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To Follow a Dusty Elephant

"Don't panic," Lucy said. "Your kid will turn up sooner or later."

But Raja was supposed to return from Mike's picnic at seven and it was already half past. Maybe Mike's mother had an automobile accident. Maybe Raja got lost in the woods, drowned in the creek, or locked up inside a discarded freezer.

But at least he could not be walking behind a dusty elephant--as I did when I was his age.

* * *

I stopped howling only when Granny promised to take me to the river. My brother Maniannan and my cousin Logu had already sneaked out to the river before I woke up.

When Father sent me and Maniannan with Granny to Vikramapuram for the summer, I anticipated a boring holiday. But the river near that textile mill town made it the most exciting place I had ever been to.

The last two days Maniannan and Logu took me to the river. They were big boys and they got to the middle of the river where the water came to their necks. I stayed near the bank, at the stone steps, where the water came to my chest. From time to time, I sat down so my head was under the water. I had learned to hold my breath without using my fingers. Yesterday Logu, who was older and taller than my brother, carried me to the middle of the river and seated me on a rock. I enjoyed dangling my feet in the water and splashing myself as I surveyed the people bathing and playing in the river from my isolated island.

* * *

But that day they had gone to the river without waiting for me to wake up. I did not know the way to the river and anyhow I was not allowed out in the streets by myself.

When I complained to Granny, she said she would take me. Granny went to the river after helping my aunt finish the morning cooking. She went to the place where only women and girls bathed. No men or boys, except little ones, went there. But Granny said that she would take me where Maniannan and Logu would be playing.

While Granny finished her chores in the kitchen, I was to stay in the verandah and be a good boy.

I was busy watching people go this way and that in the street when I heard the bell. That meant the elephant was coming.

The elephant belonged to the temple. Every day he came from the street by the side of my uncle's house and went through the street in front. I heard the shouts and laughter of the children who followed the elephant. Soon I saw the elephant as he lumbered around the corner.

He was a big black beast with legs that looked like pillars. That day, he looked like a red elephant because of the dust covering his hide. His thick trunk was swinging in the front and his thin tail was swishing in the back. A huge brass bell hung around his neck. The mahout, who took care of the elephant, sat on his back near the neck.

As the elephant went by the verandah, I could see his eyes. They were tiny for such a huge animal, especially compared to his ears. The eyes were smiling with mischief.

Two houses down from my uncle's, the elephant raised his trunk and grabbed a bunch of bananas growing on a tree behind the compound wall. The house owner saw this and started yelling. The mahout heard the yell, saw the elephants theft, and shouted something into his enormous ear. Then he pricked the elephant with a stick with a iron hook. But the elephant pretended nothing was happening, wrested the bananas, threw it into his enormous mouth, and kept on walking. The home owner continued to yell. The mahout said something about feeding an elephant being a religious virtue.

I ran to the kitchen to tell Granny about the elephant's mischief. But Granny was not there. I asked my aunt "Where's Granny?"

My aunt, stirring the rice in a big clay pot over the fire, did not even look up.

"I don't know."

I ran from one room to another, yelling for Granny. Only the baby and the maid were in the big room. I went to the back of the house. On the way, I saw the store room with its closed door. Granny was not by the well. I ran back to the kitchen and asked my aunt again.

She said, "I don't know and don't bother me."

I went back to the verandah, but Granny was not there. She was nowhere in the house.

Granny had also sneaked out to the river through the back way!

I looked at the street. I did not know what to do.

* * *

I remembered seeing the elephant in the river the day before. He was standing in the middle of the river with water coming up to the top of his legs. The mahout splashed water all over the elephant's body and scrubbed it with a brush of coconut husks. The elephant seemed to enjoy his bath. From time to time he sucked up some water with his trunk, raised it high over his head, and sprinkled his body.

The dusty elephant definitely needed a bath that day. He was going to the river and, if I followed him, I could go to the river too. If I hurried, I would catch up with Granny. Maybe I should pretend not to see her and go directly to Maniannan and Logu.

