It came from a documentary recce shoot on a mini-DV, Shanker and I in the city. How I wish I'd made a copy of that tape before I sent it off to the producer in the US. Regrets born out of disorganized living.
Malti lived with Raju on a big, empty ground surrounded by apartment buildings, somewhere in Jogeshwari East, Mumbai. When Malti had come from her village many years ago, there had been empty grounds all around her, green fields, and lots of cattle sheds. The smell of the buffaloes, the clinking of the milk pails, and the milkmen in their yellowing white dhotis had reminded her of home.
But now, there were no green fields, and the cattle sheds were wedged between concrete buildings so tall, that Malti had to strain to see the tops of them. The ground that she lived on seemed to have been forgotten for some reason, in the building frenzy.
Malti did not miss her village all the time. But she did miss having a bath everyday. In the village, she could walk into the river any time she wanted, whenever she was feeling hot and dusty, and splash around to her heart’s content. But here she was able to have a bath only once a week.
Raju had to fetch buckets of water from the well near the tea stall. The tea stall owner had become the unofficial owner of the well, and even though Raju paid two rupees for every bucket of water he took, the self-proclaimed owner stared disapprovingly at him whenever he took a bucket too many.
The little boy, Muttu who worked at the tea stall would help Raju lug the buckets to and fro, and bathing times on Sunday mornings became a big event. But even twenty buckets of water could not give Malti the pleasure she had had splashing in the river back home.
Every Sunday, after the bath, Raju would take Malti to the South Indian temple in Matunga. It was a long walk, but they earned a lot of money on that day, because the temple was crowded with devotees, and each one of them gave something to Raju and Malti. Malti would be decked in all her finery, and everyone would turn to look at her, she was so beautiful. Malti would stare back with smiling, crinkled eyes.
Malti loved to go to the temple. The lane outside smelt of flowers and incense; the women were dressed in brilliant colors and the children laughed happily at her. The roads were not too crowded on Sunday, and it was a pleasant walk for Raju and Malti.
On weekdays, Raju would eat his breakfast late, at the tea stall. Malti would wait till he was ready. Then they would start walking on their regular rounds. Past the cattle sheds, crossing the busy highway, crossing the railway tracks to the more affluent western side of the suburb, Andheri where there were many small South Indian eateries, whose owners always had a little something to offer Raju and Malti. Malti hated to cross the highway, with its roaring trucks and cars that never seemed to stop.
Some days they met Indu and her keeper, Mahesh. It did not happen too often, but some times, they would be called together for a wedding party or a film shoot. Indu lived far away in Mira Road, and Malti was happy whenever they did meet. Indu and Malti could talk to each other all day with their eyes.
Indu was Malti’s daughter, born to her in the village many years ago. Malti and Indu had come to the city together, but had been separated when they came here because they worked different rounds. Malti had another daughter, Anu who lived further away in Kurla, and whom Malti had never seen again after they came to the city.
One day, Malti and Indu crossed each other near the crowded Andheri station. It was more than a year since they had seen each other. They were on opposite sides of the road, but oblivious to the traffic around them, they stopped in the middle of the road, and called out to each other.
The traffic policeman glared at Raju and Mahesh, who goaded both the females to move ahead. The cars piled up around them, the drivers honking furiously. But Malti and Indu did not hear the noises around them, or even feel the prod of Raju’s and Mahesh’s sticks, but just continued to stand still and look at each other.
Suddenly, a large red bus with an impatient, irate bus driver nudged Malti on her back and moved forward. Malti, shaken out of her stillness, was hurt by the weight of the bus and moved back a step. Across the road, Mahesh too nudged Indu again, and she reluctantly, but with a lingering glance at Malti, moved away. Raju skillfully guided Malti through the traffic, ignoring the abuse of the drivers around him, and with great patience brought her back home.
That night, Raju lay awake, hearing Malti moan for Indu. Her eyes were shut, probably she was asleep after her long walk, and the injury on her back must be hurting, but Raju thought perhaps she was dreaming of her daughter, Indu and the village to which she belonged.
Raju wondered if he should walk to Malti’s side of the ground and stroke her, but he lay where he was, listening to her soft crying. Again he thought of their silent walk back home, and felt a little proud that he had managed to bring her back without any further accidents, she had been so distressed that day.
After a few minutes, he picked up his thin mattress and sheet, and walked up to her. He stroked her gently and murmured softly into her ear. Malti moaned back.
Raju was a kind mahout. He had often told his owner, Jha-saab that Malti, Indu and Anu needed male mates, but Jha-saab had stopped bringing elephants to Mumbai.
It was too expensive to transport them, too expensive to keep them. The three females he had brought years ago were still paying their keep, but it was certainly not worth its while to invest more money in animals, what with the new rules and regulations. Anyway, where on earth would the elephants mate in Mumbai? There was no place big enough for that in the vicinity. Open grounds no longer existed, and they were lucky they still had place for the three elephants in the city.
Raju shrugged helplessly in the dark as he thought about Malti and her daughters, and their longing for their loved ones. Then he thought of his own wife back home in the village, and wondered if she too moaned for him like that in the dark. He laughed at himself and his fancies, as he remembered his silent Sarita going about her work at home and the fields, and sighing softly he turned to go to sleep.
When Malti woke up the next day, she was still a little sad. Every time she met Indu, she was sad afterwards for days, missing Anu, missing her village. But today, Raju fetched buckets of water, and gave her a bath, even though it was not Sunday. Malti sprayed water on him with her trunk, and tried to be cheerful for his sake. Raju, soaking wet, laughed, and threw yet another mug of water at Malti’s back. The little boy, Muttu came running towards them with a fresh bucket of water, and sprayed by Malti, he too laughed.