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Short Story Contest 2020-21

You and Me

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“You or me?” What does the two-legged demon do when he arrives at that knot in the thicket?” Sheshnag said in an accurate imitation of Mama, gracefully weaving between the hollow bamboo branches. Unsurprising, since we were acquainted from the time, I was a calf and he, merely an egg in a clutch below the dense bamboo thickets my herd visited often.

“Always Me! The two-legged demon will say before killing you. So, you my gullible daughters, live by my rules or die!” He made comical sputtering noises. Failing to mimic Mama’s trumpet but eliciting a smile from me. A secret smile, lest I encouraged him further.

“Rule one. Feast on the tasteless leaves and peel your trunk away from luscious fruit bounties offered by the two-legged demon. Else I shall sever your trunk!” he mocked.  My secret smiles hardly mattered anymore. He had the best source of inspiration a few feet away from us- a human depositing my favourite spiky yellow fruit on the ground.

His features were obscured by a blue petal-thin material worn over his face. A ‘mask’ Sheshnag had told me- designed to protect him from a recent dangerous disease that only affected humans. Virus or was it circus? (I would have to ask Sheshnag again). But his eyes were all too familiar. Warm, brown eyes like sapodillas in spring. It was my human friend- Raghu!

“Rule two. Avoid all parts of our home where the two-legged demon’s brew the ‘crazy-water’. I shall sever any trunk tainted by the demon’s flavoursome drink! Rule three. I can’t recall it, but it’s definitely some rubbish that requires Herd-Mummy to think for you,” Sheshnag snorted, flickering his tongue all over the tender leaves that were meant to be my lunch.

“See what I have got you, Killikanni,” Raghu waved out to me. Killikanni- the one with the eyes of a bird. Black, sparkling and full of life.  Raghu’s term of endearment for me always made me flap my ears swiftly in joy. But today, I swayed my ears twice and quickly stopped. Fearing Mama was close. She was always close these days. Herding me like a wounded calf. Ever since I was expecting a calf. My very own kunju.

“Buh- bye Asha’s brain. Safe trails! There is no need for you since Herd-Mummy’s rules makes Asha a prisoner in a free forest. You might as well be a city elephant, chained in a temple. Repeat after me, Asha. Buh-bye brain…”

“Mama has these rules to keep me and my kunju safe,” I snapped. Sounding exactly as bitter as I felt. Sheshnag was right. How was I freer than elephants outside? They were bound to their mahouts and I was bound to Mama’s rules.

“Come on, Asha. Live a little. You lose nothing,” Sheshnag huffed.

“Killikanni, what’s wrong? Isn’t this your favourite?” Raghu knelt by the fruit. Waiting for me, patient as ever. Even from a distance I could smell him. Percolated rain, damp grass and bird’s breath on his dung-hued additional skins (Wasn’t a single hide hot enough?). Never overpowering Raghu’s signature scent-musky, floral and wonderfully woody like sandalwood trees I enjoyed rubbing my back against.

A scent I associated with comfort, from the first time he rescued me from an evil pit that sucked in my hind legs to the time he fended off a bad human who trapped me in a net to all the times he broke off branches of the crunchiest bamboo I couldn’t reach and brought piles of succulent fruit for me and my herd; never expecting anything in return.

I wasn’t as wise as Mama but Raghu’s behaviour was as far from a demon as could be. The same couldn’t be said about Raghu’s conceited draft-animal glowering at me from a distance. “Vehicle,” Sheshnag had explained to me; a man-made animal with a hide of metal- shiny earth- droppings that humans considered precious.  (Sheshnag liked gathering human trivia during his frequent travels to their world).

Raghu patted the ground beside the fruit. Twin black caterpillars above his eyes furrowing in confusion. Slowly, he sighed and walked over to his sulking green draft-animal and inspected a copse destroyed by a lustful bull, gazing hopefully at me every now and then.

I took a tentative step toward the yellow pool of spiky fruit, wishing I could let him place the broken slices in my trunk. Wishing I could revel in the thick, syrupy juice that soured Mama’s rules. Wishing I could tell Raghu that I yearned for the sweetness of the fruit as much as I yearned for the acknowledgement of our bond. But I stopped.

“I have to put my kunju before me. I need Mama now more than ever. So, no rule breaking. My herd will be here soon. They better not see me with you as well,” I blinked away tears as I stuffed the smallest, brightest green leaves in my mouth. Sheshnag was right again. The leaves lacked flavour.

