Raghuvar Prasad taught Mathematics. He was a good teacher. Usually he had his back to the students, speaking over his shoulder while writing rapidly on the board. Because it was Mathematics, the students listened to him in awe. He was ambidextrous. He’d begin writing with his left hand and switch to the right as he moved towards the middle of the blackboard. His handwriting was uniform, whether he used his left hand or right.
To allow his students to write down the questions, he’d step away from the blackboard. If the chalk broke off in his left hand, he’d use the chalk in his other hand to continue writing. The switch could not be detected. New students learned to tell the difference only when they became old students. The old students were used to it and they would forget to tell the new ones.
The department head discovered much later that Raghuvar Prasad could, indeed, write with both hands – even though he had seen him writing with his left hand and with his right.
When he saw Raghuvar Prasad writing with his left hand, he assumed that Raghuvar Prasad was in truth left-handed. When he saw Raghuvar Prasad writing with his right hand, he assumed Raghuvar Prasad was in truth right-handed. Soon enough he would forget what he had assumed to be the truth. In truth, Raghuvar Prasad had two right hands.
The following day, the elephant appeared again while Raghuvar Prasad stood waiting for a jitney. Raghuvar Prasad checked to make sure the palm trees were in their place. The eyes of the young sadhu seated on the elephant now had the softness of camaraderie, thanks to the previous day’s conversation. He did not know Raghuvar Prasad’s name. Had the sadhu known his name, this knowledge would have accompanied his glance.
Raghuvar Prasad felt the sadhu would not be offering him a ride today. It was inappropriate to be riding an elephant to college. Riding an elephant was like using an out-of- date coin. He could have got on the elephant yesterday if he had so wished. A jitney ride to college cost a rupee. An elephant ride must cost more. The elephant would have to cover a distance of eight kilometres.
Once upon a time, maharajas and princes rode on elephants. If royalty travelled by elephant now, they would be laughed at. A former maharaja might enter a crowded market to buy vegetables on an elephant – with no room for the elephant to turn. In the melee, the former maharaja might toss a cloth bag to a vegetable vendor: “Half a kilo of potatoes! A rupee’s worth of spinach! A hundred grams of garlic! Fifty paise worth of ginger root!”
The vegetable vendor would hold up the bag of vegetables towards the elephant’s trunk. The elephant would convey the bag over to the mahout.
The former maharaja would find out from the mahout what the vegetables cost and wrap the correct amount in a packet. The mahout would pass the money to the elephant, the elephant to the vegetable vendor. The elephant would play its part in this trade. All in all, an elephant may be fine for sightseeing but not for travelling to work. A horse would serve better.
As usual, the jitney was packed with village women and elderly men. An old man sat holding a long rod. Raghuvar Prasad dared to climb in only because there was no student among the passengers. The jitney driver asked his passengers to make space, but there was no space to be made. Simply adding space from an open field into the jitney was not a possibility. So Raghuvar Prasad squeezed in where there was no space for him.
Only when the jitney moved off did he discover he wouldn’t die of suffocation. And even if a student did see him squished between women and young girls, he would not think it scandalous. He would suppose Raghuvar Prasad got in first and the women piled in afterwards.
The elephant had left earlier, but it moved slowly and the jitney soon overtook it. Raghuvar Prasad was irritated by the prickly blanket the old man with the rod carried on his shoulder. Winter had passed, but the old man’s habit of carrying a blanket remained behind.
Raghuvar Prasad spoke to the department head. “It’s difficult to count on a jitney getting me here on time. If I am late, I have to mark myself absent for the morning.”
“Why don’t you buy a moped?”
“Where will I find the money?”
“Travel by bicycle.”
“I don’t like the idea. My father’s old bicycle never worked properly.”
“Once you start riding it, it will. A bicycle is the best solution.”
“That’s what I’ll have to do. When did you buy your moped?”
“Eight years ago.”
“Do you ever pass an elephant on your way here?”
“I have noticed one recently.”
“Does the elephant move aside when you blow the horn?”
“I don’t know whether it’s the elephant that responds to the horn or the mahout.”
“An elephant is intelligent; it should move aside of its own accord.”
“It probably moves to the side of the road when it sees a bus or a truck coming.”
“That makes sense.”
“Don’t you get scared when you drive your moped right by the elephant? I’d be.”
“I do. An elephant depends on its own intelligence as well as on the intelligence of the mahout. Problems arise only when there is a difference in the reading of the situation.”
“The elephant might be able to make up for the mahout’s mistake.”
“Yes. It can also be that the mahout is right, and the elephant makes the mistake.”
“I slow down while overtaking an elephant. I keep a safe distance in case the elephant should turn and swing its trunk.”
“Why is that?”
The department head smiled. “An elephant is so huge and its trunk so long.”
“Can an elephant overtake a bullock cart?”
“How would I know? I drive a moped. Ride an elephant or a bullock cart if you want to find out.”
“But what do you think?”
“I think an elephant can overtake a bullock cart.”
“I agree. And a bicycle?”
“A bicycle will overtake an elephant.”
“What if an elephant goes on foot?”
“What do you mean ‘on foot’? Do you expect it to ride a horse?”
“Sir, what I mean is a bicycle may not be able to overtake an elephant if it decides to walk very fast.”
“That’s true. It would be on foot when it runs. Have you seen buffaloes running? They are fast.”
“No, sir. Buffaloes don’t really run as fast as they seem to be running. It’s their largeness that makes it appear that they are running fast.”
“Will a buffalo fall behind in a race with an elephant?”
“Will a bicycle overtake an elephant?”
“Yes, the bicycle will.”
“Even a dog can overtake an elephant.”
“I wonder why maharajas and princes chose elephants.”
“To appear to be higher.”
“Is there an animal on which a person can sit higher still?”
“A camel is taller.”
“Taller than an elephant?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Things are used where they are available. Paddy can be grown here, so we eat rice. Wheat can be grown here as well, but elephants and camels don’t grow here.”
“Yes, sir,” Raghuvar Prasad said.
On the return trip, Raghuvar Prasad rode pillion on the department head’s moped. It was the department head who had offered him the ride. He had just filled air in his tyres.
“Is there enough air in the tyres?” Raghuvar Prasad asked. “Shall I get on?”
“Yes. The motor’s running and I’m waiting for you. If I didn’t give you a ride, you would buy yourself an elephant tomorrow.”
“Petrol isn’t cheap either.”
“This is an elephant driven by petrol.”
Raghuvar Prasad saw the elephant up ahead. He would have liked to say “The elephant, sir!”, but kept silent instead. The department head must have also seen the elephant, because he had slowed down. He wanted to give the elephant a wide berth. When Raghuvar Prasad turned back, he saw the sadhu on the elephant. The sadhu brought his palms together in greeting, “Ram, Ram! Brother, Ram! Ram!”
Raghuvar Prasad asked to be dropped off at his usual stop. The department head complied and continued on his way home.
In the days of the old, when the world moved at a slower pace, the elephant’s swaying gait could keep up.
The elephant was no longer in step with the world, but it ported a world of its own, into which Raghuvar Prasad was gradually gaining entrance.
Excerpted with permission from A Window Lived In The Wall, Vinod Kumar Shukla, translated from the Hindi by Satti Khanna, Eka.