The Elephant Head in the Room
26 Dec 2018
This is a story about a man's fragile relationship with his daughter, laced with humour. It was published in the Chantwood Magazine anthology in December 2018.
The Elephant Head in the Room
“But why not, Dad?” Maya sat up, on her bed. Her furrowed brow and puckered lips showed that she was teetering on the edge of irritation. Ravi was familiar with the expression. Very familiar. He had seen it on her mother, almost daily, for the best part of two decades. Even Maya’s attempts at deforming her face (piercings) and hair (inexplicably blue) could not disguise her mother’s irrepressible features. “You’ve got a tattoo, Dad. Why can’t I?”
Ravi looked around at Maya’s messy room, sunken in his beanbag. He tried to suppress his irritation. His mind wandered back to when he himself was a teenager. All surly and grungy. Bit of an attitude, perhaps. He remembered his efforts of defiance towards his parents; at least, he remembered the acts, rather than how it truly felt. But it was always hidden. Subtle. Shy. It came out in nuanced glances and grunts. It even lurked in his long, scraggly hairstyle. Rebellious, yes, but boundaried. Not that it drew much attention from his parents. None of Ravi’s behaviours did. Only his grades.
Maya challenged him so brazenly. As if she didn’t know the rules of the game. Times had changed.
“Well, I’ve also got a full-time job, a degree, a career, a car and a house. Why don’t you aspire to get those things, instead?” Ravi muttered, knowing full well that this would not placate her.
“And a new girlfriend, Dad. Don’t forget her”.
Ravi knew he was being baited. But he did not bite. “Besides, it shouldn’t be an impulsive decision, Maya. Just because your…” his flinch was infinitesimal, “…boyfriend has one. A tattoo should have a meaning. A story.”
“Even yours? The man with an elephant head?”
“This is no man. He is a God. Of course he has a story. One of the most fascinating and mystical fables of all of history.”
Maya rolled her eyes. She got her phone out.
“What do you know about Hinduism?” blurted Ravi, in an attempt to salvage her fragile interest.
“A bit. But you’re not even really Hindu, are you?”
“Well, I was raised as a Hindu by my mum and dad, but I’ve never really believed in God or reincarnation. I’m more… Hindubious.” He looked across at his daughter, hoping for a reaction, but getting stubborn indifference. She started tapping away at her phone, messaging her boyfriend, he presumed.
Ravi wasn’t sure which he disliked more. Matteus himself, or the idea of him. Of his once innocent daughter being… tainted. Of course, reasons to dislike Matteus himself were abundant. The age difference. The motor-bike. The tattoos. His snakey charm; unauthentic to Ravi’s suspicions. But the real reason, inside his insides, was much harder to swallow. Matteus had been there for her when he had not. All it would take would be one phone call, and I could get the police on his case. Wipe that smug smile away. Of course, Ravi would never do it. His relationship with Maya was tenuous enough. And he had no proof of any… tainting. But he found comfort in the thought, nonetheless.
After a long silence, Maya asked, “Well, why did you get the tattoo, if you don’t believe?”
“Because it’s a cool tattoo. And I half believe. Now listen, I’m going to tell you the story of the Elephant-head God. It’s important that you know a bit about your heritage.”
“Half my heritage.”
Ravi sighed. “Touché. This is a special Hindu God and his name is—”
“Ganesh” Maya interrupted, without breaking eye contact with her phone.
“I’d be even more impressed if you can tell me what he is the God of.”
“You-can-choose-the-takeaway-for-tonight level of impressed.”
Maya smiled. After a lightning-quick blur of thumbs, she said “God of intellect and wisdom, according to Wikipedia.”
Ravi was taken aback. It usually took him double that time just to unlock his own phone. The irony of Maya using Wikipedia, arguably the modern-day God of intellect and wisdom, was not lost on him. “You kind of cheated there, Buddy.”
“Not cheating. Initiative. Anyway, aren’t intellect and wisdom the same thing?”
“No. They’re different. Similar, maybe. Intellect is more… well, it’s about…”. He shrugged. “They’re similar.”
He paused and observed Maya, willing her to look up from her phone, but resisting the itch to tell her to. He had to earn her attention. “Anyway, he is not to be confused with ganache, his cousin, who is the God of cake toppings.”
Maya continued tapping, absorbed in another world.
“That was a joke. Ganache is a chocolatey cake—”
“I know what ganache is.”
“Yeah, Mum showed me. She can actually cook.”
Maya grinned. Her eyes darted up at her father for the briefest of moments.
