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Three Elephants

Updated: Jun 7

Earl Fowler

Actually he was not used to writing by hand. Apart from very short notes, it was usual to dictate everything into the speak-write, which was of course impossible for his present purpose. He dipped the pen into the ink and then faltered for just a second. A tremor had gone through his bowels. To mark the paper was a decisive act. In small clumsy letters he wrote …

— George Orwell, 1984

Three elephants. Three stories. Three metaphors.

In the first story, Eric Arthur Blair — whom the world would soon come to know under his pen name, George Orwell — has returned to the land of his birth to become an Imperial policeman back when Burma was still part of India, in the dying embers of the British Raj.

Orwell was born into what he described as a “lower-upper-middle class” family in 1903 in Moltihari, a city in what is now the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

His great-grandfather had been a wealthy slave-owning country gentleman and owner of two plantations in Jamaica. His father worked as a “sub-deputy opium agent” in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service, which oversaw production and storage of opium for sale to China, which is today the primary source of precursor chemicals being synthesized as fentanyl even as you read this by Mexican drug cartels for shipment to Canada and the U.S.

Das Kapitalism. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. What goes around …

When Orwell was one and his elder sister five, their mom took the kids back to England for a proper education. Though he was accepted as a King’s Scholar at Eton, Orwell neglected his studies while indulging in, among other things, Kiplingesque romantic notions about the glories of the Raj and the land of his birth. Which is what led to his eye-opening career in the Imperial Police, precursor to the Indian Police Service.

In 1922, Orwell’s maternal grandmother was still living in Moulmein, now spelled as Malamyine, the fourth largest city in Burma, or Myanmar if you prefer. Within a couple of years, as a sub-divisional officer, he was responsible for the security of 200,000 people. Imagine that.

After contracting dengue fever and deciding to become a writer, Orwell ended his five-and-a-half-year career as a copper in 1928. His 1934 novel Burmese Days and two searing essays, 1931’s “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), are based on his experiences enforcing the long arm of the law. And it’s the last of these that brings us to our first story.

First story

The narrator in “Shooting an Elephant”, a police officer based in Moulmein at a time of intense anti-British sentiment, receives a call about a normally tame elephant that has suddenly gone on a rampage. Riding a pony and armed with only a .44 calibre Winchester rifle, our hero arrives in the poorest quarter of the town.

Upon hearing conflicting reports and feeling frustrated at being the target of jeering and baiting by residents who resent being ruled by foreigners (fun fact: Star Trek’s revolting alien race of Ferengi stems from the Persian term “ferenghi”, or foreigners, widely used throughout Asia to designate Europeans), the officer figures he is the victim of a hoax.

He is on the point of going home when he spots a village woman chasing naked children from the corpse of a trampled man, “a black Dravidian coolie.” Pausing for Afternoon Tea, I’ll let Wikipedia take it from here:

He (the policeman) sends an order to bring an elephant rifle and, followed by a group of roughly a few thousand people, heads toward the paddy field in which the elephant has rested in its tracks.

Although he does not want to kill the elephant since it now seems peaceful, the narrator feels pressured by the demand of the crowd for the act to be carried out. After inquiring as to the elephant’s behaviour and delaying for some time, he shoots the elephant several times and wounds it but is unable to kill it. The narrator then leaves the beast since he is unable to be in its presence as it continues to suffer. He later learns that it was stripped, nearly to the bone, within hours. His elderly colleagues agree that killing the elephant was the best thing to do, but the younger ones believe that it was worth more than the Indian whom it killed. The narrator then wonders if they will ever understand that he shot it "solely to avoid looking a fool.”

It’s unclear whether Orwell himself ever shot an elephant, notwithstanding second wife Sonia Brownell’s brash confidence that the story in the essay is an accurate account of what actually went down: “Of course he shot a fucking elephant,” she told a biographer. “He said he did. Why do you always doubt his word?”

In fact, as Bernard Crick establishes in 1980’s George Orwell: A Life, there is no official record of the incident and no independent account, an oddity given that elephants used in the timber industry were valuable assets.  There is, however, a report in a 1926 edition of the Rangoon Gazette of another officer shooting an elephant in similar circumstances.

