Calum McSwiggan

The Elephant Emperor

In Eat on May 27, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Indian Elephant

‘Every king knows it to be true, that every kingdom must one day come to an end.’

– Ben Howard

The sadness in the eyes of the elephant penetrated me deeply as I walked into the stable and gently stroked her painted trunk. Raising it into the air, she placed it onto my shoulder, and shuffled her enormous feet as if she were trying to tell me something. I had waited for this moment for as long as I could remember, but as I handed over my rupees and climbed onto the elephant’s back, I only felt resentful.

I once lay awake in the Tuscan countryside, promising myself that I’d do something to help animals as I listened to the howls of distress resonating from the bottom of the garden. My host family slept in the next room, indifferent to the suffering they were causing and the cries of the tormented animals. I’d seen the hell that lay beyond that wall at the bottom of the garden; they’d taken me back there, through the gates of Animal Auschwitz, and into the torturous rusted barbed wire cages where they kept scores of afflicted animals that they claimed to love.

I’d shortly after penned ride an elephant in India onto my bucket list for 2013, thinking there would be no better way to show my affection for animals than getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures, but the ride that awaited me was everything but what I’d expected. I wasn’t helping anything or anyone; I was just contributing to the problem.

The elephant walked sluggishly as I towered above her in the cushioned saddle, I wanted to reach down and comfort her, but she was out of reach, and I couldn’t have felt further away. Her spirit had been broken so badly that I could only begin to imagine what might have been done to her to make her so dead behind the eyes. I don’t know why I didn’t call a stop the whole thing immediately, this was not something designed for an animal lover, this was something designed for a rich white man from the western world who wanted to feel like an emperor, superior to his fellow man, as he paraded through the streets.

It wasn’t even as if my money was going towards helping the community rebuild itself. To my right were palatial buildings, lined with priceless art and surrounded with lavish blooming gardens, and yet to my left were children living alone in the slums, without food, family, or water, digging through garbage in search of their salvation. The divide between the rich and the poor was so great that it turned my stomach, and here I was, playing elephant emperor, as the peasants fell to my feet and begged me for food.

It was as if somebody had removed the rosy filter from my fantasies and I was suddenly seeing the real world. The reality of spending a small fortune on an extravagance as ridiculous as an elephant ride, while children starved mere meters away, hit me harder than a careless tuk-tuk driver. I wanted the ride to be over, I wanted the elephant to be free, I wanted the poverty that surrounded me to cease, and yet still I did nothing.

Some of the children stopped searching the piles of garbage for a moment to stare at the white man, throwing me deserving looks of disgust as I passed through the streets. Everyone looked at me as if they wanted to con, rob, or kill me, and I couldn’t blame any of them. Everything about the whole spectacle was as offensive as a slap to the face, it was unforgivable, and it was only the young innocence of a boy named Anil that could see through my pompous charade.

He came running from the slums to the side of the elephant, waving his arms wildly, and desperately trying to catch my attention. He started bombarding me with questions, asking me my name, where I came from, what I was doing here, and where I was heading next. He reminded me so much of one of the students I taught in Switzerland that I had to double take to clarify that it wasn’t him. He was no more than ten years old and yet his English was exceptional, I had no idea where a kid like him had gotten such an impressive education, but I knew immediately that I wanted to befriend him.

Do you want to ride with me? I finally asked after watching him run bare foot alongside the elephant for a good five minutes, but I was quickly interrupted. Street rats don’t ride, the compassionless driver bitterly snapped as he began thrashing the elephant for trying to feed from a nearby tree. I wish I had reprimanded him, climbed down from the back of the elephant, demanded my money back, and used it on something worthwhile like a meal for young Anil. But I didn’t. I let everything continue to happen and watched him violently shoo Anil away as he lashed the elephant mercilessly.

The lack of compassion for his fellow man astonished me, and I could only imagine how uncaring he must be towards this amazing towering beast behind closed doors. Garbed in his expensive finery and golden jewellery, he was everything that was wrong with India, and all the while I did nothing but support his barbarous trade.

I loved that elephant so much, and yet I used and abused her like every other tourist who passed through the area. Before I left I thanked her for the ride but my words fell flat. I couldn’t believe I had been so naïve in actually crossing the oceans to come here to participate in something so outrageously cruel. Everywhere I looked I saw and learned more and more about the malevolence of the elephant trade, and with everything I learned I only grew more and more angry with myself.

There was absolutely no silver lining to my story, I was just grateful that I’d had my eyes opened so that I could share my story in hope of helping one day bring the kingdom of the elephant emperor crumbling to its knees.

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