Despite himself, Ravi was again momentarily distracted by the messiness of Maya’s room. It taunted him. He would never have allowed this when he was here. But now he was only half-here. A visitor in his ex-home, with the permission of his ex-wife. Desperately trying to prevent Maya from becoming his ex-daughter. He knew that his parenting privileges were now diluted and he sensed that the untidiness was a set-up. A trap, so that if he chastised her, she had a tangible reason to rebel. To say all the things that he needed to know, but didn’t want to hear.
“Yes. Well, Ganesh has an elephant head. As you know. Some people say that India is not progressive. President Trump has banned transgender people from joining the military. But we’ve got a trans-species God! And we’ve had him for three and a half thousand years! That is progressive.”
The edges of Maya’s mouth twitched subtly. The button tapping subsided.
“Now, it’s important that you understand that Ganesh was not born with an elephant head. No. It is something he acquired in later life. You know, like, er, a sense of humour. Or cynicism.”
“Or pubes?” Maya looked up with a feigned naivety.
Ravi tutted. He was being baited again. He considered how his own father would have reacted to such insolence. Probably with indifference, or if he was lucky, some sarcastic comment.
“Ganesh’s mother was Parvati. The Goddess of Fertility. She must have been glad that Ganesh wasn’t born with an elephant head. Otherwise, she might have been forced to convert to the Goddess of Caesareans!”
Another almost-smile flashed across her face, though was immediately suppressed.
He found himself marvelling at how much had changed in six months. How he used to be a respected authoritarian figure in Maya’s life. For all of her fourteen and a quarter years. How he had sacrificed a piece of this, by leaving the family. How this was one of the expenses he had anticipated, yet miscalculated, so spectacularly. There was so much he wanted to say to her. But he knew it was too raw. There would be a suitable time. But he did not know when. And he hated it. The not knowing when.
“And Ganesh’s father was Shiva. God of Destruction. Which, I think is fair to say, is a bit arrogant. Now, Shiva went off to fight a war for about a decade, leaving Parvati behind pregnant without even knowing it. Just to be clear, it was definitely Shiva’s baby. Okay? This is an ancient, sacred Hindu legend. It’s not Jerry Springer.”
A tiny chuckle escaped from Maya.
“I have to say, I’m amazed that the Goddess of Fertility even let Shiva go away for that long. I mean, remember when I went on that stag do to Amsterdam, for a weekend? Your mother did let me go, but she wasn’t happy.”
“You were a day late, Dad. You missed your flight!”
“Wasn’t my fault. It was a cultural issue…” Ravi knew he would regret his next words. “Their weed was far too potent.”
Maya beamed up at him. “What? You smoked weed there?”
“Even with the extra day, I was still away roughly… around
10 years less than Shiva. And can I just say, your mother was not very Goddess-of-fertility about the whole thing.”
“Did Uncle Devan smoke weed there too?”
“There were certainly no fertility-related activities for several weeks!”
“So you got them somewhere else then, Dad?” Nothing was said for a while. Those scathing words hung in the air. Maya fell back into the enticement of her phone. Unscathed.
What Ravi knew and Maya did not, was that the Amsterdam fiasco had been the beginning of the end for his marriage. He and Maya’s mother had an almighty argument, but one that was different in tone, in its essence, to its predecessors. After that, the old formula (distance, then apologies, then token gestures), could no longer plaster over the damage. She had said to him that he had married her, not out of love, but out of rebellion. A white woman. To defy his parent in one of the most spectacular ways possible. He had dismissed it as an unfounded malicious statement at the time. She was, after all, better than him at using words as weapons.
Ravi continued his tale. “Anyway, I digress. Years later, Shiva returned home. Finally! All glorious and victorious. Triumphant in, what frankly, seems to me to have been a massively over-elongated war. I wonder if he took a detour to Amsterdam on his return.”
“But did you and Uncle Devan smoke weed there?”
“That is another story, Sweetie. Anyways, by the time Shiva had returned, Ganesh had grown up into a little boy. And, you know, he was a pretty normal child. Decent kid. Distinctively human head. Remember that bit, Maya. It’s important. Ganesh was guarding the family house, when Shiva made his grand arrival. Ganesh refused him entry, because he didn’t know Shiva was his father. And Shiva didn’t even know that he had a son. Okay, maybe a teeny bit like Jerry Springer.”
Maya was unable to contain this giggle. The sound took Ravi back to a time when she was a toddler. They would wrestle and he would blow on her belly. She would always protest, but would also giggle uncontrollably. It was the exact same sound. Untarnished by all these years, even though the vessel around it had changed beyond recognition. It encompassed her entirely. Still. It came from her bones. From inside her insides. The memory made Ravi happy and infinitely desolate at the same time.
