| Naga Vydyanathan | April 2024 | Short Story |

Darkness descends suddenly, wiping out the last rays of the setting sun that had managed to peek through the cracks in the foliage. It is as if the forest goddess in an act of abrupt, inexplicable demureness, has draped herself in a veil of light purple. The warm air, now with a tinge of chillness, is filled with the harmonious cacophony of birds returning to their homes. The rhythmic ringing of crickets interspersed with frog croaks, both earnest in their mission of attracting mates, reminds Harishankar of the rare jugalbandi concert that his father had taken him to in the nearest big town. Hari smiles, inhaling the scene around him. This, is my home.

Even as a child, Hari had been most comfortable in the lap of nature. When other kids in his village were busy playing gillidanda, he would engage in long, solitary walks, often trailing into the surrounding forests. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he eventually opted to join the Indian Forest Service. In a career spanning more than a decade, Hari had toured, surveyed and nurtured forests all over India. The Dabbalikatte forest, his current posting, had been his home for the last three years. 

Hari surveys the lush vegetation around him, his eyes aglow with pride, like the tender gaze of a father on his child. He had painstakingly marked the trees that day – different types of markings based on whether a tree had to be felled, retained, or protected. He had marked the timber-yielding trees for felling, the healthy, fruit-bearing trees for retaining, and the diseased ones, for treatment. Amidst the trees, he had ensured that patches of natural growth and tracts of bamboo and canebrakes were preserved. His responsibility is not merely maintaining a forest inventory, but in some sense sculpting nature!

Calling it a day, Hari packs up all his tools – the tree marking paint, brushes, and the Biltmore stick. With practiced ease, he heads back to the forest office. A little way ahead, the sharp snap of a twig jolts him into alertness. With a ready hand on his tranquilizer dart gun, he swiftly surveys his surroundings, tension coiled in his muscles. Finally spotting the source of the sound, a sigh of relief escapes him – it’s just an approaching herd of elephants, marching back into the depths of the jungle. With deliberate and unhurried movements, he retreats into the underbrush to wait for them to pass.

The matriarch leads the way, regal in her gait, the herd following in tow. Contrary to what one might expect, they are deceptively quiet, walking on the tips of their toes. Baby elephants walk in the centre, keeping close to their mothers, often rubbing against them. The adults, protective and watchful, flank the babies.

Abruptly, Hari draws in a sharp breath. He had seen the journeys of many herds, not just of elephants, but nothing like the scene in front of him! Through the gaps in the curtain of elephant feet, he glimpses two pairs of thin legs that look like a human child’s. Craning his neck, he strains hard to see more. The child-legged creature behind the matriarch, slowly inches its way to her side, giving him a complete view. In appearance, it looks like a toddler walking on all fours – body and head swaying side to side in tandem with its steps, just like a -tiny elephant calf. With unkempt, long hair falling over the face, the toddler walks close to the matriarch, rubbing against her leg. The matriarch slows her pace. The toddler moves underneath the matriarch, making his way between her legs.

Hari’s heart skips a beat. It is a magical sight – the matriarch walking in careful, measured steps, morphing into an umbrella shielding the toddler against the elements. After a while, she bends down, reaching for the toddler with her trunk. Tenderly twining her trunk around the toddler’s body, she lifts and swings him gently from side to side. The toddler giggles. After a brief game, the matriarch places the toddler on her back. The toddler lies down, clasping her neck and the herd resumes its journey.

Even after the herd disappears into the distance, Hari remains motionless, lost in silent contemplation. As the initial wave of surprise ebbs, an old memory, once dismissed as a mere trick of the mind, resurfaces. A couple of years ago, during one of his forest ventures, Hari had caught a fleeting glimpse of an elephant swinging a baby on her trunk, partially concealed within a herd. Uncertain about the authenticity of what he had witnessed, he had eventually dismissed the memory, allowing it to fade into the recesses of his mind—until today.

