|4 out of 5 stars|
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.
There are always multiple ways to look at any situation—this novel gives us three: the elephant’s point of view, the poacher’s, and the Western film maker’s. There is truth in all three. I was a volunteer natural history teacher for 17 years—you can take the woman out of the classroom, but you can’t take the teacher out of her. I immediately began recommending this book to the folks I know who are still manning the ramparts and educating the public.
The only viewpoint that is missing from this book is that of the consumer of ivory, for which the elephants are being poached. Without them, there would be no trade in elephant parts. And you may be shocked to learn that the illegal animal trade is right up there with the international drug trade and the illegal arms trade in the matter of market value. Truly, if we could stem the desire for elephant ivory and rhino horn, we might be able to save these charismatic mega-fauna. [And if we can’t save the super stars, like elephants, what hope do the smaller, more obscure species have?]
The poachers are often folk who live a tenuous existence, barely providing the basic necessities for themselves and their children. If you’ve studied psychology, you may remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—people need to have their basic needs met, and feel safe that they will continue to be met, before they can care about higher level ideals like wildlife conservation and biodiversity.
And if you were ever in any doubt that cultural sensitivity is necessary as a foreigner in a country on the other side of the world, this book will bring that lesson home. The film makers may think their film is about elephants, but it is also very much about the people whose lives intertwine, for good or ill, with those immense mammals.
Recommended for those who love elephants, who champion wildlife conservation, and for those who love India.