Toomai of the Elephants

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Toomai of the Elephants. That is probably why, children’s books are not just meant for children but for all ages as well. One does not become an adult, by default, but by a forced consciousness and an escalating concern for comfort and survival. Perhaps only those adults who retain the age of childhood in themselves are the ones who both remain hopeful and realistic of the possibilities. For if the overriding concern is comfort and survival, what becomes of progress and indeed, closer at home, happiness For adults who do not have time for entertaining magical possibilities and only see the apparent realities of the world, as the story Toomai of the Elephants suggests, will not witness what Little Toomai had witnessed – the dance of the elephants. The mystical dance of the elephants that the little man character in the story saw is the central image as well as Kipling’s metaphor for freedom, loyalty and magic.

Innocence and childlike-faith leads to and is key to that remembrance “of what I was” as the first line of the opening verse of the story so fully and willfully announces. Apparently, the verse is spoken by the person of the elephant character in the story, Kala Nag, as evidenced by such lines as, “I will remember what I was, I am sick of rope and chain” – and “I will forget my ankle-ring and snap my picket stake,”. In a way, the story about Toomai, the young mahout (elephant driver) both explores the realities of adulthood and the eternal and magical possibilities of childhood. The story is very realistic in that its setting in colonial India, offers a rich background to the theme of the relation between freedom and innocence, of master and servant, of animals and men.

The story starts off with one of the two main characters – the elephant named Kala Nag – a faithful animal under the service of the Indian government and his recalling of his history, both personal (how he has come to value fearlessness because of what his mother taught him) and in the background of India’s history (e.g. “the Afghan War of 1842”. “had seen the Emperor Theodore lying dead in Magdala”). Then the story shifts to the only being whom he is not in fear of — his handler, Big Toomai, the father of Little Toomai, the other main character in the story. Little Toomai declares that of course Kala Nag is also afraid of him, being his future master. When Little Tomai gets introduced to Petersen Sahib, the head of elephant hunting in the locality by virtue of what Big Toomai calls foolishness, catching elephants on his own at a young age – the little elephant handler both gets an unlikely boost to his ego and a challenge that he will not become an elephant handler, unless he sees the elephants dance. To see dancing elephants apparently is a joke among elephant workers which means, that what you wish for will never happen.

The story takes on an a quick turn going to its climax when Kala Nag, serving as his soul guide, takes Little Toomai to witness what will make his dream come true of becoming an elephant handler. When Petersen Sahib and his company checks for evidence of Little Toomai’s tale of the dance of the elephants, they get the proof in the marks left in the jungle that could only be made by elephants congregating from different places to dance in a singular place in the forest.

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