No one talks about the dead elephant

Everyone knows that Lord Shiva killed an elephant to resurrect his son. But have you ever wondered what happened to the elephant that was slayed for this divine resurrection. Why don’t we ever talk about that?

I wonder if it is an oversight or a deliberate attempt to avoid answering uncomfortable questions, especially when the questions are about us, or that we revere.

If this is a matter of oversight then the reasons for that same are worth investigating. The more I think about it, the more I believe that this oversight is an outcome of faith. And faith, as commonly known and understood, is binary in nature. One is either a believer or a non-believer. One rarely finds people sitting on the fence!

Such binary thought process is also one of the key reasons of societal polarisation, which then manifests as verbal and physical violence. While one may love to blame modern lifestyles, social media or political voyeurism for such polarisation, the fact is that such assertions are nothing but means to absolve oneself of all the blame. This allows us to keep upholding the belief while shrugging the responsibility of all the evils emanating from such belief systems. These binary worldviews, and the framework of logic that it breeds, not only incapacitate conversations but also rationality.

No wonder, one finds it tough to carry forward conversations in environments which reek of left or right flavours. Red, orange, green, white… all these singularities are nothing but faith. Even science is a matter of faith in many ways. This could also be one of the many reasons why systems thinking based approaches have not been able to find a footing in modern personal as well as professional spaces. Simply put, no one is willing to shoulder the blame!

While discussing politics, culture, religion, environment, lifestyles, etc., it often gets very hard to explain why someone should own up the pain or disruption caused by the belief system one endorses. As an automatic defence mechanism people often bring TINA (There Is No Alternative) to the fore. Its use seems to increase with the extent of polarisation.

The arguments against TINA hardly seem to work because the binary beliefs are deep seated, festering in the dark corners of our heart. These beliefs orchestrate our notions of self and the society.  No wonder we are unable to fathom the pain of the family who lost their child to a lynch mob. We fail to get angry about the death of a young family washed away by a landslide triggered by mindless expansion of mountain roads. We are not shaken by the fact that villages are abandoned and meadows are blasted to power urban homes. We turn a blind eye towards caste based hate and violence. We are untouched by the insecurities of underprivileged classes and genders. We seem to believe that being a minority is about belonging to a certain religion. We fail to acknowledge that every pain is deeply personal, and even permanent, especially when one feels left out alone, as a victim or an outcast.

In such milieu we seem to forget that no one is beyond the realm of such pain. We seem to forget that if we want to save ourselves and our loved ones from such pain, we have no option but to save the society from such pain. Even though this sounds pretty logical, most people are unwilling to accept this stark reality. I think that deep down inside we are aware of this relationship but are unwilling to let go of our choices or thought processes due to various reasons. If one was to dig a little deeper, one would know why. But the challenge does not end there. Knowing the ‘why’ does not help unless we are willing to accept that ‘why’. And to accept the ‘why’, one requires lot of clarity and courage. Unlike wearing a t-shirt, this is a real test of being human.

While debating on such issues and hitting the dead end, I am often left with no choice but to exit the debate quoting this fabulous poem by Sujata Bhatt titled ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’ I believe that an honest visualisation of the poetic scenario can help one understand how oblivious we are of our own actions. Thinking about the elephant helps us see the elephant in the room and open the window into the future that sprouts from our past. It brings forth and powers the innocent human belief that there is always an alternative!

What Happened to the Elephant?

What happened to the elephant
the one whose head Shiva stole
to bring his son Ganesh
back to life?

This is child’s curiosity,
The rosy imagination
that continues
probing, looking for a way
to believe the fantasy
a way to prolong the story.

If Ganesh could still be Ganesh
With an elephant’s head,
Then couldn’t the body of that elephant
find another life
with a horse’s head-for example?

And if we found
a horse’s head to revive
the elephant’s body-
who is the true elephant?
And what shall we do about the horse’s body?

Still the child refuses
to accept Shiva’s carelessness
and searches for a solution
without death.

Every time I read this poem, I am deeply moved by the lines – Still the child refuses to accept Shiva’s carelessness and searches for a solution without death. That sums it well. That sums it all!

Be it societal frictions, religious intolerance, or issues of ecology & environment, we have no option but to begin conversations with ourselves to understand our role and contributions. To search for answers without death we do not need gurus, seminars and global conferences. What we really need is empathy and ownership. So that we can continue with the poem –

But now when I gaze
at the framed postcard
of Ganesh on my wall,
I also picture a rotting carcass
of a beheaded elephant
lying crumpled up
on its side, covered with bird shit,
vulture shit –

Oh, that elephant
whose head survived
for Ganesh,
he dies, of course, but the others
in his herd, the hundreds
in his family must have found him.
They stared at him for hours
with their slow swaying sadness…
How they turned and turned
in a circle, with their trunks
facing outwards and then inwards
toward the headless one.

This is a dance,
a group dance
no one talks about.


Sujata Bhatt is a well-known poetess whose work has been globally acknowledged. Her work has been widely anthologised and translated into more than 20 languages. She was born in India in 1956. Her family later migrated to the United States where she received her MFA from University of Iowa. She now lives in Germany with her husband, the German writer Michael Augustin. She is the recipient of Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) and the Cholmondeley Award. She has published six collections of her poetic work.

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