Eavesdropping

Tania James Takes On A New Perspective

Indian-American novelist Tania James has won acclaim for fiction that spans continents and takes bold leaps. She shares excerpt of her new novel, "The Tusk That Did The Damage."

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Photo credit: Melissa Stewart

Tania James has won acclaim for fiction that spans continents and takes bold, imaginative leaps. Her new novel — about the ivory trade in India — is no exception. It follows three different characters: a poacher, a filmmaker, and a wild rogue elephant who is known around town as “The Gravedigger.”

Tania shares an excerpt from the opening of the novel, which reads from the perspective of The Gravedigger. We should note: It deals with disturbing themes parents may not find appropriate for kids.

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He would come to be called The Gravedigger. There would be other names: the Master Executioner, the Jackfruit Freak, 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.

Other memories he kept: running through his mother’s legs, toddling in and out of her footprints. The bark of soft saplings, the salt licks, the duckweed, the tang of river water, opening and closing around his feet. He remembered his mother taking him onto her back before launching herself from the bank. In this way, their clan would cross, an isle of hills and lofted trunks.

"The Tusk That Did the Damage" cover. Photo credit: Random House LLC.

Among them were two males, a broody old tusker (Author note: A “tusker” is a term for a male elephant with tusks.) and a twelve-year old with ivory stubs he was always admiring with the tip of his trunk. As they roamed, the tusker brought up the back of the clan, but if a man were scented somewhere in the vicinity, the cows dropped their doings and circled the two tuskers. They knew what man was after. They offered their rumps instead.

They had walked the same routes for years, this clan, routes that the Forest Department would carve into foot trails of its own. They knew every bend and border, each rutted skull and bull they would meet along the way. But the Gravedigger hadn’t learned all there was to learn. His trunk, being stout and clumsy, couldn’t sense what his mother’s could sense—the sudden stillness in the rhythm of things, the peril in the air.

*

The Gravedigger was a few years old when it happened, still new to the world, but old enough that his mother had gone and calved another one. The newborn was a clumsy little cowpat. She toddled within the pillars of his mother’s legs precisely where he used to toddle. Whenever he tried to double back and regain her shade, his mother grumbled and nudged him onward with her trunk. If he fell behind, she flicked her tail until he grasped it, the two walking in tandem, ever in touch.

They emerged from the forest cover to the murky, algal smell of the lake. The water opened wide before them. The Gravedigger was first to splash into the lake, while the cowpat balked at the tide creeping darkly toward her feet. The old tusker slung his trunk into the air and dashed water over his spine.

Toward dusk, they roamed up the mountainside. Shola forest melted into grassland, staked here and there with shrub and tree built stout to withstand the cool. The wind had slackened by then and did not carry down to them, as it usually would, the smell of the man waiting among the branches of an evergreen.

*

A blast split the silence. The Gravedigger staggered, caught in a carousel of legs and screaming. The man in the tree was pointing a long-snouted gun. Another blast—the tusker bellowed deep and doomed. The Gravedigger whirled in search of his mother, and when at last he caught her scent, he found her roaring in the face of the gunman who aimed into her mouth and shot.

Her head snapped back. Her front feet lifted off the ground for one weightless moment, before lowering, folding beneath her. The whole of her sank with a thud that traveled the earth and ran like a current into the tender slabs of the Gravedigger’s soles.

He went to her. He touched her warm trunk, stretched straight but slack. He touched its ridges and folds, and the very tip, a single, empty finger with which she had pinched him a gooseberry not two hours before. A charred scent from her wound. No air from her nostril, no light in the eye.

All around: the stink of gunmetal and smoke.

He watched as two men climbed over the old tusker’s face. They pushed and pulled a saw across the bridge of the trunk. Blood spilled and spread over their hands, over the air, as the trunk rolled limply to the ground. They chiseled at one side of a tusk, chipping at flesh, and knocked a hammer on the other side, some chipping, some knocking, until they gently tipped the tusk from the root, easy as a fruit.

Excerpted from “The Tusk That Did the Damage” by Tania James. Copyright © 2015 by Tania James. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.