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Book Review: Mark Shand’s ‘Travels on my Elephant: An Indian Journey’

By Sridhi Dash 

Title: Travels on my Elephant: An Indian Journey
Author: Mark Shand
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1992

Colonial travel narratives by Thomas Coryate and Sir Thomas Roe have generated a cultural understanding of fantastic animals like elephants in India. The practice of travel writing by such colonial writers functioned as a means to inspect, homogenize, and simplify foreign culture. English travelers and ambassadors generated depictions of the Moguls and their Emperor which relied on a cultural understanding of fantastic animals like elephants and recognition of tropes of civilization and barbarism in distant, non-Christian cultures. The English had also constructed pre-colonial imagery of India that drew on depiction of Indian flora and fauna and linked them to Mogul Culture through the figuration of Emperor Jahangir.

Centuries of stories such as Kipling’s Just So Stories about the natural wonders of India had prepared the English to see fantastic creatures such as elephants and unicorns and to regard the land as a space for profit and opportunity. Travel writings that were produced during the British Raj are a reflection of prejudices and the social and racial arrogance that typified the common imperialist mentality. The exotic East with wild animals, half-clad mendicants is an image of India that has endured over centuries. Writings of the colonial era consist of descriptions of such exotica. Mark Shand’s Travels on my Elephant: An Indian Journey (1991) represents a modern-day equivalent of the same. Shand becomes excited to emulate his Elizabethan predecessor, Thomas Coryate, and immediately leaves for India. He buys an elephant, names her Tara, learns to become a mahout, and makes an epic voyage of almost a thousand kilometres from Konark in Odisha to Sonepur in Bihar. He tries to connect or rather reconnect with the British colonial past as he travels along the elephant route. Mark Shand follows the gendering of the nation as feminine, submissive, and mysterious. Such assumptions allow the English traveler to use sexual tropes through which he becomes the ‘masculine’ superior or master and colonizer, who is allowed to ‘ravish’ or ‘embrace’ her.

In the first chapter, called “Elephant Headquarters”, Shand personifies India as a woman, who “shows what she wants to show”. Establishing the secretive, tempting femininity of India, he describes his first encounter almost like meeting a shy woman, who whets his appetite, tempting him to explore the exotic and the unknown. He describes his encounter with India using gender codes. “You try to climb the wall – you fall; fetch a ladder – it is too short; but if you are patient a brick will loosen and then another. Once through, India embraces you, but that was something I had to learn” (Shand 4). He further ascertains that he had to learn the ways to loosen the bricks so that he might be embraced by India.

Shand was no ordinary visitor or tourist. He was a British aristocrat and the brother of Duchess of Cornwall. Hence all important people went out of their way to help him and organize his trip on an elephant. While people tried to acquaint him with pilgrimages, migration, and temples, his curiosity lay in the lectures about ancient routes across the land. He does not appear to have any sort of inclination towards the people or the customs until an elephant expert introduces him to the famous elephant route. Kalinga or the present day Odisha was ruled by Gajapati, the lord of Elephants. The expert tells him to retrace the ancient elephant route from Odisha to Bihar. Pataliputra, the ancient capital of India, now known as Patna, was where the tributes were sent. Interestingly, Shand, who showed least interest in pilgrimage, was now convinced to retrace this ancient path starting at an auspicious location, Konark. The expert confirms that every great pilgrimage or journey in India begins or ends at a temple or place of worship (Shand, 5). Hence the Sun temple or the Black Pagoda would be an ideal spot to begin the journey. Shand approves of the plan and hops in for entourage, what he calls ‘a small army’. This army included Aditya Patankar, who is a photographer and a Maratha, whose ancestors had invented guerilla warfare. Both Orissa and Bihar had suffered at the hands of the Marathas. Patankar happily joined the ‘small army’ since he wanted to retrace the exploits of his ancestors. Shand thought of himself and Aditya as ‘an unlikely pair’ – “an Indian nobleman and an errant Englishman, thrown together by whim, like some mad nineteenth-century expedition, except the quest was not for a lost city or a hidden treasure, but for an elephant” (Shand 8).

The second chapter, “An Original Elephant”, introduces a character called Mr. Tripathy, an elderly man from Bhubaneswar. On knowing that Shand was looking for elephants, Tripathy innocently unboxes his suitcase of ivory elephants. It is quite unexpected for a common sane man to think that an Englishman on tour could be looking to purchase a real elephant. However, finally following ‘elephant shits’ on the road as suggested by Mr. Tripathy, Aditya, the mahout Bhim, and Shand finally as the narrator found himself transfixed by “the three pair of hot eyes”. He begins describing his first sight of the elephant as if he had finally met his long-lost beloved. He says, “Then I saw her. My mouth went dry. I felt giddy, breathless…With one leg crossed over the other, she was leaning nonchalantly against a tree, the charms of her perfectly rounded posterior in full view, like a prostitute on a street corner. I knew that I had to have her. Suddenly nothing else mattered and I realized with some surprise that I had fallen in love with a female Asian Elephant” (Shand 13). Shand equates an elephant with a prostitute which further suggests the colonizer’s perception of things and animals belonging to the East. Like Kipling’s Just So Stories or the Disney character Tarzan, he portrays the fantastic, bizarre, and unusual sight of the massive animal to induce a sense of wonder among the readers back home. The ‘rich firinghee’ Shand records the bargain with the fraud mendicants as well as the attitude of the lazy policeman, who did not respond to their grievance until the visiting card of a senior bureaucrat was thrown on his face.

