A Rummy Tale

The man who walked into the bank slowly made his way to the glass encased cashier’s cabin. Not many noticed him, nor were they interested. But the security man who waved him though and knew him, did make a spectacle, standing at over 6 feet in height, with a magnificent drooping mustache that reminded one of a great pathan soldier from over two centuries ago, only he did not wear a turban. If they had stopped and looked at the rifle he held to his side, especially one who knows about guns, they would have reason to snigger, for it was an ancient break action shotgun which at first sight made you feel that it would do little harm to even the mongrel dogs lounging under the tree across the street. It was not loaded and the four or five reddish colored cartridges on his belt looked ancient, scratched up and distinctly unusable. The only time the gun was loaded was when they brought in or took out money from the bank and the same bullets were loaded into and unloaded from it. But then again, ninety nine percent of the people knew nothing about guns and did not care. In fact most thought this security gamut was all a sham, meant to fool the public into believing that their money was held in this secure and solid fortress, protected by heavily armed guards. All the bank wanted was the deposits and if a mustachioed guard helped, why not? It was also incongruous, for the guard had nothing to do with Afghanistan or North India and he was just an ex-serviceman from Kerala, a place where men grew large mustaches and fired no guns.

Before the reader wonders what a security guard has to do with this story, let me veer away and get back to the ‘uncle’ I had started with, for he is the hero of our story. He was as all could see, thoroughly unhappy about all of this, the floor was too smooth for his creaky leather sandals, the lights were too bright and the people in the bank (except for the security guard) too young for his liking. His gait was slow and careful, and eventually he made it to the counter where Dolly was busy making entries into her computer and keeping some of the papers in order, for future filing and audits. This branch had been renovated and modernized from the older one where ledgers and files rested in dusty heaps and piles as officers, clerks, peons and patrons did their snake and ladder moves through them to get to the work they had planned for the day, if at all something was done. The oldies were gone and well attired youngsters took over the counters and computers running the new banking system. But our ‘uncle’ who was more familiar with the older branch that he had grown up with had no choice but to adapt to this change because his niece who worked in America had convinced him that he learn new ways.

Nobody smoked in these offices, nobody chewed pan, and the people who worked were well dressed. They hardly talked amongst each other, or at least that was what our ‘uncle’ thought. He was not in tune with social media, chats and so on, and his world was not virtual. He did not really know that the young actually maintained a facade of efficiency but in the meanwhile tapped away into their hidden world using their fingertips and eyes. That was what they called multi-tasking.

Now it is time to get to know our ‘uncle’ better. Atmakur Venkat Ramayya, that was his name and he lived nearby, not far from the bank. In fact he lived in property that had passed to him by his parents which he held dearly on to, not giving in and selling it away for millions. Banjara Hills had progressed from a hilly forest and happy hunting ground for the Nizam’s to a huge commercial center with towering buildings like the Laxmi cyber center. Just imagine what goddess Laxmi would have felt looking at the building that bore her name, for in the old days they had temples and mansions named after her, now they had these monstrous skyscrapers. Perhaps Laxmi smiled too much and maybe that resulted in the creation of such huge edifices! Many a tear ago, his forefathers had acquired a small plot and built a traditional house. Venkat lived there with his wife, in fact that had been his home during his child hood and now where he relaxed, after his retirement. He had been resisting pressure to sell to the people who wanted to buy his place and erect an office complex, and large amounts had been offered if he wanted to sell.

And of course I have to introduce the second person in the story, none other than Venkat’s wife, BalaSaraswati. A stately woman, who must have been a stunner in her youth, still holding on to her looks as she matured, like a pricey burgundy from France. She was a favorite of the neighborhood and had many friends, was part of many a group working for the good of the society - which others in the same society had in the meantime labored hard to destroy. While Bala (I will call her that for the rest of the story – just as Venkat calls her) had aged well and remained in good health, and looked like – hmm for want of a better example, like the gorgeously aged Nafisa Ali, with steely grey hair and a lined face showing character, Venkat who was once upon a time a chatty, confident manager in Parry’s Chennai had become somewhat grumpy and had acquired a little stoop. His head, once a mop of thick black hair now looked like the spinning cricket pitch at Chepauk stadium, with just a few blades of grass here & there. His midriff had accumulated some fat and his legs and eyes had become rheumy with the passage of time.

