The Elephant – By S. Ponnudurai

Pic by Hector J Rivas

Translated by V. Ramanan


Once in the country, growing number of people were very much disturbed by the dwindling elephant population. The wild life enthusiasts formed “The Elephant Protection Front” and took to the streets highlighting the callousness of the Government that was leading to their reducing numbers. The media grew strident by the day and sooner the issue morphed into something that concerned the masses.

How can a Government that considered serving people as serving God remain unmoved ?  A cabinet meeting was urgently convened. The matter was discussed threadbare. At the end of it the cabinet came to certain conclusions: “The cabinet is in full concurrence with the view that elephants are dwindling in number only because they are moving freely in the forest, if we capture all the elephants in our country and keep them secure, this problem will not arise.” So when the Deputy Prime Minister came up with a suggestion to set up a ‘Elephant Protection Corporation’ and assign it the responsibility of protecting the elephants, it was greeted with a near unanimous applause around the table, for one minister did express his misgivings about stall-feeding the entire population of elephants; he was soon overcome. ( It was later given to understand that the dissenting minister’s remarks were expunged and he belonged to a clique that generally opposed the progressive measures of the Government).

“As a Government that ensures food security of our population thru free distribution of rice, can we not open our hearts to the hapless and voiceless beings of the jungle?’, the Prime Minster had asked poignantly.

“Our Prime Minister is known for the kindness of heart. We import lot of chillies which creates stomach ailments in our population. We import lot of sugar which is the cause of the much detested diabetes. We can stop these imports and save money. If you stop sugar imports, we can also avoid insulin imports and along with it the trouble we take, in deference to the Muslim sentiment, to see that the insulin is free from proteins that are sourced from pork. With this money we can certainly take care of the elephants. We need to bear in mind that foreign exchange is precious”, averred the Finance Minister.

Further during the ministerial discussions, it was also unanimously concluded that elephant catching techniques currently in vogue in the country were highly inefficient and costly. There after, there was much deliberation about who was the best in the business; experts from Russia or experts from America, so that the Government gets the benefit of right advice before starting the venture. At the end the view of the Prime Minister that the American expert would be fit for the job prevailed.

The American expert who was appointed for the job completed his work of studying the current practice of catching elephants and was ready with his recommendations. A cabinet sub-committee was formed. A presentation by the American expert was arranged for the sub-committee at the Prime Minister’s residence.

“The elephant catching techniques in Srilanka are very old and outdated. They lead to enormous economic wastage. We need to come up with scientific techniques. My new technique will require just five equipments”, the American expert looked around the gathering and noticed them in keen observation.

With much satisfaction he continued, “We require plenty of Nesprey tins for a start”. The Finance minster interjected, “We were just wishing that our people forget the very name ‘Nesprey’, where I will go for so much foreign exchange”.

The American expert smiled,”When I formulated the technique I had taken into account the constraints and considered what is available in plenty in your country. What we want is only empty Nesprey tins.” “Next, what is required are pieces of chalk”, there were no ripples amongst the audience which led the expert to continue, “Black boards”.

“If we have the elephant catching exercise during school holidays, my ministry can arrange for as many black boards as it may require to catch elephants, else if required, we can give the ten thousand black boards that were donated to us by the Japanese government, still lying unpacked with us”, the enthusiasm of the Education Minister was palpable.

The subsequent disapproving glare of the Prime Minister was enough for the Education Minister to quickly offer by way of explanation, “A committee of eminent educationists was appointed six months back to go into the question of how to distribute these black boards amongst the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim schools in the country and it has sought six more months of extension to come with its recommendations. I may also add here that a Japanese expert will soon be arriving to advise the committee on the issue”.

The Prime Minister beamed at the quick damage control by the Minister; a general sense of satisfaction and an atmosphere of self-assurance that arises from collective competence prevailed.

“Next in the list of equipments required are the forceps”, said the expert with some trepidation.

“Is it the same instrument that the goldsmiths’ use to pick up tiny fragments of gold ?” asked the Finance Minister. “Yes”, came the reply from the expert.

“That is quite simple, one missive from the government to the jewelers in the Merchants Street that those who donate 100 sovereigns of gold to the cause of elephants will be eligible for automatic extension of their permits for next one year is all that is required. We will also get hundreds and hundreds of forceps as well that we could end up exporting”, the Finance Minister was quick in his observation. This lead to much appreciation all round.

