When Elephants Become Stories by Vimla Sriram

An elephant is pressed into my palms as I prepare to leave home. I marvel at its neolithic shape – smooth and plump like a thumb-sized Botero sculpture. My fingers close around its pebbly roundness. I throw it up in the air like a ball. 

Stop bouncing the yaanai, it’s not a toy. Take it with you to Seattle, keep it in a show case. My mother grabs the tiny elephant from my hand, wraps it in her floral handkerchief and slips it into my suitcase.  

This was made for your great, great grandmother when an elephant died in their stable. The death of an elephant brings bad luck. A priest was called. You know what happens when a priest walks in the door, money walks out. He asked her to donate a golden elephant to the temple as a sort of penance. The jeweler made this elephant as a model on which to base the golden statue. We kept this one. The temple got the gold.

The story sinks and will be repeated until my son with eyes as round as gulabjamuns will ask, “Elephant as a pet?” In his world elephants exist only in pages or cages. But my mind is elsewhere. I am traveling continents to begin a new life with a man who made it easy to leave. I will question this move later. I will search for parrots in the pines later but now the mehendi is still moon-shaped in my hands, my saree is still crisply red rustling with a flourish around my ankles, and thaali, the thread around my neck is turmeric yellow.

To grow a new life I need seeds beginning with my great-great grandmother’s yaanai. I steal my father’s tobacco-raspy kaa kaa from Delhi’s skies that invited crows to their morning steamed rice on our parapet wall. I dust off from our apartment’s entrance, my mother’s kolam, the dots in rice flour that she connects into lines that she bends into shapes that ask of a visitor: Where’s the beginning? Where’s the end? My kolams are childlike. My hand doesn’t take off or land like my mother’s. The rice flour falls in clumps in some places but the ants still come, they still carry away crumbs of granules to the sliver between the doorway and the wall they call home.

Vimla Sriram is a Seattle-based writer shaped by Delhi. This means banyans and parrots will try to sneak into her essays even if, especially if, she tries to avoid them. She loves the Pacific Northwest for its gigantic Douglas Firs, leaning Madronas, and oat lattes. When not craning her neck for elusive woodpeckers or nuthatches, she can be found reading, writing, and making cauldrons of chai for her family and friends. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in 100 Word Story, Wanderlust, Stonecrop Journal, Little Patuxent Review, River Teeth Journal, Cagibi, Tahoma Review, and Gulf Stream Magazine

Elephant driving a car.
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