Venkat rummaged in his checkered shoulder bag, something not in tune with times (they were popular in the hippie 70’s and signified scholarly pursuits) and came out with his passbook which he extended to Dolly together with Rs 212.00 in cash. He asked her to make a deposit into his joint account and write out the entries into his passbook. Dolly knew the routine, in fact she had been his teller on a few previous occasions and always kept an eye for the well natured, pleasant person whom she had developed a sincere liking for. He would come every week to make these deposits and interestingly they were always less than Rs 300, but never round figures. Sometimes in cash, sometimes transfers from his pension account. She used to wonder why he did this every week or why he deposited them weekly and not monthly. But well, people are people, and they had their own reasons – who was she to ask? She took in the money, made the required entries on her terminal screen and took the short printout. She turned to Venkat and asked ‘Venkat sir, why do you want to make the entry in the passbook? You can always log in and find your balance, and these books are not used anymore.’ Venkat replied as he had, to many others in the past that he had no interest in computers and online banking and that the passbook had been used by him for so many years as could be evidenced by the entries and balance. Dolly looked at the current passbook and was raised her eyebrows at the savings account balance, and asked Venkat if he kept all the old books. Yes, he said – he had many of them for he had been maintaining this account for years even before this bank branch, which was once a small bank had been acquired by a multi-national and converted to this computerized glass and steel office. But she did not ask any further questions and if she did she would be transgressing bank rules. She was a new employee and did not want to get into any ethics issues, all she wanted was to work for some more years here and try to migrate or get a transfer to the bank’s offices in New York.

Venkat made his way out, nor forgetting to stop and have a few words with Raman Nair at the gate, the only constant in that bank for many years and somebody he knew from the past, for Nair had been a security guard in that branch even before it was acquired by the multinational. He made some comments in broken Malayalam and Raman Nair in return replied in knowledgeable Telugu adding that that was always how it would be, for Malayalam is not something a Telugu man could master, save the great Janaki Amma, the singer of yester years, or Sharada the actress, both revered by the people of Kerala. How were Raman Nair’s children? Venkat was reassured that they were doing well, one son was in the army while the daughter was married to a fella in Dubai.

The chore over, Venkat made his way back home and sat back in his easy chair and swung forward the leg rests. He leaned back on the cane woven chair and tilting his head back,reached out for the newspaper and his reading glasses. It was a hot day and the GEC fan whirred overhead, cooling him off. He picked up the days ‘Hindu’ newspaper but his eyes were heavy and soon he dropped off into a short slumber, glasses perched tardily on his nose bridge. While Venkat’s sleeping brain hovered around the past, the present and the future, the little air moved by the fan failed to trouble the odd morning mosquito searching for a blood vessel or the housefly from hunting for leftovers.

A little while later, the front bell rang, Bala was back after a particularly tiring session with some other housewives. Their new task at hand was to try and find a way of reducing the trash heaps in the colony they lived in. Even with all the business establishments taking over housing properties, there were still a few of the old timers living in the locality and they did not have the luxury of trash disposers that companies had.
Bala’s arrival woke Venkat. In fact he had been, as always, looking forward to her arrival, and the love he had for his wife of 40 years could be seen in his eyes. She was as everybody said, his better half and without her, his face had that stupidly grumpy expression that most oldies seem to carry. Now that she had come, there was some purpose to the balance of the day. Many things had to be done, they had to reply some letters from older members of their respective families, sadly these letters were dwindling and it was mostly wedding or death notice cards, and Venkat imagined that the postman would soon be out of work. Children today never wrote, for they called or emailed or texted, in this new generation. In fact they had no children to do even that, they had only each other. But they had one person who occupied their thoughts, the girl in America, their niece Sujatha. She called sometimes at ungodly hours, but her infectious enthusiasm took away any worries they had. She had so much news to convey, yesterday it was about some kind of government shutdown in America. It seemed that their president Obama could not come to any agreement with republicans who always seemed to be opposing his plans. So the government went on an extended two weeks’ vacation. Imagine, if that happened in India, but then come to think of it, they were on vacation all through the year anyway!!

Venkat ambled to the dining table where his wife had already taken a seat at the head, and they went over their accounts and made some handwritten replies to some of the invitations. They had no plans to travel, and none of the invitations were local anyway. Venkat liked writing to the couple, and he wrote a few lines in his cursive hand, with the Pelikan Tradition M20 pen Sujatha had presented him, during her last visit. What a pen that was, and it worked beautifully with the Quink turquoise blue ink that he used. In fact even the stationery supplier he went to was telling him to stock up, for nobody used fountain pens any longer and he had no intentions of bringing in new stock. Only Venkat purchased a bottle, that too once a year!

Even the telegram service had finally stopped after 163 years, and in his earlier days, he could go and say greetings 16 or 17 to the postal clerk and a telegram would reach the receiver stating ‘May Heaven’s Choicest Blessings be showered on the young couple’ (16) or ‘Wish you both a happy and prosperous wedded life’ (17). Now that it had stopped, he had to buy a card from the local Archies and write out short text, but he enjoyed it. As he sat and wrote out the words laboriously and carefully, in calligraphic style, with a bit of his tongue sticking out, Bala watched with contentment. What a simple predictable person Venkat was, always dependable, and never went astray even once in his life. No, she recalled, that is not right, he did once, that was some 20 years ago, when he met his old village flame Rajalakshmi at that wedding in Vijayawada. That was the only time, when his eyes went wistful, remembering some earlier romantic moments they had shared. Bala was terrified during those two days, wondering what was to come. Nothing happened actually, other than those longing looks that passed. They had returned without much ado and well, was it three, no it was four years back that woman Rajalakshmi had passed away.

