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Elephant for Entertainment Program

by Bakul Desai

pp 58-65


Animals in H4 – I got my H4 mates involved  in an animal episode myself. In our final year, H4 was paired with H10 for the EP (Entertainment Program) competition. The theme was  “The Court of the Crimson King.” Points for publicity were 10 out of 100. During tiffin time discussions, there was desultory talk of making posters. I said maybe we should bring an elephant to campus. We could have the Queen (Mukta Ghate) and King (Sameer Vijaykar) sit on the elephant with a retinue of courtiers and maybe some drum beaters leading the procession. I thought we would present this tamasha during Friday evening movie time at the Convo where all of IIT would be headed. Everyone laughed except the Social Secretary Jetu (Arun Jethmalani, ‘83 batch), who chided me for being too flippant and not serious enough. He ended his lecture with “who will get this elephant?” My impulsive response to his question turned out to be my biggest nightmare.

I roped in some very reluctant friends. Vasu and Soumitra initially, and, when the going got really tough, Fish (Ashvin Iyengar), and our warden Prof. Suresh Dixit as well. I spread the word to all watchmen and all shopkeepers from Y-Point to main gate that I was in the market for an elephant. They would look at me with amusement and smirked openly whenever I rode past them on my mini Rajdoot .

To start with, I borrowed Rs. 20 from Jetu everyday for gas for my mobike. I would make a round of all temples, police stations, beaches, parks and studios. After logging 300 kms without getting within sniffing distance of an elephant, Jetu pulled back from financing this project and left me to devise ingenious ways to conserve on fuel. I did the best I could. On the Western Express Highway, where I did most of my elephant hunting, I would rev up to 80kmph, locate a down slope, and then switch off my ignition and let the bike roll for a km at least. It helped that my tires were bald - I saved massively on frictional losses.

During this self-inflicted elephant finding mission, I found out something I did not know: that India abounds with comedians.

The head trustee at Ramakrishna mission temple in Powai sent me to Swami Acharya Jignasu at a temple in Juhu with a written request to show me the elephants. He was talking plurals here. Acharya Jignasu made me wait for half an hour. He made me go through the temple’s daily aarti, , break a coconut, apply a two inch wide deep and dark red tikka on my forehead and deposit Rs. 1.25 in the hundi. Then he led me outside and showed me two  beautiful elephants. The ones at the entrance. Carved in stone.

One Mr. Kelkar who registered animals and pets at a run-down BMC office in Sakinaka invited me to sit, offered me tea, and told me he could provide me with hundreds of elephants. “White elephants,” he said. “Our government is full of white elephants” he was heartily delighted with his own joke, and laughed while I cried.

Sub Inspector  Sawant at the Goregaon police station was a burly man. When I told him I was looking for an elephant, he dragged me by my collar to the entrance and I thought he would throw me out, but he pointed at the signboard and said, “padh isko. Read this. Kya likha hai?”

“Police thane” I said in order to prove that I was a man of letters.

“To kya samjha? What do you understand by this?”

In spite of my vulnerable state I did not resist: “I thought that this was Goregaon,” I said. “Why does it say Thane?” His expletives convinced me I had been unwise to attempt a wisecrack, particularly when in the grip of a burly policeman with a thick lathi. He told me where he would put it.

At Jogeshwari police station the chief was an affable man. While I waited he said he would draw me a route map to the place I could get an elephant. After 15 minutes, he showed it to me with a smile on his face. It was a route map, complete with traffic signals, to the Byculla zoo. He then informed the handful of constables around, “this guy is asking me for an elephant’s address. I’m sending him to the zoo.” And they laughed and I cried some more.

At the Vikhroli temple I was assured that I would get at least one elephant from the Guruvayoor temple. And to my next question, the man replied nonchalantly that Guruvayoor was in Kerala.

The watchman at Navrang studios gave us the address to Varmaji ka tabelas  in Film city. Varmaji personally showed us around his stables, his beautiful black Arab mustangs. He informed us that horses were in and elephants were a no-no. No film featuring an elephant, according to him, ever fared well at the box-office. “Box-office? Do we look like film-makers?”

He gave Vasu and me, in our slippers, T-shirts and torn jeans, the once-over. Nowadays, he said, people like us (aap ke jaise fatru log) had taken to making films. After Shyam Benegal’s success.

Shyamballi the watchman barged into my room and told me  excitedly that his friend had just called him (on the decrepit old H4 phone which never worked) to report that he had seen an elephant near Odeon cinema. If I rushed there, I could probably find him within a kilometre radius of Odeon, it could not have travelled much further by then. After a futile chase all over Ghatkopar, I returned to a sheepish Shyamballi who swore that he had said Oscar cinema and not Odeon.

The camel-ride merchants at Juhu beach were incredulous. Did I expect jungle inhabiting elephants to walk on beaches? Considering that their desert camels were at the beach, I did not understand their reaction. In any case, they were no help with finding elephants.

By now, I was totally out of fuel. Prof Dixit stepped in to help me out. Dixit, Soumitra, Vasu and I set out on Dixit’s scooter and Soumitra’s bike on Wednesday night to a Jain dharamshala in Goregaon. The Jains there had hired a convoy of elephants for a three day ritual, or anyway, that is what our informants told us. If we did not get an elephant that night, it was curtains for the project because the crucial Friday was just a day and a half away. The Jains were secretive about their elephants, and would not divulge their sources. The paan shop owner outside the dharamshala, however,  told us where the elephants were parked at night. There were no elephants there. Soumitra turned on his headlights and Vasu scouted for tell tale signs of elephant dung. Evidence was that they had indeed been parked there, but had now migrated to another parking lot.

