The P.M’s Hospitality

Toby Ninan retired from Delhi Zoo about two years back. With his varied experiences with the wild animals in the zoo, he is the right person to direct your queries to. Hear what Ninan has to say about his life and chosen career!

Elephants in India, since time immemorial, have been associated with V.I.P.s. In times of war they have been used as huge battering rams tearing down mighty gates of forts, crushing puny foot soldiers underfoot. They have been acting as unassailable vehicles for kings and princes who went to war in the comforting safety of these huge animals. In olden times doors of forts were embossed with big pointed brass nails to deter the elephants from pushing these down with their heads.

During peace they were decorated with richly coloured silk back coverings and golden head covers which we can see even in the present day temple processions of South India, and at times even in Republic Day Parades.

Elephants being huge, require a lot of food and also a lot of care to keep them in good health. They would need 600-700 kgs of green fodder or sugar canes (indeed a very sweet tooth) 10-15 kgs of chapathis or rice, 30-40 litres of drinking water as their basic diet. In a zoo they would also be given nearly a dozen bananas and 4-5 kgs of jaggery. The bananas or jaggery are regularly given to act as vehicles for medicines like, say, 10-5gm sulphamezathine tablets which are given when they fall sick. These treats are also kept to be given as rewards for a continuing training process. In times of extreme cold like winter season of Delhi, the elephant would also be given a bottle of rum in half bucket of water to keep them warm on a cold night.

Elephants also have to be given regular baths with a good scrubbing with coconut husks or pieces of granite stone. Nails on the feet have to be cut regularly to avoid in-growing.

All these and many more were part of my duties as curator of the zoo but it was not all work and no play. One could bask in the reflected glory when these animals were taken to add to the gaiety of functions such as parties given by V.I.Ps.

I was told one day that the then P.M Mrs Indira Gandhi was holding a part for the wives and children of the diplomats posted in Delhi and I was to take “RajLaxmi”, our gentlest female elephant with a couple of mahouts to give rides to the guests of this party at P.M’s house. Well, on the appointed day RajLaxmi was given an extra scrubbing and along with two mahouts dressed in well starched uniforms we reached the P.M’s residence. We were well received and proceeded to put the children and ladies on the ‘howdah’ tied on to the back of the elephant. They were given joy rides of about 100 yards each.

As we were immersed in this procedure- which, without the fixed concrete ladder, could sometimes be a little tricky but which everyone was enjoying hugely- Mrs Gandhi with a few ADCs came in upon us. We were really pleasantly surprised and more so when she called me aside and told me-“ These mahouts are simple people and when you and they have completed giving joyrides, you are all welcome to join in the party and you make sure that the mahouts get plenty to eat and drink. They are shy people and would not like to take advantage of the food kept on the tables”. “ I would not be around but you must take over my role and see that they get enough to eat and drink”.

Having said all this and thanking us for our pains in handling the joyrides, Madam went a few paces ahead and again called aside one of her A.D.Cs and told him(which I overheard) “See, I have told this man to join the party with his mahouts but as soon as the rides are over, he will take the elephants, mahouts and himself and quietly slip out without eating anything; so you must make sure that this will not happen. Please see that all of them are well taken care of”.

It all happened as Madam had predicted and when the rides were over we tried to slip out of the gardens onto the main road, when all of a sudden the A.D.C accosted me and requested me to join the party. I told him Madam is the P.M how is she going to know that we have not joined the party. But he said, “ If she has told me this it is quite possible that she may have told someone else to see that I am doing my job but if you want that I should lose my job, you can go”. Well, we had to go back and soon we were enjoying all the goodies of the party.

I even made friends with the magician who was entertaining the young guests. He turned out to be a good friend for a long time to come.

When all had been done and it was time to return home the mahouts were given a packet of sweets each for their families also!

Soon we were swinging on elephant back headed home after a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

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