It’s the metaphor, not the facts of the case, that matter here. Having witnessed “the dirty work of the empire at close quarters,” Orwell and the policeman in his story sympathized with oppressed Burmese while also feeling conflicted about the understandable hostility he faced:

All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible. With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts. Feelings like these are the normal by-products of imperialism; ask any Anglo-Indian official, if you can catch him off duty.

The point of “Shooting an Elephant,” of course, is to cast the elephant as the British Empire itself, whose demise is hastened by officials like the policeman fulfilling distasteful duties in accordance with the expectations of a subjugated people. “When the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys,” Orwell wrote, turning the death of the elephant into a metaphor for colonialism that remains as on point today as it was almost a century ago.

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

One might think that the end of the British Raj was best symbolized by those famous back-to-back ceremonies in August of 1947 in Karachi and New Delhi, with Viceroy Louis Mountbatten attending to recognize the creation of the newly independent Dominion of Pakistan and the Dominion of India.

But more than a decade before, Orwell — whose narrator observes early on that “I did not even know that the British Empire is dying” — had evocatively captured the end with this description:

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick — one never does when a shot goes home — but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time — it might have been five seconds, I dare say — he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

One final trumpet and out.

Second story

George Orwell was eight and living in England when Lawrence Durrell was born in India (in his case, the Punjabi city of Jalandhar) to British colonial parents. The eldest son in a remarkable family — naturalist/writer/TV presenter Gerald Durrell was his brother and one of his sisters was the writer Margaret Durrell — Lawrence was sent to England for his schooling at age 11. His writing, however, was forever imbued with his Indian childhood.

This is most evident in his first, partly autobiographical novel, 1935’s Pied Piper of Lovers, about an Anglo-Indian caught in a conflict between the two cultures. The story I’ll highlight here, though, is “From the Elephant’s Back.” It was published in 1982, eight years before Durrell’s death.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An elephant is shot after going mad and attacking a village. This time the shooter is the uncle of the boy around whom the story is centred, an avatar of Durrell’s childhood self. Here we go:

One of the shot elephants had left a small child behind, and this was to become my playmate during my stay. It was called Sadu. It was an apprentice elephant learning its duties with a couple of trained grown-up females. But as yet it was not very big or strong; so it took me to practise upon. It had learned to say salaam, to pick up money from the ground, and was now learning how to hoist a man on to its back. A grown man would have been too heavy, so Sadu was told to practise with me. This he did with pleasure. They hold out their trunk curled up at the end like a human hand; you put your foot into it and presto you are raised in the air, and placed securely on the animal’s back, between those two fantastic ears, the signs of supernormal spirituality, they say. They have a singular floating walk, a little humorous, like a drunken Irishman. … But the proverb says that whoever sees the world from the back of an elephant learns the secrets of the jungle and becomes a seer. I had to be content to become a poet.

Leaving aside the drunken Irishman trope (Durrell’s claims to Irish ancestry were dubious, according to Vancouver English prof James Gifford in his introduction to the 2015 collection of Durrell essays and travel writings he collected in a book he also titled From the Elephant’s Back), the essence of this story is the proverb itself. Rather than representing a sclerotic, dying empire based on injustice and exploitation, the young elephant incarnates creativity, the artistic impulse, knowledge, wisdom and the divine.

Which brings us to our third tale, a parable, the deepest and best of all.

Third story

You’ve heard this before but possibly forgotten it. You can find a version in the Buddhist text Tittha Sutta, dating from about 500 BC. It shows up later in various Jain and Hindu writings from the 1st millennium AD. Later, it entered Sufi and Bahá’í lore. It migrated to Europe and you likely know it best from a 19th-century poem by American John Godfrey Saxe. His version goes like this:


It was six men of Indostan

to learning much inclined

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant

And, happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

"God bless me!  — but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried "Ho! What have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ’tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal.

And, happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands.

Thus boldly up and spake: —

"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant

Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,

And felt about the knee;

"What most this wondrous beast is like.

Is mighty plain," quoth he;

"'Tis clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,

Said, "E'en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant

Is very like a rope!"