On the way back to the hostel, we picked up a bottle of whiskey from RLC ( RLC is the Ratna Country Liquor Bar just outside the Y-Point gate of IIT. The correct acronym would have been RCL but it was corrupted to RLC to match with electrical RLC circuits that all of us were taught about. In elec-ese, RLC refers to resistors/inductors/capacitors). I was wondering how I would pay back Jetu for this failed project, and how we would cope with all the jeering and barbs that awaited us. As I unwrapped the bottle that would help us drown our sorrows, something caught my eye. On the newspaper wrapping was a photograph  of an elephant. We were seeing elephants already, and we had not  even opened the bottle yet! It was a photo of a procession of someone’s birthday bash. The newspaper was in Tamil. It was close to midnight, but we went to the telephone exchange. Vasu, our Tamil speaker, called the Tamil newspaper editor. We discovered that Tamil editors do not take kindly to being woken up at night with “who was the man on the elephant in your paper two days ago and what is his number and address?” From amid his swearing we got that the man was Vardarajan Mudaliar. The editor, for reasons we did not comprehend at that point,  did not believe that we asked for Varda’s address. Did we not know Varda of Antop Hill? We did not, and nor did we know what Antop Hill was.

But here was a ray of hope. We chalked out a plan to go to Antop Hill on Thursday and look for Varda and tell him to please get us this pachyderm, and for that we would bless him and pinch his cheek. Vasu refused to bunk his test on Thursday. Varda was definitely a Tamil name, and Soumitra did not understand Tamil even though he was dating a Tamilian (He said he was dating in English.) I finally settled on Sukumar who was a JTA (Junior Tech asst.)in the chemical engineering department. Sukumar was a Keralite but understood Tamil and could even speak it in a Malayali accent. Most important, he had a scooter with petrol in it and he would wait to be paid till Jetu paid me.

Antop Hill seemed seedy as hell. The stench of brewing hooch was in the air. The streets were populated by muscled men wearing banyans and rolled up lungis and thick gold chains and thicker belts (on their lungis). A band of menacing looking men escorted us to a tin-roofed shed on a hillock. Varda was in this shed, sitting on a chair watching the game of carom in progress. Sukumar started the conversation in Tamil. I caught the word “Yaan”(I found out later that the Tamil word for elephant is “yaanai”). Varda looked up at me. He continued to stare at me for five whole minutes without saying a word. 

Then Vardabhai began to laugh. What began as a mellow unthreatening chortle soon became a bellowing uncontrolled guffawing. The henchmen joined in, just like they do in the movies, and so did I. Sukumar tried to shush me, he had some knowledge I did not. Vardabhai was amused enough by us to ask his deputy, Selvan, to call the elephant vendor in Borivali and instruct him to bring down the rental from 2500 to 2000, and if it was a problem, Vardabhai said, he would pay the 500 difference himself. “2000 Rs?” I said to myself.” Was this guy loco? Did he not know Jetu who would not part with even 200?”

I went to the vendor’s house in Borivali, this time on Deepak Tiwary’s scooter. The sixteen year old Lankesh Pathak, his twelve year old sister, his aged mother and his invalid grandfather received us as VIPs. His father had passed away recently and the boy was making ends meet by renting out elephants and horses. He started our negotiations at 2000. I started at 200. His grandfather threatened to throw us out. Lankesh reminded him that we were Varda’s men. As we were walking out, Lankesh followed us and told us that he would close the deal at 500, provided we coughed up the money on the spot. Between Tiwary and I, we materialized Rs.100. Lankesh was desperate. He wanted to buy medicines for his grandfather. He agreed to take the 100 then and balance on Friday evening. I made a mental note that I would pay him 2000 whenever I was able to. I must admit, regretfully, that I have not done it, and don’t know how.

The elephant arrived, but thirty minutes late. Several people had stopped it on the way and asked the mahout his address, because there was this IIT student who wanted an elephant. Mukta and Sameer took their spots upon the elephant’s back. We all sang and danced. It was a sensation and a hit.

Prof Subhash Babu from HSS  (Humanities & Social Sciences dept.)saw the commotion and jostled his way through the crowd. He sought out Fish and asked him, “What is this?” Fish looked over to where the Professor’s finger was pointing and answered, ”This is an elephant.”

The elephant was a cow named “Haathi” and was parked in H10 (a girls’ hostel). Later at night, I got senti. I bought a stick of sugarcane and went to visit her. I said to her, “thank you Haathi for saving my skin.” I heard giggling. I turned to see four girls who found my tender moment with Haathi funny.

I saw our Vardabhai staring at me again two years later. This time though, he was on the covers of national magazines. Had I known then what I know now, I may have reacted to his stare, and to his subsequent laughter with discomfort at least, but I think I might have wet my pants.

Sukumar had translated his words for me that night when he had stared at me the first time and then dissolved into laughter: People come to me for everything. People say Vardabhai, give me naukri. Some say Vardabhai give me chokri. Some say Vardabhai, give me 5 lacs donation, Some say Vardabhai, kill my enemy. Women say Vardabhai, become the father of my child. But nobody has ever asked Vardabhai for an elephant.

Vardarajan Munniswamy Mudaliar. He, like his contemporaries Haji Mastan, Yusuf Patel and Karim Lala, was into illicit liquor, matka dens, drugs, prostitution rings, extortion, supari killings, and everything else that we knew nothing about. I had gone to him to ask him for an elephant. And had even thought about pinching his cheek. One of the most wanted, most notorious dons in Bombay’s formidable underworld.

Madhouse: True Stories Of The Inmates Of Hostel 4 IIT Bombay by Urmilla Deshpande, Bakul Desai







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Last modified on 19 Jan 2011.