The novel is set in India and opens with an elephant escaping into the schoolyard where Govinda, the book’s young protagonist, studies and lives with his father – the school’s headmaster – and his mother.
It’s a disturbing opening to a book of any genre, especially for those who love animals. An elephant is shot then cremated on the spot, out in the open, in front of everyone – kids and adults alike. This emotional opening is sustained in varying degrees until the end of the book.
The Burning Elephant is the story of Govinda and his family, set in the midst of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The narrative is propelled by Govinda’s father’s desire to escape the chaos of India by moving to Australia. “We are all human beings,” writes the book’s author, Chrisphoer Raja. “But in India we have mastered the ability to see pain and misery and to be unaffected by it.”
Even for those who have lived in a third world country, the book’s vivid depiction of poverty in Calcutta is shocking. But Raja masterfully creates pockets of happiness through the eyes of a child.
Compared to other children in India, Govinda lives a privileged life, being the child of the headmaster. His family have their own cook and servants. They have their own chauffeur. But Govinda is constantly afraid his life is about to be flipped upside down.
Govinda is a brave young boy who is forced to face many issues children from first world countries face too – distant parents, a demanding father, a family falling apart. Yet he is also forced to witnesses violence in the streets as his country goes to war with itself following the assassination of the Prime Minister.
The Burning Elephant was reworked for a young adult audience after Raja received the Australia Council literature grant. But, as with many YA books, the issues and emotions the character deals with are just as challenging as those in books for adults.
From a parent’s perspective, I have second thoughts about letting a young reader read such a heavily emotional book. But at the same time, it is also such an eye opener to the difference in the quality of life on the other side of the world. If reading this doesn’t bring out empathy then I don’t know what will.
Kristyn M. Levis is a freelance writer, author and photographer based in Sydney. She is currently the managing editor of Her Collective.