From the critically acclaimed author of Atlas of Unknowns and Aerogrammes, a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger.
Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature.
With lyricism and suspense, Tania James animates the rural landscapes where Western idealism clashes with local reality; where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rampaging elephant; where men are driven to poaching. In James’ arrestingly beautiful prose, The Tusk That Did the Damage blends the mythical and the political to tell a wholly original, utterly contemporary story about the majestic animal, both god and menace, that has mesmerized us for centuries.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
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The Tusk That Did the Damage
By Tania James
Random House LLCCopyright © 2015 Tania James
All rights reserved.
Everyone in Sitamala thinks they know my brother's story. On the contrary. They may know the tune, but I would bet a half bag of pepper the words are all wrong. I blame his wife's people for spreading slander, all those perfidious huge-hipped sisters, not a one half as lovely as Leela.
Our father was a rice farmer. He came from a time when to farm was a noble profession, when people sought our gandhakasala and our rosematta for their earthy fragrance superior to the stuff that now comes cheap from Vietnam. Who can remember those times with all these farms lying fallow and many a farmer's son gone to roost in a soft office chair? And who am I to blame them, I who have seen the Gravedigger for myself and felt its breath like a steam on my face?
Some say my brother stepped into the very snare he laid for the elephant. I say opinions are cheap from far. I will take you to the Gravedigger myself and let you meet its honey-colored eye. I will show you the day it first laid its foot on our scrawny lives. Then you tell me who was hunter and who was hunted.
To know our troubles, you must know what happened to my cousin Raghu. When I think on poor Raghu, I see him stoking a small fire. I see him nudging a stick aside so as to let the flames breathe. I have called up this image many a time as if I were with him in the palli as I should have been that night.
The palli was a paddy-roofed matchbox on bamboo legs stranded in the midst of his father's rice field, same as the ones in the neighboring fields. If a herd of elephants were to come glumping their way through the stalks, we were to wave the lantern and give the long caw that would set the others cawing. If this didn't scare the herd away, we used crackers and rockets. But the herds became wise to our ways. They learned that our racket had no teeth to it, so they kept on eating their way through six months' worth of our back-bent work. Sometimes we had to call the Forest Department; it would send three or four men to blind the beasts with headlights and fire ancient rifles. We called them greenbacks for their dingy green uniforms and their love of currency.
The herds were mostly cows, and they meant no personal harm unless you tampered with a calf. There is no one more fearsome than a mother enraged. In my youth I heard of a cow that cradled the carcass of her baby for days and would not be deprived of it.
Now the solo bull could be a very rude intruder. If one of those fellows were to pay us a visit, we were to leap out of the palli and race home. Do not be fooled by the lumps you see at the zoo—the elephant can run! Ask Raghu's father, who was only twenty years old when a bull elephant discovered him dozing in the palli. Synthetic Achan survived because he knew the elephant has weak eyes. Run straight and you will be trampled. Cut a zig-zag and you may confuse it.
Synthetic Achan felt Raghu was too young to sit guard in the palli alone, so he drafted me also. Yet I do not know where I was that night, probably testing my luck with some soft-bottomed girl. What to say. I was nineteen and had discovered that my visage had an effect on certain girls, so to speak. I pretended not to care about my visage, but Raghu needled me about the cream I occasionally raked through my hair. Sometimes he called me Styleking as in: "Eh Styleking, did you bathe in Brylcreem or stick the whole tub up your rump?"
"Yamini likes it."
"Up the rump?"
"Do not talk of her rump."
"I hear what I hear. And from the particulars, I would not touch her with a boatman's pole."
We bickered, but there was a comfort to our fuggy odors and the flash of our teeth in the dark. Other times we burrowed into the quiet, each of us privately wondering what kind of future awaited us. I had a habit of dozing, which Raghu allowed to a limit and would shake me awake only if I were to poof. "What is this," he would shout, flapping his hands about his face, "your personal shithouse?"
Whenever he gently tapped me awake, I knew I had been murmuring for my brother, something like Where is Jayan where is he, even though Jayan had been home for six months already. To spare me the shame, Raghu would only say I had been poofing again.
