Book Talk: Tania James gives voice to elephant poaching in India

NEW DELHI, April 23 (Reuters) - Tania James’s “The Tusk that Did the Damage,” puts the spotlight on elephant poaching in southern India and the lives lost to the lure of ivory.

This novel, the author’s second, has three narrators: One is Gravedigger, a rogue elephant who terrorized the countryside at the turn of the century.

Born in 1980 to Indian immigrants, James lives in Washington and spoke to Reuters about her new book and writing from the elephant’s point of view.

Q: What was the inspiration for the novel?

A: (It was) a non-fiction book by Tarquin Hall called “To the Elephant Graveyard” in which he mentions a real-life elephant that used to bury its victims.

I’d known that elephants bury their own dead, and that they have complex grieving rituals, but this burial of human victims seemed a macabre distortion of an otherwise tender and sensitive act. That particular elephant’s trajectory, from captivity to escaped rogue, inspired one of the arcs of my novel.

Q: How tough was writing it from the elephant’s perspective?

A: The elephant sections probably went through the most iterations and revisions. Initially, I tried a first-person voice, but it seemed too fabulist and it didn’t quite mesh with the other two voices. I tried writing from the points of view of people around the elephant as well.

I suspect I was a little hesitant to anthropomorphize, or give human qualities to an animal, but the more research I did on elephant behaviour, the more it seemed that term was somewhat outdated, based on an old understanding of what we know about animal psychology. I should add that there are obvious limits to the Gravedigger’s interiority, and my portrayal of it.

Q: Midway there is the myth of the flying elephants.

A: I read a lot of elephant origin myths during my research process, and they were mesmerizing. There was one about flying elephants who were condemned to a flightless life by a sage. There was another about an African elephant who powdered his canines with magical dust, which allowed him to grow the world’s first tusks.

At first it didn’t seem clear to me how a myth would work within the framework of the novel. My hope is that it hovers over and haunts the rest of the story, adding resonance to the novel’s events through its magical elements. (Editing by Patricia Reaney and Gunna Dickson)