The replies were done, the Pelikan M20 capped and stowed away in the writing table and soon came the words that Venkat was waiting for. Bala suggested, as she had for the past 20 plus years “shall we sit for a few rounds?” Now reader, don’t assume that they were going to uncap a bottle of some alcoholic beverage, not that they never indulged in such matters, but it was not the time for beverages, it was the time for a few rounds of rummy. With enthusiasm equaling that of Tendulkar waiting for a Bret Lee bouncer, Venkat laid his elbows on the dining table as Bala reached for the well-worn pack of plastic coated cards and shuffled them expertly first with normal cut shuffles and then the riffle shuffle. Venkat remembered the first time Bala insisted that she be taught how to do the riffle like the men did, while none of the women had mastered it. Soon she was an expert, be the cards be the cheaper paper ones or the new plastic coated ones. In fact Bala had become so good at cards and reading his face that Venkat had no chance whatsoever in the many thousand games that followed, and so his ambition was to find some way of beating her often, if only to escape her taunts about his regular losses. Well as you can imagine, wins happened but rarely.

As usual she dealt out his thirteen cards and he picked them up with much consternation and then cut out a Jack as a joker. Would today be the day? The hand he got was not so great, he had two jokers, and a run, but no natural sequence or triplets. A few possibilities were there, and so he got on with the game, only to see the obvious, that it was not his day. They played a few more games as was the norm in that household. After each game, Bala would take out her account book and write down the points and date. The deal between them was that each point was 10 paisa. Bala won the six games hands down and accumulated 286 points that day or ₹28.60. Bala looked up and castigated Venkat “How long have I been maintaining this, do you know that you owe me lakhs of Rupees?” Venkat just smiled as he always did neither agreeing nor disagreeing and quickly changed the topic. Of course Bala knew the standard response, so she allowed the topic to change, and they discussed the American government shutdown for a few minutes.

In fact whenever Sujatha visited them, she used to question the routine, asking why Bala always wrote accounts down and why nothing came out of it. Bala explained it was just that she had been taught to keep accounts, be it purchasing groceries, maintaining the monthly budgets or organizing family functions. She did it very well, tallying income and expenses and insisting on accuracy. Sujatha secretly believed that Bala expected Venkat to pay someday and Venkat adroitly managed to slip out of it. This had been going on for more than 20 years and by now Bala had a pile of 20 or so ruled note books with columns and dates showing the money owed to her. Of recent, Bala had even started to add the new rupee symbol ₹ in front of the numerals instead of the Rs she used previously. And so, they continued to play every day and Bala kept on adding to the tally in the account book of hers.

That done with, Venkat got back to reading a book that he had always wanted to, Muddapalani’s Radhika Santawanam. As Bala got to watch the latest weepy episode of ‘Bade Ache Lagte Hai’ and mopped tears forced on many an Indian housewife’s eyes by Jumping Jack Jeetendra’s clever daughter Ekta Kapoor who owned the airwaves, Venkat was lost in the days of the Devadasi. The book had been banned by the British and a recent republication resulted in the availability of that brilliant book laced with many an erotic interlude. Venkat moved with the author’s text, connecting up the background story of the complex relationship between the devadasi courtesan Muddapalani and the king Partapsimha. He thought hard about the lady who brought this treatise to the world, another Devadasi named Nagaratnamma. He dwelt long on the opening paragraph and thought about the lives of those fascinating Devadasis….

Which other woman of my kind has felicitated scholars with gifts of money?
To which other woman of my kind have epics been dedicated?
Which other woman of my kind has won such acclaim in each of the arts?
You are incomparable, Muddupalani among your kind.

The day passed by with Venkat trying to decipher Muddapalani’s life while Bala spent hours trying to fathom what Ram Kapoor and Sakshi Tanwar (What a gorgeous woman she is!) would do next or if they would ever live happily ever after or if Ekta would kill her off and change the storyline.

The days went on, the weather in Hyderabad turned sultry and there was talk of a typhoon hitting the coastline. Yet another girl, this time an IT techie got gang raped, the political scene got steeped in turmoil and the movie scene heated up with new movies. There was talk of a new mars mission at ISRO and talk of Hyderabad born Satya Nadella becoming a future Microsoft CEO. Some others were wondering if Deepika Padukone would show more of herself other than her meter long midriff in the upcoming movie Ramleela. Life as you will agree was taking quite a natural course, from an Indian viewpoint.

