An Elephant in the Desert


by Vaseem Khan, author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series

Two weeks from now I will travel to Dubai to speak at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. This will be my first visit to Dubai, my first trip to the Middle East. I will be speaking about the mystery, magic, and gritty realities of modern India, where my bestselling series of crime novels, the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, are set. The first book in the series was the award-winning The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. The novels feature Inspector Ashwin Chopra and his unusual sidekick, a one year old baby elephant named Ganesha.

Elephants are India’s most magnificent symbol. During the ten years that I lived there I fell in love with these mighty animals, which can be seen on India’s congested roads, in forests, in circuses, and in myth and legend. They are a part of the fabric of Indian life.

When I returned to the UK and decided to cast an elephant in my crime series, I soon realized that they actually make very good detectives. Just like the best detectives, elephants are highly intelligent, and possess incredible memories, something that has been well documented. They are also socially complex, with a wide range of human-like emotions.

All in all an elephant makes perfect sense as a crime-fighting sidekick.

But this got me thinking: was there any historical tradition of elephants in the Middle East? A little research reveals some interesting results.

Islamic tradition speaks of The Year of the Elephant, the year in which the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) was born. It is said that the ruler of Yemen marched upon Mecca at the head of an army that included elephants. However, the lead elephant, known as Mahmud, is said to have stopped at the city’s edge and refused to enter.

On a more recent note, scientific findings in 2012 in the UAE indicate the fossilized footprints of a herd of elephants tracking across the Arabian Desert. The footprints are seven million years old, making them the oldest known elephant footprints in the world. Of course, back then the desert was ‘greener’ and thus home to a great diversity of animals, including elephants, hippos, giraffes, ostriches, turtles, crocodiles and even fish.

Nowadays, the only elephants to be found in the desert are in Africa, where they eek out a living in the Namib and Sahara, surviving on camelthorn bushes and turpentine trees. (Though I am told that there will be a herd of magnificent elephants in the Dubai Safari Park. I hope that locals will flock to see them – they are truly wondrous to behold.)

In my novels little Ganesha is sent to Inspector Chopra by his long lost uncle. Chopra, a rational, serious man, is at first bemused as to what to do with an elephant – after all, he lives in one of the world’s most crowded cities: Mumbai – a city of twenty million! But he soon discovers that Ganesha is much more than he seems. Together they tackle some terrible crimes: the murder of a poor slum boy, the theft of the world famous Kohinoor diamond, and, in my latest novel, the kidnapping of a Bollywood film star. During these adventures I try to take readers on a journey to the heart of modern India, to give you an idea of what it looks like, sounds like, smells like, and even tastes like.

I would like to invite you to join me on this journey.

Come along to any of my talks at the Festival: I will be speaking on Sat 4th March, 11.30am – ‘Journey to modern India: with a crime fighting elephant’, and on a panel entitled ‘Truly criminal: the inspiration behind cases’ at 3.00pm on the same day. I will also be at the Murder Mystery Dinner at 7.30pm on Fri 3rd March.

I hope to see you at one of my events… to meet my little fictional elephant as I bring him to the desert.