IS there an elephant in the room or not? If there is, is it rogue or sober? Is it steady or wavering? Is it satiated or on a binge? These are important questions because aside from the havoc they can cause, elephants consume a lot, whether in nominal or real terms, and these are days when many other denizens of the jungle are starving.
This is a difficult question because there are no elephants in the wild in our land and many are unfamiliar with what they are capable of. Most just carry a fond two-dimensional memory of the cute animal associated with the ‘hathi wali hay’ in the Grade-1 Urdu qaida which might not have survived the revolutionary Single National Curriculum that banished the lovely ‘fakhta’ perched on the letter ‘fay.’ Could the new ‘fayvourite’ be a coded reference to an elephant? They both share the same sombre shade of dust — ‘khaak mein kya sooraten hongi ke pinhaan ho gaeen’ (‘what all is there left buried in the dust’).
It is true there used to be a real elephant in the capital but it was toothless and so mistreated it could barely move; kind-hearted foreigners had to come to its rescue. All our dignitaries gathered to serenade and send him off to where elephants were loved and appreciated. After congratulating the nation on their magnanimity they must have thought that was the end of elephants in the land. Now only monkeys remain around the capital by day and owls in the dark perched on every branch servicing what is left of its gardens after their transformation into housing societies and golf courses. But these are not the Minervan birds of wisdom that grace the seals of many colleges abroad. Our owls are celebrated for other attributes.
Even a lion is no match for a predatory dingbat.
Confusion abounds. Some claim the monkeys, who are not even indigenous, and dishonest to boot, are ruling the roost while the elephants are asleep at the wheel. Others swear the owls are retired elephants. Yet others denigrate the elephant and contend the lion is the real king of the jungle. But there are no lions in the wild here either and it is easy to take a paper tiger for one. In any case, even the paper tiger has been caught by its toe and exiled for eating beyond its means to be replaced by docile look-alikes from the pack.
Adding to the cacophony are tender loving parakeets accompanied by colonies of screeching bats, blind but all-knowing or so they claim. Some of the latter pretend to be crickets but are really dingbats which are very unusual flying animals with short deer-like antlers on their heads with which they can trip up their adversaries. Even a lion is no match for a predatory dingbat that can swoop from above when the timing is right and light turns from neutral to green. Especially dangerous is a giant dingbat if it lands on the back of an invisible elephant; and more so when it is scorned.
So, given this state of affairs, what is to be made of the periodic claim that there is a really big elephant in the room? Is it nothing more than a figment of fevered imaginations after we have repeatedly been told on oath there are no elephants in the land or, if at all there are, they are benign and busy baking bread? The literary types try and educate us about the world of metaphors by pointing to Wikipedia where an elephant in the room is defined as “an important or enormous topic, question, or controversial issue that is obvious or that everyone knows about but no one mentions or wants to discuss because it makes at least some of them uncomfortable and is personally, socially, or politically embarrassing, controversial, inflammatory, or dangerous”.
Those few who believe this can raise their hands; no one will crush them underfoot to confirm their suspicion. But most deny any such metaphorical beast, attributing the allegation to a Western conspiracy. In recent days, a few do seem to lend an ear to the amusing ‘qissa’ of a dingbat sweeping in on the back of an invisible elephant that had first nabbed a lion, enjoying the ride on the same back for a while, before being dumped when it tried to scratch the elephant. But even these heretics are torn between denouncing the elephant and relying on its solid legs and sharp tusks to keep in check the wolves within and jackals without.
It is asserted, when all is said and done, that we badly need an elephant, real or metaphorical, and prayers are offered for its greater glory. At the same time, buckets of crocodile tears are shed to protest its innocence. Very few crocodiles are left in Manghopir but there are sanctuaries still where elephants can shed crocodile tears all night consoled by fawning monkeys, shifty owls, defanged lions, and blind bats.
The writer is the co-author of Thinking with Ghalib: Poetry for a New Generation, Folio Books 2021.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2022