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India-born American author spotlights elephants
By Nitish S. Rele

Meet Stephen Alter, author of the recently released non-narrative book "Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant" (Harcourt). This is the fourth narrative nonfiction set in India, where he was born and raised.

Educated at Woodstock School in Mussoorie, Alter is a writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A cousin of Indian film actor Tom Alter, he spends time in India and America.

Alter's other nonfiction work includes "Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture," "Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border" and "All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas." His novels include "Neglected Lives," "Silk and Steel," "The Godchild" and "Renuka."

Steve Alter
But at present, Alter's attention is focused solely on "Elephas Maximus." "The book explores the natural history and mythology of India's elephants, as well as their significance in art, religion and literature," he said. "It combines personal observations and accounts of my travels with research on elephant lore and biology. The elephant represents many things for many people but to me it is the supreme symbol of India's natural heritage."

He is very encouraged with the reviews received so far. Indeed, "Publisher's Weekly" called the book, "An elegant paean to the Indian elephant and a wake-up call for its protection." "Kirkus Review" termed the work "A history more splendid than any maharaja's golden howdah."

Ask Alter to speak about the common myths about elephants and he replies, "There are myths about dancing elephants and elephant graveyards but these are all fanciful ideas. While stories of this kind are intriguing, it is much more interesting to observe elephants in the wild and watch their true behavior."

Alter already is at work on his next book. And no bets on its subject: it will probably be a compilation of Himalayan folklore, he admits.

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