And so the men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long.

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong!

Saxe, who went from rollicking poet, newspaper editor, Vermont gubernatorial candidate and sought-after speaker to a depressed, grieving recluse after suffering a staggering series of personal tragedies before his death at 71 in 1887, even provided a palpable moral for anyone too thick to grasp the message:

So, oft in theologic wars

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

I was reminded of that moral today while reading of the salutary slap in the face just administered by the savvy Indian electorate to vainglorious Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose cynical campaign to turn the “world’s biggest democracy” into a Hindu kleptocracy — with members of every other religion treated as second-class citizens and the country’s 220 million Muslims in particular disdained as “infiltrators” — has been blunted if not derailed.

Religious tolerance — the recognition that disputants in theologic wars often rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean, prating about a sacred domain none of them can fully comprehend — had been perhaps India’s greatest achievement since the horrific violence associated with the partition of the jewel in the empire’s crown into the Hindu-majority country of India and Muslim-majority land of Pakistan.

Revulsion at the contemptible attempt by Modi and his right-wing cronies to transform the loving god Ram into a bloodthirsty, bow-and-arrow wielding, Hindu fascist Islamophobe with six-pack abs — which reached its culmination this year when the PM consecrated a great temple to the god on the spot where Hindu radicals had demolished a centuries-old mosque — helped fuel a backlash that cost Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a significant number of parliamentary seats.

The BJP, at least according to the latest results I’ve seen, won 240 seats — short of the 272 needed to form the government on its own. The National Democratic Alliance, of which the BJP is the senior member, did however secure a majority in the 543-seat lower house (Lok Sabha or House of the People), enabling an chastened Modi to retain power in the world’s most populous nation.

Enervated or not, however, it would be a grave mistake to think that the attacks against minorities that have become ever more brazen under the Modi regime will end. They might even ramp up if the electoral rebuke is interpreted as meaning that the hardliners need to step up their game.

Scores of Muslims have been lynched by Hindu mobs over allegations of eating beef or smuggling cows, an animal considered holy to Hindus. Muslim businesses have been boycotted, their homes and businesses have been bulldozed and places of worship set on fire. Open calls have been made for their genocide.

Modi’s BJP has referred to Muslims as infiltrators and cast them as illegal migrants who crossed into India from Bangladesh and Pakistan. Several states run by the party have made laws that restrict interfaith marriage, citing the myth of “love jihad,” a risible conspiracy theory used by Hindu hard-line groups to accuse Muslim men of converting Hindu women by marriage.

Of course, it’s not only Muslims who have been the victims of these Hindu absolutist fanatics, this bottomless well of willing dupes who think they’re somehow serving God by doing evil.

Hundreds of Christian churches have been ransacked and burned by Hindu mobs. In the northeastern state of Manipur, thousands (mostly of the Christian Kuki minority) are dead and tens of thousands have been displaced by armed conflict between two tribes (Hindu and Christian) that the national government is allowing to unfold in a classic case of ethnic cleansing.

Videos in which Hindu leaders urge willing, easily manipulated vigilante followers (the sort that Orwell referred to in his great novel 1984 as “goodthinkful”) to boycott non-Hindu businesses and shun all members of other religions, are all over social media.

In a land where the swastika once symbolized divinity and spirituality (even after it was appropriated and twisted into a symbol of antisemitism, white supremacy and pure degeneracy by German Nazis), village people now swear allegiance to Hindu fascist values with a salute straight out of Imperial Rome or Hitler’s rallies in the 1930s.

In 1984, Orwell presciently nailed the prevailing atmosphere of these BJP gatherings with his description of daily programs of “Two Minutes Hate” against all supposed treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations from the orthodox party line spouted by Big Brother, which is precisely who Modi is — with a Hindutva ideological bent —  in a country that once proudly took to heart the Blind Men and the Elephant parable more deeply than any other place I can think of. Modi’s message:

                                                     WAR IS PEACE

                                              FREEDOM IS SLAVERY

                                         IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

As Christophe Jaffrelot’s 2021 book, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, documents:

Modi’s government has moved India toward a new form of democracy, an ethnic democracy that equates the majoritarian community with the nation and relegates Muslims and Christians to second-class citizens who are harassed by vigilante groups. ... The promotion of Hindu nationalism has resulted in attacks against secularists, intellectuals, universities, and NGOs. … The political system of India has acquired authoritarian features for other reasons, too. Eager to govern not only in New Delhi, but also in the states, the government has centralized power at the expense of federalism and undermined institutions that were part of the checks and balances, including India’s Supreme Court.

