Love, Death and the Elephant Graveyard

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‘Legend says that the spirits of Baba and Bibi still live on the slopes of the Kilimanjaro.

They meet all the weary souls, desirous of entering the elephant graveyard.

They attend to their broken hearts and mend their exhausted will to survive.

They have become the custodians of the broken hearts and guardians of the broken dreams.’

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       After a full day of rain in Africa, the sun goes down, hidding behind the majestic purple clouds. The clouds slowly disperse to reveal a bluish-black and velvet night sky, adorned by small glittering sequins.

       Whenever it rains in Africa and the night grows dark, the elders sit around the crackling fire; and the children and young people gather around. If the elders are kind and in a good mood, they tell stories of the days gone by and the days that are still far away in the future. Myth and history make love under the night sky and stories are born – stories of magic and wisdom and stories of love and longing.

         On one such magical night, the story of the elephant graveyard breathed its first.

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        Toto lighted his old clay pipe and looked up. The rain clouds had long gone, but they had not drifted very far – the flashes of lightening were still visible over the western horizon. The smoke from his old clay pipe rose up. It changed into dragons and unicorns and transformed into a thousand butterflies with fluttering grey wings. The butterflies danced and floated up. They floated up and slowly dissolved within the soft embrace of the folds of the night air.

‘Toto! Tell us of the old days.’ Banto ran a finer along the sharp blade of his spear.

‘Tell us when Africa belonged to the heathen gods. Tell us of the times when the white men came like a bad dream and captured our lands. Tell us of the times when the white saw the black and learnt to hate and discriminate.’

      Toto remained quiet for some time and when he spoke; his voice was alive with the booming thunder of the long-departed clouds:

‘Let me tell you a story about an ancient African myth – the myth of love, death and the elephant graveyard.’

       Toto blew smoke and Banto could see the smoke acquiring the shape of an old elephant. Old Toto was indeed a wizard.

‘The old African myth says that whenever an elephant grows too old either in spirit or body, he starts walking. He walks in search of the elephant graveyard.’ Toto started narrating the story in his peculiar deliberate tone.

‘The myth says that the graveyard lies somewhere hidden, on the grey misty slopes of the Kilimanjaro.

It is filled with old elephant skeletons – pale ivory waiting to be collected by the greed of man.

Man has a firm belief in this myth.

Man always believes in his greed and this belief is stronger than his belief in God or religion.

But the greed always brings along a dark curse and that curse is always unwelcome.

But no matter how unwelcome the curse is, it always accompanies the greed. Man cannot avoid its dark and putrid presence.’

      Toto fell silent and his eyes searched the night sky for a long time.

‘You were….’ Banto hesitatingly interrupted the old man’s reverie. ‘You were telling us about the elephant graveyard…..O’ respected Toto.’

‘Yes!’ Toto looked around at the curious young faces surrounding the warm fire and smiled at their impatience.

‘Legend says that there once was an elephant called Baba. He was a grand elephant with ivory tusks as long and massive as a fully grown crocodile. His skin was the colour of rain clouds – dark grey and mysterious. He had a heavy tread and when he walked, trees trembled and birds flew off their cosy nests.

But despite his power and mass, Baba was a kind elephant.

He let the birds rest on his trunk and during rains, small animals found refuge under his huge belly. Baba kept standing in the cold rain but did not move.

Baba was a kind elephant and his kindness was not limited to only animals and birds. Rather he was also kind to the poor villagers. He brought water for the old from the river; and helped the villagers build their straw huts. Sometimes he even let the small children ride him.

But then one day……’

           Toto left the sentence hanging in the air. The tobacco in his clay pipe had all turned to grey ash. He carefully knocked the pipe bowl on the soft earth beneath his feet and refilled it carefully, one small pinch at a time.

            The young audience waited patiently for the ritual to end. They had witnessed the ritual a million times but were still fascinated by its elaborate routine.

Toto knocking out the ash and cleaning the bowl with an old rag wrapped around his fat thumb.

Toto carefully undoing the drawstring tied around the tobacco pouch and taking out pinches of tobacco.

Each pinchful went into the bowl, followed by a mild pounding.

The spark and lighting of the flint match.

The flame touching the mouth of the bowl and then being sucked inside.

The tobacco catching the fire and the first grey clouds of acrid smoke rising from the bowl.

‘Hunhh!’ Toto finally ended the ritual and inhaled a lungful of the deliciously burning smoke; his eyes closed in satisfaction.

‘What was I saying?’ Toto looked questioningly at Banto.

‘You were telling us about Baba the kind elephant and then you said one day; and left it incomplete.’ Banto offered respectfully.

‘Yes! Yes!’ Toto nodded his head.

‘Then one day…..the white man came to the village. He saw the majestic ivory tusks of Baba; and his beady blue eyes came alive with greed.

Come, give me the elephant’s ivory and I will make you rich beyond your wildest imagination. He whispered in the ears of the village elders.

It is not possible. Baba has always been our friend. Baba has always been kind to us villagers. We cannot even think of killing the poor creature. The villagers were shocked at the cruelty of the white man’s suggestion.

But the white man kept on whispering and the villagers kept on refusing until one day, their refusal turned into silence and then another day, their silence turned into submission.’

‘Why?’ Banto asked suddenly.

‘Why what?’ Toto looked at the young man irritatingly.

