The Joy Club member Sandra creates an unlikely alliance between man and beast in this touching short story.
Every day for twenty years or more, Uhmed had walked past the elephant on his way to work in the market, fetching and carrying for the traders. His special name for the gargantuan grey creature was Asha. It meant hope, though neither man nor beast had much of that.
In his younger years, Uhmed had trained as a carpenter, but an accident had robbed him of the means of earning a living. His meagre savings, and more, had been swallowed up in medical bills for his beautiful wife, Sandeep. By the time she died, Uhmed was deeply in debt to the local moneylender, Mr Hussain. He had been forced to work in the local market, labouring for the traders as Mr Hussain directed him. Uhmed was as much in bondage as Asha.
The day they met was etched into his memory. He had been walking to work trying to ignore the griping sensations in his stomach. Yesterday, he had earned barely enough to pay what Mr Hussain demanded from his debt, and there had been nothing left over for food. As he turned the corner into the market square, he heard angry shouts.
“Lazy, good for nothing animal,” yelled a short, stout man in his middle years, as his cane fell again and again on the elephant’s back. Angry streaks of red were beginning to appear. By the time Uhmed reached the railings to which she was chained, the man had stomped off angrily. The elephant’s head hung even lower than Uhmed’s and he instinctively reached out to comfort her.
She shrank away, eyes white and startled. He didn’t know why he was touched so deeply. She was, after all, just another elephant – a beast of burden. But he had been affected, and as he worked through the day in that dusty market, his mind kept drifting back to the hopelessness on the elephant’s face. He gave her the name Asha.
From that day on, whenever he passed Asha, he stopped and spoke gently to her. In time, she allowed him to stroke her cheek. It pained him to look into those gentle, honey-brown eyes which registered nothing but dull resignation. Over the years, an affinity grew between them.
“Life has not been kind, Asha,” he would say as he stopped at the railing to which the elephant was tied. Her legs were covered in scabs, where the chains had dug into the flesh and her torso caked in mud. She didn’t seem to notice the flies buzzing around the fresh wounds.
There was a time when Asha had been the star attraction in a traveling circus, performing tricks for the audience. She had learned how to balance on her front legs and gently lift members of the audience with her trunk. When her days in the ring were over, she was tasked with carrying visitors around the town. Often, as many as a dozen customers would ride on the seats attached to her back.
Party tricks and carrying passengers are not natural to animals, but she was well fed and – if she was beaten – it was not brutal enough to leave scars. Her appearance, after all, mattered to her earning potential. With the passing of the years, she was no longer as nimble. When she began to stumble, customers complained, and she was sold to Medi Begun.
That was when her life took a drastic turn for the worse. She was chained to railings until Medi rode her to the quarry. Heavy labour in the heat of the day began to take its toll and Medi was neither kind nor gentle.
Over time, she came to trust Uhmed. Every morning and every evening he would stop and speak softly to her. The man who walked with sadness in his step always treated her with respect. In time, she allowed her friend to stroke her cheek. He was derided by the other men, but Uhmed paid no heed. Their jibes were nothing in a life already marred by suffering.
At the end of the day, he would often bring Asha an apple that had rolled into the gutter or bread discarded by one of the kitchen maids, shopping for their employer’s evening meal. When he stopped by the elephant, her trunk would investigate his pockets for the treat. Sometimes, he had nothing to give her but then as their eyes met, there was an understanding, a fellow feeling.
It was five years since Uhmed had finally paid off his debt, but he continued with his work at the market. Perhaps he did not want to leave the only living being that showed him affection. Uhmed worried as he saw Asha becoming older, and in her harsh existence, less capable of the demanding labour at the quarry. He knew that when she was no longer useful to Medi, she would be sold to the slaughterhouse.
In quiet desperation, he began to put away a little of his pay every night, even if it left him short for his own needs. He worked well and some days picked up extra work. Little by little his savings grew. One day he asked Medi how much it would cost to buy her.
“More than you’ve ever had,” sneered Medi, and named a sum far beyond anything Uhmed could raise. He knew what he had secretly suspected, that his savings were woefully inadequate. Uhmed sank into despondency. He racked his brains to think of a way to raise the money to buy her and then take care of her.
Then, one day, he noticed a photographer in the market square, dressed in cargo trousers and a white open necked shirt. He was taking snaps of the various scenes around the market; the women’s colourful saris, the wide range of exotic fruits on sale, the chickens in cages waiting for a buyer. He even took one of Uhmed giving Asha her end of the day treat.
Uhmed thought no more about it until several weeks later, he was approached by another man who introduced himself as Paulo Rodriguez, the proprietor of an animal sanctuary some 200 miles into the interior. Paulo explained that he had seen the photograph of Uhmed and Asha in a popular magazine. As he spoke to Uhmed, he ran his fingers over Asha’s scars. Armed with all the knowledge Uhmed could share, Paulo went off to find Medi.
He returned within an hour with the news that he had bought Asha from Medi Begun. Uhmed was surprised that Medi had agreed until Paulo explained that he had offered a fair price along with the information that he knew the laws relating to the ill treatment of animals and, unlike the local authorities, he was prepared to have them enforced. If that happened, the price he was offering would drop substantially. Medi took the only decision open to him and grabbed the offer that was on the table.
“I want you to stay with the elephant until I return with a truck to transport her.” Paulo instructed Uhmed.
“Her name is Asha,” said Uhmed quietly, as he agreed to watch over her.
Uhmed was happy that Asha was going to be cared for but dejected that he would no longer see his old friend. Asha must have had similar thoughts because when Paulo reappeared with the truck, she refused to budge. They coaxed her and bribed her with treats, they pushed and shoved, but to no avail until Uhmed, speaking softly to her, took hold of her halter, and led her up the ramp into the back of the truck. Asha followed meekly. But whenever Uhmed tried to step down from the vehicle, Asha raised her trunk, trumpeted loudly and followed him.
“I have a job for you on the reserve, if you’re interested,” said a desperate Paulo. It was becoming clear that they were a team, Uhmed and the elephant.
Was he interested! A canopy was quickly erected on the back of the truck to shield them from the glaring sun. They picked up Uhmed’s few belongings on their way out of town.
As they traveled to their new home, bumping along together, Uhmed hugged Asha’s massive frame and looked into her eyes. He saw that huge tears were rolling down Asha’s cheeks in unison with his own.
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