Sunday, December 26, 2021

When Santa arrived on elephant-back

A few days ago, Aravinda Anantharaman, the prolific columnist who writes as Tea Nanny for Mint Lounge, messaged me about a Brazilian blog called Tea Friends which was looking for an Indian Christmas story. Aravinda had read and enjoyed An Elephant Kissed My Window and remembered Ravindran's Santa-on-the-elephant episode. She arranged to send it on to Elizeth, who duly translated and carried it as Quando Papai Noel Chegou Montado Em Um Elefante – “Efeitos Colaterais” – 

In case you don't understand Portuguese, here it is, excerpted from the book!

Collateral damage

Another close encounter with an elephant left its mark. It was a year when our children were still young and I decided that it would be a brilliant idea to arrive as Santa Claus for the children’s Christmas party riding on the back of an elephant. What a thrill it would be for them!

There were tame elephants working in a nearby timber camp, so we sent for an elephant from there, and it duly arrived, accompanied by its mahout and a helper, at the group manager’s bungalow where I was waiting with my friends. One of the prerequisites of Santa-hood is that one must be sufficiently inebriated to remain in high spirits through the ordeal of being strapped with pillows and helped into the costume, cap and beard. In fact, it is a documented tradition among the planters of South India that a bottle of rum is mandatory on such occasions and if it can possibly be emptied before the proceedings begin, so much the better. 

Santa sets out for the party

Dressed as Santa, clutching onto a sack full of gifts, I proceeded to the location near the club where the elephant was waiting. The mahout got the elephant to kneel, and I was pushed up to a position from where I could clamber on to its back and pull myself up into sitting position. One of them put a rope into my hands and, winding the other end of it around the elephant’s neck, motioned me to sit astride the elephant so that he could then tuck my feet too into the rope. He then patted the elephant on its back and it slowly lumbered up. I felt the earth moving beneath me. It was a strange wobbly feeling as, with all four legs of the elephant in motion, everything under me seemed to be shaking! And – why had nobody ever told me before how sharp the bristles on an elephant’s back were? I was being jiggled up and down, dodging the sharp tickles the bristles were generously brushing my privates with, and the tail end of my vertebra was grinding painfully against the elephant’s backbone.

Impervious to my suffering, the elephant marched resolutely on, barely clearing the low-hanging branches of the coniferous trees along the narrow road. My heavy Santa padding prevented me from bending to avoid overhead branches and I began slipping down the side of the elephant. The mahouts appeared not to realise that something was wrong, merely stopping at intervals to prop me back upright. When Santa finally arrived at the club after the ride of a lifetime, he was hanging for dear life onto the stomach of the pachyderm. The waiting crowd at the club were roaring with laughter and the mahouts had a tough time rescuing Santa, by now practically comatose in his agony.

The children’s Christmas party at the Anamallai Club, 1985.
Santa, having survived the ordeal, is seen collapsed against the wall by the tree.

In later years when I climbed on the back of an elephant on safaris in Kenya and Kaziranga, it was always to ride on a bench placed there, and I would remember the foolhardy glory of my younger days when I rode bareback on an elephant and lived to tell the tale!

Excerpted from An Elephant Kissed My Window by M. Ravindran and Saaz Aggarwal