Trumpet Calls: Epic Tales of Extraordinary Elephants by Nalini Ramachandran is divided into nine chapters beginning with ‘What is an Elephant’ and ending with ‘The Keepers of Memory’. Each chapter has a short introduction to the theme in focus, a short ‘ele-fact’ i.e., facts about the elephants and additional information which is connected to the main story. The black and white illustrations are attractive primarily due to sketches and drawings by Annushka Hardikar.
The stories in the initial chapters have been picked up from Indian mythology of Ganesh, Shiva and Parvati, and fictional accounts from Japan, Kenya, and Thailand. The author has touched upon the role of elephants in war and peace, and their importance in Hindu and Buddhist religions.
There is an interesting historical account of Hannibal’s expedition from Carthage to Italy through the Alps during the Second Punic War around 218-201 BC. In 1959, John Hoyte repeated this journey in 10 days thereby removing doubts whether such a journey was possible at all.
The author narrates a similar real story of the two-week long trek by 53 elephants of the Bombay Burma Trading Company led by the huge bull elephant Bundoola from Burma to Assam through difficult and inhospitable terrain evacuating women and children to escape the invading Japanese forces during the Second World War. This epic journey has been originally described by JH Williamson in his book titled Elephant Bill. Williamson was in charge of the elephants owned by the company that was used for hauling teak timber. Williamson’s book proudly sits on my bookshelf along with Fali Nariman’s autobiographical book Before the Memory Fades. And yes, there is a connection between the two books! Mr. Nariman, the Bhishma Pitamah of the Indian judiciary in his book has vividly described this dangerous trek with his parents from Burma to Assam at the same time, in fact along with Williamson and his mighty Bundoola and other elephants.
The latter part of the book has some interesting information about elephant evolution, mammoth elephants, and the discovery of ‘Lyuba’—a perfectly preserved baby mammoth, which according to scientists had died about 40,000 years ago in a remote corner of Siberia.
The chapter titled ‘Brilliant Spectacles, Broken Spirits’ is all about popular elephants who featured in American circuses from the late 1700s.
Another interesting real story is titled ‘Temple King’, when Valiya Raja, the reigning royal of Nilambur Kovilakam, now part of Kerala, some time in the early 1920s faced a violent rebellion. The distraught Raja prayed at the Krishna temple at Guruvayur for peace and the safety of his family and his people. When his wish was fulfilled, he offered a ten-year-old elephant named Kesavan as a gift to the temple. Kesavan grew into a magnificent tusker who was bestowed with the honour of carrying the replica of the deity’s idol (thidambu) at the annual festival for many years. The devotees of the temple treated Kesavan like a god next to Lord Krishna. So popular was he that when he died in 1976, there was a huge outpouring of emotions among the devotees. A decade later the temple authorities unveiled a 12-feet high statue of Kesavan in the Guruvayur Temple as a mark of respect and love for this magnificent elephant.
Incidentally, TN Godavarman, one of the descendants of Valiya Raja filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in 1995 to save the elephant bearing forests in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu which his family had owned and which were taken over by the State Government. Many landmark judgments and orders have been passed by the Supreme Court in this ongoing forest case to protect forests and wildlife.
The book also mentions two huge elephants of yesteryears—Ahmed and Satao who wore one of the biggest tusks and roamed in the forests of Kenya. Ahmed was declared a living monument by the then President Jomo Kenyatta and was granted lifetime protection by a Presidential decree. Ahmed died of old age but Satao was killed by poachers for his ivory. The author has been sensitive in dealing with the plight of the African elephants whose numbers have been decimated by man’s greed and insatiable appetite for ivory.
The book also highlights the serious problem elephants face of losing their habitat and the corridors through which they move from one area to another, and the ensuing man-elephant conflict. The fate of the elephants inhabiting the Nilgiris in India is hanging in balance as the resort owners and other encroachers there are refusing to vacate the illegal occupation of forests and the elephant corridor which has been the traditional home for centuries.
It seems the author has been indecisive as to who her target readers are. At first glance, the book appears to cater to children. The latter part of the book has heavy subjects like the evolution of elephants from small animals to their present big forms and raising serious conservation-related issues.
The author could have done well by including only those stories which interest readers. For instance, in the first story from the Kamba tribe of Kenya a man gets a magic potion which, when rubbed on the two canine teeth of his wife’s upper jaw, yields ivory-like long curved teeth which fetched a high price. The second time the wife refuses to part with the newly grown teeth. And soon she gets transformed into an elephant! The moral of the story according to the author is, ‘The tale represents how many human beings fascinated by ivory do not care for the elephants themselves even today.’ This uninteresting story is bound to dampen the enthusiasm of even the most avid reader to proceed any further.
All in all, the book is a mixed bag; it has some interesting tales and some uninteresting ones on the elephant, an animal which truly is the heritage animal of India.
Mahendra Vyas, a naturalist lawyer practising in the Supreme Court of India, is a member of the Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court of India to deal with forest, wildlife and mining cases. He enjoys observing and photographing wildlife.