What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein
I have loved elephants since I was seven and read Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches the Egg, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one hundred percent!” They are enormous, yet so graceful and majestic. They are fiercely protective of their young, and all the females participate in raising the calves. They are more feared than tigers in their habitat and have amazingly long memories. They never forget. I admit also, my guilty pleasure, I love to hear them trumpet.
The setting is Nepal, a tiny country bordering China and India, and home to the Himalayas, Mt. Everest, and the Hindu religion. Reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s’ Jungle Book, it is the story of Nandu, a young Tibetan boy who was abandoned as a toddler in the Nepal jungle, with just a red string around his neck. He is miraculously protected by dhole, Asiatic wild dogs until he is discovered by the elephant Devi Kali. Subba-sahib, the head of the king’s elephant stable adopts him and teaches him how to become to become a Mahout or elephant trainer. Nandu learns to trust and love Devi Kali whose name is synonymous with the Hindu goddess Divine mother, or mother of the universe, and who loves him in return. Nandu regards Subba-sahib as his father and Devi Kali as his mother. She not only found him, she is protective of Nandu and seems to know his thoughts, “When Devi Kali looks at me, I see love in her eyes.”
The king has various stables and uses the elephants to hunt big game, especially tigers, with his ambassadors and other heads of state. On such a hunt, the king and his entourage are about to kill a huge tiger, when Nandu shouts out to warn the animal. He recognizes it as the tigress who recently had cubs that would become orphans like him. The tigress escapes unharmed. At first the king is angry and demands an explanation. Nandu tells him that she has cubs that would starve to death if she were killed. There is a rustling in the grass and Subba-sahib points to the three cubs following the path their mother took. The king relents, realizing he did not wish to kill the female, it would be an act against nature and thanks Nandu for preventing it.
One day the king decides he cannot afford to maintain two great stables and threatens to close Subba-sahib’s. The other mahouts still angry with Nandu for ruining the hunt, believe him to be singlehandedly responsible for them losing their jobs. Isolated he turns to his one true, loyal companion, Devi Kali. Subba-sahib sees potential in Nandu for greater things than raising elephants, and sends him to boarding school. It is hoped that Nandu will learn the tools necessary to keep the elephant stable afloat. He has many adventures and many lessons to learn.
I was excited when I saw this book written by Eric Dinerstein, who has devoted his life to conserving elephant populations, and even more pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it. It is a great coming of age adventure, about the bonds between elephants and the people who love them. This book will encourage young readers to become like Nandu, conservators of their environment. I hope it will inspire those who read it to realize that just because we were given dominion of the earth does not mean we have license to destroy all other living creatures, or hunt them out of existence for the sake of money or trophies. I hope it will help them see that all, humanity and animal have a place in the world.
If you like this book, you may also enjoy Chained by Lynne Kelly, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel and A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata, all offered at the Virginia Beach Public Library.