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Elephant memories apart

Tania James offers an insight into the elephant's mind, while exploring the human-animal conflict through a range of narrative techniques

By Anupam Srivastava
Published: Monday 15 June 2015

SOME NOVELS tell the story through a linear plot with flashbacks providing brief or long digressions. Then, there are novels that portray a situation from the perspectives of different characters, compelling the reader to divide his/her sympathies, blurring the boundary between the right and the wrong. In novels such as The Bhowani Junction, through the narratives of different characters, the reader is placed ahead of the game as he/she is offered foreknowledge of what will follow, which is not known to other characters. The Tusk that did the Damage is a masterful deployment of a narrative technique which is both complex as well as engaging, using perspectives and varied chronology and prose that is witty and precise.

The central character of the novel is Gravedigger, the tusker, who as a helpless calf sees his mother being brutally killed by poachers who then hack off her tusks in the Kavanar Wildlife Park in south India. The little calf grows up with traumatic memories of this experience and eventually ends up as Gravedigger, the killer elephant who is dreaded by common people and poachers alike. There are three narrators in the novel-filmmaker Emma who is visiting the forests of south India with her associate and friend Teddy; Manu, a poacher’s brother; and Gravedigger himself. But Gravedigger is not a narrator. The third-person account stays close to the elephant and offers an insight into the elephant’s experience, so much so that the voice at times appears to be of Gravedigger. The story is set in the forests and villages where Gravedigger initially spends many years in captivity before he breaks free and acquires his near-mythical stature as a killer of humans who also buries them.

Tania James’ narrative technique is at work when she positions the narratives in a manner that while in the account of the elephant’s life he is still in captivity, in the preceding narratives of others, he is already famed as Gravedigger. The time lag intrigues as it foretells the latter part of the story without giving it away.


The narrative on the poacher’s life-his trials and tribulations-creates compassion for the poacher and does not label him as an obvious villain. The novel makes a strong comment on the “new law” that forbids local people from collecting and using forest produce, leaving them with fewer options to eke out a livelihood, and even leading them towards illegal yet lucrative options such as poaching. Manu’s account also depicts the human-animal conflict: “If this didn’t scare the herd away, we would use crackers and rockets. But the herd became wise to our ways. They learned that our racket had no teeth to it, so they kept on eating their way through six months of our back-bent work.”

For someone seeking to understand the complex interplay of factors in forest conservation, The Tusk that did the Damage offers rich content without letting go the weight of information on the reader. Communities, poachers, elephants, forest officials, film-makers and an array of characters-major and minor-come in and go out of the plot at precise locations, making the novel a page-turner. There are on-the-go scenes which could have been part of any book, and are there to make the book a racy read, while there are others that are as close to the subject as one could possibly get to. In one powerful scene, a poacher waits for a female elephant-whose son he has killed-to withdraw so that he can remove his tusks. She does not. She waits for one full day. The poacher waits too.

Finally, his patience runs out and he shoots the mother elephant dead. The elephant in James’ novel has human qualities, one who feels, one who has a memory. “He remembers everything. That is the elephant’s great gift,” writes James.

The novel takes the time to explore human relationships and in some scenes, elephants and forests fade into insignificance. In one scene, when Teddy surprises Emma by kissing her, she writes a witty reflection of her experience: “How weird to be friends for five years and then, in the space of a second, be conjoined at the face.”

What is creditable is that even as the author explores the underlying conflicts with great insight, The Tusk that did the Damage, at its heart, remains a poignant story, using language skillfully, without beating about the bush. A very enjoyable read!

Anupam Srivastava works with the Media Resource Centre of the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi. He is also the author of The Brown Sahebs, a novel.

"So WHY are the villagers protesting?" I asked.

"The villagers say that poacher was not responsible for the Sitamala elephant. They say he was unarmed when he died," Bobin snorted, shook his head. "Even though he was carrying the same type of bullet we found on the Sitamala elephant."

"So what's their theory?" Teddy asked.

"They say we are conspiring with the Forest Department. They say we planted the bullet on the man's body. What kind of nonsense."

PLANTED:the word sent a jolt through my gut. I turned back to the TV, where the anchorwoman sped through the rest of her report. Several times, she mentioned a "MrShivaram" beneath a shot of a sweaty, disheveled man leading the others, the cords in his throat pulled taut.

"Who is that?" I asked.

Bobin glanced at the screen. "Must be the dead man's brother."


Tania James is an Indian American novelist who graduated from Harvard University. Tania was also a Fulbright fellow to India from 2011-2012

"I knew I wanted to write about the human-elephant conflict, which is as much a problem in Assam and Odisha as it is in Kerala. In fact I did a good deal of research in Assam as well. But these creatures play a more important and sacred role in Kerala than maybe in any other state in India, maybe even the world. And the fact that I speak some Malayalam and have access to broad networks of people in Kerala made it easier to envision embarking on a project like this, which would require a lot of research. So, I am returning to Kerala in the realm of fiction, but it is a side of Kerala I have never encountered," Tania James was quoted as saying in an interview (The Hindu, April 4, 2015).
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