Just like his imperialist predecessors, Shand carries the notion of ‘Romantic east’, due to which reason he decides to camp on the sand beach near Konark and regrets it. He accepts that he “had developed a romantic idea of the journey” (Shand 31) and hence wanted to camp under casuarina trees on a sandy beach. He is desperately worried about Tara like an ‘expectant father’ (Shand 35). The vivid description of the Circuit House at Keonjhar, a solid example of English colonial-cum-Indian architecture shows his interest towards the colonial remains in India. The disdainful “line of clothes dripping from the balcony” belonging to Indrajit the driver, portrays typical sketches of the filthy, uncultured, dirty Indian.

In the chapter, “Death in the Jungle”, the Maharaja of Mayurbhanj welcomes Shand and Patankar as “a friend and a foe”. The King narrates the victory of his ancestors, who joined hands with the British forces, the Marquis Wellesley, to stop Marathas from entering Bengal. Rani Sumitra Devi’s services to the British indicates the Maharaja’s and his ancestors’ loyalty towards the Raj, which certainly pleases Shand.

As they travel across the South Bihar highlands, they reach a cluster of villages, where every village has a whitewashed church. Shand calls it the ‘Bible belt’. Here he comes across two young boys, Imai and Daniel, whose names are suggestive of the fact that they are converts to the Anglican Church of North India. During a conversation with the boys, Shand tells them jokingly that he isn’t a regular visitor to the Church, that he used to beat his wife back in England but he would never do that to his elephant. It is noteworthy how the young boy Imai shows willingness to visit England, despite Shand having told him how “all men in England beat their wives… And drink”. However, Imai’s companion tells Shand that he might have a fit body but he definitely has a ‘cracked mind’. This resonates the sentiment of Patankar, who in the early chapters of the books says, “Everybody knows English men are mad.”

The travel narrative does not bear any hint of regret as a former colonizer. However, a sense of imperialist nostalgia surfaces distinctly in the chapter, “McCluskiegunge”, where Shand confesses to have gone through a series of mixed emotions: nostalgia, sadness, and anger for the lost ‘good times’ of the ‘worthy race’. Like Patankar, who proudly narrates the exploitation of Odisha and Bihar by his ancestors, Shand shows no regret on having exploited the Indians. Rather, he wishes the ‘little Britishers’ to survive as a remnant of the British Raj.

A unique monument to a forgotten era, McCluskiegunge hopefully will survive. Already some influential people with the right values are starting to buy property for their retirement. This would have pleased E. T. McCluskie. “He sounded a splendid man, and I found a tribute to him on his death in a 1935 Colonisation Observer:

He might have built a palace grand, superb,
Which rivaled many a Raja’s rich demense
And revelled in a gay luxurious ease
Like lordly Nabob. But he chose, instead,
The better way: his fadeless name to write
On heart and mind a down-trodden race,
With pen of fervent zeal dipped in gold ink
Of memory pure, eternal as the soul.
Let others grovel in mire of hoarded pelf –
‘To serve’ his maxim. And his deeds transformed
Lapra, a waste village, into city fair –
McCluskiegunge! Fit for a worthy race
To dwell, whose inheritors, while time doth last
Shall rise and call him blessed. (Shand 132)

Shand also mentions his brief interaction with Dolly Bonner, an old lady, a resident of McCluskiegunge. The lady believed that ‘Anglo-Indians’ were a superior race, bearing better understanding of administration than majority of Indians. Hence they should have been considered to take the reins of administration post-independence. The other residents who did not have Anglo-Indian origins were referred to as “not ‘the right sort’”. Shand does not comment on Mrs Bonner’s point of view. His silence suggests that probably, he approved of her sentiments. In the Chapter “God’s Will”, Shand and his troupe reach the Sonepur Mela. Here Shand reminisces the ‘good times’ of British imperialism:

In former years, the Sonepur Mela was the occasion for a large sporting and social gathering of Europeans. “Where we were driving now, horse racing, polo, gymkhanas, cricket matches and lavish balls had taken place in the past.” (Shand 194)

The proprietal connection for example, the connection of Britishers with the Sonepur cattle fair suggests the unconcealed pride for the imperial past.

Shand has interspersed the travelogue with ample excerpts from nineteenth and twentieth century European texts on elephants. He seems to long to return for a touristic sightseeing of the poverty and deterioration of India after the British had sucked the subcontinent dry of all its resources and riches. There appears to be no hint of guilt for the colonial sins committed by his forefathers as he revels with his small army, fulfilling his fantasy of being a modern day Tarzan.

Sridhi Dash is a research scholar at the Department of English, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack, India, currently engaged in researching Illness as a Metaphor, and is interested in Travel writing and rehabilitation studies.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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