The Elephant Keeper’s Daughter

Written by Deborah Langton (trans.) Julia Drosten
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1803, a daughter, Phera, is born to the elephant keeper of the independent mountainous Sinhalese Kingdom of Kanda. Desirous of a son, he brings Phera up as a boy. For twelve years, Phera learns elephant keeping. However, Phera’s masquerade ends when the British invade Kanda. Phera and her family escape to a jungle village. Following the unsuccessful 1818 Uva Rebellion, they are discovered by British troops. Phera hides under the hut while most of the male members are slaughtered and the women raped. The commander, Charles, participates in the atrocities, despite the pleadings of his brother, Henry, the regimental surgeon. In 1822, Charles is put in charge of building a road and corrals local unpaid labor. Henry is attracted to the young mahout, the fiercely independent Phera. But a confrontation erupts between the brothers, not only over workers’ treatment and a mysterious road diversion, but also Charles’s desire for Phera, which threatens the uneasy peace.

Drosten has done a superb job of bringing to life this chapter in history when Kanda was finally captured and the whole Sri Lankan island taken over by the British. The plot is masterfully constructed with a young and aggressive female heroine; a kind-hearted British doctor as the protagonist; and his evil brother, the villain. While the storyline is purposely developed to show the atrocities of the invading army, the intense descriptions of cruelty, particularly by an officer on his brother, are a bit odd. Furthermore, a lengthy sex scene in a brothel appears gratuitous, and Charles’s malevolent nature remains unexplained. However, Drosten’s first-hand research is demonstrated by informative descriptions of Sinhalese customs, life, cuisine, and flora and fauna. The introduction of a baby elephant as a character will delight readers. The translation reads smoothly.