Assamese elephant remembers Naga boy : Excerpt from Siddhartha Sharma's The Grasshopper's Run

Chapter 2, pp 32-35

"He had known Uti all his life, just as his father had known Uti’s and his grandfather knew Shilukaba. It was a friendship born of an equal love for the hills and respect for each other."

The Grasshopper’s Run
Siddhartha Sarma
Scholastic, 2009 (1st ed.)
`195, 196 pages
Across the meadows of Assam grows a type of grass that in appearance is like a reed, but is grass nevertheless. Very narrow-stemmed and ranging in height from six inches to a foot, it has on its head a bristle of tiny seeds. This is the bon seed, and its purpose is twofold. The first is to stick as tenaciously as it can, in its hundreds, to the clothes of anyone who walks through the meadows, and to take them off later is a lesson in patience and dexterity.

The other is to be chewed at the stem by boys in the late spring with much, or nothing, on their minds. Our boy, as he plucked the bon seeds from his socks and slid his bare feet through the pond water into the cool mud, had much on his mind.

His was a close extended family, with everyone at almost an equal social level, which makes getting along easier. He was on comfortable terms with cousins his age. His two brothers, being older, did not count. But Uti was different.
He had known Uti all his life, just as his father had known Uti’s and his grandfather knew Shilukaba. It had started when K.C. Rajkhowa, his grandfather, had first met the Naga at Amguri down the road from Jorhat towards the Naga Hills. It was a friendship born of an equal love for the hills and respect for each other, for Shilukaba was from an old family too, and a man held in immense respect in his tribe.

So the generations had grown closer as Shilukaba tried to give a sense of direction to his people and times changed. Gojen remembered Uti’s mother and the stories she used to tell when he visited them at Amguri, where the old man held a provisional court of sorts for his people together with the district magistrate of the area.

Uti’s mother had died shortly after his father, both from cholera, when the boys were nine. Rajkhowa’s mother had been like a mother to Uti afterwards, and Uti stayed at the plantation as much as his grandfather allowed.

A duck waddled across the pond and looked at Gojen but lost interest and went away, quacking duck questions.

The boy remembered Uti as he best remembered him: the small-boned light frame dancing around him, teasing. ‘Elephant-boy, hati lora, elephant-boy,’ he would sing, darting in and pinching his cheeks and daring him to chase. For the truth was, Gojen had been a very rotund little boy with cheeks that everyone loved pulling, and short stout legs that were not much use for running. Someone – Rajkhowa was sure it was his grandfather – had told Uti what his name meant. King of Elephants. And so hati was what he was called.
‘Uti aru hati,’ the Naga boy would say. Uti and his elephant, and the elephant chased the boy for much of his early childhood until he lost the baby fat but the only name Gojen could think up for his friend was ‘Owl-nose’.

They would walk through meadows like these, and hills like those beyond, and when they were ten, Gojen was asked by Shilukaba if he would like to go with Uti to the morung. This was the boys’ dormitory in every Naga village, a time of learning the oral traditions of their people, of learning the ways of the village and the forest, a rite of passage that was important to Uti and his grandfather, an inheritance not to be taken lightly.
So Rajkhowa had gone and stayed for six whole months, his grandfather approving, his father secretly envious because he had not been invited when he was little, and everyone else in the family aghast.

Gojen had gone to the morung a former elephant and returned something else, for there he found company, with boys his age and the elders. He learnt their stories and legends, the old way of life, the customs by which their people had lived for ages and more than anything else, the secrets of the forest. Here he found he adapted and learnt quicker than most the art of tracking, living off the land, hunting for food. Uti was better, of course, quicker, sharper, and more athletic, but the boys had come to a provisional truce and did not pull each other’s legs in front of the others.
They learnt how to spin tops or mezung; they built stilts to race each other; they even had bull-roarer whistles (though some whistles sounded more like frogs croaking). They sneaked up behind the elders’ backs and blew the huge hollow-log gongs in the village. These gongs were broadcast instruments of old and it had been great fun to make a noise and startle everyone in the middle of the day, for the noise the gongs made was simply tremendous.

At night they would lie under the stars on the platform built on stilts outside the morung, talking of this and that, and arguing about legends. Each had his fixed views on these matters. For Uti, everything that was told must have happened, otherwise why would anyone tell it? For Gojen, who knew much fiction from his grandfather, anything that was possible might have happened, but not everything anyone said was possible. For him the truth lay in the forest, in what he saw, felt or heard. Beyond that anything was not worth much considering.

Gojen came back from the morung and was sent straight to school, his grandmother having won a significant victory over her husband about the boy’s future. Generations of Rajkhowas had gone to Bengal, she had told him during one especially bloody skirmish, but her Gojen was going to be somebody and not come back and become a ‘moss-covered planter’, as she put it.
So the boy had gone, but he returned each year, and Uti and his elephant were together again, at the house, in the fields and meadows, pulling the most fearsome pranks and, in the forests and swamps, with other men of their families, learning about the world and discovering themselves. Gojen also went to the morung twice later, and sat in when Uti was introduced to the tribe elders as the person to lead them in all matters. And in the one element where Gojen was unmatched, Uti would look at him now and then, saying ‘Fat Boy, you might have something good in you after all.’

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