Is this toddler the same baby from back then? A human raised by a herd of elephants, as one of their own? How did the child find its way into this herd? Several questions plague him. His mind is a tempest – a conflicting mix of relief, that the child has been safe until now, and guilt, for having dismissed what he once perceived as a mere trick of his mind. He sends a quick prayer of thanks to his favourite deity, Anjaneya.

As Hari looks on, his mind is already making plans for the child’s rescue. However, somewhere deep down he feels a pang of regret. He does not want to create a ripple in the ethereal sight before him.


In the village of Halekere in Sakleshpur, within the confines of a modest hut, Kuyili bustled about getting ready for another demanding day’s work at the nearby tea estate. Taking the extra-long pallu of her soft cotton saree, she fashioned a sling around her waist. She twisted and coiled a checked towel and used it to skilfully balance a large bamboo basket on her head. The basket, which had an open weave – a weaving pattern in which the warp threads left gaping holes, flapped against her back as she walked. The open weave made sure that there was enough air circulating to keep the plucked leaves dry and prevent them from fermenting.

Kanna, ready to go to work?” Kuyili teased her babbling nine-month-old, cradling him to her bosom. Gently easing him into her pallu-sling, she picked up her tiffin carrier packed with koottan soru, locked the door, and started walking briskly towards the estate. Kannan, cocooned in her pallu, swayed to and fro, in rhythm with her steps. The gentle oscillations, a mother’s warmth, and a full stomach were an irresistible combination and Kannan was soon dozing.

Reaching the estate, Kuyili took her position among the few hundred tea pluckers who looked like colourful robot-dolls scattered evenly on a carpet of green – the cracked, dyed fingers mechanically snapping the leaves and shoving them with precision into the baskets on their back. There were groups of pluckers engaged in different plucking techniques – the two-leaves-and-a-bud for premium export-grade tea, the efficient clutch-and-tear and whole-twig techniques for regular-grade tea and the single-bud technique for the expensive white tea. Whichever the technique, nimble and gentle fingers were a must, to ensure that the leaves were soft, fresh, aromatic, and flavourful.

Soon, it was late morning and the sun flashed unabashedly from its lofty pedestal. Beads of sweat formed on Kuyili’s forehead, trickling down to her brows. As Kannan fidgeted in his sleep, Kuyili could not help but worry whether he was uncomfortable due to the heat or the prickly tea bushes. She straightened her back, her face tightening into a grimace as a sharp pain shot up her lower spine, all the way to her shoulders and neck. Balancing the weight of the basket now loaded with leaves on one side and her sleeping Kannan on the other, was not easy.

Kuyili scanned her surroundings, wondering if she could put Kannan in a thooli somewhere.There were silver oak trees, precisely planted at measured distances for shade but they were all tall with no low-growing branches for hanging a cradle.Kuyili sighed.Looking further ahead, she spotted some mango and jackfruit trees at the edge of the estate.

Kuyili unrolled the towel from her head and fashioned a makeshift thooli on one of the sturdy lower branches of the mango tree. Placing Kannan gently within the folds of cloth, she stared at his still-sleeping serene face. After gently swinging the cradle for a bit, she trudged back to resume her work, her body relieved but her heart aching with guilt. But then, Kanna, you will be able to sleep better under the shade of the mango tree, caressed by the cool breeze, Kuyili tried convincing her heavy heart.


A pair of butterflies sat precariously on the edge of a blade of grass, flapping their vibrant wings, soaking in the sun. The baby elephant spotted them through the corner of her eyes. Lured by the colours and rapid movement, she immediately broke into a jog, her tail swishing from side to side, her ears flapping. Just as she neared them, the butterfly-duo, took flight. Aha! Keeping her eyes on the naughty pair, she increased her pace. There! They are now perched on that bush! Again, just as she was within a trunk’s reach from them, they vanished, only to be spotted a second later, up in the air. This cycle of ‘chase-and-vanish’ continued for a while, an endearing sight to any passer-by.

