It’s been almost forty years since I bought an image of Sri Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, from a street vendor in the Chor Bazaar—the Thieves’ Market—in Mumbai, which at that time was still Bombay. I’ve had the picture, surrounded by a simple black frame and protected by a durable pane of glass, on my writing desk ever since.
When I say desk, I mean desks. I carried the Ganesh with me through the moves and dislocations of my peripatetic late twenties. And later, when I traveled with my husband and two sons to take a succession of visiting-writer jobs at various colleges and universities, Ganesh’s portrait was among the first things I packed to bring along, the first things I unpacked when I came home. One way to know what you value is to see what you can’t stand to leave behind.
Of course, there’s no “scientific” evidence to prove that I would stop writing completely and forever if I tried to work without the calming, steady gaze of the half-human, half-elephant deity presiding over my efforts. But I’m by nature a believer in many garden-variety superstitions (no open umbrellas indoors, please!) as well as some that are purely of my own invention. I’ve always had a sense about the Ganesh, a feeling that I’ve never been able to shake and never wanted to put to the test.
Part of my attraction to the image is simply aesthetic. I find it very beautiful, though I realize that others might not. I suppose you could call it folk art, “found art” that’s been altered by the hand of the artist. The background is one of those brightly colored, printed images of gods and goddesses commonly displayed on Indian calendars, though my “vintage” print is more detailed, more matte and less flashy than most more recent models.
Ganesh (also known as Sri Ganapathi, or Sri Maha Ganapathi, as it says at the bottom of my picture) sits on a throne with tasseled green brocade pillows and a scarlet backrest edged in gold and crested with the head of a fanciful lion or possibly a demon. One of Ganesh’s legs is bent and crossed so that his clean, plump (human) foot rests limberly against his other knee. Above his baggy trousers, his chubby belly is bare, his skin pink, his palms and ears pinker still. In fact, he seems oddly Caucasian for an elephant.
He has big floppy elephant ears and two tusks: one broken, one whole. Beneath his perfectly manicured brows, his movie-star green eyes gaze soulfully out of the painting. On his head is a beaded, pyramidal crown, and he has four arms. One palm is turned outward, away from his body in a gesture of blessing, like the hand of a Buddha; another hand holds a mound of some pale, sweet dessert. The remaining two hands clutch objects that are a bit hard to identify. Traditionally, Ganesh carries a noose and a goad, designed to capture and rid our path of roadblocks, but in my picture, they look less utilitarian and more like purely sacramental articles destined for the performance of a ritual.
At his feet, below his knee, is a darling little gray rat, his best friend and favorite companion. Standing on his hind legs, the rat is holding, and appears to have nibbled on, something sweet and delicious. I have read that Ganesh’s rat symbolizes the forces of greed, selfishness, and the wanton destructiveness that the god has the power to tame and subdue. But the rat in my picture looks too sweet-natured to ravage a farmer’s fields or to commit any of the malevolent acts from which Ganesh must save us. He looks less like a predator than like a mouse from a watercolor by Beatrix Potter.
The original image—the calendar print—has been greatly changed and improved upon, decorated and made three-dimensional, transformed into a sort of bas-relief. An appliqué of shiny cloth material, dotted with copper sequins and pasted onto the background, depicts the billows and creases of the god’s brilliant-orange trousers. His necklaces are made of tiny coils wound round with golden thread. More gold bands circle the top of his throne, crisscross his crown, and form glittering depressions in the cloth folded and pasted to fashion his delicate beige shawl. He wears golden staples at the tops of his ears. Even the rat is sporting a shiny gold choker.
I suppose it might be possible to find a machine capable of performing the many different sewing tasks that the decorations must have required, but it seems far more likely that the embroidery and appliqué-work were done by hand. Consequently, the picture has always struck me as an example of devotional art, a Mumbai sidewalk version of a leaf from a book illuminated by a medieval monk.
I should say that my fondness for the elephant-headed god extends beyond the charm of this particular image. Among the things I admire about Ganesh is that he is the deity to whom you pray if you want obstacles removed, or if you have a small but challenging task to perform: a letter to write, a phone call to make, an application to fill out.
In other words, he’s the writer’s god. He is widely considered to be the deity in charge of literature and education. It’s said that he took dictation from the sage Vyasa, who was composing The Mahabharata, the longest and (along with The Ramayana) the greatest Sanskrit heroic epic. When Ganesh lost the stylus with which he was recording Vyasa’s verses, he broke off one of his ivory tusks and used it to write with. He’s the go-to god for writer’s block, research, details, and revisions. Give him a little something, and quite possibly he will help.
The most effective votive offering is said to be a piece of fruit, of which Ganesh and his rat-friend are extremely fond. The picture on my desk features a large platter containing a bunch of bananas, a coconut cut in half, a section of (I think) kiwi, two tomatoes, and several bouquets of what seem to be flowers. More than once, I have found myself “casually” taking a piece of fruit—a slice of clementine, a bunch of cherries—that I have brought from the kitchen as a snack to eat at my desk, and “casually” leaving it in front of Ganesh. Even the most fanatical rationalists would admit that there’s no harm in trying. Perhaps this is my version of Pascal’s famous dictum: It’s wiser to behave as if there is a god, just in case God exists.
Yet another reason I feel so in sympathy with the bemused, friendly looking elephant god has to do with his traumatic—his hideously Oedipal—origins. It’s generally agreed that he is the child of the god Shiva and the goddess Parvati. But there are variant accounts of the circumstances that made Shiva furious enough to cut off his son’s head with a sword. In one, Parvati asked Ganesh to stand guard while she took a bath, infuriating her husband and sending him into a jealous frenzy. The legends concur on a further turn in the plot. When Shiva saw how grief-stricken Parvati was over the loss of her son, he agreed to replace the lopped-off head with the head of the next creature who passed by: the first animal he set eyes on, which happened to be an elephant.
One quality of a talisman is that your relationship with it changes over time, not unlike your relationship with a human being. I’m not the same person who bought the picture of Ganesh in Bombay’s Chor Bazaar, in 1976. Its gold appliqué has turned slightly more copper-colored, but otherwise the image hasn’t changed or faded at all; it’s certainly less altered than I am. In any case, the picture and I have a history. Unable to think of the right word I need, unsure about the next sentence, I’ve spent quite a lot of time, over the past decades, contemplating Ganesh’s fruit plate and admiring the intricacy of his jewelry.
I have complicated feelings and reservations about religion. But I have a very simple and unreservedly positive response to the idea of a god who wants to help me write and to complete the ordinary tasks required to get through an average day. It cheers me up to look at Ganesh’s ears and trunk, it calms me to meet his hypnotic, green-almond eyes. Meditating (though that’s not quite how I think of it) on the image of Ganesh takes me out of myself, if only for a moment.
Isn’t that what we want from our lucky charms, our Stars of David, our crucifixes, our medals embossed with the images of saints, our knickknacks and sentimental souvenirs, our children’s school portraits, our fuzzy angora dice dangling above the dashboard? The desire to be helped, the belief that we can be helped, is surely part of the reason we cherish the objects and images we turn to for sustenance and encouragement, like plants turning toward the sun.