A big book with a baroque design. By an interweaving of narrative voices, a brilliant picture is drawn not only of individuals, but of a whole upper-class Indian family.
India come to life with great vividness and humour. Added to that are rewarding insights into the alien wisdom of exiles. The writing is never dull and the observations are acute; you sense a generosity of spirit in Desai's way of looking at the world and at people.
Fantastical though the framework, the book is neither a fantasy nor science fiction, but a vividly realistic presentation of three generations of Parsis. A variety of strikingly life-like characters, drawn with a warm feeling of kinship, yet with much humour, and often with a penetrating satirical observation, give the novel a vibrant sense of reality. A very readable and highly promising first novel.
The Indian Post
Desai's style is fluid. His keen mind, his elephantine memory and his sharp humour make for enjoyable reading.
The Memory of Elephants illuminates a fascinating kaleidoscope of collective and family history. The strengths and eccentricities of the Parsis are revealed through a rich range of characters.
Third World Quarterly
The characterizations are vibrant and the writing has so much drive that, once started, it is almost impossible to leave the book unfinished.
The Statesman Literary Supplement, India
How does a six-year-old cope with the loss of his sweetheart? He puts himself in quarantine, he lowers his resistance, he searches out toxins as if they were grail, he dreams of reunitement (pupal angels in a Hansel and Gretel heaven). In the two years that followed I contracted mumps, jaundice, chicken pox, typhoid, two kinds of measles, three kinds of flu; I underwent a second tonsillectomy, an appendectomy; I had yet to run through cholera, small pox, tuberculosis, and whooping cough, but something I read and someone I met so exposed the selfindulgence of my quarantine that even the most benighted eyes (mine) began to see.
THE MEMORY OF ELEPHANTS
BACKGROUND OF THE NOVEL
When I was 25, it was a very good year. Let me revise that: it was the best of years, it was the worst of years. The summer brought about my most ardent love affair, the fall my most traumatic breakup. I fell into a downward spiral – until, taking a course in psychology, I learned about Dr. Wilder Graves Penfield, who had conducted experiments to cure epilepsy. He peeled back the scalps of his patients to probe their naked brains with an electrode, asking as he probed if they felt a fit was imminent. Once he had determined the part of the brain corresponding to a fit, he excised that part of the brain, resulting in complete cures in 50% of the cases, appreciable cures in another 25%, and no cure at all in the last 25% – but no harm either to the patients.
What interested me more than anything was a side-effect of the probe. One woman said she felt as if she were giving birth to her first child all over again. It was more than a feeling: she could describe the room and its inhabitants in the minutest detail, as if she were reliving the experience rather than recalling it. Another patient said he could hear the march from Aida when the doctor administered the probe, recalling times when his uncle had played the opera on a stack of 78 rpm records. When the doctor removed the probe the music stopped. After a number of similar episodes, Dr. Penfield realized he was igniting memory traces within the brain – and I realized that the summer with my inamorata was hardly lost. It was imprinted on my brain. All I had to do was probe my naked brain with an electrode to relive my summer as often as I pleased.
I didn’t do that, I didn’t have the expertise, but I did have the expertise to conjure a character who had the expertise – and that is what I did. A whiz kid from Bombay loses his virginity to an artist’s model in Aquihana, Pennsylvania, only to have her move on once she’s notched her bedpost. He invents the memoscan, isolates the convolution in his brain which carries the memory of his singular night, and trains the machine to scan the convolution repeatedly. He knows he will die: under the influence of the machine, in the grip of the memory, he can neither eat nor drink and will very likely succumb to dehydration in 3-4 days. Either that or the convolution containing the memory trace will cut deeper into his brain with each successive recall until his brain splits in two. But the narrator doesn’t think of it as dying as much as living with his love forever.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) the memoscan (which uses a non-intrusive laser instead of Dr. Penfield's electrode) goes haywire. Instead of focusing on the convolution of the rhapsodic night, it slips into the protagonist’s Collective Unconscious, the repository of not only personal memories, but the familial and ancestral and universal memory of mankind – bringing us to the Memory of Elephants, a metaphor for long-term memory, also the frame of the novel within which three generations of a family saga are played out – but I’ll leave the reader to discover the rest for herself.
Copyright 2015. Boman Desai. All rights reserved