Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Elephants on Parade - Golden Triangle 7

It’s after hours, strictly speaking, when we get to the elephant house. They only work until eleven in the morning, because of the heat. But we’re special, apparently, so we get a private viewing. I bet Mr Kumar’s up there with special guests, twice a day, in the high season, but we don’t care: our eyes, ears, and noses are full of elephant. They’re just standing there, like pretty maids all in a row, except their massive ankles are shackled, with chains you could use, to park up the QE2. The smell is intense stable. The boys call to one another, and stop to watch us, being overwhelmed by proximity. It’s just another day, for them. The elephants are snuffling, shuffling. We’re invited to step up, for a bit of hands-on, and I’m there, trunk-patting, before you can say “sticky bun.” Some members of our merry band are more reticent, and this is when I know that she’s going to bottle out. Don’t forget, I was there for the Donkey Episode, a million years ago, and look how that turned out. I just know, I’ll be twelve foot in the air, teetering on an elephant’s spine, and she’ll say, “Tell you what, I’ll hold the coats.” Metaphorical coats, that is.

The elephants are all female - either that, or they’ve had both ends seen to. They’re in their party best, with flowers, hearts and leaves painted in pink, blue and gold, across their bulging brows and down their long grey noses. I hope this isn’t just for the tourists, it’s a bit like putting eyeliner and lipgloss on a baby. I prefer my elephants unadorned. In defence of tourism, the Indians do like to decorate their elephants, in celebration of festivals like Holi, or Diwali, or any day ending in a “y”, in fact.
Meanwhile, the backroom boys are strapping howdahs onto two elephants at the far end of the hangar. What do you say to an elephant, to make her curtsey low enough to throw a saddle across her back? She’s making her way across. For the first time, I notice the staircase in the corner, leading nowhere, and I’m up it like a ferret, balancing on one foot, ready to hop on, as soon as she manoeuvres close enough. The hop-on’s less elegant than I’d hoped, and the mahout does a little mime, saying, “Madame! Feet, feet...,” from which I intimate, I’m not supposed to be astride... Part of me’s quite glad, because she’s not daintily made, this elephant, and I’m doing the sideways splits. While my knees are re-acquainting themselves with each other, Mr Roland climbs up beside me, and we reverse out.

My head’s going round like a bobbin, to make sure Diana and Andrew get on their elephant. She’s at the top of the stairs, it’s do-or-die time. Then, she’s on! And Mr Andrew’s on, and even his feet aren’t touching the floor. I take it all back. Mrs Andrew’s not looking ecstatic, just yet, but there’s time. Then, we’re off.

Now, we’re not racing, here. We’re lumbering up the middle of the village, trying not to look self-conscious. We gather a small retinue of boys, who contrive to be fascinated by our passage, despite being born and bred on Elephant House Street, Old Jaipur. (I hate it, when children lose their curiosity about life, don’t you?) So, they run along, shouting our theme tune, “Hello, how are you?” with occasional variants such as, “Are you fine?” And, against all the odds, we are fine, actually.
Our drivers put the anchors on for yet another photo. They hand over their red turbans, for us to play Maharajahs. I take hold of the wrong bit, of ours, and it slithers into about twenty yards of crumpled cotton, in my hands. The mahout winds it back round his head, deftly twisting and swivelling, until he’s made it look like a hat again.
We’ve not been so exhaustively photographed, since our wedding day. I’m quite flattered, thinking, after a whole day touristing round temples and ramparts, that I must suit being on an elephant, and perhaps am looking unusually lovely... Then he asks for our hotel name, and it occurs to me, he’s a photographer. He’ll print up the least obnoxious of his shots, and bring them round to our hotel, to blackmail us into retail. I’m half expecting him to shout, “Bride’s family only, this way, please!”
Then we queue up by the staircase again, for the dismount. Or, as Mr Roland would say, the de-elephant. But we’re not finished yet. We go into the Inner Sanctum, the nursery shed, to meet the baby elephants. They’ve been taking cute pills, again. I wonder how the one I’ve selected is going to cope with the British climate?

A bit of animal magic to round off the day: Diana and I, hanging on our boom, boom pachyderm (with apologies to Joni Mitchell...).