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If you heard about a novel set in India and written, in part, from the perspective of an elephant, you might tut-tut about the persistence of offensive Orientalist fantasies in modern literature. But The Tusk that Did the Damage, the latest novel by D.C.-based writer Tania James (the Indian-American author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes), doesn’t trade in stereotypes and caricatures. Original and multi-layered, the story compensates for its overstuffed pages with captivating storylines and searing imagery.
In clear, elegant prose, James captures the majestic beauty of elephants, the despair of impoverished villagers, and their bloody attempts at self-reliance. When a Forest Department official shows Leela, wife of poacher Jayan, a picture, James drives home the consequences of their actions: “Slowly she made out the twin gray hills that crowned the head, the flaccid ears on either side, but where there should have been a face was a cavity yawning wide, a maw of cut cords and rutted surfaces, a mulch of crimson and bone.”
In a lush region of southern India teeming with wildlife, friction has long marred the relationships between humans and animals. James relates the moving saga of an elephant orphaned by poachers at a young age and sold into a life of labor as a living exhibition show. (This is a common practice in Western countries, too, though activists recently persuaded Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey to phase out elephant shows in their circuses by 2018.) Enraged by the abuse and indignity he’s suffered, the elephant breaks free and roams the forests, consumed with hatred of humans. Fearful villagers dub him the Gravedigger for his lethal capabilities.
Alongside the Gravedigger’s story, which is narrated in the third person from his perspective, James relates those of local boy Manu (Jayan’s younger brother) and nearby Kavanar National Park. Manu, who narrates, laments his plight: “The new laws forbid us from doing anything in the park, not walking, not even picking up a finger length of firewood without being fined for trespass and stealing. Stealing from trees that had dropped us fruit and firewood for centuries!” He may follow Jayan into poaching.
The novel’s third tale concerns the efforts of Americans Emma and Teddy, both recent college graduates, to make a documentary film about charismatic veterinarian Ravi Varma, head of the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. Despite his noble work for elephants, Varma may have something to do with the Forest Department’s shady deal with a timber company. Yet Emma, who narrates, seems smitten with him.
These three storylines don’t end abruptly or leave important matters unresolved, but they feel unnaturally condensed and intersect only occasionally. James has enough material here for three novels (with three storylines already in place), but has decided to cram it all into one. Still, it’s worth nibbling on if only for James’ delicious, lyrical writing: You won’t soon forget her description of the “magical organ” that is an elephant’s trunk, “like an arm exploding out from the middle of the face, packed with enough muscle to knock down a tree, enough control in its tiny, tapering finger to grip a lima bean.” James conveys a palpable, infectious empathy for an animal that fascinates us from afar, even as she probes the mindset of the disadvantaged people driven to hunt it.
Tania James reads at Politics & Prose on March 14 and at Kramerbooks on March 25.