“An argument ensued between Father and son. Ego clashed with ego. But luckily, maturity prevailed. They sat down, had a cup of tea, aired their grievances, and came to a reasonable compromise.”
“Of course not, Silly! Shiva, a fully-grown-responsible-adult God, cut the head off an innocent young boy! His own son!” Ravi paused to make space for drama. He hid his smugness at seeing Maya’s phone slip from her hand onto the bed. “I must say, you seem…. chillingly blasé about the whole thing, Maya. My daughter has become a psychopath!”
Ravi had noticed that she had turned her whole body towards him. “Now, call me a leftie liberal all you want, but I reckon that losing your temper and decapitating a child, even a little terror like you used to be, is, well, not… usually appropriate.”
Maya’s phone was now banished to her pocket. Ravi taunted snakey Matteus, in his head.
“I don’t know,” he said, “Maybe Shiva was having a midlife… Isis?”
“Ah, Dad!” Maya groaned, with a playful exasperation Ravi had once loved to evoke in her mother.
“And let’s be fair to him. Shiva is the God of Destruction. He’s got a reputation to uphold, right?”
“He’s not the God of Negotiation,” offered Maya.
“Exactly! Well said.” Ravi looked around shiftily, to lure Maya in further. “But then, things were about to get even worse…” he whispered.
Maya leaned in.
“Shiva then realised that Ganesh was his son because he saw a family emblem on one of the swords lying next to his child’s headless corpse. So he decides to make amends. He runs into the forest and cuts the head off the first animal he sees and he puts it on Ganesh’s limp body.”
“To save his life. Obviously! Like basic first aid.”
Maya let out another chuckle, more buoyant than the last.
“Now when I was told this story as a kid, I remember being a little sceptical. I mean, hang on… Isn’t it all a bit convenient that Shiva found such a majestic beast? Imagine how the… what’s the word?... iconography of Hinduism would have suffered, if Ganesh ended up with the head of a lesser animal.”
“Like a beaver!”
“Indeed!” Ravi lifted his lips, stuck his teeth out and made a sucking sound. “It wouldn’t just be me. A billion Indians would also be Hin-dubious!”
“Dad! That wasn’t funny the first time!”
“But it is funny now.”
“No it isn’t”
“Then why are you laughing?”
“I’m not,” she said. She was.
“But to me, the next bit is the most unbelievable part of this whole legend, Maya. The bit that I just cannot get my head round.” He paused.
“What is it?”
“Well, when Shiva returned home to Parvati, with Ganesh with an elephant head… Parvati was fine with it!”
Maya guffawed. She shuffled closer.
“Now let me put that into perspective for you. I’m not sure if you remember, but once I picked up you up from school and I accidentally brought you back in the wrong jacket. Your mother went mental! And bear in mind, that I even managed to bring you back with your correct, original, actual head.”
Maya laughed so hard, she snorted. A hand shot up, and her eyes widened.
“Sorry, Maya. Do you have a pig hidden in this room, somewhere?”
She rubbed her cheeks. “Do you remember that holiday in Cyprus, Dad? You used to say that Aunt Margie’s laugh was like a pig snorting.”
“Witches don’t laugh, Maya. That was more of a cackle. A snorting cackle.”
Maya carried on sniggering. It took several deep breaths to compose herself.
Ravi continued. “But, to me there are so many unanswered questions. Stuff that is not documented in the ancient scriptures. For example, how did Parvati react when she first saw Ganesh? Did she try to console him?”
Ravi stood up from the beanbag and, sat next to Maya on her bed. He put on a silly serious stare and spoke in an effeminate voice. “Hi Ganesh. I heard you’ve had a rough day? Why are you crying? What elephant head? Oh that! I barely even noticed it. Honestly. What’s that? No, I’m sure the kids at school won’t bully you. Anyway, I think you need to blow your nose there, buddy.” Ravi leaned past Maya, reached towards a box of tissues on her desk, but instead, grabbed a towel off the floor. He pushed it gently into her face. She chuckled and pretended to blow her nose.
“That’s better.” Ravi continued. “Besides, could have been worse, Ganesh. You could have ended up with the head of a beaver! Anyway, it’s bedtime now. Off you go upstairs and don’t forget to brush your….” He leaned in until their noses almost touched, “… tusks!”
They both fell back onto the bed, in powerful fits of laughter. Ravi heard it again. That same sound. Encompassing her entirely. From her bones. Their limbs intertwined and they ended up hugging. Ravi’s infinitely desolation had not vanished, but it had been masked by the smell of his daughter. At least for now. He knew how close he was to losing her. But was he any less close now? He hated the uncertainty of it, the not knowing.