Occupied in her happy pursuit of the butterflies, the baby elephant realized only much later that she had strayed away from the rest of the herd. She looked all around trying to get her bearings, the thought of the butterflies now well out of her mind.Lonely and afraid, she wandered aimlessly, swaying side to side, her ears now flared and tail erect. She made low rumbling sounds in the hope that her mother was nearby and would hear her.

As she kept walking, her eyes darting all around, trying hard to keep her hopes high, she spotted something colourful hanging from the branch of a tree – something that swayed gently in the breeze. Curiosity getting the better of her, she approached it, wondering all the while if that vibrant object would also vanish like those butterflies. Wide-eyed with surprise that “the thing” did not vanish even when she went near it, she stretched out her trunk and gave it a small nudge. The colourful object moved a bit away from her and then came back quicker than before, accompanied by a sound. She gave another gentle nudge with her trunk. Again, it moved away and came back to her in all eagerness with the same sound! Well, this seems like a better game than chasing butterflies! she thought excitedly, momentarily forgetting that she was lost.


The thooli oscillated gently in the even breeze. Kannan woke up, fresh and cheerful. The quiet calm, decorated with the sweet chirps of birds singing to the rhythm of rustling leaves, gave an air of motherly comfort. He eyed the green canopy above his head with fascination. Suddenly, the thooli swayed a little bit more than usual, as if gently pushed to one side. Kannan giggled in glee. He was used to this. His mother often used to play with him by rocking the cradle and then hiding.

Kannan peeked through the cracks in the folds of cloth, still giggling, wondering if he could spot his mother’s outstretched arm. Instead, he saw a long, snaky arm, darker and different. The arm seemed to come out of a face with wide ears. Kannan had seen dogs, cows, and cats near his house, but had never seen a baby elephant before. However, being a baby, brimming with innocence and untouched by fear, Kannan did not care. He cooed in delight and kicked every time the thooli moved. This object with its long arm, that is playing peekaboo with me like my mother is fun!, he thought.


The matriarch of the herd opened her ears wide to either side of her head, holding them still. Do I hear a rumble? she mused. Focussing hard she took a few steps in different directions, pressing her feet, trying to place the source. Feeling the vibrations through the ground, she guided her herd, moving in slow but confident steps. After about a kilometre, she spotted her calf playing with a colourful object hanging from a tree. She stopped and quietly watched her child play.

The baby elephant turned back. Relief flooding through her, she bounded towards her mother. The herd ran to welcome their lost one. Going close to her baby, the matriarch locked her trunk tightly with hers, rubbing her face. They both stood still, savouring the sweet moment. After a while, the herd prepared to move back into the forest. Walking towards the tree, the matriarch slipped her trunk between the folds of cloth and whisked the cradle away from the branch. Gently swinging the cradle, she walked back into the forest, her precious little one by her side.


Kuyili dumped the tea leaves from her bamboo basket onto the tarp in the withering room, spreading it with her hands. The leaves would dry here overnight, sometimes even for a few days. She then hurried towards the mango tree at the edge of the estate.  Kannan will be hungry by now, maybe he is awake? she worried. Increasing her pace, she almost ran through the narrow aisle between the tea bushes.

Reaching the edge of the estate, Kuyili stared fixedly at the mango tree in the distance, baffled. Are my eyes failing me? She was unable to spot the cloth cradle. Or maybe it is another tree? She broke into a run, panic slowly creeping up her feet, through her spine, reaching her head, intensifying with every inch of its climb. “Kanna…,” she screamed, her voice consumed with terror. After running through the maze of trees for what seemed like an eternity, reality hit her. Crouching underneath the mango tree, she wailed her heart out – a wail so deep with guilt-laden anguish, a wail that would melt the hardest of hearts. She had lost her only son, her lone family, to what? whom? and how?


