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A children's book about Nehru's animal diplomacy calls out the elephant in the room

'Uncle Nehru, Please Send Us An Elephant!' asks questions about animal rights and raises ecological concerns, even as the illustrations show each elephant with a winning personality of its own.

April 17, 2021 / 03:38 PM IST

“Jawaharlal Nehru was born on 14th November 1889. He was our first Prime Minister. He loved children very much. Children used to say Chacha Nehru Zindabad!”

Bollywood enthusiasts might recognize these lines from Sooraj Barjatya’s film Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994). A domestic worker named Lallu Prasad (Laxmikant Berde) delivers them when asked to demonstrate his newly acquired English-speaking skills.

Nehru’s affection for children, which is fondly remembered through the celebration of his birthday as Children’s Day, forms the subject of a new book titled Uncle Nehru, Please Send An Elephant! (2021). It has been written by Devika Cariapa and illustrated by Satwik Gade.

Recommended for ages six and above, it has been published by the Chennai-based Tulika Publishers. Cariapa, an archaeologist by training, says, “On the face of it, this is a simple picture book for younger readers with a charming story of children from all over the world writing in to Prime Minister Nehru requesting him to send them elephants!”

She adds, “But within this narrative, I highlighted how the new nation of India was struggling with issues of poverty, inadequate food and major infrastructure. In the midst of all his responsibilities, Nehru personally wrote back to each of his petitioners from around the world, building important ties with other countries.”

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In addition to English, this book has been published in eight other languages: Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali. It features real-life anecdotes about elephants that were sent as diplomatic gifts from India to Japan, Canada, Turkey, China, Soviet Russia, the United States of America, and the Netherlands.

Cariapa’s research drew upon various textual sources including Ian Jared Miller’s book The Nature of the Beasts: Empire and Exhibition at the Tokyo Imperial Zoo (2013), Daniel E. Bender’s book The Animal Game: Searching for Wildness at the American Zoo (2016) and Nikhil Menon’s article “Jumbo Exports: India’s history of elephant diplomacy.” (2019)

Gade, an artist and designer, was excited to illustrate this book because of the “historical detailing and the fun quotient.” He says, “I am very interested in contemporary Indian history and the impact of the founders’ vision for our country, and this story also seemed to directly address the question of why our first Prime Minister was called Chacha Nehru.”

Apart from being the Prime Minister, Nehru also served as minister of external affairs, minister of finance, and minister of defence. Gade’s illustrations rescue the subject of diplomacy from the stodgy world of statecraft and international relations. He captures the joy that children across the world experienced when they welcomed India’s elephants.

One of these children, Peter Marmorek – who now identifies himself as “a 61 year old generalist, living in Toronto, Canada” – maintains a blog at https://uhclem.livejournal.com/ . In a post titled “Me and My Elephants” (2005), he recalls how his request made Nehru “who was looking for good publicity in commonwealth countries for his new state” send an elephant named Ambika to Canada. Marmorek made a welcome speech, and even visited India later.

Gade’s research for the book gave him visual references for “our photogenic Prime Minister and even more photogenic elephants.” Indira, the elephant sent to Tokyo, is depicted as throwing tantrums and refusing to get off the ship used to transport her. Murugan, the elephant sent to Amsterdam, is shown spraying water with his trunk on a group of children. Mohini, the elephant sent to Istanbul, even made it to the cover of a children’s magazine.

Uncle Nehru_Please Send An Elephant Book CoverIndia is one among several countries that have used animals as diplomatic gifts. A detailed account has been published recently in a book chapter titled “Wildlife Diplomacy and Gifting in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya Region: A Chronological History and Opinion of Nepalese Literates” (2020) written by Tirth Raj Ghimire, Anita Bhattarai, Nirju Ojha, Pitamber Pant and Sagar Aryal. It appears in the volume Hindu Kush-Himalaya Watersheds Downhill: Landscape Ecology and Conservation Perspectives edited by Ganga Ram Regmi and Falk Huettmann.

These authors describe China’s panda diplomacy, Australia’s koala diplomacy, Mongolia’s horse diplomacy, Russia’s falcon diplomacy, and Nepal’s rhino diplomacy. They also highlight the concerns of ecologists, animal rights activists, and environmentalists. Animals that have been displaced from their natural habitat have suffered due to change in climatic conditions. They have also faced lack of care, malnutrition, kidney failure and gastrointestinal illnesses.

Cariapa is sensitive to these issues. In her book, she writes, “In those days, no one thought of asking the elephants how they felt about travelling to distant countries. Maybe some of them saw it as a grand adventure. Others may have been miserable without their friends and their warm, familiar jungles. Clever scientists have now learnt that elephants are sensitive creatures with deep attachments to their families.”

In 1995, when Marmorek went to the Granby Zoo in Canada to check on Ambika, the elephant was not there. In her place, there were two other elephants from Africa. Marmorek rushed to the zoo administration to ask about Ambika’s whereabouts because he shared a special relationship with her. He writes, “Clearly she had either died, or been traded to some other zoo, but no one knew, or could discover any records of what had happened."

When Gade first read Cariapa’s story, he was moved by her attention to the impact of elephant diplomacy on the elephants themselves. He says, “Murugan was taken away as a baby; he never learnt to mate despite efforts by the Amsterdam Zoo. He stayed single all his life even though he was well loved and seemed to enjoy his life and his walks through the city.” He hopes that the book will sensitize readers to the experiences of other creatures.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)

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