Refugee restrictions are tightening. Today’s ESL class is a YouTube video of “How Ganesh Got an Elephant Head.” There are dozens of versions of the story from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and other sources, many as cartoons or opera. We settle on a live-action one in Hindi with English subtitles. Most of the Bhutanese students say they understand the Hindi, but I’m not sure. Some of them know the story, but many seem mystified by it. This one looks like it is from the 1970’s, in low-budget Bollywood style.
Queen Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva, is at home in their temple, a fiberglass or papier Mache cave with fake snow. Everyone walks barefoot through it, and it clings to their feet in Styrofoam bits. Parvati is pining tearfully for her lost, or never was, son. She squeezes together the clay-like green turmeric skin paste she’s been applying to her arms and molds a human form. Gradually it becomes a little boy. When she hesitates, a plaintive voice from within the lumpy figure urges her on, (translated as, “Please, innate me!”). In an animated Shazam flash, Parvati innates, and the statue, like Pinocchio, becomes a real boy, a pudgy, pouty boy who already looks spoiled rotten. She christens him Ganesh and caresses and kisses him with an ardor that looks more than a little weird. She commands him to guard the house and turn away everyone while she takes her bath. Lord Shiva returns home and is barred from his own house by the boy Ganesh.
Shiva is furious and cuts off the boy’s head. Parvati is grief stricken, and commands Shiva to restore the head and bring her son back to life. Shiva says he cannot recover the head “because it is flying into space.” Parvati’s expression darkens and she’s lit in a bright, menstrual-red light. She grows into a wind-and lightning swept giantess and glowers down at the cowering men, snarling that they will bring Ganesh back to life, or face her wrath. The terrified Shiva barks at his minions to bring the head of the first being they find on the road. The first creature they find is an elephant. They attach the elephant head on the boy’s body and bring him back to life, endowed with special powers to overcome all obstacles.
What fascinates me is the Ganesh head “effect,” really just a small pink rubber mask with a curling trunk that they deliver on a plate under a little towel. It recalls the rubber oxygen masks that bomber or jet pilots wore in the war movies and war comics of my boyhood. I was transfixed by these masks, with their ribbed oxygen hoses dangling, and the almost prosthetic hug from multiple straps. I owned several masks, purchased from army surplus stores with money I made mowing lawns. Over my face the masks smelled of mildew, mothballs, and, I imagined, heroic and terrified fighter-pilot sweat. Long lost childhood memories opened up, vistas of strange, fugue-like playacting spells: I am a WWII fighter pilot or B-17 captain or Korean War F-86 ace, sitting alone in my room in my cockpit, scanning the ceiling skies for enemy planes, eyes narrowed and darting over the menacing clouds around my bed. I see my face—eyes and forehead at least—as depicted by two of my favorite comics artists, the penciler-inker team of Ross Andru and Mike Esposito in the pages of Star-Spangled War Stories. They had a distinctive style for rendering the pilot’s eyes that seemed oddly feminine. (The artists were also renowned for their work on the 1960’s Wonder Woman, where the feminized men and masculinized women resonated with the role-reversal stories). In depictions of boy-men jet pilots in combat, they showed a wonderful attention to wiggling beads of sweat working across anxious foreheads, and a hint of grime (combat dirt? Powder burns?) suggested by cross-hatching across the (always pink) skin. These details on my face, I remember, needed to be indicated to myself with sound-effects: cross-hatching sounded like a rapid “cickachickachickachika” and the sweat with a hectic “buhbuhbuhbuhbuhbuhbuh.” These sounds mingled with the ambient drone or puffs of air blown into the mask to simulate subsonic or supersonic flight, with periodic and snappy exchanges with my wingman about bogeys, Zeros, Migs or escorts closing in, at seven o’clock, or twelve o’clock, or whenever/wherever, high, authentically muffled and guttural under the khaki-gray or black rubber embrace. As the story of Ganesh unfolded on the classroom computer screen I fell deeper into the newly awakened memories. In that play, time seemed to expand into a war game beyond dog fights, bullet-drilled Plexiglas, flame-outs, ejector seats, crash landings or much of anything, really. Only the whine of the engines, and the whistling air outside the canopy. And the kind, giant sky. It must have been autohypnosis, some state of self-sedation or disassociation that was the real point of the whole game. Escape and safety behind a mask, in an empty sky arcade, gazing out with expectant eyes. Girl’s eyes.
The students begin talking together in feverish Nepali. I think that the story has aroused in them some powerful memories, different than mine, more urgent. I call on one of the more fluent English speakers, Puspa, to help me understand. After a hard day of farming, I asked, did they tell each other this and other Hindu stories, gathered around a campfire, or hearth, or something? Was there singing and dancing, maybe even masks? (Prior to class, in a desperation of lesson planning—or the absence of it—I had entered a search on “Ganesh and boredom,” and was rewarded with a link to Odissi: Ganesh Vandana: “…the oldest surviving dance form of India…a treatise not just for the eyes, but for the ears and heart as well! The various Bhangas, or stances, will pierce vials of energy in your soul and will leave you enthusiastic for the rest of your life!” I tremble inside to the promise of a “treatise” for my eyes and ears and heart, of my soul being pierced with vials of energy and enthusiasm for the rest of my life. It is what I keep searching for with anxious eyes over a mask. Innate me).
Puspa translates my questions, and their answers come after lengthy cross-exchanges and haggling. No, no, they never told these stories. Some of them had heard something about an elephant, but they never got together and told stories, or told anything. They were tired and wanted to be left alone. They ate dinner and listened to the radio. Some people had a tv. Then they went to bed. One of the students, Chandra, is shaking his head vehemently and laughing. Puspa explains that he says he is a Christian and doesn’t pay attention to that Hindu stuff. Chandra goes on in Nepali with an intense-sounding story full of yanking and tugging motions, hands gripping the air as if wrestling snakes, and his own furrowed and anxious brow over bright searching eyes. At the end of his story the other students gasp, and some explode in laughter.
I imagine some culture collision of Jesus and Vishnu, a battle royale of Vedic axes and astra tridents clanging and sparking against The Cross. Over more shouting and laughter Puspa says it is hard to translate, and he will try to explain later.
After class is over and the other students have left Puspa leans in close to me and blushes. In a low voice he says that Chandra’s words were a little rude. “Don’t worry about me, Puspa,” I say. “I’m not Christian, or Hindu, or Buddhist or anything. Whatever he thinks about religion…”
“No, no teacher. It’s about Ganesh. His nose.”
I mime the trunk.
“Yes. The Ganesh trunk. Chandra says the nose trunk is like his thing.”
Puspa mimes his penis.
“Yes. Chandra says his penis is like the trunk of Ganesh. Hanging down.” Puspa mimes a flaccid penis, his mouth making a matching droop.
I nod solemnly, intrigued by the association. Puspa elaborates: “Chandra also told us about how his penis gets tangled up, like a shoelace, and he can’t pee. Like a garden hose that has…doesn’t let the water go.”
It is Puspa’s turn to nod, closing his eyes and savoring the new word like a sip of the fresh chai he often brings me in a thermos emblazoned with Bucky Badger, the U.W. mascot he thought was a squirrel.