After Maya regained her breath, they both sat up. Ravi’s hand rested gently on her back. It could have been awkward, but it was not.
After a few moments, Maya turned and looked at her father. Her eyes looked the same, but something profound lurked. She seemed so different to how he had remembered her. When he had walked out, six months ago. A lifetime ago. Her face looked marginally older, but her soul felt younger. Lost. And there could have been a dozen reasons. Because of puberty. Because of nasty words from Mattues (that existed, at least, in Ravi’s suspicions). Because of the natural adolescent defiance, that she painstakingly had embraced. But Ravi knew, he knew, also because of him.
“Dad. I actually have a theory of why Parvati was fine with it,” she said. “You see, Parvati might have been the Goddess of Fertility but she was still an Indian mother. She was thinking ahead. She thought, hang on. Elephant’s head? Elephants never forget. Ganesh is gonna ace all of his exams. My son is going to be a doctor!”
Ravi smiled and nodded. “Totally! Her son might be hideously deformed, but at least he’s a hideously deformed doctor!”
Maya circled the tattoo on her father’s arm with her finger “So, does this story have a moral, Dad?”
“Of course. Every story has to have a moral. Right?’
“So what it?”
“You tell me.”
“I don’t know. That people can make really bad mistakes, but you can always make amends?”
Ravi shook his head.
“That a mother will always see beauty in her own child?”
“The moral is this. You should really try your absolute best not to decapitate children. And if you really, really must, then check their weapons for family symbols first.”
Maya shook her head slowly, still grinning.
“No, I’m kidding. The moral is this.” Ravi raised his arms and put on a theatrical voice. “If Ganesh could overcome all of life’s obstacles and hurdles. If he could not only survive, but thrive, with all of the disadvantage and stigma and prejudice of having a elephant head, to become a God, then you, Maya, can do anything. You could have a degree, a career, and a house. Like me.”
“Why would I want to be like you?” Maya’s gaze dropped. Ravi’s hand slipped off her back.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t know why I said that.”
“I do.” Ravi replied. And he did.
On his way to use the toilet, Ravi looked out of the landing window at the garden. Once his garden. The paving he had laid with his own hands. The shed he had built in the rain. A lifetime ago. But none of that mattered. Not any more.
He stared at his tattoo for a long while in the bathroom mirror. A cartoon-like elephant head with a cheeky smile, on a small, plump body, with a splattering of trees in the background. He had got it on a whim, within a week of leaving home for university. There was no real meaning behind it back then. Just a way of celebrating his freedom. It represents the animal inside of me. He couldn’t believe that he had once uttered those words. To Maya’s mother, the first time she saw it. When she circled it with her finger, lying in bed. When their relationship seemed so exhilarating. When his future seemed so unblemished. The phrase made him cringe now, and the memory made him yearn.
And here in the present, his tattoo was almost 30 years old, faded and blurry, and disregarded with familiarly. But it seemed to have finally taken on something meaningful. People can make really bad mistakes, but you can always make amends. Maya’s words had penetrated him. Inside his insides.
He didn’t want to become Shiva. He had already hurt Maya. And he couldn’t change that. But if he was going to make amends, he would need to be careful. Not to leave her permanently deformed. Inside her head. And maybe that is what the Ganesh tattoo was from now on. A reminder to not to stray onto the path that he was dangerously close to.
Poking his head into Maya’s room, he said, “Okay. It’s about dinner time. You earned the choice of takeaway. What we having?”
“But we had a deal. You can have what you want.”
“That is what I want, Dad.”
Maya grimaced. “Anything but Thai.”
“Fish ‘n’ chips, then?”
“How about pizza?”
“Did you really smoke weed, Dad?”
“Vego-rama is still your favourite, I presume.”
“I’m sorry about what I said, Dad.”
Not as sorry as I am. The words got stuck in this throat.
As Ravi walked out of the room he found himself reliving the comment Maya’s mother had made. That he had married her, not out of love, but out of rebellion. He had dismissed it as another unfounded malicious statement at the time. Words as weapon. But at that moment, the realisation struck him; it may have been the truth.
“Dad?” Maya called out to him.
“No, silly. It is a cool tattoo. When I get one, I’ll make sure that it has some sort of meaning.”
“If you get one”
“When I get one.”
Ravi turned around, and skipped down the stairs. He could sense a victory. A tiny one. But sometimes, a tiny victory can be colossal.