Travels on my Elephant (by Mark Shand)

I'd never heard of Mark Shand. I probably would never have picked up this book since I'm not really into travel books, nor elephants.

But I was given 'Travels on my Elephant', nearly a year ago and it sat on my shelves until I picked it up about six months ago, thinking it looked quite interesting. It tells the story of how Mark Shand had the slightly crazy idea of riding by elephant across India. His idealised vision of this was rather a long way from reality, but he was not put off by setbacks.

The book tells the story of how Mark first had to get hold of an elephant, and the difficulties he encountered. Tara, when he bought her, was a rather thin, malnourished and abused creature but with good food and care soon became a most beautiful animal. He quickly discovered that he couldn't just ride an elephant by himself - he needed an entourage of people who would help in her care and teach him how to ride and control her.

The story is written with humour, as Tara and her human companions travel across the country from the Bay of Bengal to the world's oldest elephant market, where they plan to sell her... so long as they can find a good home. Along the way they meet some fascinating people, discover that colonialism is still alive and well, get into trouble at times, and generally learn a great deal about India and elephants in general.

And of course in reading the book I also gained some fascinating insights into India and its culture and people. It wasn't gripping enough that I couldn't put the book down, but every so often I picked it up and read another chapter or two before finally finishing it this week. The long gap between chapters - at times - meant that I tended to forget who was whom amongst the author's friends and employees, but it didn't really matter since I still got the gist of what was going on.

All in all, a very interesting book that I'd recommend to anyone wanting to know a bit more about India... or anyone wishing to buy an elephant!

It was out of print for a while, but it's the kind of book that tends to appear on charity shop shelves. It's now been re-printed in hardback, at rather a high price; I'm not sure I'd pay what Amazon is asking but it's certainly worth picking up if you find it second-hand.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 4th February 2010

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