As fate would decide, a day, exactly a week later, would turn this very orderly routine topsy turvy. It was not something they had imagined would happen, it was as somebody explained later, one of life’s vagaries. Andhra Pradesh was in the grips of a new agitation related to the creation of Telangana and many a procession and dharna followed.

Venkat went out as he did, on his weekly rounds. On Mondays, he would go to the public library, meet some old friends, then to the coffee house for some plantain bhajjis and Tamilian filter coffee which he loved, and finally closer to lunch time, stop over at the bank. He stopped at the door and had some pleasant words with Raman Nair. But today he noticed something different. There was a small cuboid truck in front of the bank, it was the truck that delivered and collected cash from the branches. As Friday had been some local holiday, the event was taking place on Monday and Raman Nair seemed tense. But naturally, thought Venkat, for they had to carry bags of money across the floor to the waiting truck. And as this happened, it was Nair’s heightened responsibility over security that made him nervous. These days there were talk of all kinds of armed attacks on banks. Even though a lot of transactions took place over the data links and at ATM’s, much currency flowed though teller windows. A few crores were going to move between the truck and the bank vaults that day. The truck had its own security team and one of them was at the gate providing company to Nair.

Venkat went about his usual routine, he went to the teller, it was not Dolly, and deposited ₹ 356.00 into the savings bank account. Sometimes he transferred the money from his own savings account to the said joint account, sometimes he deposited cash. It was mostly transfers from his pension accounts though. The testy girl made an entry and filled up the pass book, telling Venkat that soon, they will stop the passbook rigmarole and that he will have to download statements through the internet. Venkat replied with a smile that he would then have to close his account and start keeping money in his store room. The girl replied that he would not have to worry and that she would soon give him printed statements, it was just that the passbook would not be there anymore. Venkat shrugged his shoulders and started back to the door.

The trouble makers had chosen their time well, they had planned their moves and were waiting to strike. As the trolley with four bags of currency was moving cross the floor, the two armed youngsters pounced on the trolley bearer. That they like everybody else in the bank were being recorded on camera did not pose a problem, for they would soon disappear in some remote part of India. It was revealed later that they were part of some dissident movement. Their plan was to use the element of surprise, nab the cash and run, not very clever as it turned out.

The lights went out, and in a flash each picked up a bag and ran to the door with pointed revolvers in hand. One of them shot the security guard from the truck and he was on the floor clutching his stomach in agony. The security guard Nair had not planned for this though he had loaded a cartridge in his shotgun, was slightly slow in reflex but soon had the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. The burst hit the fleeing robber mostly on his body but as beastly luck would have it, much of it also caught the slow moving Venkat on his chest and shoulder, as he was in the way. Both fell to the ground. A pause would have shown a stricken Raman Nair, looking at his falling friend and the robber, while the other robber crossed the door and fired back hitting Raman Nair and wounding him too. An almighty din could be heard in the background, the banks security sirens, the screaming bank personnel and a few bystanders, and the echoes of the shotgun shot. As Venkat fell, his bag spilled its contents on the floor and somebody else in law enforcement was to later make a record of the contents.

The police report stated that the bag contained a Pelican M20 pen with turquoise ink, a passbook in the joint names of A Venkat Ramayyah and Bala Saraswathi showing a balance of ₹3,46,000/-, a bottle half full of drinking water, a hand kerchief, a Hindu newspaper, a collection of poems by Muddapalani titled Radhika Santawanam. The policeman who wrote the report looked through the book and wondered what this old man was planning to do reading erotic tales by a devadasi, he had seen everything, but not this. The policeman was also surprised that Venkat did not possess a mobile phone.

That afternoon, when Bala got back home, she found the door locked and uncharacteristically, no sign of Venkat. For a moment she wondered if he was upto some mischief, but opened the door with her keys and switched on the TV. Going to the bedroom, she changed to home clothes and sat on her side of the bed, ruminating about life, for a while. Idly she picked up her account book and looked at its last entry, noting that the balance her husband owed her was ₹2,99,800/-. She smiled, for the whole rigmarole was nothing more than a joke, and wondered why she maintained an account and why Venkat kept on playing enthusiastically even though he lost most of the time.

That evening the police came home and handed her Venkat’s satchel. For a while she was stumped, and at an absolute loss of words as the policeman was mouthing the story of the bank robbery with grim deliberation. He hastened to add that the second robber was caught soon after by some youngsters who were outside and who gave chase, disregarding the brandished weapon and a few fired shots. The youngsters of today did not cower when faced with adversity, the policeman said, and that is good for the society.

When the monologue was completed, Bala stammered Ven….kat? The policeman smiled and said that even though he was seriously injured, he would survive and then he handed over the satchel and the passbook. When Bala saw the passbook and the account names and balance, she knew in a flash what it meant and the tears that she was holding back gushed out in a torrent. That silly man had really been paying her wins every week….

