This book was received through the aegis of Penguin Random House India in exchange of an honest review
Stories that deal with the animal-human conflict in India began and ended with the wonderful memoirs of the much revered Jim Corbett written decades ago. Similarly, stories that include authentic veterinarians in their plots came in the form of the almost memoir-like writings of the great Yorkshireman James Herriot. Stories of life in Indian villages when presented to us readers are either idyllic like those of the fictional Malgudi or unbelievably morose and depressing like Godan. Tania James manages to spin all three plots into her story in an incredibly balanced and surprisingly non-judgmental narrative.
The Indian book cover is fantastic – whimsical, colorful and reminiscent of the movie ‘Madagascar’. The other cover sadly has an African elephant on its cover for the story of an Indian elephant. The cover designers have unfortunately registered a clear miss from my point of view. I would have loved to see an Indian elephant decked up for religious functions as they are in South India and in the story too. Why won’t cover designers read the book before dreaming up a cover instead of trying to literally interpret the title according to their sensibilities instead of those the poor author is trying to convey!
The story is told through three perspectives – that of a woman working to make a documentary on elephant rescue in south India, through the eyes of a poacher who hunts elephants for their ivory and from that of the rogue elephant that has terrorized the villagers for years and has almost become a legend. Each story blends seamlessly with the other making a solid, believable, cohesive whole.
The elephant who goes on to become famous by the moniker ‘Gravedigger’ in his later years narrates a heart-rending story of tragedy that is played out all too often in national parks in Asia and Africa every day. Poachers kill his mother while attacking the herd and leave the calf to starve to death. He is subsequently rescued by the forest rangers and taken to a rehabilitation camp to be later put to work. Unfortunately, the gravedigger is burdened with the long memory of his kind. It haunts him throughout his life and leads him down the path that he eventually takes.
The poacher’s story is narrated by Manu, a younger son of an alcoholic father, an intelligent fellow, good at school and, contrary to all appearances, very attached to his family. Like all younger brothers he looks up to Jagan, his older brother and believes him to be everything that is cool. The descriptions of his life on the tiny family farm, the shenanigans of young men in small towns, the joys and sorrows of a farmer’s life ring so true that anyone who has ever lived in a village will be nodding along in agreement.
Emma is a young American woman working on a documentary on elephant rehabilitation work in the forests of South India. She brings the idealistic American perspective to the whole picture, while still trying to comprehend the social-norms of a culture so far removed from her own. Also, she is young and given to romantic turns of logic to most things that seem not so straightforward to her. Falling for the rugged Indian veterinarian felt like a wrong move on her part and as a reader one feels incredible sympathy for Teddy who made the mistake of sorting out his feelings for her a bit too late in the day.
James’ descriptions of the sarkari work ethic would well lead some to believe she was born and brought up to it, as do her spot-on portrayals of small land-holding farmers and the dialogue that portrays the unintentional prejudice that most Indians are brought up with. It therefore comes as a severe shock to realize that she has been born and brought up in the US. How then did she manage to understand the ins and outs of Indian society so well one wonders, when more often than not even those brought up in Indian cities are so completely out of touch with the realities of village lives and politics? This is her greatest triumph in writing this book from my point of view. It is authentic in every tiny detail.
The poacher in her story is a young man wanting to make an easy buck and is portrayed in a sympathetic light, yet she leaves no doubts in the reader’s mind just how dangerous and ruthless these men can be. Forest rangers are forever in the unenviable position of being attacked by these desperate men in the heart of the jungles they patrol. While some may feel Ravi’s actions as beyond redemption, one must not forget that he did not know the poacher as well as the readers and for him trying to save a scared old man’s pension would seem more important than justice for an unknown thief who was out to kill innocent, endangered animals for his gain and who may easily have harmed any humans who came in his path. On the flip side of the coin, his action while saving one man’s income deprived an innocent man’s family of the (paltry) compensation that they would have received from the forest department if the matter had been pursued. Ravi while being an essentially honest and hard-working person was also a slave to his cause, hence he willingly made a choice against his principles in exchange of a somewhat shaky promise of gaining more help for his project. Rational, intelligent people have done worse to promote what they believe in time and time again.
Tania presents the compromises that honest men and women carry out in our country to placate the corrupt and powerful in order to do good elsewhere in a matter-of-fact manner. This concept is difficult for the very idealistic or very young to understand at the best of times, but maybe reading it in this story will make more of us sit back and ponder what may be classified as right or wrong or something in between and what would one do in a similar situation.
Kudos to Tania James for a great great story!