Book Jacket Synopsis: “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 story lines 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’s 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.”
Review: “He would come to be called the Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak, the great Sooryamangalam Sreeganeshan. 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.” So begins the first chapter of The Tusk That Did the Damage, narrated from the point of view of a wayward, abused elephant. The reader learns early on that the Gravedigger’s life has been anything but easy. After watching his mother be murdered by poachers for the simple prize of her tail, he is captured, alongside his baby sister, and sold into a life of captivity. The chapters narrated by the Gravedigger were absolutely the best part of this novel; indeed, the main reason I couldn’t give this spectacular book a five-star rating is because the Gravedigger seems to lose purchase on narration as the book continues. Some of his chapters aren’t even really narrated from his point of view, but rather from those of his keepers. There were many questions posed by other characters (ex. Why had the Gravedigger returned to that particular area of South India after an absence of almost ten years? Why did he attack Leela? And why did he let Manu go?) that could have easily been addressed during the Gravedigger’s monologues but weren’t. In my opinion, too much time was allocated to the documentary filmmaker’s storyline and not enough was given to the Gravedigger. I appreciate the fact that the subject of the documentary, famous veterinarian Ravi, is essential to the overall storyline but I could have done without the constant bickering between Emma (the film technician) and Teddy (the filmmaker who survives on his father’s charity). Manu, whose life has been impacted by the Gravedigger in more ways than one, falls into poaching after his uncle asks him to slay the elephant that killed his son. Initially, the three storylines seem only connected by the fact that elephants play a significant role in all of them. But as the plot progresses, they become more and more intertwined. The Tusk That Did the Damage is a remarkable feat of storytelling and imagination. I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story and fast plot. It also forced me to take a long hard look at my ideas regarding elephants in captivity. Over the past six years, I’ve become firmly immersed in the marine mammal captivity debate. But people often ask me how I feel about animals like elephants and lions being in captivity, and I never know how to respond. The perspective of the Gravedigger is obviously born of author Tania James’s own perceptions and emotions, but I can’t help but feel that she really got to the root of what it’s like to be a captive elephant. This book has certainly inspired me to become more educated on the subject of elephants in captivity, and I’m sure it would inspire other readers to do the same.