Jemmy Ganapathy, from her home in Coorg, narrates a story to Rajan - The last of the ocean swimming elephants, living in the Andamans. Despite never having met, what is the connection these two share? This is a story that has its beginnings in the World War II.
Of all the stories we know, the ones that will stay with us till the very end are the tales that were told to us when we were children; told by fathers, grandmothers, uncles and others by the dying light of a candle, around a bonfire, under a starlit sky or sometimes inside the rattling compartment of a rickety rail coach that chugged along, into the night.
When Anandini Swaminathan was a little girl, her grandmother, Jemmy Ganapathy, narrated to her a fascinating tale that she never forgot – The story of the incredible swimming elephants of the Andamans. Dear reader, here is an invitation, to join Untold and Anandini, as we huddle around Jemmy Ganapathy at her home in Coorg, as she narrates the story just once more. This time, to a 66-year-old elephant named Rajan – the last of the ocean swimming elephants.
( Listen to the introduction or continue reading )
My Dear Rajan, most magnificent pachyderm, I cannot tell you the joys that bloom in my heart at the thought of you and your kind; The Andaman Elephants… such fond remembrances surge through my being every time I lay eyes on those old photographs. I have preserved them carefully, just as I have my precious memories from the sandy Port Blair shores.
I remember very well, the day I witnessed a majestic giant very much like yourself emerging from the ocean, swimming ashore from an anchored ship. Beside me, overcome with pride and anticipation was my dear father, Dr. Kandrathanda Ganapathy. I was a little girl then, watching the most incredible spectacle that became a memory etched in my mind forever.
Rajan, you are the last of the Andaman giants; the humble torchbearer of the most remarkable creatures to have roamed the islands. Now as you bask in the glorious evening light of your life, having retired from decades of service to the Island, I think the time is right, to tell you a story. One that is rooted so deep in our beginnings, it joins us in a rich bond, although we may have never met.
Sitting in my home now in Madikeri, I speak to you of fond memories from more than 60 years ago. I hope somehow, an eastward wind carries my words in its fold and whispers in your ears, where you are now, walking those wooded forests, swimming that blue, brilliant ocean.
Dear Rajan, gentle giant, the last of the ocean swimming elephants, this is the story of how you got here. This is the story of our fathers…
Although you have lived here for most of your life, your species did not originally inhabit the Island. Under the rule of the British Raj, Elephants were brought to the Andamans for the purpose of logging and moving timber. The person in charge of this operation was my father, Dr. Kandrathanda Ganapathy. In the early 40’s, my father obtained a degree in Veterinary Sciences with a specialization in elephants from the Madras Veterinary College. After service in Kodagu, he was posted to the Andaman Islands as the Chief Veterinary Officer.
He was in charge of the entire relocation process. From supervising the marching of the elephants from khedda in Mysore or Ranchi to their arrival in Port Blair, caring for them there and ultimately performing the autopsy in the unfortunate event of an elephant passing. He loved the animals so much that he often walked with them from Coorg to Mysore. From here, the elephants were taken to the Madras harbor where they were loaded onto the ship to be taken to the island.
For this five-day voyage from the mainland (either Madras or Kolkata) to Port Blair, much preparation was needed. The elephants were harnessed, lifted by cranes and safely loaded into the ship. Once anchored by the Port Blair shore these beautiful beasts were once again harnessed, lifted by cranes and carefully placed in the shallow water so they could swim up to the beach, guided cautiously by their mahout. As children, my siblings and I were allowed to accompany our father to the elephant camps and this was an amazing feat to witness.
It was no surprise to the people then, that my father studied elephants very closely and had come to love them immensely, like they were his own. Like Nazroo, your dearest companion and Mahout, shares the most faithful of bonds with you, my father shared a similar relationship with all his elephants. His name itself being derived from the elephant god, Ganesha, also revered as ‘Ganapathy’!
While in the Andamans, the elephants were trained to drag timber, my father supervised this process, making sure none of the animals were treated badly. Being the only vet with the authority to shoot an elephant with wayward tendencies, my father took great pride in never having to feel the wood of his gun even once during his service.
Then one day, in 1942, the gore and fury of the second world war found their way to our peaceful shores…
Soldiers from a foreign land set foot on the island; no more was the serene lashing of the waves heard. For thick leather boots stomped down on soft sand. Shiny, heavy guns glimmered in the light of the sun and orders were barked in a strange tongue – they were intent on wreaking havoc. The Andaman Islands were invaded. My father set the elephants free from the various camps before a hurried exit. This way, they would be able to live in forests and he fervently hoped that those gun-wielding men would not lay their hands on your elders for their precious tusks or engage them for purposes of war.
I was sent to mainland India with my mother, siblings and the rest of the women and children living in the Andamans. I remember the panic and fear around us like an unforgettable nightmare. I cannot imagine what these helpless beasts went through during the war. Even thinking of such gentle creatures having to defend themselves from guns and grenades was unfathomable!
To his enormous dismay, my father found that most of the elephants he had cared for dearly were either dead or badly injured on his return to Port Blair after the invaders retreated. Dutiful as always, the ‘Hathi doctor’ as he was known, he resumed his service in the islands immediately and lived there with the elephants until 1956, when he retired.
Dear Rajan, while I can be certain my father would have loved me to narrate to you this story, I myself find great joy in knowing that my dearest childhood memory will never be forgotten, being etched now, in the mind of an elephant – the one who never forgets.
Having told you this story, all I wish to say now dear Rajan, is that distant though we may be, you will always find me by the ocean – a little girl whose fondest memories lay anchored to the Port Blair shores, to the sea water lapping at your feet. My dear Hathi, Au revoir!
Anandini Swaminathan – Thank you for shining the light on a gem that is the story your grandmother told you once. Thank you very much for bringing this story to us.
Jemmy Ganapathy – For being the bearer of this incredible tale. For the bravest effort to ensure it does not fade away in time.
Jayalakshmi – For lending us the most earnest voice. A voice that reminds us of innocence and resolve.
Jody Macdonald – For being so encouraging and sharing with us an experience that moved you. For taking us there, beside Rajan.
Naveed Mulki – For turning the written word into images better than imagined. Most importantly, for giving Untold its most precious collaboration yet – that of your beloved mother, Jayalakshmi.