The cloth cradle swung like a pendulum with a floating fulcrum, sashaying in sync with the matriarch’s steps and gait. To Kannan, this was both calming and exciting at the same time, but only until he felt the first pangs of hunger. That was his cue. No different from other babies, he started to bawl his heart out, demanding his nourishment. Hearing the cry, the matriarch stopped. She placed the cradle gently under a tree on a cushion of fallen leaves. Pushing the folds of cloth away, she peered at the tiny creature inside, while the rest of the herd looked on.

Kannan stopped bawling, distracted by the sudden movement and the rustling of dried leaves and twigs underneath him, but, only for a minute, after which the bawling resumed at an amplified decibel. The baby elephant took a few steps towards Kannan and rubbed his tummy softly with her trunk. Kannan paused his crying again, albeit only briefly. Signalling to the rest of the herd to move a little away by a quick swing of her trunk, the matriarch slowly laid down next to Kannan, carefully positioning her forelegs near his head. Using her trunk, she pulled Kannan towards her teats. Call it survival instinct kicking in or the fact that an elephant’s breasts look quite like human breasts, Kannan somehow managed to latch on. As he hungrily guzzled, the matriarch gently caressed Kannan with her trunk, taking care not to disturb him in his focussed pursuit. The baby elephant cuddled closer to her mother, nudging her with her tiny trunk, vying for her attention.


“Jumbo hooters! Yes, that is what we will use to scare the herd away and rescue the child!” Hari cried out, snapping his thumb. He has convened a meeting of forest rangers to discuss the rescue operation. A murmur of assent ripples through the attendees – this would be a non-intrusive way, they nod.

Over the next few days, a small core team of rangers, painstakingly place jumbo hooters within a hundred-kilometre vicinity of where Hari had first spotted the herd. Jumbo hooters are solar-powered devices that have sensors, mostly cameras, to detect elephants and send a signal back to the nearest core team. The core team is therefore split and strategically placed close to each deployed jumbo hooter. The hooters also use a combination of light and loud sounds to scare elephants away.

Hari hopes that when the herd is scared and distracted by the jumbo hooters and retreats, the core team would be able to quickly lead the toddler to safety. It is not a bad plan, but will it work? he wonders.


The herd freezes at the sudden blaring of light and sound, their ears flaring, tails erect. Bobbing their heads and swaying, they take a few steps back and then turn around. Bzzzzzzzz…Hari and his team, who are hiding some distance away, play the sound of buzzing bees. Isn’t it ironic that the magnificent jumbo fears tiny bees and ants? The herd, now completely scared out of its wits, starts to retreat. By the time the matriarch decodes the mayhem around her, Hari manages to drag away the resisting toddler.


The toddler, walking on all fours, paces up and down the small, bare room. Like a terror-struck elephant, he bobs his head, sways his body in an uncontrolled manner and mouths a variety of sounds – mostly low-pitched purring noises punctuated with sudden bursts of shrill high-pitched shrieks. Encountering the walls of the room, he lifts his right hand and swaying it with force, bangs it against the obstacle, only to bellow in pain.

Gauri listens outside, her face contorted in anguish. She finds it unbearable to witness a small child locked up alone, but those were the strict orders of her husband, Hari. He had rescued the child from an elephant herd a few days back and had explained the need to keep the child under lock until he was comfortable amid humans. “We are searching the nearby villages for any mother who may have lost her baby. Please watch over him until then, Gauri”, he had earnestly requested of her.

Unlatching the door, she hurriedly places a plate filled with cucumber, bananas, and slightly cooked carrots on the floor, quickly bolts the room as she is instructed to, and lingers near the window, now and then peeking through the cracks in the curtain. Kutty Ganesan, whom she had secretly christened so after the elephant-God, continues pacing, ignoring the goodies. Every time he hits against the wall in his mad rush to safety, Gauri winces. Ganesa, calm down and eat something, her heart wishes fervently, though no sound escapes her lips.