I decided to follow the dusty elephant.

I got into the street. I saw the elephant in the distance and ran after him. I joined the procession of children behind the elephant.

From time to time the elephant stopped to pick up in his trunk the bunches of banana, pieces of coconut, or packets of brown rice which people offered him. He threw everything into his mouth and kept on walking.

One of the boys tried to pinch the elephant's leg. The elephant whisked his tail, but it was too short to reach the boy. The other children yelled to the mahout about the boy's mischief. The mahout turned around and yelled at all of us, "You children, go back home!"

Nobody obeyed him, but I slowed down some distance behind the main group of children.

By that time I was worried about the elephant moving so slow that I might not be able to catch up with Granny.

Then I saw Granny at a distance. Just in time, as she was turning into a side street. I recognized her by the white sari she wore. All old women who did not have a husband wore a white sari.

I ran in front of the elephant, giving him plenty of room. I did not want to be trampled under one of his big feet. I turned into the side street, yelling for Granny. She did not hear me and turned into another street. I kept running and yelling, "Wait for me Granny, I'm coming too."

Only when I got close and was about to grab her hand, I realized it was not Granny. That lady was old and wore a white sari, but she was not granny.

I stopped by the side of the street trying to figure out what to do next. I could go back and find the elephant again.

Just then a lady from the house in front of me threw a bunch of banana leaves (which people ate out of) into a trash can in the street. A few pieces of uneaten food fell to the ground. Two dogs raced over; the big ugly dog got there first and grabbed a piece of iddly. He gobbled it up fast. When the smaller dog reached for a smaller piece, the big dog snapped at him and kept him away.

That was not fair.

I took a stone from the street and threw it at the big dog. It did not even get near him. I picked up another stone and moved nearer. The dog finished gulping down the food and growled at me. I became frightened and dropped the stone. The dog came nearer as if to smell my hand. I was sure he was going to bite my fingers off.

I turned around and ran. The dog chased me. The small dog joined in, yelping with delight. I ran fast and turned into a side street. The dogs were still chasing me. At the corner of the next street, a lady selling peanuts shouted a proverb at me: Dogs chase only those who run. I had heard that before, but I did not want to test the proverb at that moment.

When I turned into the next street, a big man saw me and the dogs. He picked up a stick and threw it at the dogs. The dogs stopped and growled at him. He yelled at the dogs, and they turned around and ran away.

The big man came toward me. "Little boy, are you lost? Where are you going?"

I realized who that man was. Granny had told me that if I ever went to the street without a grown-up, a policeman would arrest me and put me in jail. I laughed at her and said that I would run away fast whenever I saw a uniformed policeman in the distance so he could not catch me. But Logu said that some policemen did not wear a uniform and they were called CID. Maniannan added that the CID were specially trained to arrest small children who went to the street without a licence. I could only get my license when I became six.

I looked at the big man and said, "No, I am not lost. I am going to my uncle's house."

"Where is your uncle's house?"

"In that street," I said and ran to a street on the left. I did not look back until after a long time. The CID was not following me!

That street ended up in a road with lots of people and bullock carts going in one direction. I walked the other direction while sorting things out.

I kept walking for a long time. Houses by the side of the road became fewer. Then the houses were replaced by big banyan trees for a long stretch of the road. After some time, even the trees disappeared.

By that time, the sun was getting hot. The middle of the road was burning my feet because I did not have any sandals. I walked on the sparse grass by the side of the road. I felt very thirsty but told myself I could drink all I wanted when I reached the river.

But even after walking for a long time I did not see the river. I did not see anything I recognized as being on the way to the river.

* * *

Suddenly, I did not want to go to the river any more. I wanted to go home.

I saw something which made me happy. I saw the railway line crossing the road. I knew that the trains went to Vikramapuram, and my uncle's house was close by the railway station. If I stopped the train, then I could go to Vikramapuram.

I sat on the railway track. The engine driver would see me and stop the train. I would explain to the Ticket Inspector that my uncle would pay my fare when we reached the Vikramapuram station.

