An Elephant Remembers

March 20, 2015   •   By John Dixon Mirisola

IT’S PROBABLY UNAVOIDABLE that some readers will see Tania James’s second novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, as a tangential offshoot of the recent swell in ivory awareness. In August of 2014, the Obama administration tightened its rules on the purchase and sale of ivory antiques, almost to the point of an outright ban; later that month, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences declared that, between 2011 and 2013, roughly 100,000 African elephants were illegally killed; in December, Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow released a PSA, Last Days, which highlights ivory’s role in funding terrorist organizations like Boko Haram, and warns that “elephants in the wild could be extinct in 11 years”; and now, in March of 2015, Tania James releases a book about elephants, poachers, and filmmakers in southern India.

Although it has much insight and nuance to add to the discourse, James’s inventive new novel has a far broader vision, one that will likely outlast this iteration of the ivory conversation. With remarkable brevity, The Tusk That Did the Damage delves into India’s mythic, troubled history with elephants — a strange marriage of reverence and violence — and asks readers to imagine the incomprehensible, to experience the world, for a few moments, through the eyes of a killer elephant called the Gravedigger.


Set in and around the fictional Kavanar Wildlife Park in southern India, James’s novel is told in three interwoven parts:

“The Elephant”: as a young calf, the Gravedigger’s mother is brutally killed before his eyes by poachers who cut off her tail. (Female Asian elephants don’t grow tusks, but their tails are sold as talismans.)

“The Poacher”: Manu, the teenage son of a recently deceased farmer, is racked with guilt after his cousin is killed and buried in the middle of the night by the Gravedigger — when the elephant struck, Manu was out chasing girls, not guarding the crops alongside his cousin as he knows he should have been. He and his brother, Jayan, a seasoned poacher with his own vendetta against the rampaging pachyderm, set out to kill it.

“The Filmmaker”: Emma, a young American filmmaker, is working alongside her old college friend and creative partner, Teddy, to produce their debut film focusing on the work of a slick veterinarian, Dr. Ravi Varma, who specializes in reuniting elephant cubs with their mothers.

Undergirding these three distinct storylines, a fraught political and ecological situation serves as the book’s driving source of tension, pitting people against governments, governments against nature, and nature against people (because nature does not know what government is). Appropriately, the situation is seen most clearly in the filmmaker’s story, as Emma and Teddy investigate the layers of corruption plaguing Kavanar Wildlife Park’s management. Dr. Varma works closely with the Forest Department, which runs Kavanar and whose guards protect its elephants from poachers. But the Forest Department also restricts local access to natural resources within the park while granting major tracts of timber, plantation, and mining land to outside companies. This sanctioned industrial encroachment on the park’s land eventually drives the elephants into villages and farms where they wreak havoc and enrage the people, who kill elephants as much out of retribution as economic want. While the Department says it’s on the animals’ side, it doesn’t do what is required to maintain a healthy buffer between human and elephant society.

Both Dr. Varma and Forest Department Divisional Range Officer Samina Hakim seem affronted in their responses to any questions regarding the Forest Department’s involvement with the mining, plantations, and deforestation within the park. “You know what?” asks Samina:

These villagers are upset because they see the profit from cutting timber. They want license to do so as well. The Forest Department cannot allow unregulated removal of timber and degradation of the forest. We only give clearance after careful consideration as to whether the outcome is in the public interest.

They are so deeply entrenched in this narrative, seeing themselves and their causes as Forces for Good, that they cannot acknowledge the ways they, too, are complicit. Ravi is committed to what Emma calls a “panoramic sense of peace, even if it meant painting over certain patches.” But James makes it clear that this type of peace is unsustainable and unethical — it’s this sort of supposed utilitarianism that ruins some lives for the sake of others, and blinds Ravi and Samina to their own contributions to a system of exploitative injustice.


