I explained in my last post how I had felt a little drained after reading Kafka on the Shore and therefore needed something completely and utterly different to wipe the slate clean and allow me to carry on reading as I ordinarily would. Mark Shand’s Queen of the Elephants is a book that my Dad pressed upon me and the bf last time we went around for dinner that follows the story of writer, conservationist and jollyniceallroundstandupBritishchap Mark Shand. I know I’m terrible but I suppose the whole posh boy look going on on the front cover with his pink pashmina (I mean scarf! ;-)) put me irritatingly in mind of Charlie Boorman on his travels across the globe sans Ewan McGregor. However, it has become very clear that you should not judge a book by its cover, or indeed a man by his pashmina. Shand is indeed rather posh but I found both his writing and the honesty and humility with which he approaches the subject of this beautiful, bewitching yet persecuted animal rather refreshing. Their life, as he readily admits, is a world away from his privileged one back home in Britain.
Inspired by his previous travels across India on the back of his beloved elephant Tara; Shand returns to the heart of Assam to learn from the real master. Parbati Barua is the daughter of legendary mahout (elephant driver/keeper) Laljee Barua who has spent all her life living with, working with and caring for elephants and is a woman on a mission to protect the species that, although once revered throughout Indian, have now become a symbol of terror for many people, particularly those working in the tea plantations. The elephant’s natural habitat is slowly disappearing all together and these starving animals, roaming the villages and plantations at night for food often unwittingly cause the death of many human beings.
Parbati, although physically tiny and battling not only for her elephants but to maintain her place as a Chief Mahout in an exclusively male world, is revealed by Shand to be an absolute pillar of strength and almost animal-like with her strong natural instincts and deep knowledge of the wild. She is hard, but she also has a great deal of heart and allows this man, who by his own admission knows much less than he previously thought about this beautiful species, and a film crew (this book accompanied a BBC Documentary of which I frustratingly can’t find any clips) into her circle in the hope of showing the world what dangers this animal faces; a species that often plays second fiddle to their African counterparts whose endangered status is frequently highlighted by the ivory trade.
If someone had told me about the precarious situation of the Indian elephant (is Asian elephant more correct?) before reading this book I, sadly, wouldn’t have been surprised. Many beautiful animals are in this day and age. However, I was completely ignorant of the details and I am glad that this book grabbed our attention.
Apart from the most important and overriding messages present in this book, I also simply like the way it is written. For an account of a real-life trip across India, with all of the quotidian, mundane details that lugging cameras around with you inevitably involves, I found Shand’s writing to be quite literary in style, so much so that the mythic character of Parbati could easily have been revealed to be a figment of the writer’s imagination by the end of their story. The bf and I have already declared, after only snatching a week away camping last year, that this year will be the year of the holiday, and for someone who has spent a fair amount of time living and working abroad, I have surprisingly never set foot out of Europe (!) This year we would like to take two weeks somewhere further afield and, inspired its colour, vibrancy and a little blue steam train, Darjeeling will hopefully be our destination. I would love, between cups of tea and walks in the beautiful countryside, to have the opportunity to meet some of these awe-inspiring animals. This book will now hopefully enable us to look at them out of the tourist mindset and imagine ourselves in their perilous world.
To do your bit to support the Asian elephant visit: