogging the streets surrounding the stadium.
The Washington papers, which normally never reported protests of any kind by animal rights activists, headlined the protest almost every day. Photographs of the crowds, the police on motorbikes and horses, holding gladiatorial shields, trying to protect the immediate entrance as circus-goers walked between them to the doors, and, everywhere, the image of the blue Nilgiris elephant bleeding, falling as she was being beaten, her trunk pitifully raised as if calling out, eyes focused on the viewer, appeared on the Internet, in newspapers, magazine covers, television news, and talk shows.
People were beginning to talk about Daisy again, in ways they never had, during and after the trial, when the judge squashed all proceedings with his “no-standing” ruling that seemed to function as a gag order on the media. Now, suddenly, the media was aflame with opinion. Where before only the mildest commentary had been offered on the plight of circus elephants, now every talk show was abuzz with more and more revelations of the cruelty with which the circus trained not only elephants but all the animals, especially the declawed predators, the lions and tigers, and the sensitive and highly-strung horses and zebras. Animal rights groups were inundated with requests for video footage, that then aired nightly, of undercover investigations of elephants chained and bull-hooked, of baby elephants trained to perform with chains, ropes, bull-hooks, and electric prods. News anchors expressed their revulsion openly at these sights, unafraid now to speak their minds. People clogged the telephone lines and chat rooms, eager to convey their thoughts on what they perceived to be this sudden news of animal cruelty in circuses, to record their ruminations, or simply to talk.
Then a whisper began on a radio call-in show: Whatever happened to Daisy? She’s not in the circus now, is she? —which became an avalanche of enquiry. On every news show, on radio and television, in every newspaper, every Google and Bing search online, that became the burning question of the hour: Was it true Daisy was no longer in the circus?
And, very soon, because every news organization was now working on it, from Reuters via BBC, we learned it was true, Daisy was no longer part of the Arena King line-up. Within an hour of the news being Tweeted and Facebooked, MySpaced and Stumbled Upon, the new question became: What had happened to her, where had Daisy gone?
When the news broke—it happened at the end of the nine o’clock news, on a CNN special interview, with Anderson Cooper pressing the issue to an Arena King spokesman who offered reluctantly, that yes, Daisy had indeed “passed on by way of natural causes”—all pandemonium broke loose.
Several animal protection groups petitioned to re-open the case against Arena King. People everywhere called vociferously for an enquiry. What had really happened? Had Daisy succumbed to her injuries?
I had been watching the news as I ate my dinner that night. I felt a curious flicker of helpless assent pass through me, as if, subliminally, I had always known, always feared such an end. Simultaneously, guilt, waves of it. I put my forkful of carrots down. The food tasting like sawdust. Daisy had looked and looked into the darkness for a rescuer. And no-one had come.
I looked in on my children’s rooms as they slept. In the wild, elephants sleep together, baby elephants always close to the mother. I switched off the table-lamp in Gitanjali’s room. Daisy had been a child. How short her life had been, how stripped of tenderness.
In my bed I closed my eyes, a hard knot of sadness in my chest. I would see her again, in my dream, I knew, the cruelty of her beating once more to hurtle through me. I rubbed the taut muscles in my neck, tense in anticipation of it.
On the last day of the circus in Fairfax, I accompanied Cal to the protest at the second-last show, a Sunday matinee.
He had warned me what to expect, but truly, I drove to campus in a dream. Everywhere, on street lights, store awnings, buses, rode the purple and fuchsia image of my dream elephant. Banners calling for the end to circus cruelty to animals fluttered everywhere, their colors too taken from the dream—the glittering blues and silvers, deep rancid umbers, pulsating magentas. The parking lots were jammed with protesters, both at the stadium and on campus. People thronged the access roads, stopping traffic.
Seeing this, Cal dropped us off, myself, Gitanjali, and Sandesh at the hem of the crowd, and U-turned into the residential streets behind the university to park. We marched forward with the crowd, listening to the strains of Lennon’s amped-up Imagine floating over speakers. Policemen on motorbikes rode beside us. Every now and then, a police car sidled through, unable to speed up in the midst of the crowd.
As we lined up at the walkway leading to the entrance, we could see the large billboard video propped on stilts against the building flash to life with video from the Human to Animals’ web site. Elephants forced to walk for two hours around the city in Washington, DC, from their circus train to the circus stadium in the guise of a “parade,” stumbled into view. A baby elephant cried, stalled, was bull-hooked into moving. The sound of her cry rose and fell. A snippet of audio from the trial streamed out, my own courtroom voice, saying, That is the sound of an elephant in distress. Pan to the owner of Arena King saying, As long as people come, we will have animals in the circus. As long as people come—an overlay of this monotone against the backdrop of the elephant struggling to walk, and calling out, and being jerked forward by the bull-hook. Cut to a woman in a red trench-coat, holding a mike, like a TV reporter, saying: Parents, it is up to you now. Parents, do you really want to take your kids to this circus?
