Shambu and Kanchan are the same age, more or less: 50. And they’ve lived their whole lives together, more or less. When he was just 10, Shambu started training with his dad in Bihar to learn how to take care of elephants – and after 10 years, finally got Kanchan to himself – and he has taken care of her for the past 30 years.
They know each other inside and out – he knows when she is happy, when she is sad, when she is hungry or tired, angry or thirsty. He knows her so well that there is no mental or emotional space left in his life for a wife or kids – Kanchan takes up more than enough room in his heart. “Bibi tension dete hai. Gumne chaiye, achhe kapade pehna chaise, khana chaiye.” (Wives are stressful. They want to go out, they want to wear nice clothes, they want to eat.) Kanchan, on the other hand, wants little more than 1 ton of freshly cooked atta roti a day.
There used to be over 60 elephants in Delhi; now there are only 6 or 7 and that number is dwindling further as the government tightens restrictions. They can be rented out for the day for weddings, parties, parades or big events. They live by the Yamuna River, next to ITO, where they eat, sleep and bathe.
At the time of these photos (mid 2015), Kanchan was due with her first child in about 5 months. Elephants are pregnant for almost 2 years (20 months) before giving birth. Shambu was busy preparing – it requires a lot of money and a lot of patience and bureaucracy to register a baby elephant plus he had to secure a new mahout for the new arrival – someone who will live alongside Kanchan and himself as he trains the mahout and the mahout trains the baby. The baby elephant will take the mahout’s last name and a lifelong relationship will start.
Just like Kanchan and Shambu’s. Like a proud father, he boasts: “Kanchan sab se sundar hai, na?” (Kanchan is the most beautiful, isn’t she?)