“I see everything from up here,” Sheshnag hung down, hood hovering close to me. “Like you accepting fruit from that twig of a human everytime Herd-Mummy wasn’t looking. It’s a good she can’t climb trees like me,” he flicked his tongue out in jest. “Come on, Asha. Pregnant or not. Live a little. You lose nothing.” He wriggled closer, lowering his voice. “Besides, what if the virus gets him next. Do you want to say buh-bye to your brain and your twiggy friend on the same day?”

Sheshnag had a point. Yet again! What if the circus, I mean virus took Raghu away? I couldn’t part with him; knowing bitterness had seeped in place of all the sweetness I had filled his heart with. A fruit or two. Or just enough for the scent not to linger. A pat on my trunk if time would let me steal it. What Mama didn’t smell or see wouldn’t hurt herd-rules.

I spread out my ears and listened intently. No sign of my herd-mates.  I then swished my tail excitedly and ambled towards Raghu, holding out my trunk like I had many times before. “What took you so long, my Killikanni?” Raghu gently patted my trunk the way I liked- the feeling melting my heart like honey. He then placed a large spiky fruit in it.

I hastily popped the fruit into my mouth and felt it coat my tongue in an explosion of sweetness like no other- sweeter than the sweetest bamboo leaf, sweeter than the nectar-rich flowers and maybe even sweeter than our mutual affection. My trunk moved towards Raghu off its own accord and he fed me more fruit.

“My Killikanni is the gentlest elephant there is,” Raghu’s brown eyes twinkled happily. I prepared to experience another burst of sweetness when Mama’s roar thundered through the thicket, sending the bamboo trees clattering against each other in an eerie hollow noise that made me drop the fruit from my trunk.

“You dare violate herd- rules?” Mama demanded, her large form making the trees look like modest bushes.

“This is a misunderstanding. Isn’t that right, Vave” Chandra, my herd-mate said, curling her trunk nervously.

“Why can’t grand-mama make a rule that lets us enjoy juicy fruits?” Gaja, her calf enquired. Mama glared at him and Chandra hurriedly shushed the naïve calf.

“I know a herd-rule breaker when I see one!” Mama roared again.

Vave would never let a human near her. Let alone feed her. It’s the pregnancy hunger. Makes you do strange things for food. You only saw the fruit, right Vave?” Chandra nearly wrung her trunk into a knot.

“If no one wants the juicy fruits, can I let the human feed them to me instead?” Gaja enquired.

“We never accept food from the two legged- demons. Have you forgotten rule one already?” Mama smacked the poor calf callously, sending him tumbling to the ground. Chandra rushed to his aid, but Mama stopped her with a slap to her broad back.

“Do you want to be disciplined like a witless calf as well?” Mama threatened.  Chandra froze, her eyes widened in fear.

“Did the demon feed you?” Mama asked, ears flared out furiously, appearing nearly twice my size. Raghu sensing her rage, carefully backed away.

“Chandra’s right. My kunju must have been extremely hungry. I saw nothing else but the fruit,” I lied.

Raghu retreated to the safety of the green draft- animal. Like always, the moment he entered it, the draft-animal ceased moping and purred softly. Trampling grass and unfortunate beetles beneath its stinky round legs, it slowly pulled away.

“I named you Asha because you represented hope. For this herd. For our rules. For me. Right now, I don’t see hope in you. Only deceit,” Mama trumpeted angrily, but her tail moved ever so slightly, indicating that she was calming down. Until Sheshnag unceremoniously landed on her head.

“I will crush you, wily serpent before you harm my daughters!’ Mama whipped her head this way and another.

“Don’t get your trunk in a twist, Herd-Mummy,” Sheshnag held on, coiling his body into his famous mesmerising spiral.

“Sheshnag, please don’t’…”

“Asha’s friendships outside the herd calls for celebration, not chaos. I for instance, generously share my knowledge of the world with her without any cost. Asha now knows a virus from a citrus and a mask from a flask…”

“Sheshnag, enough, I beg you…”

“Can’t you see her friendship with the twiggy human isn’t so bad? It will ensure a continuous supply of food for your herd,” Sheshnag continued writhing in a hypnotising manner, ignoring my pleas. Too inspired by himself to stop. “Repeat after me, Herd-Mummy.  The only rule you shall follow from now. Live a little. You lose nothing.”

