Book Review: The Tusk That Did the Damage
How often is it that we meet a protagonist who is recognized as one of the biggest mammals walking on earth? This was certainly a first for me and such was its grandeur that it will forever be etched in my memory. Period.
From the critically acclaimed author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes, here is Tania James’ latest adventure-cum-tragedy set in South India that explores the devastating implications of the ivory trade.
‘He would come to be called as the Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the jackfruit Freak, the great Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan.’
These are the opening two lines of the book that introduces us to the tusker who has gone rogue and is wreaking havoc in south of India. He tramples his victims and buries them with leaves and dirt before wandering into the forest and popping out from someplace else to recreate the scene all over again—hence, earning himself the infamous title ‘the Gravedigger’. And yet, he was once a little calf whose life was ripped apart by poachers who shot his mother dead in front of his eyes. The memories still haunt him and that is only a part of the reason why he does what he does.
This part of the narration is from the elephant’s point of view, a unique way to implement the third person narrative that gives us a glimpse into the animal’s damaged yet compassionate psyche. Overall, The Tusk That Did the Damage takes place entirely in India and is told from three different perspectives: an elephant, an American filmmaker and a local poacher. The point of view shifts between the narrators, allowing the various pieces to come together and entwine with one another—culminating in a story that is sensitive as well as engaging.
The Gravedigger begins his story by recalling the death of his herd. These memories haunt him day and night in a manner not too dissimilar to humans perhaps. Having been a witness to the massacre of his family and subsequently captured and put into captivity by the humans, Gravedigger has a strong vendetta against them.
Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer recounts his poacher brother’s story, which is on a parallel track with the Gravedigger, the reason being that the tusker killed their teenaged cousin Raghu. As a result of this catastrophe, Manu, with his unruly brother Jayan, is drawn into the dirty, alluring world of poaching. Not to mention the other grave problems involved in their poverty-stricken lives that forced their hand into the grim profession.
Emma, the American filmmaker, along with her college friend Teddy, is in India to make a documentary on elephants and Dr. Ravi— the attractive Vet who rescues young, orphaned calves from poachers and also reunites mothers with their lost calves. By filming these intense scenes and interviewing people involved in the business, Emma tries to stick together the pieces she had come in search of.
As the plot struts forward, various issues ranging from political to professional to romantic to familial to ecological raise questions that need answering. Here, the three story lines submerge into one and the novel dashes towards its tragic climax.
Tania James’s writing and storytelling is nothing short of brilliance. Her portrayal of rural Kerala is spot on: a scenic yet tragic place where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rogue elephant; where a new man is driven to poaching everyday and where western ideas clash with local myths and beliefs. The Tusk That Did the Damage indeed blends various flavors into one melting pot—the result being an utterly original tale that captures a beautiful creature in its truest form. This is an author who has penned a sensitive-yet-brutal, and a simple-yet-complex novel that portrays the current scenario of the growing tension between man and nature. The elephant is on the threshold of becoming endangered as poachers continue to drag the count low for the mere ivory in their tusks. The book also makes one realize that Elephants are creatures with a razor sharp memory that can forever scar their lives, if shoved to experience tragic events like killing and blood bathing.
The Tusk That Did the Damage is an interesting adventure that is laced with plenty of events and carried on by its brilliant characters—none more beautiful that the epic Sooryamangalam Sreegganeshen. The book is a tragic account of events that would mellow even the most emotionless of hearts. Your heart simply goes out to the Gravedigger and the poacher and the filmmaker—so much so that you wish the story didn’t have to end.
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