Ganesan finally stops at a corner of the room – not out of calmness fuelled by resignation, but purely out of physical exertion and hunger. After some long moments of eyeing the food, he slowly ambles towards it. Swinging his right arm in front, while still bending forward on all threes, he picks the cucumber and swings it back into his open mouth. Next, he tries a banana, eating it complete with the peel in place. He ignores the carrots.

As soon as his tummy is satiated, the fear, the loneliness, and the distress – all come back, bigger than before. Ganesan screams, bellows, wails and rumbles – all the while swaying and bobbing his head. Finally, sleep casts its forceful shadow and he lies on his side, his limbs thrusted forward, his eyes fast shut.

Weeks pass, but Gauri sees no change in Ganesan’s demeanor. She had attempted to advance closer to him on a few occasions, only to witness Ganesan’s violent reaction each time. Finally, Gauri resigns to placing his food and then watching him silently through the window. Time is a healer. Maybe in a few more days, Ganesan will adjust to his new world better, and the memories of his life in the wild will fade. Maybe we will find his mother by then too, Gauri hopes, betting on the magic of time.


The matriarch trudges through the bushes, her head bobbing and swaying from side to side. Periodically, she emits deep rumbles, hoping to communicate with her lost one. Her daughter walks beside her, with the rest of the herd following behind. The air is solemnly silent. Reaching a clearing in the jungle, the matriarch stops and eyes the jungle cabin ahead of her. This is where she and the rest of the herd would wait, every single day – eager to be united with her lost one. A teardrop forms at the corner of her eye. Her daughter nudges closer to her, patting her comfortingly on the head with her trunk.

Hearing a rustle among the trees, Gauri, who is in the midst of her morning chores, looks up, very well knowing what she will see. It has been almost like a ritual every single day since Ganesan had been brought in. The elephant herd would come and stand at the periphery of the clearing, keenly watching the cabin with yearning eyes. And, every time Gauri’s heart would cringe on sighting the herd, especially the matriarch.

Today, looking at the matriarch’s doleful, and glistening eyes, Gauri wonders if she spotted tears. She peeks at Ganesan’s window. Her sad eyes fall on the thin, naked, sleeping form on the floor. Ganesan – still a recluse in the world of humans. An unfortunate child with no smile.  She starts to wonder if Ganesan’s destiny lies with the elephants. Her conscience, however does not make it easy for her. How can a small child endure the wilderness for long? To what extent can the elephants guarantee his safety in the unforgiving forest? What if we are able to find the mother of this child? At the same time, she is unable to watch Ganesan’s spirits dying with every passing day, yearning for the life he knew.


It is the wee hours of the morning, the sun still asleep, cozy in its blanket of dark, indigo clouds, studded with glistening stars, like a bridal veil. Gauri gets up from her bed that does not look slept in and tiptoes out. She walks to a room at the far end of the corridor and silently slides the latch back. Gazing fondly at the form lying on its side on the floor, she darts a quick glance at the window. Yes, the matriarch is still standing, though the rest of the herd has dispersed.

Picking up the sleeping form, Gauri dashes out of the room towards the forest as if she had wings on her feet. Halfway to the matriarch, Gauri breaks her flight, indecision weighing heavily on her mind and her feet. A frightening image flashes in her mind. An image of an anguished mother hanging on to her life on the slim thread of hope that her lost son would one day be found.


Naga Vydyanathan, a computer scientist in the past, is an aspiring writer. Being passionate about language and reading, it has always been a secret desire for Naga to be a writer one day. A thoughtful and deep thinker, Naga writes fiction, delving into the minds and thoughts of her characters.

Her pieces have appeared in Twist and Twain, Flash Fiction North, Literary Yard, Ink Pantry, Literary Stories and Spillwords. 


Homepage image by Syed Ali via Unsplash

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