The narrative advances in a tight braid, its chapters often retreading established plot moments through new eyes and highlighting fresh resonances between the stories. As the novel progresses, each thread of the narrative accelerates at a different speed until all three are moving together toward a single point of convergence (a situation that might typically veer toward we-are-all-interconnected navel-gazing, but here is handled with effective restraint). This narrative braiding makes the book nearly impossible to put down. And especially given the cross-cultural, cross-species scope of James’s novel, the technique gets closer to how such events take place in our world: at the intersection of many overlapping stories, some sprawling and some brief, some with a life or many lives at stake, some in which what is at stake is the story itself.

Each storyline’s differing point-of-view strategy makes satisfying sense. Emma tells the story of her ethically shady romantic entanglement with Dr. Varma and her thus increasingly strained working relationship with Teddy in straightforward, unveering first person. Manu’s chapters, too, begin in tight first person. He recalls his father’s gambling-related murder, followed not long thereafter by his cousin’s death at the tusks of the Gravedigger; he describes his brother’s poaching arrest and years in prison (a truly bizarre prison experience, like a combination of Kafka’s and Foucault’s most devious nightmares); and after Jayan returns home, Manu recounts his family’s second run-in with the Gravedigger, an incident that nearly kills his brother’s wife and motivates Manu to join Jayan on a mission to hunt the beast down and exact revenge. But then, Manu’s point of view gets complicated. The reader can, at points, see things Manu cannot see — third-person accounts of characters Manu is not with — and these shifts, which at first seem like errors, build to an ingenious justification in the novel’s final chapters. The Gravedigger’s chapters, meanwhile, proceed in a porous third person, sometimes following the Gravedigger, other times following the Old Man — the Gravedigger’s beloved caretaker after the elephant is rescued and brought to Kavanar’s elephant sanctuary, who remains with him after he is sold to a man who rents out elephants for parades and religious rites. Occasionally, the elephant’s chapters drift even further from the Gravedigger’s mind, sensing and enveloping all who come into contact with him.

The scope of each voice’s vision (that is, whose head we are in and how far beyond character’s own line of sight we are able to see) matches the scale of their stories themselves: the broader the story’s reach, the broader its vision. Tusk makes its point-of-view strategy an integral part of its overall thematic language — one full of foreboding, of sense and memory and trauma, and tinged with the mystical — and the effect is enthralling.


In the novel’s opening pages, we see the wounds borne by the Gravedigger and by Manu, the events that shape how they live and what they become. The Gravedigger’s maternal loss becomes the first layer in a series of traumas that eventually drive him mad with homicidal compulsions. Manu’s loss of father and cousin instills in him a deep desire for family closeness, love, and approval, a desire that impels him to abandon a brighter future in schooling to follow in his brother’s bloody footsteps.

What James doesn’t give us here is much of Emma’s history — her trauma, her loss — and the thinness of her backstory highlights her role as an observer, the person behind the camera rather than its subject. Hers is the first-person account of a Western outsider peeking into a story with Indian roots, “fathoms deep.” Emma first discovers Dr. Varma not through any personal pilgrimage or deep-seated passion, but in the pages of an in-flight magazine. And when she eventually leaves India, she (mostly) leaves Kavanar behind, the film being almost entirely taken over by an obviously romantically frustrated Teddy. Her concern with the story is almost solely for the art of telling it: “Teddy and I saw our India only in terms of the film, admittedly a narrow lens. We made up for our insecurities by being dogged in purpose: to get everything we could, and get it right.”

Emma’s preoccupation with the goals of the documentary project become a conduit for James’s own self-conscious musings on how to render the world of her story, especially those ancient, foreign, familiar creatures at its center. Early on, the author uses this tactic to question, though not to reject outright, the very premise of the elephant’s chapters:

The mother elephant raised her head, leveling her gaze upon Teddy. What happened next would become a subject of debate during an NPR interview, the question of whether the elephant’s gesture was, as Teddy would claim, a sign of gratitude. His fellow guest, a quippy animal ethologist, would dismiss the claim, accusing Teddy of “human-centric assumptions of animal consciousness.”

Later in the novel, while reviewing footage of an elephant feeding in the Rescue Center, Emma imagines cropping the frame so tight that the elephants would be alone in the shot, and her thinking reflects James’s own aesthetic vision for the Gravedigger chapters: “I envisioned a film that included patient, lyrical sequences like these, the absence of human voices opening a channel for a more intimate, visual language.”