Epilogue – Venkat is fine now, though his left hand is virtually unusable and the shoulder is damaged with torn muscles, tendons and ligaments. The surgery to remove all the pellets took some time and injured his innards further. Raman Nair had a flesh wound, and the bullet passed out through his body. He recovered soon enough and is now a regular visitor to Venkat’s house. Sujatha came the other day for a visit and met up with the couple, she says that they are doing fine and continuing to play cards. The bank gave Raman Nair a good reward and took care of Venkat’s hospital expenses. But they also retired Nair with an ample pension and replaced him with a Gurkah holding a folding stock pump type shotgun. Nair’s shot gun holds a place of pride in his showcase at home.

Now that Venkat’s secret is out in the open, there is no more talk about old debts and Bala is of the opinion that he has been losing deliberately all these years, but when she says it, you can detect a hint of moistness in her eyes. Her love for Venkat has increased even further, I suppose. Venkat’s Pelikan M20 still writes a few lines fluidly, held in his moving fingers and he is living proof that cursive writing is not dead. He has finished reading Radhika Santwanam and is now reading a couple of translated Manipravalam (early Malayalam) works, called Chandralokam and Leelathilakam. It seems Raman Nair has some proficiency in these matters and he is helping Venkat on some of the Sanskritized Tamil words. Venkat now plans to write an article about the Devadasis of South India

The people of Banjara hills continue on, with their day to day activities.

This is just a story – nothing more, nothing less and I must thank my dear friend Annu Garu for jolting my brain with a glimmer of an idea which as you see, resulted in this ‘rummy tale’.

Rummy – A British usage for odd, strange, or dangerous, also a card game, played in many variations, in which the object is to obtain sets of three or more cards of the same rank or suit

A Pope and an Elephant

Popum Aanayum Vathikanil…….

As you may have noticed from previous posts, I am quite partial to elephant stories like most Malayalees and I do like the pachyderm a lot. Earlier I wrote about Murugan in Amsterdam, Suleiman in Vienna and this time it is about an elephant that lived in the Vatican. It is a story detailing the attachment between a fun loving Pope Leo X and his baby white elephant which hailed from Cochin. The story is fun, it is sad, and is a story of the times, with politics, satire, romance and all kinds of stuff attached to it. It even has three greats hovering on the fences, the genius Leonardo da Vinci, another stalwart Michelangelo and the great artist Raphael, as well as a couple of Malayalees, perhaps the first residents in the Vatican area. The time period of this story is 1509-1516 and Vatican did not exist then, it was just the sanctified area of the Holy See, the apostle palace and the Belvedere.

First some perspective - The Columbus discovery of western lands in 1492 started a new argument between the Spaniards and the Portuguese, both jockeying for control over new lands discovered by their enterprising voyagers. It was finally on May 4, 1493, at the urging of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, that Pope Alexander VI issued a bull clarifying the rights. To settle this feud, the Papal bull of 1493 divided the world commercially between these two nations, leaving most the Americas to Spain and giving Portugal what is now Brazil and all lands in Africa and Asia. Alexander's papal bull was ironically a continuation of what is now called the Doctrine of Discovery and was formally known as Inter Caetera. Following this, many a voyager set his sights to the western shores of India and Malabar and the first to find success is as you know, Vasco de Gama in 1498. He came and went, and then it was the turn of Cabral and many others. All their stories can be read at my historic alleys site. The Portuguese were ensconced in Malabar, but soon enough, Magellan discovered Mallacca and a question arose about the territorial rights. Would it come under the purview of the Spaniards or the Portuguese? A new quarrel erupted and some clarity was needed from a higher authority, from whom else, but the pope? To ensure that the pope sided with the Portuguese, King Manuel of Portugal put together a careful strategy of first dazzling and then effectively bribing the incumbent pope, with exotic gifts from the orient.

As you would have expected, the story starts in Cochin in 1509/1510. Two elephants had been procured, one a mature elephant – the gift from the Cochin king and the other a baby procured from somebody else, perhaps the lord of Nilambur, for 101 cruzados. The young elephant was specially trained to perform tricks and fed very well, with intent to make it a worthy gift. Special orders were passed about its treatment and feed and two Nairs were put in charge to ensure that. The Nairs were to accompany the two elephants on separate voyages to Lisbon and not only hand them over to new owners in Lisbon, but also remain there and train them properly before seeking a return to Malabar. Food of one para rice plus butter as well as daily oil anointation was ordered by Albuquerque for the baby elephant.

The story now shifts to Rome, the Holy See, in the year 1513, where a youthful 38 year old pope Giovanni de' Medici had just been elected to the papacy. Renamed Leo X, the pope was quite fat, shiny, possessed an effeminate countenance and had weak eyes which protruded from under a close-fitting cap. His unwieldy body was supported by thin legs, he had rheumy eyes and constantly used a magnifying lens to read, had sluggish movements and perspired heavily, to the distress of the bystanders. But as they noted, when he laughed or spoke, the unpleasant impression vanished. They also say he had an agreeable voice, knew how to express himself with elegance and vivacity, and his manner was easy and gracious. "Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us", he is said to have remarked after his election. He went on to become so infamous for wasting money, that a contemporary said, "Leo has eaten up three pontificates, the treasury of Julius II, the revenues of his own pontificate, and those of his successor. A report of the Venetian ambassador Marino Giorgi in March 1517 indicates some of his predominant characteristics: "The pope is a good-natured and extremely free-hearted man ……..To the virtues of liberality, charity and clemency he added the Machiavellian qualities of falsehood and shrewdness, so highly esteemed by the princes of his time.

Back in 1509 or so, it was L Varthema who wrote a lucid description of the Indian elephant, rousing curiosity in the hearts of the placid Roman commoner, for oxen and horses were the biggest beasts they had come across. It was after this that King Manuel started collecting ‘elephants of state’, following examples of the Zamorin and the Cochin king and had about five already in his stables, as this story starts. When the new elephants reached him in 1511, Manuel was happy that he had found a solution to his vexing problem about Malacca. For a while he played around with the new elephant as a portrait testifies to. But this gift was meant for the new Pope, who had a history of fondness towards animals, for in fact, his grandfather had his own menagerie. The gift that Manuel picked for Leo X was thus well chosen, the grey white albino baby elephant that could by now perform tricks too. The decision made was to send not only the elephant but also many other Indian animals (goats, parrots, horses and rare dogs) and other items of great value together with a group of emissaries headed by Tristao da Cunha and his sons. They thus started out on a long voyage from Lisbon to the Italian shores. But to get all of these people and the animals to the Vatican gates in Rome did not prove to be that easy, for an apparent romantic interlude interrupted the proceedings, though not directly involving the four year old elephant.

The keeper, trainer or mahout (in many books mentioned as Moor or Saracen– but more correctly the Nair
sent from Cochin) who had accompanied the animal to Lisbon had by then spent two years there. As was rumored at that time, he had fallen in love with a Portuguese girl and had no intention to leave for Rome, whether his new master was the Pope or not. He thought deep and hard and decided to seek help from the Elephant. So as the incredible story goes, he explained to the elephant about the miserable situation in Rome, the long and arduous voyage etc. and convinced the animal (who it seems understood Malayalam pretty well), that he should resist. As time came for the elephant to board a ship, it balked and refused to move forward. King Manuel was provided details of the situation by a helpful vassal and he decided to sort out the impasse himself (The first meeting between a Malayali and a Portuguese king??). Summoning the Indian, dire threats of imminent death were pronounced and a three day ultimatum was given.  The shivering man, fearing for his life, promptly forgot his lady love and had a hurried whispered conference with the elephant(promising that it and he will soon return to Lisbon), who then gingerly stepped onto the boat without further ado. And thus they left Portuguese shores, headed for Rome. So much for the love affair, or perhaps not, as you will find out if you read on (take the story with many a pinch of salt!!).

As reports put it - The huge luxurious embassy of one hundred and forty persons, headed by Cunha made its way through Alicante and Majorca, arriving at Rome outskirts in February 1514. They walked the streets of Rome on March 12, 1514 in an extravagant procession of exotic wildlife and wealth of the Indies, with many dressed in "Indian style". The elephant carried a platform of silver on its back, shaped as a castle containing a safe with royal gifts, including vests embroidered with pearls and gems, and coins of gold minted for the occasion. The pope received the procession in the Castel Sant'Angelo. The elephant knelt down three times in reverence and then, following a wave of his Indian mahout (keeper), aspired a bucket of water with his trunk and splashed it over the crowd and the Cardinals.

In that crowd, even greats like Leonardo Da Vinci perhaps stood, craning their necks, admiring the great animal. Medieval Rome had never seen an elephant (though ancient Rome had and Pliny mentions them). Da Vinci was later to write a couple of pages about the animal in his notebook, and it is guessed that he got the information about the pachyderm first hand through his friendship with the elephant’s Italian keeper Branconio (Raphael was also Branconio’s friend). The elephant however was not in good shape, it had sore feet walking on the hard and cobbled roads and having to endure muddy tracks and rain during the long trek from the port to the Vatican area. It had also got a name by then; the Italians called it Annone after hearing the mahout use the Malayalam terms ‘aana’ and ‘aane’… often. In later accounts this changed to Hanno, the Anglicized version of Annone. For the rest of the story, we will also call it Hanno. The pope was flabbergasted with these new sights, and of course immensely pleased. So much so, that he had new quarters built for Hanno right next to the papal palace so he could visit it every day. Two new jobs were created to take care of the elephant, one held by the papal chamberlain Branconio and the other by a man named Alfonso.  From pictures and accounts it is clear that the mahout and the Malabar keeper remained in the vicinity to take care of the animal.

The bribe had it effect, for Leo X soon passed more bulls to help the Portuguese hold on to Malacca and plunder it to their whims and fancies. Many a return gift was sent by Leo X to King Manuel and they remained good friends after the event. Cunha returned after a few months to Lisbon. The Malayali mahout and keeper did not (to ensure that the valuable elephant did not get upset, a single master principle was adopted).

Leo X soon became much attached to the pachyderm and participated in all sorts of events, with the exotic beast. But then trouble was afoot, the French were threatening the Romans and there were heretics to be kept at bay. The Turks who had overrun Istanbul were knocking on the doors. The pope who could hardly walk, and required two people just to raise him from his bed every day, found the next few months tiring and stressful to say the least and was terribly disturbed by the heresy and schism. Finances were also in a poor state and Leo had to borrow immense sums from all kinds of people and nations to keep the Vatican running. But we will not get to all of that, for it suffices to note that in the early years, he went often to his elephant to take his mind off weighty matters. Perhaps he learnt a word of two of Malayalam, though I would not bet on it, but they had a good time together and people have testified to seeing the rollicking twosome of the Pope and Hanno, in the stable. Two years passed by and the happy couple were talked about, written about (sometimes with contempt – a Pope who wasted his time with an animal) and painted or sketched for posterity. Hanno participated in many Roman festivals delighting crowds, sometimes becoming the reason for stampedes and so on, but never causing any harm to anybody. The Mahout in the meantime was perhaps a little worried that his newfound Portuguese girlfriend had found new suitors in Lisbon and pined after her, though it is only my guess. The Via dell Elefante was named so after Hanno and an inn appeared soon after, Casa del Liofante (though some others say the Liofonte family were famous innkeepers). In fact Clement 3’s horoscope has Hanno in the center.

Problems with France erupted and it appears that there was some heavy hearted plan by Leo to gift Hanno to the French monarch. By this time the talk about corruption in the Papal palaces was also rife. Leo X spent even more time on astrology for he was very superstitious, looking for answers, but without success.

It was an observant heretic that ultimately brought sorrow to those days of joy, and his name was Fra Bonaventura, a Franciscan priest of the 4th order. Bonaventura calling himself the angelic pope with about 20,000 recruits landed up in the region in May 1516 and went about making fiery sermons. In his speech at Rome, he proclaimed that he had excommunicated the reigning pope and his cardinals and urged people to join him and the King of France. He thundered that the pope, five cardinals, the elephant and its keeper would die by Sept 12th 1516. The pope already depressed with the death of his last relative his brother and suffering from malarial fever and various other ills such as multiple anal fistulae, became even more worried with the fear of imminent death. He quickly imprisoned the priest Bonaventura, much to everybody’s consternation. But the action proved right and the disturbances soon passed with the dissipation of Bonaventura’s followers.

Nevertheless, the clairvoyant’s prophecy proved somewhat right. Hanno soon took ill, suffering from severe breathing problems and acute constipation. But what was its illness? We do not know. Perhaps it was overfed wrong food (though accounts mention it was fed hay and vegetables and cost 100 ducats per month to maintain), perhaps it lost heart in life. It was found to be in great pain, lying in his pen listlessly and unable to move. It was getting ill for the first time and Leo X was doubly worried not only about the elephant but also about his certain death. Other people started to murmur and Leo had not a clue on what to do, for nobody had any idea how to treat a sick elephant (veterinary medicine did not exist in those days). He announced that no cost was to be spared and all efforts were made to treat it like a human. The pope spent all his time next to the ailing beast. Hanno’s urine was checked; they let its bad blood out as was the practice and decided to give it a purgative to relieve the constipation. But the dosage was a problem, what amount of laxative? Typically purgatives of those days were laced with gold and so a stronger dose was calculated. The dose given to Hanno had 500 grams (half a kilo) of gold. They hoped for the best.

What could have happened? The worst, for the elephant died soon after, on June 8th 1516. The whole of Rome was enveloped in grief and the pontiff inconsolable. Soon after, perhaps on the very same day, just as the monk had stated, the local keeper Alfonso also died. The seven year old elephant had spent all of two years, two months and twenty six days in Vatican. Rafael the painter was summoned, taken off his other tasks and asked to create a life sized mural befitting the animal. Many other monuments and facsimiles were ordered to be made and the pope himself wrote the first part of the epitaph for his beloved Hanno. In the meantime to make matters worse, two of the five cardinals named by Bonaventura also died.

