Art & Culture

The secret life of elephants revealed

Anvar Alikhan
Anvar AlikhanApr 06, 2015 | 19:27

The secret life of elephants revealed

Modern literature is filled with anthropomorphic classics

I love the word "anthropomorphic" - a deliciously weighty word, which means the giving of human characteristics to animals. Modern literature is filled with anthropomorphic classics, such as Watership Down, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Animal Farm, Moby Dick and Winnie the Pooh.

And to that canon we might now perhaps add Tania James's The Tusk That Did the Damage. Set in Kerala, it is the story of an elephant the villagers call "the Gravedigger". Having had his mother killed in front of his eyes by poachers when he was a baby, and having been ill-treated in captivity in childhood, the elephant finally breaks free, escapes into the forest and turns rogue. He silently stalks the overlapping habitats of humans and elephants, serially killing the humans he has learned to distrust and hate. But, in what seems to be an almost human manner, he then proceeds to ritually bury his victims, under mounds of branches and earth.


The story of the Gravedigger is inter-twined with two parallel narratives: that of an ivory poacher, and that of a young American film-maker, who is making a documentary on the subject of human-elephant conflict. Hence the novel looks at the story from three different angles, continually shifting its point of view from one to the other. The author, being a trained film maker, intercuts skilfully between these three points of view, goading the story on towards its inevitable, tragic climax.

The Tusk That Did The Damage is especially memorable for the sections narrated from the point of view of the elephant. The author has evidently done a great deal of research into her subject and writes about the animal with enormous empathy and tenderness (in fact, the Gravedigger himself was apparently based on a true elephant story that she came across during her research). The result is passage after passage of extraordinary lyricism and beauty about the nature and secret lives of elephants. Consider this, for example:

"In his earliest days, his name was a sound only his kin could make in the hollows of their throats, and somewhere in his head, fathoms deep, he kept it close. Other memories he kept: running through his mother's legs, toddling in and out of her footprints. The bark of soft saplings, the salt licks, the duckweed, the tang of river water opening and closing around his feet…."


Or this:

"Once there was a clan of elephants who came across a pile of bones, picked clean by birds. The bones belonged to a young cow elephant they had known, and the elephants took turns in sniffing and cradling her remains. Still a calf, the Gravedigger had stood between his mother's legs and watched as she dipped her trunk into the hollows and sockets of the skull. A deep sea murmur in his ears. That was how he learned to grieve the dead. The memory came back to him as he wrapped his trunk around the pappan's ankle and pulled him next to the corpse of the boy, trailing a dark sweep of red. Old Man was last. The Gravedigger touched his breathless mouth and locked that smell in some chamber of his brain. Then he curled Old Man into his trunk and laid him across the others…."

In fact, given the immense beauty and lyricism of the elephant narrative, one wonders what would have happened if the entire novel had been written from the elephant's point of view. But then it would have become an entirely different kind of book, with an entirely different messaging, which is obviously not what the author intended.


Tania James is one of the exciting new voices that has emerged on the US literary scene in recent times. The child of immigrants from Kerala, she grew up in Kentucky, studied film making at Harvard, won a Fulbright scholarship, and has earlier written a well reviewed novel (Atlas of Unknowns) and a collection of short stories (Aerograms). The Tusk That Did The Damage is an accomplished novel, but one senses that Tania James is destined to do greater things. One looks forward now to her next book.

Last updated: August 12, 2018 | 11:48
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