An elephant unexpectedly breaks into a schoolyard and is burned in an incident of horror and violence observed by a young boy, Govinda, the son of the school’s headmaster.
From that shocking starting point, Chris Raja’s The Burning Elephant, takes readers through the lead up to and aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi with empathy, heartbreak and tenderness, highlighting the dreadful acuity and murkiness of coming of age.
Here, Chris connects with Peril Editor, Eleanor Jackson to talk about The Burning Elephant, which is extracted courtesy of Giramondo Publishing.
The Burning Elephant originally started as general fiction but has been reworked to suit a young adult audience – what do you hope has been achieved by adapting the story in that way?
After I secured a contract with Giramondo Publishing, and under the expert guidance of Ivor Indyk and Alice Grundy, I got to rework ‘The Burning Elephant’ and make the story relevant for more readers including young adults. I also focused on the pace of the narrative. I made the young protagonist, Govinda more knowing in later drafts.The novel deals with an area that has not received sufficient thought in either India or Australia’s creative and cultural output to date so I thought a juvenile audience and their parents may be a good place to start telling these important, new stories.
The Burning Elephant is set entirely in India, but relates also to a family’s journey to Australia – how does that relationship between India and Australia feature in the story and what is your hope in doing so?
‘The Burning Elephant’ deals with the assassination of Indira Gandhi and it is completely set in India; however, it is about a family’s journey to Australia. I used this national catastrophe to tell a smaller, more personal story.
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. One of the central themes of this novel revolves around the reasons why people might want to leave their birthplace and migrate to Australia.
I wanted to write a novel about Australia that does not feature Australia. Instead, Australia is presented like a dream. For Govinda’s father, Sunil Seth, the headmaster, Australia is a place full of beaches and dolphins, a land of unlimited opportunity, where anyone can achieve what they want unlike India where he feels his ambitions are being thwarted.
At one point, Sunil Seth says: “We are all human beings, but in India we have mastered the ability to see pain and misery and to be unaffected by it.” How does this concept play out throughout the novel?
This is something Sunil Seth tells his son Govinda so that he is aware they live a privileged existence and that some people lived charmed lives while others appear cursed with a wretched existence. Sunil Seth and a number of other characters in the book appear to want to expose the little cruelties of everyday life in India while some seem to be used to it and learn to ignore it.
As someone who has migrated to Australia at a young age, do you feel that Australia shares this “ability” or otherwise?
I am deeply connected to India and Australia and want to use my artistic perspective to tell stories that deal with each countries national psyche. In Australia we overlook certain realities. There are many hidden stories in our national narrative that we still have not faced up to. My co-authored play, ‘The First Garden’ attempts to tell one such hidden story. However, in ‘The Burning Elephant’ I purposely left out any opinion of Australia that is grounded from lived experience. Other books deal with the experience of immigration and tell a more common story of becoming an Australian. I did not want to do this. Instead, I wanted to focus on the realities the Seth family faced before arriving here. Not many Australian novels deal with this aspect of a hidden past that most Australians carry with them and how this past might impact on their understanding of being Australian.