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Nilanjana S Roy: Beyond human

Nilanjana S Roy 

Nilanjana S Roy

One way to find out what an elephant is saying to you is to drop by the Elephant Gestures Database. Is the pachyderm in your life attentive, ambivalent, defensive; soliciting play or simply asking you for less "spacial proximity"?

Joyce Poole and Petter Granli started the online database in 2009, based on over three decades of their research on elephants and animal communication. They track the difference between the head-jerk and the head-swing, when to tusk-click and how an elephant can read seismic vibrations, for instance. As Tania James writes in her novel, The Tusk That Did The Damage, of an elephant known as The Gravedigger: "His trunk, being stout and clumsy, couldn't sense what his mother's could sense - the sudden stillness in the rhythm of things, the peril in the air."

The Tusk That Did The Damage, Ms James's third book, is riveting not just because she's a thoughtful and precise writer by nature, but because she cracks an old problem for writers: how to write about the non-human mind without, if I might borrow a poco catchphrase, committing the sin of appropriation.

Her novel is set in a version of Wayanad and has four compelling characters - a poacher, a wildlife documentary film maker, the elephant and his pappan, who is something of an elephant whisperer. The Gravedigger has earned his name; Ms James's genius is to make the elephant's intelligence, anguish, anger and longings completely compelling, while preserving for him a degree of unknowability, respecting the necessary gulf between the human and the non-human mind.

Except that it might not be as necessary, or as wide a gulf, in the foreseeable future. Writers have been tackling non-human minds - animal, alien and in-between - for centuries, but until very recently, experiments in animal language tended to set up human speech as the default. Can animals talk? How much of human language can different species understand?

These old questions are far less interesting than asking how animals communicate - through vibrations (elephants), signature whistles (dolphins), brain wave signals (rats), smells and chemical messages (wolves), complex long-distance vocal communication networks (songbirds). Shift the question around: how well can humans - probably among the most inquisitive of animals - understand other animal species?

When writers grasp this, the way they write about animals changes fundamentally. The research that Karen Joy Fowler did for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves led her, for instance, to investigate the lives of lab animals, especially chimpanzees.

She has spoken about two particularly disconcerting moments: the first was learning that one of the torturers at Abu Ghraib had worked on poultry farms and wondering whether there wasn't a link between these two professions. The second was discovering that while researchers in early experiments expected chimpanzees to mimic human behaviour, they weren't prepared for the opposite: the swiftness with which human children imitated chimps.

Ms Fowler and Ms James may move on to other subjects, but in the skill with which they attempt to investigate the inner lives of animals, they are in tune with the zeitgeist. It's been just three years since the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness acknowledged that humans were not the only animals who could generate consciousness: the ability to feel and experience the world with conscious intent is shared between many non-human animals. This might be the first generation of human writers to tackle the problem of writing about animals not just from a position of curiosity, but from a base of mutual respect.

If that's a difficult rope-trick to pull off, it's that much harder to write about either aliens or mythical creatures such as werewolves. I approached Indra Das's The Devourers with some wariness, not expecting to fall in love at first bite. But Mr Das, a very talented illustrator who writes well-crafted science fiction, knows how to hook a reader, however badly burnt she might be by too many clueless fantasy novels where the protagonists make you want to howl at the moon on their behalf.

His narrator, situated in Kolkata, says, "I met a man who told me he was half-werewolf. He said this to me as if it were no different than being half-Bengali, half-Punjabi, half-Parsi." Thirty pages later, the professor and the werewolf have set up a meeting exactly where you'd expect creatures of the night to hang out - at the Oly Pub. (Cigarette haze, plates of dirty dalmoth, "the popular refuge of the firmly middle classes".)

Mr Das takes the werewolves back into Mughal India, their stories revealed through old scrolls. One narrative is offered by Cyrah, the survivor of a sexual assault by an ancient creature. Alongside the werewolves, there are also shape-shifters who hunt khrissals (humans), and he throws in a superb set-piece involving a massacre of our kind, set against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal.

His exceptional craft is part of what makes The Devourers one of the most satisfying fantasies to come out of India - or anywhere - in the last 10 years. By the end of a few chapters, I wasn't surprised that Mr Das makes you believe that werewolves stalked Mumtazabad and Akbarabad, or when he inverts the hunter-prey relationship to ask who needs whom more.

But The Devourers is also about other shaggy monsters - hidden sexual selves and hungers, the loneliness of those who have no skeleton keys to unlock their cages of identity, the understanding that the ability to devour and the ability to love are not the same. It is strange but true: a novel that imagines non-human creatures so well has much to say about the difficult condition of being human.
Twitter: @nilanjanaroy

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First Published: Mon, May 11 2015. 21:42 IST