If things weren’t bad enough, the conceited draft-animal came to a sudden sputtering stop, right in the line of Mama’s sight, emitting a cloud of toxic black flatulence. Raghu desperately persuaded it to move but to no avail.

“Grand-mama’s third rule says that we can’t make friends outside our herd. But Asha is friends with a snake and a human,” Gaja said, slowly getting to his feet. “Asha’s rules are much better. Why can’t she be our herd-mama?”

Shaking her head violently from side to side, her ears flapping more noisily than the unnatural rattling of the disturbed thickets; Mama charged forwards. I braced myself for the attack and realised that her gaze was fixed on the green draft-animal and Raghu inside. She viewed him as the reason we violated her leadership.  A threat which had to eliminated.

Cold-blooded murder blights even the strongest friendships. I had to save Raghu from Mama! Without thinking about the safety of my kunju, I collided hard into Mama’s side. Although I was a much smaller elephant, the unexpected move sent her reeling to the ground and Sheshnag flying into the green canopy above with a startled hiss. In the distance, Raghu’s draft-animal wheezed loudly, having overcome its temper- tantrum and heralded him to safety.

“I’m sorry, Mama. But what you just did makes you worse than the two-legged demons you despise.”

Mama could have regained her composure and disciplined me, but she just lay there, as if she had been defeated. “You may have saved him from my wrath today, but when the time comes for your trusted demon to ask the question, you or me, it will always end in your death.”

“Why does it have to be you or me? Raghu has shown me it can be you and me.”

“Foolish girl! None of them are worthy of your hope!” Mama declared, as she stood up, towering over me.

“You shall accept whatever punishment Mama gives you and cross the wide, white-water river today. Isn’t that right, Vave?” Chandra pleaded; her trunk curled around Gaja in fear.

“There is no place for disobedience in my herd!” Mama roared.

“Fine, I shall leave. I can’t live with a herd that asks me to abandon hope in others they never bother to understand,” I stalked off, away from my herd, away from Mama’s protection; only with my clear conscience over saving my human friend willing to sustain me and my kunju.


By the time my fury dissipated, the sky had gobbled the sun for dinner like it did every night and spat out half a moon instead. I had walked far away from any path I had wandered before, far away from the wide, white-water river, arriving in a clearing. Dozens of large, blue cans were arranged in rows, filled with a murky, brown liquid that gave off a heady sweet-sour smell which made my tongue tingle excitedly.

The smell was everywhere- in the broad tree trunks, in the dense clusters of five-point leaves that blocked out all light, even settling on the rotting hide of two large, dead boars that were slumped on the ground before me. This was a crazy-water brewing site!

My stomach rumbled in hunger as I took weary steps back into the forest when I heard a familiar hiss above me. “I am no Herd-Mummy but I can tell you that I overheard hyenas conspiring to make a feast of you, if you head back.”  Sheshnag was entwined in between the fleshy green pods of a tree that bore no sweetness within.

“My herd isn’t supposed to be near ‘crazy -water’!”

“Says the elephant who just left her herd,” he chuckled. “Come on, Asha. Live a little. You lose nothing.Repeat after me…”

I should have focussed on the clues in my surroundings. Clues that everything was wrong here. Like the state of the boars’ bodies- hides unscathed except for their mouths which hung open, revealing charred flesh- a most unusual way to die. Like the chunks of rotten spiky fruit strewn around them, emanating a most un-fruity odour- reminiscent of the black, sticky sand that littered the forest floor after a fire.

Instead, I humoured Sheshnag. After all, my cobra friend always got things right, didn’t he?

“Let’s live a little,” I beamed at him, choosing to lose myself to the rapture of all things forbidden by Mama’s rules.


The crazy-water tasted of many known things – my favourite spiky fruit, saccharine flowers, and mildly pungent leaves. But it was dominated by a mysterious substance- something wonderfully tart that made all the other ingredients taste different and the same all at once.

After a while, the crazy-water tasted simpler- like happiness and freedom and adventure and all things marvellous that Mama’s herd-rules dampened. It must have tasted like luck too, because it wasn’t long before Sheshnag discovered stacks of my favourite spiky yellow fruit behind a row of broader blue cans.

“Pineapple! Humans name way too many fruits ending in apple. They are stupid like that,” Sheshnag laughed as I helped myself to the spiky fruit.

“Pineapple. I like that,” I slurred. “I shall name my kunju, Pineapple. You and me…. and …. the crazy-water cans… We can be our own little herd,” I giggled when I spotted a familiar green unfriendly face, poking out from between the shady trees. “It’s Raghu’s draft- animal!”


“It’s high time someone taught you modesty. I know I wouldn’t be arrogant if my hide was made of earth-droppings!” I chastised the hostile animal, lumbering towards it unsteadily.

“It’s that silly vehicle,” Sheshnag dismissed, careful to avoid my feet.

“Let’s tell it off together!” I urged Sheshnag. “You disloyal creature! You nearly cost Raghu his life today!” I pushed my head against it, leaving Sheshnag in splits. The draft animal shook unsteadily on its round legs, moping some more.

“Who’s there?” hollered several human male voices. Were they close or a little further away? The dizziness hampered my hearing.

“Watch, my Pineapple kunju,” I spoke to the calf blossoming in my belly. “And my fellow herd,” I addressed the blue cans. “How your herd-mother disciplines treacherous animals!” I then charged towards the draft-animal and slammed against it with my full weight, just like Mama did to unbalance us.

The draft-animal tipped over as easily as little Gaja.

The human voices grew louder, more incensed, evolving into hoarse screams and I assumed they were cheering for me.

“Take that!” I cried and hurled my body against it again, sending the draft-animal skidding awkwardly right into the rows of carefully arranged blue cans, knocking down my newly recruited herd-members. The crazy-water cascaded down into the earth for metals to relish while I discerned an ill-timed smile on the draft-animal’s upturned face.

“Shoo! Get away!” cried several frightened humans. Five. Maybe six of them? My eyes showed me different figures every-time I blinked. One of them looked like Raghu- lean, wearing additional dung-hued skins. My trunk moved through the malodorous miasma of fear, eliciting more harassed cries when I finally sucked in the familiar rich scent of sandalwood. It was indeed Raghu!

“Asha, get behind me and they won’t hurt you,” Sheshnag hissed urgently. “Humans believe they will be cursed if they kill my kind. They are stupid like that.”

“But Raghu is here!” I staggered towards him joyfully.

“Calm down, I know her. She won’t hurt us,” Raghu said in a steady voice, but his hands trembled, brown eyes flecked with uncertainty. The other men pointed at me while making agitated hand movements, blue masks dangling around their necks.

“The forest department won’t take kindly to one of their own involved in the arrack trade,” one man said softly, dark as the night with wicked red-rimmed eyes.

“Do you want to lose your job during this bloody pandemic? Do you want your children to starve?” yelled another.

“Worse still, you will be jailed!” bemoaned yet another man. “Us too!”

Pandemic. Arrack. Jail. I didn’t understand what any of those things meant. All I understood was that these men weren’t like Raghu. They seemed like demons. Even their voices sounded like unearthly crackles. A demon tongue.

“I’m scared, Raghu. Make them go away,” I bleated.

“The twiggy human isn’t your friend, Asha! Herd-Mummy wasn’t all wrong about humans.” Sheshnag declared, rearing up, deadly hood ready to strike.

The man, darker than shadows, deftly picked up Sheshnag, bit close to his head, making an ugly crunching noise and tossed him aside as if he were a diminutive earthworm. I heard a tortured hiss and then silence. Sheshnag couldn’t be hurt! He knew way too much about humans to be killed by them. The crazy-water was making me see things.

“Are you insane? Your family will have to endure the snake curse now,” Raghu shrieked.

The man cackled like a hyena. “If you don’t fix this, you will have to endure me.” He stepped closer, red-rimmed eyes burning like a ravenous forest fire and pressed something round and hard in Raghu’s hand.

“I…. I can’t,” Raghu voice was hollower than bamboo shoots during draught season.

“Your elephant pet or you. Who’s it going to be?” The demonic man smirked, sliding his mask back on. Chaos dancing in his sinister eyes.

“This is wrong… Killikanni is the gentlest elephant I know… I can’t,” Raghu choked as he cautiously approached me.

“Where is Sheshnag? Help me find him. Help us get away from these men, Raghu. I don’t like them. I can tell they want to hurt me and my kunju,” I pleaded, staying still.

