Everyone in Sitamala thinks they know my brother’s story. On the contrary. They may know the tune, but I would bet a half bag of pepper the words are all wrong. I blame his wife’s people for spreading slander, all those perfidious huge-hipped sisters, not a one half as lovely as Leela.
Our father was a rice farmer. He came from a time when to farm was a noble profession, when people sought our gandhakasala and our rosematta for their earthy fragrance superior to the stuff that now comes cheap from Vietnam. Who can remember those times with all these farms lying fallow and many a farmer’s son gone to roost in a soft office chair? And who am I to blame them, I who have seen the Gravedigger for myself and felt its breath like a steam on my face?
Some say my brother stepped into the very snare he laid for the elephant. I say opinions are cheap from far. I will take you to the Gravedigger myself and let you meet its honey-colored eye. I will show you the day it first laid its foot on our scrawny lives. Then you tell me who was hunter and who was hunted.
To know our troubles, you must know what happened to my cousin Raghu. When I think on poor Raghu, I see him stoking a small fire. I see him nudging a stick aside so as to let the flames breathe. I have called up this image many a time as if I were with him in the palli as I should have been that night.
The palli was a paddy-roofed matchbox on bamboo legs stranded in the midst of his father’s rice field, same as the ones in the neighboring fields. If a herd of elephants were to come glumping their way through the stalks, we were to wave the lantern and give the long caw that would set the others cawing. If this didn’t scare the herd away, we used crackers and rockets. But the herds became wise to our ways. They learned that our racket had no teeth to it, so they kept on eating their way through six months’ worth of our back-bent work. Sometimes we had to call the Forest Department; it would send three or four men to blind the beasts with headlights and fire ancient rifles. We called them greenbacks for their dingy green uniforms and their love of currency.
The herds were mostly cows, and they meant no personal harm unless you tampered with a calf. There is no one more fearsome than a mother enraged. In my youth I heard of a cow that cradled the carcass of her baby for days and would not be deprived of it.
Now the solo bull could be a very rude intruder. If one of those fellows were to pay us a visit, we were to leap out of the palli and race home. Do not be fooled by the lumps you see at the zoo—the elephant can run! Ask Raghu’s father, who was only twenty years old when a bull elephant discovered him dozing in the palli. Synthetic Achan survived because he knew the elephant has weak eyes. Run straight and you will be trampled. Cut a zig-zag and you may confuse it.
Synthetic Achan felt Raghu was too young to sit guard in the palli alone, so he drafted me also. Yet I do not know where I was that night, probably testing my luck with some soft-bottomed girl. What to say. I was nineteen and had discovered that my visage had an effect on certain girls, so to speak. I pretended not to care about my visage, but Raghu needled me about the cream I occasionally raked through my hair. Sometimes he called me Styleking as in: “Eh Styleking, did you bathe in Brylcreem or stick the whole tub up your rump?”
“Yamini likes it.”
“Up the rump?”
“Do not talk of her rump.”
“I hear what I hear. And from the particulars, I would not touch her with a boatman’s pole.”
We bickered, but there was a comfort to our fuggy odors and the flash of our teeth in the dark. Other times we burrowed into the quiet, each of us privately wondering what kind of future awaited us. I had a habit of dozing, which Raghu allowed to a limit and would shake me awake only if I were to poof. “What is this,” he would shout, flapping his hands about his face, “your personal shithouse?”
Whenever he gently tapped me awake, I knew I had been murmuring for my brother, something like Where is Jayan where is he, even though Jayan had been home for six months already. To spare me the shame, Raghu would only say I had been poofing again.
Humble as it was, our palli commanded a five-star view. To the north a phone tower climbed the sky. To the east an owl glared from its bamboo perch, swiveling its head for rodents among the stalks. To the west we watched the sunset pour over the teak- rimmed forest aka Kavanar Wildlife Park.
Our people had been walking the forest long before it took that fussy name. The new laws forbid us from doing anything in the park, not walking, not even picking up a finger length of firewood without being fined for trespass and stealing. Stealing from trees that had dropped us fruit and firewood for centuries! Meanwhile, the laws looked kindly on the greenbacks and timber companies, their rows of rosewood, eucalyptus, teak.
So I had zero patience for Raghu’s ramblings when he decided to tell all about the spectacle he had witnessed one day prior, starring his brand-new hero: Ravi Varma, Veterinary Doctor. I had never seen this Ravi Varma, M.D., though I had heard of his exploits with the greenbacks, and I was no fan of theirs nor his by association.
And what heroic feats had the cow doctor performed to deserve Raghu’s worship? Pulled an elephant calf from a tea ditch, where the wee thing had tripped and fallen much to its mother’s distress.
I told Raghu my demented old mammachi could pull an elephant calf from a tea ditch.
“Not only that,” Raghu enthused. “The vet doctor got the mother to take back the baby.”
Now this part was pure lie. “A mother elephant won’t touch a calf that was handled by humans. Every idiot knows that.”
“But she did! And she thanked him after.”
“Did they shake hands too?”
“And two sayips were there, filming it all. BBC people I think.”
This gave me pause. In those days, it was rare to see foreigners in our parts, and we were neither poor enough nor princely enough to appear on Western screens. I was minimally intrigued. What did the BBC want with us?
Raghu sighed, still dazzled by the memory of Ravi Varma, M.D. “It was something, Manu, I tell you.”
Was Raghu musing about the mother and calf on his final evening? Did that sentimental memory lead him to lay down his guard? I imagine his last and lonesome hour, I see him drifting off, a breath from sleep, before he sits up quick to the snap of a broken branch.
In the silence he looks from one doorway to the other. He can open his lungs and caw and set the other pallis cawing, but what if it was only the snap of the fire? He hears me scoffing in his ears: A broken branch in the middle of a field?
Raghu hunkers beneath his blanket, hiding from the possibilities.
After a noiseless minute he can breathe again, relieved he never set to squawking like some half-brained bird. He draws deep on the comfort of woodsmoke, sure I will come. Until then, he will tend the fire alone.
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.