And here in technicolor, the real parents, with real children, streaming down the walk toward the doors, where the Arena King clown waits, with his banana lipstick mouth and puffball nose and shock of purple and sea-green hair, trying to ignore the crowds surging at his doorstep, his strained, permanent smile trying to stretch wider and even wider.
We walked forward to gain some traction on the steps, and for a moment I was bewildered, for it no longer seemed like I had to push my way through to be seen. Then I realized. People were stopping. People had stopped, to watch the ad on the billboard, to gaze solemnly at the video. Parents and children stopped. They had stopped far behind in the walkway, all the way in between, and up front by the door. Even as the clown reached out to punch their tickets, children had frozen, parents turned to stone.
Then I saw the unbelievable, people turning away, children pulling their mothers and fathers, sons leading fathers, granddaughters leading grandparents, a motley, inspired trickle of citizens choosing, themselves, to walk from the carnage. We stood and stared and the people kept coming up, and watching the video, and hearing the words As long as people keep coming—and the elephant crying, and the indigo image of the beaten elephant flashing.
And the people kept leaving, every single protester on the steps and the sides making way in silence for them, in sheer astonishment, in absolute, petrified joy.
The people kept leaving, in silence we made way for them.
That was the day the Big Tent emptied before the show began, the day the circus stopped, and we had not even expected it. The nightly news played the video of the ad over and over again, the mass exodus as parents stopped at the door and turned back, as children from inside evacuated, pulling their families with them. Watching, we asked ourselves: Was this the end of elephant acts in the circus? It is the beginning of the end, said Barbara Walters, who had been called in to do a special. On every channel, the news reported the emptiness of the Arena King Tent. No longer the Planet’s Greatest Ring, said Diane Sawyer, with a slight twist of a smile. Everywhere I looked, the dream was around me. The indigo elephant looked through the digital screen at all of us, her eyes like bruised onyx, the mute calling in her eyes profound, and constant.
And yet it was too late for Daisy.
Through those weeks, my dreams came and went, like dreams in a fever, in the middle of a hurricane. In the last one I saw her rub up against her mother, the only time in her small life this had been allowed. Yes, that was the last time I dreamt of the indigo baby elephant that momentous spring, and it was not when she was being beaten, but being born.
Yes, her birth too troubling. By the head, the tail, the flanks of the heaving mother elephant, in a cement room with steel rails, men with sticks were stationed, darting forward and back as the mother moved or tried to move, her trumpeting sounds a swelling, falling wave in the dream. Her legs were chained, every single one of them, to iron rings in the wall and the floor. The men were in fear of her tremendous weight, the unpredictability of her convulsions. When the white sac appeared, and then the legs of the baby elephant, the men swung underneath, as if to catch the baby. She fell in an abrupt explosion of sac, blood, water, tissue, limbs, and the mother, trumpeting through her final contraction, tried to move but slipped a little, hampered by the chains. She tried to turn but could not. With her trunk snaking out tentatively, she swung this way and that, searching for her baby. But the baby was pounced on, removed by a team of men with buckets, cloths, mops, taken away immediately to the next railed-in area, wiped, injected, tagged. Men held her up to try to make her walk. Men pushed her forward as her newly-born limbs sagged and stumbled. Briefly she was led to the mother.
The mother cried, trunked her all over. The baby tried to rub herself against the mother’s legs and trunk. But almost instantly she was forcibly led away. I could hear the mother’s wailed trumpeting in my dream, and the baby’s returning cry of want. I saw the fuchsia darkness billow in the space where the mother was, and sticks appear, and ropes, as the baby was dragged away, toward the tight bolus of the training awaiting her, the whole of her meager life to be passed in captivity. The cement floor was hard beneath her newborn feet, and the bright white fluorescent lamps burned her newborn eyes. But the bull-hook touched her neck when she faltered, and already, the satiny folds and furrows of her elephant skin and limbs were turning a deep indigo, everywhere it touched.
Ramola D’s short fiction collection Temporary Lives (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009) received the 2008 AWP Grace Paley Award in Short Fiction, and her poetry collection Invisible Season (WWPH, 1998), co-won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Poetry award in 1998. A Discovery/The Nation finalist and four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she is the recipient of a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and writer-interviews have appeared in various journals and anthologies including Blackbird, Prairie Schooner, Agni, Northwest Review, Green Mountains Review, Writer’s Chronicle, Indiana Review, and been reprinted in Best American Poetry 1994, and Best American Fantasy 2007. Her fiction was shortlisted in Best American Stories 2007, and included in Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington DC Women Writers. She holds an MFA in Poetry from George Mason University and a BS in Physics and an MBA from the University of Madras. She has most recently taught creative writing at The George Washington University and The Writer’s Center, Bethesda. She currently lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter.