Ten Malayalee’s and an elephant

A successful Malayalee, in my opinion, has either an inflated ego or is highly opinionated, and at times exhibits both characteristics. Can you imagine a situation where ten of them, well known to you, seasoned politicians, bureaucrats and people of high standing got together and accomplished something at the international scene? To hear this interesting account, I have to first take you back to the decade of the 1940’s. What on earth brought them all together? Now that is fine, but what is an elephant doing in their midst? An even more interesting aside….

1945 – The world was finally rejoicing as the terrible world war was over and the axis powers had been decimated by the allies. Life was slowly starting to limp back to normalcy but the people of Japan had an even steeper hill to climb. Douglas Mc Arthur, the allied supreme commander in Japan, otherwise known as Gaijin Shogun was on his ‘clean up and purge the old leadership’ mode. The Japanese bureaucracy was sullenly taking new orders, while the survivors or Hibaikusha were tottering about coping with the aftereffects of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few more bombs had been readied, but were mercifully not used, for Japan quickly surrendered. The once proud people now averted their eyes and refused to stare at fate.

Two years later India witnessed tragedy and triumph. It had become independent finally, freeing itself from the imperialist British yoke and Jawaharlal Nehru had become prime minister. Pakistan was created and the partition on the East and West borders brought suffering, tragedy and a multitude of deaths. Nehru wrestled with the arduous task of quietening the country and assimilating the many states, provinces and kingdoms of British India. In this he was helped by many an administrator from the south, and we have already talked about many of them, VK Krishna Menon, VP Menon, KM Panikkar and so on. There were other global challenges and with a nonaligned concept spearheading his actions, Nehru set about in right earnest.

He said in 1947 - We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which had led in the past to world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale. In 1951, he repeated - We have to try to understand others, just as we expect them to understand us. We cannot seek peace in the language of war or threats. But I guess, as Nehru himself realized, friends would soon become foes and violence continuously stood up and peeked through its hooded eyes at the meek public.

But now I take you to Japan, a period when the western world decried the actions of Japan as an axis power and the mauled country was subjected to many conditions, sometimes dishonorable, undignified and affecting its sovereignty. Many changes took place with large scale reconstruction starting around 1948 and a democratic constitution replaced the military influence and the rule of monarchy. The gaijin Shogun was firing away with reforms, and industries such as the bombed out Mitsubishi resurrected itself to rebuild the infrastructure. By 1949, MacArthur made changes to the power structure which increased the power of Japanese, and we see the occupation begin to draw to a close.

India’s relationship with Japan was slightly shaky, for it had been the supporter of INA which was at loggerheads with Nehru’s INC and the British. Subhash Chandra Bose was gone from the midst of the INA and Japan was still home to a few of the old INA stalwarts, one of them being NairSan or AM Nair. Japan was also home to some 750 businessmen from India, and a few students. Rama Rao was the first head of the Indian Liaison mission in Tokyo and quickly got on the wrong side of the imperial MacArthur who was already unhappy with India’s overtures to help a stricken Japan, instead of toeing behind the SCAP (supreme commander of allied powers). Rao quietly told him that India was no longer British but was an independent country. RB Pal and Govinda Menon came for the war trials, and made their mark with independent opinions. Nairsan watched and waited, and was involved often as an advisor or interpreter to some of these Indian officials (I had briefly introduced Nairsan earlier, but I promise, I will do a detailed article on him soon).

If I told you that this was the time when an elephant ambassador came to Japan, would you believe me? Well, this was exactly what happened. The Ueno zoo suffered after the war with a lack of feed for the animals and it became so bad that only people who brought in food got admission. Tonki an Indian elephant in the zoo had died tragically (three of them had to be killed off during the war – see article under references). By 1949, some animals were sent from Utah (many Japanese internees in the US were relocated to Utah and they mooted the transfer) to the depleted zoo. But they did not have an elephant, and the children of the Taito-ward, submitted a request to SCAP asking for an Asian elephant. The SCAP-GHQ which had to authorize the import, turned a blind eye. Soon a petition drive was launched and some 900-1500 kids wrote to Pt Nehru in India asking for an elephant. A reporter named Shimura collected these letters and gave them to a businessman Niyogi who knew Nehru and who was returning to India. With all this noise, the SCAP finally accorded import permission in July 1949. Nehru agreed to gift an elephant so long as Japan paid the $2,000 shipping cost. The elephant chosen was smart 15 year old with four toes (auspicious 8 symbols of Buddhism) on each foot and involved with timber logging (but well trained), from the hills of the Western Ghats. It was named Indira after Nehru’s daughter. By Sept 1949, she was on the way to Japan, though quite disgusted having to leave its abode.

Nehru wrote – “Indira is a fine elephant, very well-behaved. I hope that when the children of India and the children of Japan will grow up, they will serve not only their great countries, but also the cause of peace and cooperation all over Asia and the world. So you must look upon this elephant, Indira by name, as a messenger of affection and goodwill from the children of India. The elephant is a noble animal. It is wise and patient, strong and yet, gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.”

The elephant ambassador from India was on the way. Sugaya Kitsuichiro was sent to India to escort it to its new home and two Indian mahouts were to accompany it, but return after training the Japanese. The ship Encho Maru carrying it was hit by typhoons and rains, Indira was thoroughly seasick on the way. Special permission had been accorded for the ship to stop at Okinawa and collect fresh bananas and palm leaves for Indira. Life magazine captured the disembarkation at Japan, in pictures. Arriving at Yokohama on Sept 23rd, it was heralded as a reborn Tonki. 

In the meantime a Thai elephant Gachako had arrived, but when the majestic Indira stepped on Japanese shores, it blew away the breaths from the populace. The official presentation took place in Oct with the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. Indira was a worker elephant, not a performer and the Zoo needed performances to keep the children amused. But Indira only listened to Kannada commands and the mahouts quickly set about training the trainers in Kannada language, and this took two months. And as they said in Japan, Indira fever had caught the populace…

By April 1950, the people of Japan wanted to see the pachyderm and so a travelling menagerie hit the roads. The demoralized villagers were seeing the majestic vegetarian beast with twinkling eyes from India, that distant abode of Buddha who had given them their religion and the well-known Bodhidharama. It is said that their spirits were restored, though I would take that report with a pinch of salt. Shimura the reporter who started it all was asked to accompany Indira. He was told ‘guard the elephant with your life, you can easily be replaced by many, but Indira can never be’. Indira was not amused with all the related activity and became very nervous, but was eventually calmed down after ingesting some sweets. In fact it turned out to be a terrible trip with the elephant being fed all kinds of rubbish food and it playing truant. Some 4 million people paid to see her and after this turbulent trip it was finally installed in the Ueno zoo.

The elephant was loved by everybody in Japan. Children who were starving brought sweet potatoes for Indira. They waved Japanese flags when she passed by. Indira on the other hand, must have dreamed of coconut trees and rice balls with sesame oil, her life in India, and of tuskers…….

Douglas Mcarthur, the man who smoked a Popeye style pipe, had in the meantime returned to America and Japan was quietly and efficiently rebuilding itself. The world decided to let the country back into the international fold and a big conference was arranged at San Francisco. Dulles was the architect of the new treaty. But India would have no part of it. Pt Nehru refused to attend the 1951 San Francisco peace conference. Minister Jayawardene of Ceylon attending the meeting, on the other hand went one step further and stated that it was important to be magnanimous to a defeated foe and refused to accept payment of any reparations that would harm Japan's economy and quoted a Buddhist teaching – ‘hatred ceases not by hatred but by love’.

India signed a separate Peace Treaty with Japan in 1952. This Pundit Nehru felt, gave to Japan a proper position of honor and equality among the community of free nations. In that Peace Treaty, India waived all reparation claims against Japan. Each country accorded the other the most favored nation status. This interestingly was a treaty cobbled up by the ten Malayalees and signed off at Japan by a Malayalee ambassador Mr KK Chettur. Unbelievable, right?

KK Chettur (father of Jaya Jaitley), a nephew of Sir C Sankaran Nair and a rising bureaucrat, arrived at Japan around the time Indira did, as the head of the mission and quickly took AM Nair into his confidence to meet many reticent Japanese bigwigs who were cowering under Macarthur’s blacklists and purges. He was keen on building direct relationships with the future leaders of Japan and formulating a path for the decades to follow. Yoshida Shigeru, the PM whom we met at Indira’s acceptance ceremony earlier, was a good friend. KK was kept in the know about the discussions between Dulles and Shigeru and seeing the contents of the treaty in advance, made him realize that India could not be a party to it. Nehru who was quickly prepped, agreed and India disagreed to sign it due to some clauses relating to a security pact, which Japan were forced to agree.

India signed a separate peace and amity treaty with Japan in 1952. The simple pact can be found under references and makes interesting reading. This carefully prepared treaty was drafted in Delhi by a decision making team of Nehru, set up for this purpose. Interestingly (per AM Nair’s reminiscences) it comprised KK Chettur the head of the Japanese mission, AM Nair (nairsan – advisor), NR Pillai ( Foreign secretary), KPS Menon (Foreign secretary), VK Krishna Menon (British HC and roving ambassador) , N Raghavan ( French ambassador), KM Panikkar (Chinese ambassador). Three others in Tokyo handling the rear end were KR Narayanan (later the president of India, somebody I had met), MS Nair (3rd secretary) and PS Parasuram (KK’s secretary).

If you know these people you will realize the high voltage situation. Each of them by himself was a handful and so if you put ten of them together, how could anything be worked out? Well, the ten gentlemen from Kerala indeed got together and worked it all out.

VC Trivedi, first secretary of the Japanese mission theorized that it worked out in the following fashion. Dulles had recruited 20 people in Delhi to lobby the US position and get India to sign up at San Francisco. Nehru decided to minimize costs and counter with half the number and selected them from the smallest state. But life is never simple, and Vijayalakshmi Pundit, Nehru’s sister (refer the second part of my Syud Hossain articles) was pushing for India to sign it and make it her big American success, as ambassador to the US. But Nehru vetoed it eventually and the ten Kerala gentlemen forged out the Japanese treaty. Even though India was suffering from the pangs of poverty and strife at that moment, it signed off any potential reparation from Japan.

Nehru followed up the delivery of the elephant in 1949, later with supply of steel for Japan’s rebuilding and Ceylon supplied much needed rice. India also offered to mediate between Japan and the Soviet bloc, while Japan transferred (1955-6) the iconic Pilot pen technology (famous since 1918) to India. Nehru also promised to consider sending a companion for Indira.

Whatever happened to Indira the elephant? It continued to be a star attraction at the Ueno zoo. We next hear about it when Nehru and Indira Gandhi visited Japan in 1957 and met the animal personally. It was the first thing he wanted to do after landing in Japan. In 1967, a young elephant Jumbo joined the zoo and it pushed Indira into a 9 foot deep moat after a brief quarrel. Indira clambered out over the spectator fence and became restless when a hovering news helicopter added to the noise of panicked spectators. Its old mahout Ochai Seigo lying in bed and dying of cancer was summoned as a last resort and he succeeded in calming Indira. Seigo went back to his hospital bed and died 10 days later.

But Indira had been traumatized by the above event and refused to lie down, to sleep ever after. For those who do not know, an elephant stops lying down when it realizes that it cannot get up from that position on its own. Her condition deteriorated and it even fell down while sleeping once, but stabilized. In 1972 a couple of giant pandas from China took over her star status and finally aged 49, Indira died in 1983. It had watched over Japan’s recovery for over three decades as a true ambassador of peace.

Addressing the departed friend, the Director of the Zoo said, “You came from a faraway country. It must have been so difficult for you to get used to this new country that became your home. And yet you brought cheer to so many, day after day, for so many years. You will never be forgotten. We pray for the peace of your soul.”

Lalitha Menon wife of KPS Menon wrote - In front of a beautifully decorated picture of Indira, everyone bowed, and maybe a tear was shed in memory of a truly dear friend. 

In 1995 Indira’s bones were reconstructed and you can see it at the natural history museum in Ueno. The ambassador of peace still looks on serenely as the children of Japan troop by.

Life went on, Japan rose to become a global giant, Nehru died soon after the China crisis, Krishna Menon was sidelined, while each of the other Kerala gentlemen did well as India forged on with its difficulties and amalgamated the states.

AM Nair became a businessman and his curry power was aptly named Indira curry powder after the Indian elephant, the very symbol of India. His detailed story is something I am currently studying and will come out as a separate article. He died in 1990, at the age of 85. He had lived in Japan for most of his life, known fondly as the Nairsan of Tokyo, purveyor of Indira Curry powder. I have not visited the Nair restaurant in Ginza Tokyo, but I hope to do so, someday.

Indira Gandhi hearing about Indira’s demise, was naturally upset and sent two more elephants to Japan in Sept 1984. A month later she was assassinated.

Nehru had said - The elephant is a noble animal. It is wise and patient, strong and yet, gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.

Did we become wise and patient? Are we strong yet gentle? You decide….

Japanese Wartime Zoo Policy: The Silent Victims of World War II Mayumi Itoh
An Indian freedom fighter in Japan - Memories of AM Nair – AM Nair
Starving the Elephants: The Slaughter of Animals in Wartime Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo Frederick S. Litten 

Courtesy Life Magazine – Oct 17th 1949, photo division (GOI), thanks to the many others who uploaded the other pics.


Unknown said...


I stumbled upon your blog while trying to understand "PranaNathan Enikku Nalkiya" song and Irayyimman Thanpi. I was impressed with your blog post on this and other posts, what a treat! You have put in so much effort and research in your posts about sopana sangeetham, attakatha, sangeetham and history of our land with no bias or judgement, the way it should be, loved it, hats off to you Sir!

Enjoyed reading your posts, thank you! I am sure many will benefit from your effort, at least I learned something!

--Another nomad (may I say so)

Maddy said...

Thanks Mohan
Welcome to my world....
I hope you find even more articles worth perusing - between this and the other two blogs I do (see links on top - Historic alleys & musical avenues).

I enjoy all the research work and writing them, as you can imagine...

Happy Kitten said...

What a powerful writing!

Reading about Indira brought tears to my eyes too.

Nehru had said - The elephant is a noble animal. It is wise and patient, strong and yet, gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities..

Let us hope so..

Seasons Greetings..wishing you and yours a very happy 2015.

Maddy said...

thanks HK
pleasure hearing from you as always..
wishing you and family a merry xmas and a happy new year...

Haddock said...

Wonderful. Enjoyed reading this.
The most gentle animal that roams our planet today - The Elephant.

Maddy said...

Thanks Joe..
I agree, as always...I am preferential to the elephant..
like most Malayalees

trees said...

Interesting post, intertwining the people who write history with the life of an elephant. But let us speak up about this tradition of gifting and receiving animals. It is a custom whereby a creature, that cannot speak for itself, is sent into strange and unfamiliar terrain. If that is not an act of cruelty, what else would one term it? The same holds good for zoos. Or circuses.

Maddy said...

Thanks trees,
the same thing would hold good for anybody having one of those animals as a pet at home, right? taking it out of its natural habitat and retraining it for its existence together with man and under his foot!

Questioning man and his nefarious ways is easy, but all this is unfortunately part of human nature and yet another form of subjugation.

പുരാണതത്വങ്ങൾ said...

Wonder how many remember the New Delhi Asian Games of 1982 and the mega inaugural ceremony consisting of caparisoned tuskers with their mahouts. The mascot was a baby elephant by name Appu. On 1st November the then Chief Minister of Kerala, Shri K. Karunakaran flagged off the special train from Thrissur carrying 26 adults and 8 calves. Eight elephant calves were put in two closed bogie covered wagons and 13 open 8-wheeler bogie wagons were used for the adult pachyderms. The Special also had four water tanks and four bogie covered wagons with 100 tons of luscious palm leaves as fodder. The passenger list included 112 mahouts, 6 veterinary doctors, 19 personnel of the Kerala Police and a big number of helpers, attendants and cooks apart from officials. A dining car was also present. The unique 164 hours journey, at an incredibly slow speed of 18 km an hour, was carefully planned. The elephants were ferried with so much care. Only four elephants managed to sleep on the journey and eight were so terrified by the travel that they had to be given sedatives to soothe their nerves. The jumbo express took a longer route skipping the Madras Vijayawada electrified line for fear of the animals being electrocuted by accident