Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2016

The Burning Elephant (2015), by Christopher Raja

the-burning-elephantFrom the opening image of a burning elephant in a schoolyard to the violence of its ending in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Christopher Raja’s debut novella The Burning Elephant is confronting reading.  It might, therefore, seem surprising that it’s marketed as Young Adult Fiction but I think it’s appropriate: I think that Australia’s young people ought to be exposed to stories that show that social cohesion is a privilege we should value and protect more than we do.

The young protagonist, Govinda, lives a privileged life in India.  Growing up as the son of  a schoolmaster in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), he has a comfortable lifestyle and is inclined to be a little priggish.  As an only son, he is more than a little indulged.  Unlike the poor and disadvantaged who surround him, he has the luxury of parents he can criticise and servants he can patronise.  He resents his father Sunil Seth and is supercilious towards the cook, patronisingly nicknamed Mumbles because Govinda can’t always understand what he says.  He idolises his mother and is appalled when he realises she is having an affair with Mumbles, not so much on moral grounds but more because of the differences in caste.

Yet Mumbles is a man of great dignity.  He is a Sikh, and through him Govinda comes to realise that the father he would like to admire, is an intolerant man.  Warning Mumbles that he doesn’t want any more trouble after an incident with a prophesying hijra (a transgender person), Govinda’s father switches tack and complains about finding a long hair in his food.  Govinda is appalled by his father’s demand that Mumbles should therefore cut his hair:

Govinda recognised how callous his father was to say this.  He had accepted what the turban, hair and beard meant to Mumbles.  These traditions, he knew, dated from the seventeenth century, when the last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, decided that followers should allow their hair to grow as a sign of respect for God, whom they knew as Kesh.  Taking away his Sikh dress would be a travesty, because it would disconnect Mumbles from all his principles.  Sometimes, Govinda decided, his father could be very thoughtless. (p.32)

As we learn later in the book, for a Sikh to use the razor is as sinful as incest.

Through Mumbles, Govinda learns about the atrocities that accompanied Partition.

Mumbles rejoiced in the kitchen, but occasionally talked of the day of the giant white horse, the train from Pakistan, when his grandparents were killed during partition. He recounted the story of how the train was held up by marauding gangs.  His grandparents were doused in kerosene.  Politicians refused to take responsibility.  There was little reporting and no one was held accountable.  And then he would get very dark.(p.29)

When this happens Govinda’s overprotective mother Gitanjali whisks him out of the kitchen to buy sweets at the market so that her son isn’t confronted by this event in the history of India’s independence.   However, as events unfold, Govinda cannot be protected either from the breakdown of his parents’ marriage, or from the violence on the streets in the wake of Sikh separatism and Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

As trouble looms, Sunil Seth’s disdain for his own people leads him to seek migration to Australia, a place he has idealised:

‘Nothing bad happens in Australia?’ asked Govinda.

‘Nothing like this happens in Australia,’ said Sunil Seth. ‘Australia is one of the most gorgeous places in the world.  There are beaches with golden sand.  Islands fringed with palm trees. Oceans full of whales and dolphins.  Snow covered mountains against tranquil green valleys.’

‘You live in a fantasy,’ said Gitanjali anxiously.

‘This is not a fantasy.’ Sunil Seth did everything to show his family that his spirits were high. Yet just as quickly he would explode, saying he was frustrated and tired of ‘corruption and pervasive negativity’ and ‘a lack of leadership.’ (p.60)

But at the interview for migration, he articulates aspirations common to many would-be migrants:

‘How come we want to leave?  Naturally for our child.  We think Australia is a land of opportunity.  We can create a future there for our son.  In India everyone has a label.  you are Hindu, Christian Buddhist, Sikh or Muslim but in Australia everyone is equal and everyone can be free.  In Australia everyone is Australian.’  (p.97)

Perhaps this is a belief that we in Australia would do well to reflect on.  Do we deserve this reputation?

Govinda has a lot to contend with.  The burning elephant in his schoolyard is a harbinger of the trauma to come.  Serpent Lane is his childhood haunt but it is transformed by the violence.  He sees the ordinary people of his community turn on each other, carrying pitchforks, knives and swords.  He sees sectarian hatreds explode into arson and bloodshed.  The school where his father is headmaster is targeted because the dacoits think that it is being used as a refuge for Sikhs; there is unexpected courage from those who help to hide them from the mob.  At the same time Govinda is conflicted about the safety of Mumbles and his family because of his relationship with Gitanjali.

The narration is that of a young boy, naïve, confused and inclined to make hasty judgements. It seems simplistic sometimes. But as the tension rises, Govinda’s is forced into a maturity that represents a loss of innocence, and perhaps a loss of hope too.

Christopher Raja migrated to Australia with his family in 1986, and has previously published short stories and plays.  There is a really interesting interview with Raja at the Asian Australian  Film Forum website.  It will be very interesting to see what he writes next.

Author: Christopher Raja
Title: The Burning Elephant
Publisher: Giramondo, 2015
ISBN: 9781922146922
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo

Available from Fishpond: The Burning Elephant or direct from Giramondo



  1. It doesn’t sound like a YA plot, although I get what you say about a YA POV. I hadn’t realised there was violence between Sikhs and Hindus. By all means come here, I think our immigration intake is around 180,000/year at the moment, but if even the government is talking about ‘Australians’ and ‘Muslims’ or ‘Australians’ and ‘Lebanese’, it’s going to be a while before everyone is Australian again.


    • It was certainly interesting to see articulated just how naïve the attitude of would-be refugees can be. Apparently they’re like that about the UK too, that’s why they get to Europe and then make those risky crossings across the Channel because they see the UK as some kind of beacon of equality and fairness.
      You’re right that it doesn’t sound like a YA plot, but that might be because most of the YA stuff I’ve read is basically relationship and coming-of-age stuff set in a familiar environment. What Raja is doing is showing that coming-of-age can be and for many migrant Australians has been a very different experience. I think that not only young people who’ve experienced something similar will relate to this book and be pleased that their experience is being acknowledged in our fiction, but it will also be a bit of a wake-up call for other kids who might otherwise be a bit self-absorbed.


  2. I didn’t think there would actually be a burning elephant in this book. Yikes!


    • Yes, it’s a really shocking image, made more so for Australian readers because we just can’t imagine an elephant coming into a school yard and dying there and then being cremated. Think how traumatic that would be for kids… the nearest I can think of is whales stranding themselves on a beach…


      • … and then setting them on fire! How awful.


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