What Shape is An Elephant?

Some good things came out of the swine flu! Kids were on forced holiday and flocked to the library to find shelter in books.

It was on one such morning that I sat down the motley bunch to a reading of ” What shape is an Elephant?” : an adaptation of a poem by saint-philosopher Rumi.

Its a story that we have met in school text books for decades. An elephant is a novelty in Persia and in the dead of the night a group of curious men and women enter the tent where the gentle giant is kept to find out what exactly this animal from India looks like.

“Its like a Pillar!” exclaims one who feels the elephants leg. The other rubbishes his claim quickly and says the elephant is much like a fan, for he felt the elephants ears in the darkness. The argument continues as each man claims he is right. “If only one of them had brought a candle along” says Rumi….

“So what does this story mean?” I asked the kids. Pat came the reply from a corner: “Aunty, it means the real truth is always something else!” I marvelled at how the simplest of stories can result in the greatest learning. My young friend did not know how big his discovery was when he used the word “real truth”. For it implies, that each one of those men in the story spoke the truth when they touched and felt the elephant. They were not wrong for their truth was determined by the width of their palms and what it could feel. But their folly lay in insisting that theirs was the only truth!

I love story sessions because they always end like this: the kids take away whatever they can by the discussion and say the most amazing things and I am always left with more learning than I ever imagined would come out of a simple poem in translation. So the next time we argue and fight over what we “believe is right”, we would do well to pause and wonder what shape is our elephant ?