If James can be faulted for anything in this novel, it is her occasional failure to live up to the high bar that this visual aesthetic sets. Some of the metaphors feel flat or out of place (a “burrito roll of [knife] blades” in India?), and there are a few slips into trite territory, as in Emma’s romantic encounter with Ravi, when the character thinks, “There was something about the way he took his time, the way he handled the hook and eye of my bra with one hand.” These moments, however, are rare lapses in a novel that consistently delivers beautiful, meaningful prose.


Midway through The Tusk That Did the Damage, Old Man, the elephant caretaker, tells a gorgeous, generation-spanning fable about how the elephant got his tusks and became the envy and ire of humans. “Long ago, in the time before tusks, every bull elephant had wings,” it begins, and it ends with a murdered elephant lying down, finally, in the bone-white womb of the elephant graveyard. One day, according to the Old Man, a flying bull calf defecates on a sage’s head, and the sage, so enraged with this animal doing what an animal does, takes away all of the bull elephants’ wings with an irreversible curse. So commences the ages of strife between elephants and humans that the Old Man goes on to describe. In this small moment, placed in the very center of the novel, James demonstrates the tragic silliness of truly “human-centric assumptions of animal consciousness,” and foreshadows the violent devastation that often follows.

Elephants are among the smartest animals on the planet. They form complex social structures and deep emotional bonds, which may explain why they’ve been observed engaging in what look like mourning rituals — touching the bones of the dead, burial — and which give rise to fabled rumors of vast elephant graveyards where elders of the species go to die among their ancestors. Plus, thanks to a certain viral video of an elephant painting a picture of an elephant, we also know that these are the only animals aside from humans who are capable of getting meta. Perhaps because elephants share so much in common with humankind, cognitively and emotionally, the idea of getting inside one of their heads intrigues us, and seems almost plausible. They think like us — but, you know, like elephants.

Yet James resists making the elephant conform to our patterns of thought or reason. The Gravedigger’s chapters are laid differently than the human perspectives within the novel. There are no proper paragraphs, no quotations, no indentations. Instead, evenly spaced, episodic blocks of prose advance down the page like the measured, substantial footsteps of the animal itself, rendering the animal’s mind in a thrall of poetic sensory perception:

The flames of tiny lamplights trembled down the road to the temple. The Gravedigger could smell the hot oil, the chili-rubbed corn, the ice cream and peanuts, the plastic of inflatable toys, the petals of flowers, marigolds and rose water, all these shifting, rippling scents, and beneath them all, a heavy silt: the smell of people.

The Gravedigger’s world is made up entirely of what he sees, intuits, and remembers. Totally lacking a superego, he adheres to no societal expectations, no ought. There is only touch and taste and feel and sound and smell, pleasure and pain, mother and abuser, comfort and distress and fury, all rushing through a twined forest of memory, brushing against old senses and emotions as if they had never faded.

With no one to soothe him, the Gravedigger resorted to memory. His mind roamed over the faces and smells he had known as a calf, the flick of a cousin’s tail, the sour-milk smell of his sister’s breath, a pile of elephant ribs still echoing a faint fleshy scent. For hours he could stand quietly, falling into the past like a leaf drifting to forest floor.

Such differences in perspective and in presentation set up the Gravedigger as a kind of anti-Moby-Dick: in contrast to the white whale, the elephant is not a blank wall that receives our projections of revenge or commodity. He is a conscious agent in this human-centric world of poachers and politicians and observers, acting on the senses and memories of a life experienced in ways fundamentally unlike those of humankind, yet fundamentally real. No, the Gravedigger is not vengeful or wrathful, nor is he the deserving subject of wrath — there is a difference between agency and murderous motive. But he does think, and he feels intensely, and most terribly: he remembers all.


John Dixon Mirisola studies fiction toward an MFA at UC Riverside and occasionally writes for the stage in collaboration with The 5th Wall.