Humble as it was, our palli commanded a five-star view. To the north a phone tower climbed the sky. To the east an owl glared from its bamboo perch, swiveling its head for rodents among the stalks. To the west we watched the sunset pour over the teak- rimmed forest aka Kavanar Wildlife Park.
Our people had been walking the forest long before it took that fussy name. 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! Meanwhile, the laws looked kindly on the greenbacks and timber companies, their rows of rosewood, eucalyptus, teak.
So I had zero patience for Raghu's ramblings when he decided to tell all about the spectacle he had witnessed one day prior, starring his brand-new hero: Ravi Varma, Veterinary Doctor. I had never seen this Ravi Varma, M.D., though I had heard of his exploits with the greenbacks, and I was no fan of theirs nor his by association.
And what heroic feats had the cow doctor performed to deserve Raghu's worship? Pulled an elephant calf from a tea ditch, where the wee thing had tripped and fallen much to its mother's distress.
I told Raghu my demented old mammachi could pull an elephant calf from a tea ditch.
"Not only that," Raghu enthused. "The vet doctor got the mother to take back the baby."
Now this part was pure lie. "A mother elephant won't touch a calf that was handled by humans. Every idiot knows that."
"But she did! And she thanked him after."
"Did they shake hands too?"
"And two sayips were there, filming it all. BBC people I think."
This gave me pause. In those days, it was rare to see foreigners in our parts, and we were neither poor enough nor princely enough to appear on Western screens. I was minimally intrigued. What did the BBC want with us?
Raghu sighed, still dazzled by the memory of Ravi Varma, M.D. "It was something, Manu, I tell you."
Was Raghu musing about the mother and calf on his final evening? Did that sentimental memory lead him to lay down his guard? I imagine his last and lonesome hour, I see him drifting off, a breath from sleep, before he sits up quick to the snap of a broken branch.
In the silence he looks from one doorway to the other. He can open his lungs and caw and set the other pallis cawing, but what if it was only the snap of the fire? He hears me scoffing in his ears: A broken branch in the middle of a field?
Raghu hunkers beneath his blanket, hiding from the possibilities.
After a noiseless minute he can breathe again, relieved he never set to squawking like some half-brained bird. He draws deep on the comfort of woodsmoke, sure I will come. Until then, he will tend the fire alone.
Excerpted from The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James. Copyright © 2015 Tania James. Excerpted by permission of Random House LLC, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
The discussion questions and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Tusk That Did the Damage, a captivating new novel by Tania James.
1. Who are the narrators of the story and how do they challenge the boundaries of conventional narration? Would you categorize the narrators as reliable? Why or why not? How does the choice of narrators influence your reading of the story?
2. Consider the various points of view represented in the novel. The voice shifts from first person to third person between chapters, allowing readers to access the innermost thoughts of many different characters. What effect does this have on the reader? Does any one point of view ultimately seem to dominate the story? How might your interpretation of the book have differed if the story had been told in a single voice or from a single perspective?
3. Evaluate the monikers given to characters both in the chapters’ titles and within the story itself—Gravedigger, the Poacher, and so on. Are these monikers and designations always fitting or accurate? In the story, who assigns these names and how are they determined? How might this contribute to a broader dialogue about reputation and identity?
4. Teddy is chided for believing that an elephant waved to him. Do you believe that animals possess attributes that we might typically characterize as “human,” or do you feel that these attributes are mistakenly impressed upon them? How does one’s opinion on this subject contribute to one’s understanding of the relationship between man and animal, or is it irrelevant? How does the use of an elephant as a main character in the novel affect your thoughts on this subject? How do the author’s choices in this area help to shape the trajectory of the novel and influence the way a reader might interpret it?
5. Consider how the theme of the familial bond is treated within the book. Evaluate the relationship between Manu and Jayan, Jayan and Leela, but also relationships among the elephants. How does James characterize the relationship between mother and child or between siblings, for example? What commonalities are evident among the various families? Are the traits that are common among the human families also evident among the elephants? What conclusions might be drawn from this?
6. How does James seem to characterize the relationship between man and nature in the novel? For example, would the relationship as presented in the book best be described as reverential, complementary, threatening, or something else? Do you agree with the vision of the relationship between man and nature offered in the novel? Why or why not?
