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Lynne Kelly

Puffin Books

Pages: 229 Rs. 250

An elephant remembers the less-than-rosy truth

Lynne Kelly’s novel works well as a coming-of-age story, despite its somewhat “exotic” handling of a human-animal friendship, writes Tanushree Bhasin.

Tanushree Bhasin  1st Mar 2014

A keeper in Thrissur, Kerala helps an elephant take a bath

t's easy to classify a book as children's literature and deem it unworthy of serious consideration. Chained, however, is a book that refuses to be trapped within the paradigms of such narrow definitions. Winner of the 2013 South Asia Book Award Honour as well as the Society of Children's Books Writers and Illustrator's Crystal Kite Award, Chained is definitely not your typical children's book, pushing boundaries and exploring the possibility of young adults having to deal with real-world problems through its story.

Lynne Kelly's book traces the journey of 10-year-old Hastin, as he pledges himself — perhaps unknowingly — to a life of bonded labour to rescue his mother, who is similarly trapped in an abusive job in the city to pay the hospital bill for his sister's illness. Hastin finds himself a job as an elephant keeper and while he initially thinks of it as an adventure in the jungle, he soon finds out that he's in a cruel world, where realities are punctuated with lies and punishment. His best friend and fellow sufferer is the baby elephant he's entrusted with — Nandini. She plays football, gluttonously drinks milk and like Hastin, dreams of being free.

In this coming-of-age tale, Kelly touches upon several issues that plague Indian society, especially in areas close to a jungle — poor healthcare facilities, bonded labour, malnutrition, wildlife poaching, animals held captive illegally, child labour. But by viewing these issues from the perspective of a child, at once horrified and forgiving, she doesn't overburden the reader. Instead, Hastin's willingness to forgive, and often forget, forces the reader to introspect.

Hastin's employment is in a circus, somewhere "east of the sun" and away from his desert home. But unlike other children's literature, such as Enid Blyton's work that places the circus within a framework of joy and childishness, Kelly imagines Hastin's circus as a venue of forced and often cruel employment.

Elephants, unlike other threatened species, are often considered to be partly domesticated. Like camels, bulls and others beasts of burden, in India, especially, they are not thought of as "wild". Where Kelly is at her best, are the subtle instances when she captures the beauty of Nandini's innate "wildness". Her freedom is one that is intrinsically linked to the jungle and Hastin's is one which, in turn, is linked to his family.

The complexity of the book's themes of freedom and wildness are woven into simple passages, without ever taking away from Kelly's gentle style of writing. Take for instance the passage, "I move on towards my desert home, somewhere far ahead of me. Behind me, I hear a distant trumpeting in the forest, a joyful sound I have not heard from Nandita before." Told through the eyes of a young boy, Kelly manages to capture the joyous wonder of a young boy's imagination.

he problem with the book lies not in the plot, or its telling, but the almost unavoidable exoticisation of this friendship between man and beast. Passages that focus on the jungle, especially, tend to view it through an oriental lens. The jungle is almost too vividly green, the jungle cats too benign and the elephants almost too human. The humanisation of animals, turned so beautifully on its head in The Life of Pi, doesn't quite happen here and we encounter Nandini as a person in her own right. In an effort to posit the wildness of the jungle as an opposition to Nandita's chained existence, Kelly falls back on the tried-and-tested formula of portraying the jungle as at once wonderful and full of dangers.

The genre of the bildungsroman — which focuses on the development of a young protagonist as he or she tackles with moral, intellectual and psychological questions in testing circumstances, ultimately leading to growth — is not new. Ranging from Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous to the more recent Holes by Louis Sachar, authors have found this opposition of place and person particularly fertile for storytelling. Critical points however — which made the book interesting to begin with — are left unsatisfactorily dealt with by the end of the book. Hastin returns to his family at the end of the journey (a hardly surprising ending), but Kelly doesn't deal with any of the questions that she's raised previously. What happens to his cruel employer, the poacher and circus owner; how does his sister recover from her mysterious illness; is the life he returns to any better than the life he led in the jungle? Instead, the author falls back on a piece of advice that Hastin got from his deceased father, "Baba said that a story is no good if you hear only the ending. You have to know how you got there."

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