There was silence filled with expectation about what the expert was coming up with next.

“The fifth and most important of the requirements are binoculars”, concluded the expert. Suddenly grave silence fell across the room, the silence that one confronts when faced with an uphill task.

“Binoculars ?, where will we go for the foreign exchange required for importing them ? This whole idea might get dropped only on this account.” said the Deputy Prime Minister in a diminishing voice tinged with sorrow.

“That must be least of your worries. I have already been in touch with the American Government in this matter and they have agreed to provide loan for purchase of Binoculars without any strings attached. They want it to be a gesture of goodwill from America to the people of Sri Lanka. They want the relationship between the two countries to improve in view of the set backs in the recent past”, said the expert. This remark was received with loud cheers amongst the gathering.

“All that is fine. How in the world are you going to capture the elephants with these equipments ?” , asked a minister ( As you might have guessed, it is the same minister who initially demurred when the idea was mooted).

The expert from America looked at the face of the Prime Minister for approval. “You may explain your elephant catching technique without any hesitation. Nothing discussed here will be divulged outside without our express approval”, said the Prime Minister.

The expert cleared his throat and started his explanation.

“We must first go to the interior of the forest and position ourselves in vantage points along the paths the elephants frequent. We may set up watch towers with adequate clearance from the ground. We must hang up the black boards on the trees opposite at a height sufficient for the elephants to see. Using chalk we may write up simple equations like say , five plus five equals nine on the boards.”

“Does five plus five not make ten?”, this came from the precocious Finance Minister.

“While ten is the correct answer, we should not forget that we are in the business of catching elephants. When the head of the herd of elephants see these boards, it will raise its trunk and laugh aloud and the others in the herd will follow suit. At this moment we must remember that our elephant catchers are located on the watch towers looking at the elephants with their Binoculars. The elephants at this stage will have downed their guard and when seen in the reverse view of the binoculars will appear as small specs on the forest floor. The catchers , without loss of time, must pick up each one of the elephants and put them into Nespray tins”, concluded the American expert.

The room was reverberating with congratulatory chorus. The minsters were all in toothy laughter.

The Deputy Prime Minister was requested to conclude the proceedings.

“The Government is very happy at the outcome of the study of the American expert. The Government is so immensely thankful for his suggestions that it would consider rupees two lakhs by way of extra remuneration for his efforts. This Elephant Protection Scheme will be kept in total secrecy and will be announced to the public three days before the coming bye-elections by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will also explain the importance of including the Elephant Protection Scheme under the five year plans and the benefit that will accrue to the public”, said the Deputy Prime Minister in his concluding remark which was accepted wholeheartedly.

The gathering soon plunged into the mood of celebrating the success of the initiative of the Government, however , ministers were seen lost in reverie as they were much exercised over who among those close to them could be placed in the about to be formed “The Elephant Protection Corporation of Sri Lanka”.


Republished with thanks from V. Ramanan’s blog site:

Translator’s note about the Author, S.Ponnudurai:

I have seen from experience that best writing comes from the lands riven by contradictions and strife. You can see that in sub-continental literature, whether from India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. One of my favourite Srilankan Tamil writers is S. Ponnudurai, generally known by the abbreviated name ‘S.Po’.

S.Po was born in 1932 in the Jaffna peninsula in a small village called Nallur. He studied in Madras Christian College, Madras and graduated in English literature. He went to work in Nigeria in 1962 as an English teacher and left that country when sectarian clashes convulsed the African state. He migrated to Australia thereafter. Frequently, he spent years in India where from he wrote and published novels and short stories. I have a special liking for his short stories. Often the stories will be entwined in strands of both hope and angst which will make you reflect on the irony of the situation.

His ‘The Elephant Story’ that I have taken up for translation has no locality; it can be written in any language and in any contextual setting. Not many writers can write like this. Literary masterpieces like ‘Gift of Maggi’ by O’ Henry and “Animal Farm” by George Orwell belong to this variety. Writers need time and place just like choreographers need props.

S.Po died in 2014 at the age of 82 in Australia. He lived a life devoted to literature. He figured in many literary controversies , but his place in contemporary Tamil writing is never questioned, The Elephant Story written about 20 years back illustrates his style , one of angst tempered with humour.