7. The characters in the novel are faced with complex ethical choices. Does the novel provide us with a clear sense of who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the story—or who is “good” and who is “bad”? What seems to influence the characters’ decision-making process? For example, how does the economic status of each character affect his or her decision making? Do you agree with the decisions made by Ravi and Emma at the end of the book? By Jayan and Manu?
8. Evaluate the treatment of memory in the novel. Whose memories are we privy to as readers? Old Man says that the elephant’s memory is a gift, but Mani-Mathai disagrees, saying it is actually a terrible gift (119). Does the incredible memory of the elephant ultimately seem to be portrayed as a gift or a curse in James’s book? How does memory seem to affect the human characters in the novel?
9. Do any of the characters experience regret or feelings of guilt as a result of their actions? Why or why not? Do the characters learn from their mistakes or repeat them? What might this indicate about human nature?
10. The characters in the story reveal various prejudices. What types of prejudices are evident in the book? What role do superstition, religious beliefs, and tradition each play in determining one’s convictions and prejudices? What might—or does—allow the characters to overcome these prejudices?
11. Many of the characters lie to or betray one another. Why do they do this? Do these betrayals and lies serve some greater purpose or are they simply mistakes motivated by self-interest?
12. Loss is a constant in the novel. Discuss the various examples of loss featured in the book. How do the characters react to loss? What overall message do you think the book offers on the subjects of grieving, coping, and loss?
13. Through the exchanges of the many characters, storytelling itself becomes a subject of the novel. Who in the novel would you consider a storyteller? What are some of the legends, myths, and folktales presented in the book? Do these stories contain any truth? Why do the characters share stories with one another?
14. Through the affair between Emma and Ravi, the author illuminates the complex relationship between artist and subject. Likewise, Teddy reminds us that “all film is manipulated to some degree” in order to get “closer to the truth” (104). Do you agree that a story needs to be manipulated in order to get closer to the truth? How does this relate to fiction? Does the relationship between artist and subject influence the final product? How do these considerations change or reinforce your interpretation of James’s book?
15. At one point Emma claims that she is trying to be objective in her work, while Teddy seems determined to create a film that will mirror his point of view. In your opinion, which is more vital to art: impartiality and neutrality or a strong point of view? Explain.
16. Consider the various ways in which elephants are depicted in the story—as fearful creature, as monsters, and as gods. Who provides these characterizations and what influences the way they think about the animal? Does any one characterization of the animal seem to overtake the others? Would you say that James ultimately presents a sympathetic rendering of the elephant, a condemning one, or a neutral one? How do her choices in characterizing the elephant ultimately contribute to your conclusions about their treatment and the choices of the human characters in the book?
17. While he is being filmed, Ravi says that “fear and worship are two sides of one coin” (171). What does he mean by this? Do you believe that he is correct?
18. Some political issues related to environmentalism are addressed within the story with characters falling on different sides of the issues. Does the book ultimately seem to offer a clear message about conservation or progress? Why are the villagers upset with the Forest Department? Do you believe that they have a right to be or are they simply resistant to progress or angry that they are not profiting, as Madame Samina suggests?
19. Discuss the conclusion of the story. Did the revelation of the fate of Manu at the conclusion of the story change your feelings or your interpretation of the book? Were you surprised by this conclusion? Why or why not?
20. Compare The Tusk That Did the Damage to other stories that include examples of anthropomorphism. Among the works you have considered, do the authors seem to use this device for a similar purpose? Do you think that each of the authors believes that the animals they write about truly possess the “human” characteristics attributed to them? How does James’s anthropomorphism compare to or differ from the other examples? Why do you think this is so?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was an interesting and well written story. I did not like the ending of tbe story. At times the filmmaking chapters were tedious and boring. The plight of elephants plundered for their ivory remains a current issue and i'm glad tbeyare being phased out from circus life. Again, an interesting read
'Listen' to young tusker's yearning thoughts from his young moments before and after capture, and as he ages. What will you think about the shaping impact of his captors' behaviors upon this beautiful elephant?