The Tusk That Did the Damage

This timely novel set in South India tells the story of contemporary ivory poaching from three perspectives a documentary filmmaker, a poacher, and from an elephant named Gravedigger.

A calf who watched his mother and other members of the elephant clan die brutally, Gravedigger grows up in captivity until he breaks his chains and slips into the forest. There he seldom shows mercy for humans.

Tania James succeeds in showing each of these beings as having complex needs. Even the poachers, two brother, named Jayan and Manu, aren’t presented as evil even though Jayan is jailed for killing 56 elephants, including a mother who waited and grieved for two days after her son died.

But this book is not all doom and gloom. The author describes the setting beautifully and captures the pressures and love shared by Jayan’s family.  His wife, Leela, an ex-prostitute is one of the strongest and most interesting characters.  After one elephant death, she asks her husband, “Why did you kill a god?”

The filmmaker, Emma, describes the country lyrically. She also becomes the center of attention for both Teddy, the videographer, and Ravi, an extremely serious and dedicated vet at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehab Center.

While reading, you also learn a lot about elephants. James has done her research. In one chapter, a mother elephant reunites with her calf despite being separated a few days. In the wild, this rarely happens. She also describes the male animals under musth, a state of hormones during rutting season that makes the males more aggressive and often dangerous.

In an especially poignant chapter Old Man (an elephant keeper) tells the new young helper a story about a boy who became an elephant. It’s a lyrical folk tale slipped into a novel.

All the competing stories build to a climax that keeps you reading this unusual and evocative book. If you are fascinated by Gravedigger and the other elephants, try Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, a novel about survival in a herd of elephants.