Writing ‘The Burning Elephant’

by Christopher Raja

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“startling”, “ vivid” and “compelling” (Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November, 2015)

The Burning Elephant is a Young Adult novel that deals with the assassination of Indira Gandhi and it is completely set in India; it is also about a family’s journey to Australia. It’s a lot more than this and difficult to categorise. When I began writing this novel it was as a response to my father’s untimely death. He drowned when I was eighteen, and for years I was rudderless and I got very sick. Looking back at our time in India was a way for me to move forward and find my equilibrium.

One of the central themes of this novel revolves around the reasons why people might want to leave their birthplace and migrate to Australia.

The novel grew out of a short story that was originally published in Southerly: India India (70.3). The difficult thing about writing a novel, the French author Michel Houellebecq once said, is discovering the starting point, the thing that will open it up. And even that doesn’t guarantee a book. I started The Burning Elephant with the knowledge that someone would drown. The truth is, I had no desire to become a writer until my father drowned. The reason I began to read and write about India was because a councillor suggested I should. I didn’t have a novel until the elephant charged into my imagination, which it did after I ravaged a bowl of Chinese soup in The Alice Springs Plaza.

At first, I had no idea the book would be published or whether it would be read by others. In many ways, I worked on this book to simply keep alive. Often, I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, as I worked on the book. I received lots of help and support along the way from editors, other writers, friends and family but it was not really about writing for me. It was about remaining connected and safe when I became overcome with depression and despair. I did not know how to deal with my personal burning elephant.

I guess what I’m really saying is it was a hard book to write as it dealt with my father’s suicide and that is probably what I am most defensive about. I often refer to the book as my sick book as every time I felt pain, hurt, confusion, delusion, I went to work on the manuscript. I found it very difficult to look over the text even though it was a work of fiction; there was an underlying emotion, sickness, bereavement, that was too painful for me to reconcile.

The book has been marketed as a Young Adult novel – though as with much in the YA genre, the emotional weight and the issues that it considers are as challenging as any novel for adults. It is a subversive novel, deals with social and religious issues, invokes emotion, realistic and serious.

The story is told from young Govinda Seth’s point of view and is set in Calcutta just before and after the assassination of the prime minister. An escaped elephant enters Govinda’s schoolyard, and frightens everyone. The young boy watches on in horror as an escaped circus elephant is shot and then cremated. Govinda has been having a hard time trying to please his father, the headmaster, and figure out his mother – something seems wrong with her but Govinda is not sure what. Mumbles, the family’s cook, is a Sikh and worried about the violence on the streets against members of his religion. In The Burning Elephant, we step into Govinda’s Calcutta, a world which revolves around the magic and menace of Serpent Lane, just beyond the school gates, and spins out into a city and country in crisis, when the Prime Minister is assassinated. This is a story of how the terrors of life can crash into adolescence and how innocence, once lost, can never be regained.

I came across a blog from Readings Books in Melbourne (link below), of 12 novels that have taken their inspiration from history. This list includes: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, The Golden Age by Joan London and  The Burning Elephant. http://www.readings.com.au/news/12-novels-set-during-key-historical-events

By fictionalising aspects of my life, I experienced a familiar world through the eyes of my characters.  Every thing I saw, ate, experienced, read, was digested not just by me but also, Sunil Seth, Gitanjali Seth, Mumbles Singh, Ashok, Nitesh, and Govinda Seth, characters  in the novel. So much so, it became increasingly confusing to track what was real and what was fiction. Nothing prepared me for this unsettling experience. Along the way, I had to be hospitalised twice. So naturally I am defensive about talking about this book. I don’t really have the words to do so..

Anyway, I am doing much better now. I am working on new works and swimming. I have a wonderful family and many friends. I want to leave that difficult time behind. I am grateful the book is out of my hands. I hope it has some merit. I find it too difficult to read.

imageThe evocative front cover of The Burning Elephant was designed by the award-winning graphic designer Harry Williamson, who has also designed Australian currency. It cleverly captures Govinda’s favourite Hindu festival, Dol Purnima, the spring season when the country of my birth goes merry and sprays coloured water on each other. I think large billboards of Giramondo book covers would make an interesting exhibition/retrospective.

In May, I’ve been invited to attend WORDSTORM, Darwin, over the Mother’s Day weekend, for four days and four nights of writing, culture and ideas in the Top End. This year’s festival theme is The Fabric of Family and it seems fitting I’m taking my family with me. I have been asked to be the festival’s official blogger. I will be on a panel discussing my novel, The Burning Elephant, but I’m equally looking forward to meeting other writers and performers from the Northern Territory and elsewhere. I’m particularly keen to hear Magda Szubanski discuss her family memoir Reckoning and meet Indonesia’s  Eka Kurniawan author of the novel, Beauty is a Wound, which was translated into English last year. Eka Kurniawan’s Labodalih Sembiring (Man Tiger) (Verso Books), is in contention for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.image (1)