Chunee lived with Prahlad on a big, empty ground surrounded by apartment buildings somewhere in Jogeshwari East, Mumbai.
When Chunee came from her village many years ago, there had been empty grounds all around her, there were plenty of green fields and lots of cattle sheds.
The smell of the buffaloes, the clinking of the milk pails, and the milkmen in their yellowing white dhotis had reminded her of home.
But now, there were no green fields and the cattle sheds were wedged between concrete buildings so tall, that Chunee had to strain to see the tops of them.
The ground that she lived on seemed to have been forgotten for some reason, in the building frenzy.
Chunee did not miss her village all the time. But she did miss having a bath everyday. In the village, she could walk into the river any time she wanted, whenever she was feeling hot and dusty, she would splash around to her heart’s content. But here she was able to have a bath only once a week.
Prahlad had to fetch buckets of water from the well near the tea stall. The tea stall owner had become the unofficial owner of the well and even though Prahlad paid two rupees for every bucket of water he took, the self-proclaimed owner would stare disapprovingly at him whenever he took a bucket too many.
The little boy Gottya, who worked at the tea stall would help Prahlad lug the buckets to and fro while bathing times on Sunday mornings became a big event. Even twenty buckets of water could not give Chunee the pleasure she had had splashing in the river back home.
Every Sunday, after the bath, Prahlad would take Chunee to the South Indian temple in Matunga. It was a long walk, but they earned a lot of money on that day because the temple was crowded with devotees, and each one of them gave something to Prahlad and Chunee.
Chunee would be decked in all her finery and everyone would turn to look at her. She was so beautiful. Chunee would stare back with smiling, crinkled eyes.
Chunee loved to go to the temple. The lane outside smelt of flowers and incense; the women were dressed in brilliant colors and the children laughed happily at her. The roads were not too crowded on Sunday and it was a pleasant walk for Prahlad and Chunee.
On weekdays, Prahlad would eat his breakfast late at the tea stall. Chunee would wait till he was ready. Then they would start walking on their regular rounds, past the cattle sheds, crossing the busy highway, crossing the railway tracks to the more affluent western side of the suburb, Andheri, where there were many small South Indian eateries whose owners always had a little something to offer Prahlad and Chunee.
Chunee hated to cross the highway with its roaring trucks and cars that never seemed to stop.
Some days they met Mona and her keeper, Santosh. It did not happen too often, but some times, they would be called together for a wedding party or a film shoot. Mona lived far away in Mira Road and hence Chunee was happy whenever they did meet. Mona and Chunee could talk to each other all day.
Mona was Chunee’s daughter, born to her in the village many years ago. Chunee and Mona had come to the city together, but had been separated when they came here because they worked different rounds.
Chunee had another daughter, Hanno, who lived further away in Kurla, whom Chunee had never seen again after they came to the city.
One day, Chunee and Mona crossed each other near the crowded Andheri station. It was more than a year since they had seen each other. They were on opposite sides of the road, but oblivious to the traffic around them they stopped in the middle of the road and called out to each other.
The traffic policeman glared at Prahlad and Santosh, who goaded both the females to move ahead. The cars piled up around them, the drivers honking furiously. But Chunee and Mona did not hear the noises around them or even feel the prod of Prahlad’s and Santosh’s sticks. They just continued to stand still and look at each other.
Suddenly, a large red bus with an impatient, irate bus driver nudged Chunee on her back and moved forward. Chunee, shaken out of her stillness and hurt by the weight of the bus moved back a step. Across the road, Santosh too nudged Mona again, and she reluctantly but with a lingering glance at Chunee, moved away. Prahlad skillfully guided Chunee through the traffic, ignoring the abuse of the drivers around him. With great patience brought her back home.
That night, Prahlad lay awake hearing Chunee moan for Mona. Her eyes were shut, probably she was asleep after her long walk and the injury on her back must have been hurting, but Prahlad thought perhaps she was dreaming of her daughter Mona and the village to which she belonged.
Prahlad wondered if he should walk to Chunee’s side of the ground and stroke her, but he lay where he was, listening to her soft crying. Again he thought of their silent walk back home and felt a little proud that he had managed to bring her back without any further accidents, she had been so distressed that day.
After a few minutes, he picked up his thin mattress and sheet and walked up to her. He stroked her gently and murmured softly into her ear. Chunee moaned back.
Prahlad was a kind mahout. He had often told his owner, Khan-saab that Chunee, Mona and Hanno needed male mates but Khan-saab had stopped bringing elephants to Mumbai.
It was too expensive to transport them and too expensive to keep them. The three females he had brought years ago were still paying their keep, but it was certainly not worth its while to invest more money in animals, what with the new rules and regulations.
Anyway, where on earth would the elephants mate in Mumbai? There was no place big enough for that in the vicinity. Open grounds no longer existed, and they were lucky they still had place for the three elephants in the city.
Prahlad shrugged helplessly in the dark as he thought about Chunee and her daughters and their longing for their loved ones.
Then he thought of his own wife back home in the village and wondered if she too moaned for him like that in the dark. He laughed at himself and his fancies, as he remembered his silent Lalli going about her work at home and the fields, and sighing softly he turned to go to sleep.
When Chunee woke up the next day, she was still a little sad. Every time she met Mona, she was sad for days, missing Hanno and her village.
But today, Prahlad fetched buckets of water and gave her a bath even though it was not a Sunday. Chunee sprayed water on him with her trunk and tried to be cheerful for his sake.
Prahlad, soaking wet, laughed, and threw yet another mug of water at Chunee’s back. The little boy Gottya came running towards them with a fresh bucket of water, and sprayed by Chunee, he too laughed. It was definitely a sight to watch.