Foreword by Professor Robert Calder

Riding Indian Elephant 3

Foreword by Professor Robert Calder


Elephants are nearly universally admired, often loved, and frequently revered as animals with depths of feeling and understanding of which humans are only partially aware. They mourn their dead, sometimes reverently taking the tusks from an abandoned carcass to some distant and hidden elephant graveyard, a place to which those in the wild are known to go when they sense the approach of their own death.

Though employed as work animals and often mistreated by humans, they carry themselves with nobility, and their bearing suggests a dignity not often seen in other animals. And nowhere are elephants more revered and deeply embedded in a nation’s culture than in India, something Karim Ajania knows well as the grandson of Indians who migrated to Africa in the early part of the twentieth century.

In “The Room in the Elephant,” Ajania uses the elephant to unite a number of stories of human attitudes and behaviour, providing a parable of human greed, despair, ambition, hope, love, and redemption through the catalyst of Lakaji the Elephant Elder. A number of different people ─ a cynical criminal, and class-conscious snob, a young boy, and a man facing the end of his own long life ─ are influenced by the unselfish and generous behaviour of Lakaji and the other elephants.

Humans are seen, in the end, to be capable of rebirth and of casting off superficial cares and aspirations, and becoming, not only more generous to others, but more deeply content within themselves.

The “The Room in the Elephant” is a parable, but it also provides some sharp criticism of the behaviour and attitudes of Indians under the Raj, the imposition of English values and beliefs on the massive Indian continent. With more than a little humor, Ajania describes the typical English club in India, its stiff and formal customs and the toadying of the Indians as they make the futile attempt to be English. Nowhere in the tale is the chasm between the hard, unyielding, antiseptic English culture and the natural, indigenous life of India made more clear than in the metaphor of the tea cups. On the one hand, there is the imported white English bone china, out of which the English ruling class and its Indian imitators drink their tea; on the other is the brown clay cup out of which the natives drink their chai, the spiced Asian tea.

Made from earth and baked in a kiln for a single usage, the drained chai cup is thrown onto the ground, where it soon melts back into the earth, leaving little trace but regenerating the soil for future use.

As with clay cups, so too with elephants, at the ends of their lives melting into the forests and into their graveyards but, in this story at least, not before bequeathing their ivory tusks to save a village. It is a pattern, Ajania seems to suggest, that the wise human being should follow in his or her own life.

Robert Calder

Professor Emeritus

University of Saskatchewan

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