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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 103-104

A Trunk Full of Tales: Seventy Years with the Indian Elephant

Department of English, Pondicherry University, Puducherry 605 014, India

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H Kalpana
Department of English, Pondicherry University, Puducherry 605 014
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Kalpana H. A Trunk Full of Tales: Seventy Years with the Indian Elephant. Conservat Soc 2008;6:103-4

How to cite this URL:
Kalpana H. A Trunk Full of Tales: Seventy Years with the Indian Elephant. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2008 [cited 2020 Jul 14];6:103-4. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2008/6/1/103/55815

Dhriti. K. Lahiri Choudhury, A Trunk Full of Tales: Seventy Years with the Indian Elephant. Permanent Black, New Delhi. 2006. 250 + xii pp. INR 495 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-81-7824-166-1.

Contemporary writing about big game, such as elephants, tigers and lions has, more often than not, been in the form of scientific studies undertaken from the perspective of conservation and sustainable development. Unfortunately, personal memoirs or reminiscences about nature or animals are not considered as a part of conservation studies. However, such memoirs too can be extremely helpful, although they may be subjective responses to natural processes. Sometimes such literature may be able to apprise us of local issues in a much better manner than scientific treatises, particularly because they are written in a popular style. It is, thus, important to realise that a walk down memory lane, such as the one under review here, is important because it traces the changes in nature and human society that have taken place over a period of time, and also allows us to understand how the so-called traditions, or civilisation itself, in a particular area has changed over time. I view A Trunk Full of Tales as belonging to this category of informing us about the changing landscape, topography, community and traditions of the northeast region, even though it is focused on the natural history of the elephant. In reality, the northeast has seen few studies of this sort despite being a reservoir of wildlife and this work is definitely a welcome addition.

Reading A Trunk Full of Tales reminds me of a remark made by the American poet Walt Whitman: 'Camerado, this is no book, who touches this touches a man' and another by Peter Corneille: 'If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people, only more so'. Both these remarks apply well to A Trunk Full of Tales, which narrates passionately various events in the life of Dhriti K. Lahiri Choudhury. The subtitle Seventy Years with the Indian Elephant is indicative of the author's life with elephants. D.K. Lahiri's family owned seventeen elephants and as he grew up with them he developed a passion for them. Although this feudal lifestyle came to an end with India's liberation, he still retained his passion and traveled extensively in the northeast in search of rogue elephants, and much later for conservation purposes. The book narrates various tales that are interwoven into a wonderful memoir. The preface begins with an honest remark depicting the author's familiarity with elephants. Mr. Choudhury poignantly and succinctly describes how elephants differ in their personalities. His reference to elephants such as Chandrachud, Sharmila and Meghangini is not only amusing but also endearing. One also learns about the many labels used for elephants such as rogues or crop raider elephants.

Section one 'Elephants and their ways' gently reminds us that like humans, animals too have a lifestyle of their own. The personalities of elephants, idiosyncrasies associated with them, the physical traits of the different elephants, their food habits and love affairs form the major narrative of this section. 'Growing up with elephants' has the portrayal of a bygone charming era as it recapitulates to the reader the story of extended family ties and hoary pasts, and parallels it with the changing societal norms, with the loss of pomp and glory as new governments took charge. This chapter is, in a way, a reminder of the lifestyle of the elite Indian in the pre-independence period. But one is at the same time also amused by the irony in the author's description of his uncles, grandfather and father. 'Lalji, the elephant Baba' is a narration full of reverence for the famous Lalji whose real name was Rajkumar Prakitish Chandra Barua. Mr. Barua was a passionate lover of elephants and a heartrending incident about his grief and trauma when one of his elephants, Pratap, falls sick is mentioned. This chapter also reminds us how we have lost the glory of our country by ignoring the need to co-habit and co-exist with our ecosystem.

'Animals are not just bundles of instincts to those who come to know them intimately; rather, each is an individual with personal likes, dislikes and quirks' is the beginning of, 'Mammoth love', the third chapter. This chapter narrates the love life of the elephants, Vijay Singh and Bala, and Bajra Prasad and Malati and as one may have guessed the stories are not only entertaining but also leave us with a sense of incredulity. The chapter 'Take a makna by the tail' narrates the incident of how a wild elephant runs amok bringing the life of a bustling town to a standstill. 'Gabbar Singh and Chomsky in Dalna' heightens this sense of humour by telling us of the attempt to hunt down a rogue elephant nicknamed Gabbar Singh; named after a Indian movie villain to indicate its villainous behaviour. It also narrates how the author's friend, equipped with a Chomsky and looking like an intellectual joins the party. The final statement made in the chapter is an explanation for the roguishness of the animal: probably a 'half-broken right tusk exposing the nerve cavity' (45). 'The saga of Harjit' is the story of a elephant that raided crops and turned out to be a nightmare for all those who lived in the area surrounding the Kurseong division forests. As the author succinctly puts it, 'Harjit was no hater of man. His was a case of not loving man less but loving paddy, maize, banana, salt and of course, country liquor, a hell of a lot more' (49).

Section two 'Rogues and marauders' has nine chapters that relate incidents about rogue and marauding elephants. The author here is of the opinion that Indians in their shikars did not hunt elephants; but the author does hint that the sahibs would hunt elephants. To illustrate this point he gives us an account of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar who between 1871 and 1947 had to his credit a shikar of 365 tigers, 311 leopards, 207 lions, 438 wild buffalo and countless deer but no elephants (53). As mentioned by the author, the Elephant Act of 1879 in some way helped preserve the elephant population of the country. 'Rogues and marauders' also traces the various acts and laws that came up with regard to elephant hunting. The chapter in addition touches upon other states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and it has a reference section. 'Initiation, Cachar, October 1960', 'Bloodletting, Cachar, October 1961', 'Dead giant, Garo hills, October 1967' and 'Red eye, Garo Hills, October 1968' are stories of hunting and killing of elephants with aberrant behaviour. At the same time, these narratives expose the reader to the terrain of these regions as well as the customs, traditions, taboos and food habits of the hill people. The remaining four chapters -'A ghostly visitor, Garo Hills December 1968'; 'The makna of Mahadeo, Garo Hills, December 1969, April 1970'; 'Identity crisis, North Bengal, July 1988' and; 'Teenage aggression, North Bengal, July 1988-too recount such incidents of hunting rogue animals but they also contextualise the problems of rogue elephants, local disregard for the problem of such animals and the changing habitats of the region. The ending of this section also introduces to the reader the evolution of the author and his reflections.

Section three, 'Managing elephants in the wild' with its seven chapters, sums up the intricacies of government laws, their imposition, the problems of implementation and the bureaucratic blocks that form a part of policymaking. It also systematically and objectively reviews the Project Elephant programme in India, which is a relatively recent initiative by the government. The author poses a query in the last chapter: 'How many elephants can India afford. As the human population increases, so does the elephant population. Do we look for the maximum or optimum?' His question is indeed deeply thought provoking in times of rapid forest depletion. The book ends on a cheery and optimistic note, with the author concluding that the future can have room for both man and elephant.

The book is written in a lucid manner and is a good read for anyone who loves animals. The jacket design by Anuradha Roy illustrates well the title of the book. On ending the book I was reminded of Rachel Louise Carson's statement, 'If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in'. Reading A Trunk Full of Tales provides the reader with this sense of companionship for the book contains a wonderful sense of sharing the excitement of living with animals, which in a way is lost in today's world. The memoir, thus, helps each one of us rediscover our natural world.


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