Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage - the anti-hero

book review

Tania James tells a tale with three interconnected narratives and an important issue at its heart

Book: The Tusk That Did the Damage 
Author: Tania James

Its tusks may be what make the elephant a truly majestic beast, but it is this very feature that has also proved to be the animal’s biggest curse, making these magnificent creatures a target for nasty poachers who senselessly hunt them down and brutally slaughter them for ivory. This cruel state of affairs drives Indian-American novelist Tania James’ latest book The Tusk That Did the Damage, a tome that journeys into the forests of India to spin a yarn that intertwines three storylines, telling the tale from the alternating perspectives of a poacher, a filmmaker, and an elephant.

After losing his cousin Raghu in an elephant attack, Manu, the son of a rice farmer, is drawn into the world of his wayward brother Jayan, a poacher who hunts wild elephants and sells their tusks. Struggling with poverty while harbouring aspirations to make something of himself, Manu’s quest to look out for his brother leads him down a path he doesn’t want to follow, revealing, along the way, a sinister network that is widespread, going far beyond the hands that are responsible for pushing the trigger.

Meanwhile, young American filmmaker Emma and her working partner Teddy arrive at Kavanar Wildlife Park on a mission to make their first documentary. Their subject is Dr Ravi Varma, the head veterinarian at the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, known for his unorthodox methods of animal rescue. But as they delve deeper, the complexities of the situation begin to emerge, creating a picture in which conservation and corruption collude. Amidst the drama, Emma finds herself attracted to the enigmatic doctor, jeopardising her professional role and resulting in a betrayal that will have lasting consequences.

At the heart of the action lies the Gravedigger, an elephant who witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of poachers. Taken captive and subjected to varying degrees of care and abuse by the people he encounters, the elephant eventually turns rogue and takes out his traumatised anguish on those he comes across.

The three storylines merge to create an affecting novel that speaks of an important issue and does so eloquently. The Tusk That Did the Damage may chronicle themes we’re well familiar with, but its ideas still bear repeating. Its premise is touching, its moral complexities intriguing. The writer also weaves myths into the text, like the fables behind the chain tree and the elephant graveyard, which provide fascinating interludes.

But while the novel’s structure and style are creative, its three narratives don’t come together with the elegance one would have hoped for. The focus wanders unnecessarily as the viewpoints shift, partly because the writer doesn’t handle the three accounts with the same level of dexterity. An unnecessary love triangle that has no significant bearing on the story has been thrown into the novel for no obvious reason other than to create some convoluted drama. Plus the account of the filmmakers feels more tedious than interesting. Emma was perhaps inserted into the book as a means to offer a Western perspective on Eastern realities, but her arc is banal and those that inhabit it seem caricatured. You can easily exorcise her thoughts from the novel without losing anything.

It is the Gravedigger who draws the most empathy and who should ideally be the focus of the story — the anti-hero we can’t decide whether to root for or against. No thread is as engrossing as that of the elephant, but the Gravedigger doesn’t get as many pages as he deserves. The proceedings instead get bogged down by contrived plots in the filmmaker’s (and, to a lesser extent, the poacher’s) tales, as progress is littered with inconsequential detours, draining it of intensity and leading to an ending that does not satisfy.

Overall, The Tusk That Did the Damage is an uneven but moving tale built around an interesting idea and executed with creativity. The novel is a quick read, even though the storytelling takes a more meandering route than it should have. Its content is well researched, and James has firm grip on the subject matter, although her penchant for lyrical prose might leave some readers struggling to connect with her windy, maudlin style. The writer has opted for both moral and structural complexity over clarity, cramming too many ideas into this slender volume. A more focused narrative with less contrived melodrama would have elevated the book and made it an even more compelling read.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 11th October, 2015 *

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