An Eight Tonne Odyssey: My Elephant Dream

As daydreams and hankerings go, Matt Roper has a pretty big one - he’d like to live with and alongside his very own elephant and here’s why...

For some years now I’ve been entertaining a far-flung fantasy of my living as a mahout. Now for those of you who don’t know what the life of a mahout demands, such a person is somebody who lives alongside an elephant and tends to its daily needs. The word mahout is strictly an Indian one (from the Hindi: mahāvat, originally from the Sanskrit word mahamatra).

It wasn’t in India but in Thailand that I last came up close to an elephant. I was on one of the islands and found myself getting friendly with a guy who had discovered where the tourist elephants were kept during the night. Sometimes, he told me, he would trespass into the bit of land where they were tethered to the ground to feed them in secret. There was no waiting to be asked nor was there any negotiation. I was going along with him to meet them myself the next night.

And so it was that we set off after sundown on these terrible little scooters we’d rented, stopping off along the way at a roadside store to buy armfuls of sliced watermelon and bunches of bananas – as many as we could carry upon ourselves and on our bikes.

We arrived at a little patch down a jungle lane, switched the engines off and headed down a bit of dirt track on foot. Suddenly there they were before us, right in the spot of the torchlight: Three huge, looming creatures with their trunks swinging from side to side. We began to hand-feed them while my heart was in my mouth. There’s no more vulnerable a feeling than coming up close to a four tonne stranger in the middle of the night – even if you do mean well.

The elephant – the largest living land animal of them all – is simply an incredible creature. Such an awesome, powerful mammal and yet so trusting, so bright and so gentle. They can rip trees out of the ground with those trunks. Elephants can be so destructive when they want to be – yet for the most part they choose not to be. Unless, of course, they’ve had just about enough of being mistreated.

In the town of Varkala, Kerala, that beautiful pocket of southwest India, I didn’t see the elephant stampede but I saw the aftermath of the streets the next day. A couple of vehicles had been overturned and the road was full of sandals and shoes abandoned by people who had fled the scene. I imagine you have to be pretty terrified to run out of your own shoes. I saw folk who had bravely returned to the scene of the drama, pottering about in the hope of retrieving their lost footwear – like people returning to a war zone to search for the missing dead.

It’s hard not to smile to oneself at such a sight. Not because of the terror they must’ve felt but at the naivety of people – tourists and locals – who show up by the roadside to support temple parades which feature temperamental animals.

You can spot an abused elephant immediately – there are lesions and wounds on the lower part of the leg, near the area where the chains used to tether them have cut through the skin. If an elephant rocks from back to front repetitively, he or she is suffering from a psychological illness – a sure sign of living in bad conditions without good exercise or much-needed interaction with fellow elephants.

It happened in Kerala again just last month, wouldn’t you know it? In the last year no less than 20 elephants were killed there. Synonymous with the Hindu god of good fortune, Ganesha, and therefore, in turn, auspiciousness, temple elephants are dressed up at night, painted and be-jewelled, then paraded through the streets carrying religious deities to an audience of many thousands of spectators. Such parades are often accompanied by a display of heavy fireworks that cause an untold amount of stress to the animal. They’re also dehydrated from not given enough shade, water, proper food or time in which to rest during the daytime, where they’re shunted along in the unforgiving heat of the midday sun where the hot tar on the road is torture for the pads on their feet.

So yeah, I’m not surprised to hear that elephants lose their shit from time to time. Wouldn’t you?

But my fantasy of living as a traditional mahout and living alongside an elephant is, of course, just that: a delusion, a fantasy. Away from the moronic, selfie-taking smiles of the tourist trail of countries such as India and Thailand, the life of a traditional mahout is today mostly a thing of the past. At one time the elephant was drafted to help fight wars, then used as an instrument of heavy-lifting machinery for the logging industry. The mahout tradition was passed on from father to son, where the boy and the creature would form a bond from infancy onwards.

But still, I’m like a dog with a bone when it comes to my elephant dreams. If somebody can lovingly train a dog to companion status, why should I not do the same with an elephant?

Of course an elephant needs a human far less than a human needs an elephant. (Make what you will of that last sentence.)

What I’m getting at is I’m 40 years old now and an elephant lives to be at least 60. Tell me: what 40 year old elephant would want to start all over again with me?

Besides, what would we do together, aside from just keep moving? And where would I keep it?

But putting those practicalities to one side for now, I rather like the idea of striding slowly across the Williamsburg Bridge and into Manhattan on elephant-back.

But would an elephant laugh at my jokes, I wonder? Of course it would, in its own way.

Would an elephant curse me for stopping off at my local for a nightcap or two on the way home from work at night? Probably not.

Would an elephant roll its eyes if I stayed up until four in the morning, enjoying a lock-in at my local neighbourhood bar? I highly doubt it.

Somebody send me an elephant and I shall figure out the rest for myself.


Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.                      

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The mahout tradition was passed on from father to son, where the boy and the creature would form a bond from infancy onwards

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1 Comment

about 1 year ago

Sounds romantic but the reality can be far more brutal. Baby elephants are taken from their mother's and have their spirits crushed while they are small enough to be manhandled with chains and bull hooks. Adults spend most of thier non working time chained in mind munbingly unstimulating environments. The largest land mammal on earth is a sociable, intelligent, creature that deserves better.