Now it is time to get to know another person who got embroiled in the Hanno affair. Perhaps you have not yet read a fine book called 48 laws of power by Robert Greene, and it is something to look at. He introduces the satirist Pietro Aretino and how this hitherto unknown writer’s aspirations came to fruition after he released a caustic work of satire with Hanno’s death as the plot, not sparing any of the big names of Rome. It was titled ‘the last will and testament of Hanno the elephant’ and targeted all the supposedly corrupt bigwigs of that period. It ended by stating that it would be wiser to be friendly with Aretino, otherwise more of such disastrous releases would be seen. I will narrate now you a few parts of the satirical will – just for effect

The Indian elephant, which Emmanuel, King of Portugal sent to Leo X - Pontiff Maximus, having lived in Rome approximately 4 years under the supervision of Zuan batista Aquilan (Barnconio) has become ill either from the varying temperature and air of Rome, or as a result of the avarice of the said Zuan Batista, and considering that no matter how great our prudence, nothing more is certain than death, the elephant inasmuch as he is infirm in body has deposed on me various legacies and last wishes…

You are to give my hide to Leo, supreme pontiff, in order that he can stretch it over an elephant constructed of wood of my size, so that at least my shape can be recognized until the arrival of another new elephant to take my place………….

My testi$%^s you are to give to the most reverend cardinal of Senegaia (known for his addiction to the pleasures of flesh) so that he will become more fruitful in his progeny and in the merry procreation of the antichrist with the Rev Julia of the nuns of the monastery of St Catherine….
You are to give my member (pe#$s) to cardinal de Grassi (who fathered several children with Adriana de Scottis of Bologna) so that he can become more active in the incarnation of more bastards with Adriane of Bologna. …

And so on….

Aretino was soon to be titled the ‘scourge of the princes’. The amused pope Leo X who had recovered by then and gotten back to playing chess, cards and concentrating on music appreciation, drafted Aretino to papal service according to some, but others explain that he had to flee Rome and head to Venice, the seat of all vices, where he became a friend of Titan, Michelangelo’s rival (In fact he even tried to threaten and blackmail Michelangelo before he left).

Greene using Aretino’s example illustrates his principle which is – if you are small and obscure like David, find the biggest Goliath to attack. The larger the target, the more the attention you gain. The bolder the attack, the more you stand out.

But this brings us to the end of this elephantine tale. Raphael the person who immortalized Hanno lived on for another 4 years, Michelangelo who got tangentially involved in the Hanno fountain project lived to a ripe old age, until 1564, the caustic bard Aretino until 1556, while the genius Da Vinci died in 1519. King Manuel and Leo X went on to live another five years until 1521 (he died of an apparent cold and pneumonia after a hunting trip). Da Vinci was the biggest loser, for though he sauntered around the Vatican during this very period when Leo and Hanno frolicked in the Holy See courtyards, could never succeed in meeting Leo X and getting a papal patronage, unlike Raphael, much to his disappointment.

The Portuguese of course continued their subjugation of Malabar, Goa and other west coast ports of India as well as Malacca and enriched themselves. Whatever happened to the Malabar keeper and the mahout? Nothing is known about them. Did the mahout go back to Lisbon and find his girlfriend? I do not know. Did he go back home to Malabar? I do not know that either. Some learned grey haired people say that if elephants feel that they can never go back home, they lose heart and die where they are. Perhaps Hanno lost heart knowing that he will never get back to Nilambur or wherever he came from. But one thing I have read is that elephants prefer to go back home when death nears.

So was Hanno a cause for the reformation of the church? The late Silvio A Bedini, the author of the book
‘The pope’s elephant’ which I read, extracts of which I used for this article (with grateful acknowledgement and lot of thanks) thinks so. Why was that? Because Leo’s obsession with Hanno, reached such epic proportions that it became a cause celebre among the Protestant reformers, and thus this baby elephant played a part in precipitating the Reformation of the church.

Hanno was soon forgotten and Romans had other things to amuse them. Vatican was formally created in 1929. Many of the medieval treasures had however been carted away by the French and lost forever. The Hanno epitaph and the fresco were destroyed by Pius V who renovated the Papal palace.

But once again, albeit briefly, Hanno peeped out from obscurity and this was in 1962 when some digging work to improve the air-conditioning ducts were undertaken at the Vatican and elephant teeth were discovered. They belonged to our Hanno. It was also discovered that the two tusks at the St Peter’s basilica belonged to the same elephant. The rest of Hanno is perhaps still under the belvedere and hopefully somebody will give the young elephant a proper burial some day!!

That my friends, was thus the real life story of Hanno the Malabar elephant and Leo X the Pope.

The pope’s elephant - Silvio A Bedini
Asia and the making of Europe Vol2, Book1 – Donald F Lach
48 laws of power – Robert Greene

Those interested in elephants may read some of my earlier blogs listed below

Note: The sketches of Hanno do not show its tusks or if they do, show very small tusks- It is believed that the pope wanted to ensure that it was always projected as a gentle beast and so it was made to look benign.