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ELEPHAS MAXIMUS by Stephen Alter


A Portrait of the Indian Elephant

by Stephen Alter

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-15-100646-6
Publisher: Harcourt

A celebration of the Indian elephant, though the animal’s current precarious circumstances make this a cautionary tale as well.

While Alter (All the Way to Heaven, 1998, etc.) has spent many years in the subcontinent, this work stems from a series of journeys he made throughout India during 2001–02, ranging from Assam to Dehradun to the southern tip. It’s a story well and fondly told, of myth and art and great Indian masterworks, with a smattering (which is all that’s really known) of natural history about the Indian elephant’s behavior and biology. Alter notes that only a small percentage of Indian elephants live in national parks; the majority roam in forest reserves and private land, leaving them vulnerable to habitat encroachment and poaching. Dividing his time equally between scouring ancient texts and observation in the field, the author finds a close braiding of intimate knowledge of the elephant with the creature’s mythological status. In some instances they are portly, playful gods, in others emblems of authority, such as war elephants. As scholarly as Alter can be, he also has a knack for describing the elephants’ landscape: a gilded-green river under a saffron sky, flowers and birds flashing orange and turquoise, groves of bamboo and ordered ranks of teak trees. He works the animal’s contradictory status as both “an emblem of desire, the image of gajagamini—a woman whose walk is as seductive as an elephant’s,” and as a marauding raider, ruining a farmer’s crop in a night. The elephant’s survival cannot be assured solely by creating sanctuaries, Alter warns: it requires a “sustained commitment” from state and citizen alike.

A history more splendid than any maharaja’s golden howdah. (b&w illustrations throughout)