Though Modi remains in office, the election results make clear that millions of educated Hindus deplore the attacks on minorities in a country where Mohandas Gandhi’s Hindu assassin is now openly celebrated by some (including a BJP candidate from Bhopal in 2019) as a patriot and the Mahatma, a Hindu, is denounced as a treacherous sellout who acceded to the will of the Muslim minority in the creation of India as a secular state.

Not that the BJP has any kind of monopoly on religious intolerance. The Israeli settlers who think they have a God-given right — in fact, an obligation, on the basis of Bronze Age texts by people who at least were not wilfully ignorant like their descendants — to drive Palestinians from their lands in the West Bank are seized with the same kind of passionate intensity.

So are the Taliban zealots in Afghanistan who oppress their women and proudly blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, the fanatical jihadists of Al-Qaida or Islamic State, the theocrats who run Iran, the Hamas and Hezbollah Islamists who vow to kill every last Jew in Israel, the Christian nationalists in the United States willing to make a deal with Donald J. Satan if that’s what it takes to abrogate individual rights and overturn the American order to remake their country as a Christian commonwealth (Christian in a sense no one who believes in the Sermon on the Mount would recognize).

There was an interesting piece in The Washington Post recently by neoconservative scholar Robert Kagan warning that the white-hot core of the Trump movement wants to see the liberal tradition of America overthrown:

These anti-liberal conservatives know that bringing such a commonwealth into being means jettisoning the Founders’ obsession with individual rights. The influential advocate of “conservative nationalism,” Yoram Hazony, wants Americans to abandon the Declaration in favor of a nationhood built on Protestantism and the Bible. America is a “revolutionary nation,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) insists, not because of the principles of the Declaration and not even because of the American Revolution itself, but “because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible” that began with “the founding of the nation of Israel.” There could hardly be a statement more at odds with the American Founders’ liberal, ecumenical vision.

Expressing a belief in God is no threat to the Founders’ system, but reshaping society in accord with Christian teachings is. To build the nation Hawley and Hazony imagine would require jettisoning not only the Declaration but also the Constitution, which was designed to protect the Declaration’s principles. The Christian commonwealth would not and could not be a democracy because the majority of people can’t be trusted to choose correctly. According to the Claremont Institute’s (Glenn) Ellmers, “most people living in the United States today — certainly more than half — are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” They are a “zombie” or “human rodent” who lives “a shadow-life of timid conformity.” Only “the 75 million people who voted in the last election” for Trump are true Americans. Instead of trying to compete with Democrats in elections that don’t reflect the will of the people, Ellmers writes, “Why not just cut to the chase and skip the empty, meaningless process?” The “only road forward” is “overturning the existing post-American order.”

For these intellectuals, Trump is an imperfect if essential vehicle for the counterrevolution. A “deeply flawed narcissist” suffering from a “bombastic vanity,” as (Patrick) Deneen and Ellmers note, he has “lacked the discipline to target his creative/destructive tendencies effectively.” But this can be remedied. If Trump failed to accomplish the desired overthrow in his first term, Deneen argues, it was because he lacked “a capable leadership class.” Things will be different in his next term. What is needed, according to Deneen, is a “self-conscious aristoi,” a class of thinkers who understand “both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure,” who know how to turn populist “resentments into sustained policy.”

Members of Deneen’s would-be new elite will, like Vladimir Lenin, place themselves at the vanguard of a populist revolution, acting “on behalf of the broad working class” while raising the consciousness of the “untutored” masses. Indeed, according to Harvard’s (Adrian) Vermeule, it will be necessary to impose the common good even against the people’s “own perceptions of what is best for them” — a most Leninist concept indeed.