Raghu pressed his hand against my trunk like he always did but this felt different- his touch wasn’t warm; I couldn’t soak the happiness through it. Instead, his hands were colder than a stone by a watering hole, a stench filling every pore in his hide- a stench of maggot- infested mangoes- the stench of guilt.

Raghu wordlessly prodded the object close to my trunk, sobs wracking his wiry body as he refused to look me in the eye. It had little protrusions on it and despite the crazy water playing with my senses, I swore I smelt pineapple.  There was something else in it too, something I had smelt just a while ago. But somehow, it didn’t matter. “Raghu gave me this pineapple. It must be helpful,” I reasoned, accepting the fruit and placing it in my mouth.

“I’m so sorry, Killikanni,” Raghu wailed, backing away to join the other men who had quietened down.

Why was Raghu so guilty? Why was he sad when this particular pineapple would fix everything? It would sharpen my senses. I would find Sheshnag. I would carry my kunju to safety and find sweet bamboo leaves and pulpy summer fruit and … BAM!

The fruit exploded in my mouth and an excruciating pain wiped out every last sweet memory I had. My tongue and the soft flesh inside my mouth burned. When I opened my mouth to breathe, the burning intensified, like air was the fodder it needed to spread everywhere.

“Water!” I cried, plunging my trunk to the ground and scooping up traces of crazy-water. The liquid no longer held all things marvellous. Instead, it seared through my injured flesh.

“Raghu, help!” I cried but he just stood there, sobbing into his hands.

“Help, somebody! Sheshnag, please. I’m burning!” I cried.

But nobody stirred. I circled in anguish, tripping over the bodies of the dead boars. And that’s when it struck me. The boars had been killed by a different kind of pineapple- one that made their mouths explode. And my trusted human friend I had left my Mama’s herd for; had rewarded me for saving his life by feeding me that same lethal fruit.


How many suns had the sky devoured? Three? Four? In my anguish, I couldn’t really tell. Feeding hurt. Even the tasteless leaves disturbed the wounds in my mouth. Resting hurt. The persistent burning prevented my heavy eyes from drawing shut. Moving hurt. Feeling like coercing a corpse to breathe again.

But most of all, Raghu’s betrayal hurt- prickling every bone like invasive iron nails, scorching through my senses like corrosive moonlight, making my blood roil in rage against me over and over again. Cold blooded murder indeed blights even the strongest friendships.

It was never Mama’s rules but my hope in humans that had cost me everything. I yearned to see Mama. Feel her gaze on me. Authoritative and yet sublime- conveying words of love that would never reach her trunk. And just like that, one morning, I found myself standing in the wide, white-water river I was meant to cross with my herd.

The cool water gushed generously into my mouth, soothing my blistered flesh. It then streamed in some more, making it hard for me to breathe but I didn’t care. I just wanted the pain gone.

I saw the outline of humans peering at me from the bridge. Pointing, jeering and shouting. Some with their masks, others without.It is the virus who should fear this demon circus. Not the other way around.

I envisioned a large elephant wading out towards me while a smaller elephant with her calf waited on the bank. In the moments that bled away from me, delirium was the sweetest fruit my regretful life offered.

“You were right, Mama. Humans were never worthy of my hope. Only our herd ever was.Forgive me, Mama,” I whispered, imagining my mother’s trunk caressing me. “There is no you and me with humans. Teach Gaja that.”

“We will raise him by herd- rules,my Asha” Mama’s words cooed in my ears. “You were always our hope and always will be.”

A sultry zephyr carried Chandra’s whispers of “Rest now, Vave” and Gaja’s uncontrolled sobs.

Everything slowed down. The force of the river. Time. My heart. As I passed into the darkness beyond. Taking my unborn kunju along. Maybe I would find Sheshnag here, too. Tell him that we lived a little only to lose everything.

A void of black opened up like a moonless sky. Where it didn’t matter whether you were you. Or I was me. For once we cross the threshold of life, we were just a collective us.

Namrata Dass

Taaliikaa is a Bangalore (India) based Hypnotherapist and Master NLP Practitioner with a penchant for unraveling animal personalities just as much as human ones. She has also undertaken a creative writing program with Anitas Attic (in partnership with Penguin Random House India) in 2017 and works as a freelance writer. When Taaliikaa isn’t chasing her literary pursuits, pet therapy with her dogs, Kuttumani and Chintumani, great conversation, delicious food, and long walks lifts her spirits.

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