Bharati Jagannathan
ELEPHANTAM MISOPHANTAM by By Vinoy Thomas. Translated by Nandakumar K. Illustrations by Sagar Kolwankar Eka, Westland Books, 2023, 120 pp., INR 150.00
November 2023, volume 47, No 11

The forest department wanted to capture Lightning Tusker. But he is no ordinary tusker, and the most experienced experts are summoned to do the job. And at the end of this insufferable 107-page novel, they fail. This novel could not have been more than 20,000 words but I struggled to finish it. The proclamation on the cover that the author was a winner of the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in 2021 made it impossible to dismiss it as complete nonsense. I reminded myself that Malayalam has a robust tradition of experimental literature, and this might be in the magic realist and/or surrealist genres. Nothing helped to make it an even halfway tolerable read. The narrative jumped haphazardly from real to magic to the absurd.
Elephantam is apparently the distilled goodness of the world and happens to be present in truckloads in Lightning Tusker. Misophantam is the opposite force. Those who wish to capture the magnificent elephant are, naturally, the wicked ones. On the one hand, there are detailed descriptions of the techniques employed to capture wild elephants, and just when you begin to engage with it, you read about secret messages that pass through hidden channels of the earth and of trees and the distilled essence of elephantam that comes to rescue the captured elephant time after time. I lost sense of time, space, narrative. About how many times Lightning was nearly captured and escaped. About the random cast of characters who appeared and disappeared to catch this free elephant. The numerous magical interventions that foiled their evil designs. The impossible back stories narrated by grandma elephant to countless baby elephants. The convoluted stories of the ancestry of Lightning. Apparently, his father had rainbow-coloured tusks—a sure sign of pure elephantam. Lightning has a brother, Tuskless Tusker, who was timid as a calf but grew rogue and became filled with misophantam. However, at a crucial juncture near the climax, Tuskless Tusker became filled with goodness and, with a tiger riding on his back, came to help free his elder brother and, if I understood the story correctly, walked off adorned with the rainbow tusks. Go figure! Other than the inexplicable transformation of Tuskless Tusker, the good are filled with elephantam, the wicked with misophantam, and never the twain shall meet. Zero nuance.
And for a story about elephants, written originally in Malayalam, the language of literally the home-State of elephants, the degree of ignorance about the gentle pachyderms is immense. Female elephants typically live in herds with their calves, while males, once they have reached adulthood, are solitary. But in this crackpot novella, the parents of Lightning Tusker, Peacock Plume Tusker and Leaf Ear, were a devoted romantic couple who roamed everywhere together. There is actually a sentence about theirs being the ideal marriage!
If this is a fantasy, I fail to appreciate the details about the dangerous sharp nail-studded barriers that are used to capture wild elephants, or the stun guns and jeeps and other paraphernalia. On the other hand, it has too much of the absurd to be realist. And it is certainly not an environmentalist tale about respecting wildlife/nature, for it appears that nature has untapped magical resources to protect itself.
Frankly, I wish I could unread this book!