Elephants

We’ve settled into a routine, she and I. Within ten minutes of walking in, early enough so that there’s still a chill in the thick Indian air, she grabs my hand, tugs my arm downwards, indicating she’s ready. I grab the lotion and I sit, ready to rub. I spend 20 minutes or so in an almost meditative silence, broken only by occasional smiles, massaging her leg and working toward her feet, dusty and grey skin changing, glistening, as its moisturized. I do this a good chunk of the morning, rubbing feet, arms, hands, and I can’t help but think that the lines and creases of their skin, if you look closely, resembles elephants.

Elephants are a prominent figure here in India and in a way, encapsulate the mentality of a country. Elephants are extremely sensitive creatures, with an often-unreal sense of emotional intelligence. If a baby is orphaned, the mother elephants take over its care as if it were their own. They travel as a group, only going as fast at the slowest member. They recognize each other, even after being separated for years and years and years, greeting each other with trunks entwined and joyful noises. They grieve and love and nurture each other in ways that are eerily human. And this sense of community, this sense that we all are vital parts of a larger body, is present everywhere in India.

Stray dogs are innumerable; you can’t walk more than a few feet without stepping over one. Yet, they are all well taken care of, mats put out on sidewalks for rest, bowls of rice placed at their feet. Because in the Hindi religion, God is in everything. He lives in the very least of us, even the dingy stray dog.

The woman at Mother Teresa’s live this same way, an elephant herd seeing the God in all. Every resident is disabled in their own way, whether it is physically or mentally, some pretty severely—missing speech or sight or limbs or minds—and yet the stronger takes care of the weaker. The elderly woman who is tied to the back of her wheelchair with a scarf so that she doesn’t collapse on herself is wheeled into the shade by a woman who was rendered speechless following a stroke, grunting and gesturing that’s she got it when I approach. They are gentle caretakers, protective of their herd, responding to needs that their failing, aging bodies now deny them the power to speak aloud.

Ganesh, a favorite Hindi god, is the overcomer of obstacles, which seems more than appropriate considering my journey here. His images are everywhere, in iconic sculptures and pictures and he is revered almost above all other gods, of which there are thousands. He, naturally, is represented with an elephant face.

And there are, of course, the memories. It is said an elephant never forgets and I am hoping I will have absorbed some of this in my short time here as well. Isn’t that all we have at the end of it anyway? The memories we’ve collected? The pictures we’ve taken in our mind’s eye? Of the love we’ve experienced, the friendships we’ve made, the places we’ve breathed in so hard that we hope somehow it’s become part of our lungs? The times that we saw the God in others and they recognized God in us, moments where creed or race or gender or birth or place played no defining role? I know that when I return home this incredible experience will live on through this beautiful elephant herd I have been privileged to join, the herds I’ve been privileged to witness, and the memories I will never forget.

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