Travels on my Elephant

Mark Shand's memoirs of his colossal companion is a rarely read insight

Book Review

October 30, 2018

/ By / New Delhi

India & You

November-December 2018


Travel tales of a travel writer who discovered parts of India with his elephant that was rescued from abuse and begging.


Title: Travels on my Elephant

Author: Mark Shand

Pages: 206

Price: INR 299

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

ISBN: 9789387693081

Can you imagine India without elephants? In the country, the gigantic animal is a symbol of good luck and prosperity. As first among equals in the Hindu pantheon of gods, the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha is the master of intellect, wisdom and wealth. No wonder Mark Shand, given his wanderlust and attraction for India, was smitten by the pachyderm. He decided to take the elephant as his soulmate in his sojourn through the country.

Shand undertook epic journeys across the dusty back roads of India at a time when the world was being explored by fast and faster modes of transportation. Why did Shand choose the elephant as his travelling companion? Shand, for his part, wanted to travel at the elephant’s pace in an era of jet travel as he believed it would enable him to absorb the surrounding environment. “India is like an elephant. She moves slowly,” he observes.

Once an essential part of military expeditions and royal households, pachyderms in India have fallen on bad times on account of modern modes of warfare and transportation. Owned by landlords, elephants have been turned into moneyspurning machines as they are leased during marriage seasons. Worse, they are pushed into begging as Indians generously feed these four-legged giants and offer money in return for their blessings, considered as acceptance of the prayers by Lord Ganesha.

Amidst these deplorable conditions faced by elephants, Shand found his loyal and travel companion, 30-year-old Tara, a scrawny beast rescued from abuse and begging. Shand has narrated how he along with his Indian friend, a Maratha nobleman, were engaged in a mad nineteenth-century expedition, except the quest was not for a lost city or hidden treasure, but for an elephant!

Blessed by priests, entertained by princes, and visiting a retinue of old and new friends, the entourage covered 800 km, going through numerous towns and villages. From Konark in Odisha, they went up to Sonepur in Bihar, beating the dust, heat and hardships encountered on the way. The mela (fair) at Sonepur is the world’s oldest and largest elephant market. While Tara sucked up rice, bananas, jaggery on their journey, Shand took solace in the money offered by people to the embodiment of Ganesha. A white man on an elephant’s back accompanied by five eccentric Indians managed to draw several curious admirers.

The epic journey entertains the readers with the travails of Shand and his companions. Painting a chaotic but vivid picture of locales and life, customs and traditions, Shand narrates his memoir in a melodramatic fashion guaranteed to leave readers in splits!

Published in the 1990s Shand’s book, Travels on My Elephant, has been introduced in the South Asian market recently. A travel writer and fund-raising conservationist, Shand with a playboy past has authored travel books that include River Dog: A journey down the Brahmaputra, Queen of the Elephants and Skullduggery. Shand, who died in 2014 at the age of 63, also established a foundation called Elephant Family, a charity devoted to protecting the environment of the Asian elephant, tiger and orangutan. The foundation is also engaged in creation and acquisition of jungle corridors that connect together various forest reserves.

A widely-read author, he has pored over more than two dozen books on elephants, India, and the British Raj and also quoted brief extracts to explain the context as well.

At the end of the journey, Tara became a star attraction, thanks to Shand’s care and attention. But what became of Tara? Did she go back to begging like she was used to, before Shand found her? Or did Shand take her home to pamper her more? Read and find out.

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