‘Why did the villagers consent to the white man’s offer?’

‘Because deep under the white and the black skin, flows the same red blood.

Deep within the white and the black chests, beats the same heart.

And deep within the white and the black minds, coils the same serpent of greed.’

‘What happened then?’ Banto asked sadly. ‘Did the villagers kill Baba?’

‘No.’ Toto smiled at Banto’s sad long face. The boy had a kind and sensitive heart.

‘The children heard of their elders planning to kill Baba. They went running to their friend and whispered the plan in his flapping ears.

At first Baba grew angry and thought of devastating the village and trampling the bodies of the greedy villagers under his mighty feet. But then his kind heart thought of the children and he grew sad. He took one last look at the young faces of his friends and left the village that night, never to return.

When the animals and the birds saw baba leaving, there was all chaos.

Please don’t go away Baba. The birds flew around his head and pleaded with their chirping voices, but Baba walked on dejectedly.

Baba, please don’t leave us. The rabbits jumped on his broad back and shouted in his ears, but Baba walked on.

Father, please stop Baba. The little cubs went to the mighty lion and begged him to interfere.

Let him go. His heart is broken. He will not stop. The old lion shook his mane sadly.

But where will he go? The cubs asked.

He will go to the sweet sad place where all the broken-hearted go to die. He will go to the elephant graveyard.

The lion muttered softly, looking at the gradually receding silver-grey back of the kind elephant.’

‘Will somebody please light the fire again? The cold night air is seeping into my tired bones.’ Toto growled and Banto jumped to his feet.

The fire was lit and Toto adjusted the blanket closely around his shoulders.

His audience sat entranced. They were lost in the world of proud lions and kind elephants.

‘So Baba walked and then walked some more.’ Toto picked up the story where he had left it.

‘Baba’s eyes were fixed on the top of the Kilimanjaro Mountain, mostly obscured by dark clouds.

He walked on and with each step, his soul grew weary and his steps grew tired.

He walked on and with each step, the pieces of his broken heart rattled within his chest.

He knew he was walking towards his end; and that was not a very pleasant proposition.

One golden sunset, Baba reached the foot slopes of the Kilimanjaro Mountain but was too tired to move on. He just fell on the ground and closed his eyes in exhaustion. Evening turned into night and night turned into another day but Baba did not get up. He did not want to get up. There was nothing except death waiting for him and death could wait some more.

Then one morning, two drops of some warm liquid fell onto Baba’s face. He woke up with a start and saw the most beautiful female elephant standing over his head. She had a coat of silver velvet and her ivory shined like the moonlight. But the most attractive thing about her was her big dark brown eyes which were moist with kindness.

You poor elephant! All exhausted and tired. She smiled at him kindly.

What are you doing lying up here all alone? Where are you going?

I am Baba. The kind elephant smiled. I was going to the elephant graveyard, but I was too tired to move on.

You are so young and handsome. Why do you want to go the graveyard? She asked him shyly.

Listen to the rattle inside my chest. My heart is all broken. Baba got up and shook himself.

She listened to the rattle and her eyes grew all teary.

But who are you and where are you going? Baba couldn’t see tears sparkling in her eyes and tried to divert her attention.

I am Bibi. I once lived besides the shores of Lake Tanganyika. I took care of my clan and protected them against all evil. But then a hunter shot me with a heavy rifle. I recovered but couldn’t give birth anymore. My clan called me cursed and abandoned me. My heart broke and therefore I was going to the elephant graveyard too. She wiped her tears with the tip of her trunk.   

But you are so kind and you have a soft heart. How could your clan be cruel to you? Baba caressed her neck with his trunk.

At his touch, she shuddered and the looked at him with her soft brown eyes.

You are kind too Baba, yet you are here, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kindness means giving everything and not taking anything for yourself.

Kindness means exhaustion and weariness.

Kindness means understanding life and understanding that life is cruel.

First comes the hurt. Then comes the silence. Silence is followed by understanding.

Baba thought upon what Bibi had said. He pondered on her words.

But why have we met then? Why now? He asked her.

Perhaps, out task hasn’t finished yet.

Perhaps we are not destined for the elephant graveyard.

But how will we go on? We are too weary and we are exhausted. Baba was perplexed.

But Bibi had no answer.

The two elephants stood looking at each other for a while. Then they looked up for an answer. God, up in the heavens, smiled at their shy confusion and healed their exhausted and broken hearts. He healed their hearts and filled them with the light of love. They hugged and kissed and their kindred souls became one. They forgot the elephant graveyard and walked into the sunset, their mighty trunks supporting each other.’

‘It’s late. Bed time for all of you.’ Toto looked at the hint of glow in the East.

‘But what happened to Baba and Bibi?’ Banto asked him frustratingly. ‘Where did they go?’

Toto smiled kindly at him.

 

‘Legend says that the spirits of Baba and Bibi still live on the slopes of the Kilimanjaro.

They meet all the weary souls, desirous of entering the elephant graveyard.

They attend to their broken hearts and mend their exhausted will to survive.

They have become the custodians of the broken hearts and guardians of the broken dreams.’

            Toto finished the story. He got up and slowly walked towards his hut.

The flames from the dying fire cast his shadow long.

Banto was startled.

It wasn’t the shadow of a stooped old man.

It was the shadow of an elephant, all grand and majestic.

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