But I did not see any train after waiting for a long, long time. The steel rails were getting hot under my seat and I moved over to the wooden sleepers. I did not have a shirt on and the sun burned my back and shoulders. I remembered Granny telling me not to stay in the sun because I would get a fever and my body would turn black.

Perhaps the train would not come until night. Perhaps that day was a holiday for the train.

I was getting hot and hungry and I decided to walk back the way I came. But I had changed my position so many times and both sides of the road looked the same, I did not know which way I came.

* * *

As I walked on the road, I began worrying about what to say to my uncle. He was not strict like my Father and he did not punish children. I was sure he would be searching for me. Anytime then, my uncle would be coming on the road on his bike, looking for me.

But nobody was in sight as far as I could see in both directions. Only a few hawks flying high up in the sky without flapping their wings.

Suddenly I was frightened. What if this road led me to a forest with lions and tigers? What if I never found the way back home? I began to cry.

* * *

Then I saw a lorry in the distance. It was a red lorry, coming toward my direction. I could see two men seated in front, the driver and another man. As the lorry passed me, they looked at me curiously.

I turned around and looked at the lorry. It carried bricks in the back.

The lorry stopped suddenly. Then it started backing up toward me. It stopped again and the driver jumped out and came to me.

"Little boy, are you lost?"

I just cried louder. The man picked me up and took me to the lorry. He seated me near the other man who had a big mustache.

When the lorry started moving again, the man with the mustache asked, "What is your name? Where are you going?"

"Thiagarajan, sir. I am going to my uncle's house in Vikramapuram. Please take me there."

The man said, "That's where we are going. How did you get this far from your uncle's house?"

I did not answer.

After some time, the man asked me, "What's your uncle's name?"

I said "Mill Supervisor."

Both men laughed.

The driver asked me, "What is your address?"

I gave them our address in Madras. The two men laughed again and said I was very smart.

Then the man asked me what my uncle's house looked like. I said, "It's made of brick. It has a roof and white walls. The house has a kitchen and from the verandah you can see the elephant. "

The men laughed again. I could not understand what was funny.

Suddenly I realized who the men were. Logu had told me about people who kidnap small children and take them to North India. They bury the children in a hole in the ground and build brick houses on top. The children are buried to make goddess Kali happy. Then she would protect the house from flood and fire and other things. The bricks in the back of the lorry confirmed my fear. The men were laughing because they had kidnapped me so easily.

I should jump out of the lorry as soon as I can. But I was trapped between the driver and the man with the mustache.

* * *

The lorry arrived at the outskirts of a town and I could see many people on the road. I was happy the men were not taking me directly to North India.

The lorry stopped in front of a big red brick building.

"This is not my uncle's house" I said.

"This is the police station and we are going to leave you here. The police will take good care of you."

No, they would not. Logu told me that people in jails got only cold rice to eat and dirty water to drink--and only once a day.

The man with the mustache took me by hand inside the police station. I decided not to run away yet and wait for a better chance.

We went to the Inspector's office. The man sat me on a chair and talked respectfully to the Inspector.

"What have you got here?" the Inspector asked.

"We found him wandering in the Papanasam road. He is from this town."

He winked at the Inspector and continued, "His uncle's name is Mill Supervisor. He lives in a house with doors and windows."

The Inspector laughed and turned around to talk to a constable.

That was when I decided my time had arrived. I jumped from the chair and bolted to the door. I overturned a basket with crumpled paper. But I did not stop. I ran to the door.

Just as I was running out, I bumped into a man coming in. He grabbed me quickly and lifted me up. He held me so tight I could not escape. With great fear, I looked at his face.

It was my uncle!

* * *

Back home, Granny fed me lot of bananas and sweet rice. She explained she was in the store room changing her sari when she heard me calling for her. Uncle gave me orange crush. He explained how they searched for me for four hours. Finally, he went to the police station to ask for their help.

Later that day, I explained to Maniannan and Logu my adventures with the dusty elephant, ferocious dogs, the CID policeman, the brick lorry, and the helpful kidnappers.

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