And so we’re back in 1984, with appalling swaths of both the BJP and the MAGA constituencies giddily, blindly signing on to this madness as what Orwell calls “the bigoted adherents of the Party, the swallowers of slogans, the amateur spies and nosers-out of unorthodoxy.”

Since Modi’s government came to power in 2014, national and local education authorities have complied — willingly or not — with instructions to alter school textbooks to axe chapters on parts of India’s centuries of history under Mughal rule. Instead of learning about evolution and the periodic table, students in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, are being taught that Indians are the descendants of rishis (sages) and that airplanes have existed in the country since Ram flew from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya with his wife, Sita, and brother Laxman in a Pushpaka Vimana — a swan­-shaped chariot of flowers.

As in Florida — where Governor Ron DeSantis’s path to national prominence was turbocharged by his invocation of “parental rights” to ban instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, while also greatly limiting what schools in the state can teach about racism, slavery and U.S. history — authoritarian regimes rewrite the facts to suit themselves. Since last July, when the Florida State Board of Education approved new standards for the middle school curriculum, teachers have been advised to tell students that enslaved peoples acquired skills “that could be applied for their personal benefit.” That was a good thing, right? No need for white students to feel any discomfort or think about racial inequality in their country.

In 1984, where the Ministry of Truth is in fact the ministry of lies and propaganda — Minitrue, in Newspeak (only because Orwell hadn’t thought of the even more sinister Trumpian term for his social media platform, “Truth Social)” — protagonist Winston Smith’s job is to facilitate the falsification of historical events. The ministry decides what the truth is and rewrites newspaper stories and all historical documents to reflect the infallibility of Big Brother — ostensibly the leader of a totalitarian state whose citizens are all under the thumb and constant surveillance of Ingsoc, the ruling party.

The only significant difference between Orwell’s fictional state of Oceania and Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India, Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran and what the U.S. could become under a second Trump presidency is that the modern states have harnessed the passions of religion in a way that Stalin’s atheistic Soviet Union — upon which Oceania was based — could only envy.

This passage from 1984 could have come straight from a Trump rally. Or a Modi one. Or one by Putin, who has co-opted the Russian Orthodox Church while harassing and persecuting other Christian denominations in occupied portions of Ukraine:

But the face of Big Brother seemed to persist for several seconds on the screen, as though the impact that it had made on everyone’s eyeballs was too vivid to wear off immediately. The little sandyhaired woman had flung herself forward over the back of the chair in front of her. With a tremulous murmur that sounded like ‘My Saviour!’ she extended her arms towards the screen. Then she buried her face in her hands. It was apparent that she was uttering a prayer.

At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of ‘B-B! . . . B-B!’—over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first ‘B’ and the second-a heavy, murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamp of naked feet and the throbbing of tom-toms. For perhaps as much as thirty seconds they kept it up. It was a refrain that was often heard in moments of overwhelming emotion. Partly it was a sort of hymn to the wisdom and majesty of Big Brother, but still more it was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise. Winston’s entrails seemed to grow cold. In the Two Minutes Hate he could not help sharing in the general delirium, but this sub-human chanting of ‘B- B! . . . B-B !’ always filled him with horror. Of course he chanted with the rest: it was impossible to do otherwise. To dissemble your feelings, to control your face, to do what everyone else was doing, was an instinctive reaction.

And so back to the elephants. Remember them?

Each of the blind men in the parable has his own take on the nature of the beast, just as each of these modern leaders rails on in utter ignorance of what the others mean and prate about a deity not one of them can begin to fathom. In their Father’s house, the only mansions of which they can conceive are their own. Each makes a travesty of the causes they espouse and the religions they claim to be serving.

If any of these ignorant leaders had seen the world from the back of an elephant en route to becoming seers or even poets, instead of fumbling blindly below with the nether parts, maybe then they’d have a right to invoke the name of God.

As it is, they have become as sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal, a final trumpet of their dying empires.

It is the condition of their rule that they shall spend their lives in trying to impress the natives, and so in every crisis they have got to do what the natives expect of them. Each wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

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Just send Jared in. Since he so ably solved the Middle East crisis; this should be a walk in the mosque.

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