An excerpt from “Elephant at Sea,” a story in my forthcoming collection, Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories (available here), was published in the Huffington Post India.
In the late summer of 1979, the Second Secretary of the Indian embassy to Morocco received a cable that undid his considerable years of training and left him floundering. The message read simply: ‘Elephant en route.’ Was it some sort of code? Further investigation only deepened his confusion. The cable had come from the customs office in Cochin, a port in the south of India. No, the customs officials reported back to him, it wasn’t code. It was an elephant–an elephant that along with its mahout, was now very much headed by ship to Casablanca. The Second Secretary probed: why send an elephant? Here at the customs office, the reply came, we handle only the movement of goods; for the movement of reasons, please refer your inquiry to the Ministry of External Affairs.
The Second Secretary telegrammed his colleagues in the ministry in Delhi. With telegrams to the ministry, it was important, first, to be terse so that you were considered economical and, second, to be sharp so that in the midst of reams of communication from outposts around the world, your message would be noticed. WHY SHIP ELEPHANT STOP EMBASSY ALREADY HAS CARS STOP. No one in the ministry seemed to know anything about the elephant. A flummoxed telegram returned to the embassy. WHAT ELEPHANT STOP IS THIS CODE STOP. Embarrassed, the Second Secretary finally consulted the ambassador, who knew through long experience that it was pointless to question the whims of the capital. Marvellous, the ambassador said smoothing his moustache, an elephant, just what we need, and they couldn’t even send it to us, no, they’re sending it to Casablanca. You’ll have to arrange for the thing to be met and picked up. He sprayed himself with cologne and mused: If an elephant can even be picked up.
That night the Second Secretary lay awake in bed, resenting the sheets, resenting the pillow, resenting the indifference of his work, resenting Morocco, resenting Arabic for its impossible, secret throatiness, and resenting, with what little bitterness was left to him, the unknown buffoon who would make diplomacy out of elephants.
The buffoon was not, as he imagined, some self-satisfied civil servant in South Block, but the princess of Morocco. Explanation arrived via telex from a friend in the ministry who owed him a few favours and so mustered the initiative to ask around.
The story of the elephant had begun six years earlier in the same Indian embassy in Rabat. At one of those habitual functions whose purpose seems so obvious in the preparation but disappears in the operation, the little Moroccan princess had come to the embassy and frozen before a picture of an elephant. It was among the many stock images–all approved by the ministry of tourism–that lined the lobby of the embassy: dawn over the Himalayan ranges; houseboats on the backwaters; the Taj Mahal rosy in its cushion of smog; a bright tractor devastating a field of wheat. The princess only had eyes for the elephant. Her wordless arm extended towards the picture, pointing. C’est un éléphant, said the embassy official tasked with escorting the princess. She remained transfixed. Vous aimez les éléphants? the unlucky man suggested. It seemed the princess did love elephants because she wouldn’t move. The official, who had in previous posts offered counsel on trade policy with Indonesia and arms deals with the Soviet Union, looked around for help before lowering himself to her level. Mademoiselle, vous voulez un éléphant? he asked with the desperation stoked in him by all children–never mind the princess of Morocco. She turned, smiled, and gave him the smallest gift of a nod. It was enough. The official eventually spoke to the then ambassador who put in the request to Delhi, recommending the delivery of an elephant to satisfy the princess and to strengthen a bilateral friendship. The request passed through the appropriate channels at the usual speeds. Six years later, the creature was irrevocably on its way…