This week’s short story, by Brazilian author Fábio Fernandes.
Ganesh, in the Afternoon
by Fábio Fernandes
“For starters, the first sentence in a short story must always be a startling one,” said Villupuram the Elephant God, waving the printed pages in one of his four hands.
“Right, but what about the story? Did you like it?” Satyajit the puny mortal man asked anxiously.
“You will want to create something supernatural, something that does not exist in the world as we know it,” Villupuram answered obliquely. (Villupuram was the mortal name of the Elephant God, for he also was a man, at least part-time.)
“Then you didn´t like it,” Satyajit said, already beginning to feel sorry for himself.
Villupuram just wobbled his head. In Indian body language, the head wobbling is usually considered a sign of approval. With that giant elephant head, however, you could never be sure. That head shake could also mean I’m giving you the answer I think you want to hear, or I hear the words that are coming out of your mouth, or even I really want the answer to be yes, but…
“On the contrary,” his friend finally answered. “I found it most interesting.”
Villupuram started to polish his glasses using the hem of his white long-sleeved kurta; he did it very slowly, with careful circular motions, probably so as not to let the fabric of the tunic scratch the lenses.
That never failed to bother Satyajit: he knew that every time his longtime friend and former teacher did that (and he did that even in his original human form), when he ran through those motions, those calming gestures that usually triggered a calmer mindset which Satyajit himself sometimes used to meditate, he would be more often than not simply looking for the most kind, adequate words to say in an embarrassing situation.
“Is it that bad?,” Satyajit couldn´t help but blurt out the words he wanted to hold back. But maybe it was for the best; if he must have his story completely bashed, he wished the coup de grace to be as quick and painless as possible.
Villupuram squinted his beady eyes and looked at his ex-disciple for a minute (which for Satyajit had seemed the proverbial eternity).
“I didn´t say it was bad,” said Villupuram, his voice strangely mellow for what should certainly be an elephantine glottis. “I said it is interesting. That is many steps up the quality ladder.”
“How many steps?” asked Satyajit.
His friend laughed. An incredibly crystalline laughter.
“You are still so impatient,” Villupuram said. “It´s not bad, this impatience, though.”
The Elephant God rose from his cushions beside the small table they were having tea at and walked clumsily to a wooden closet on the wall of the room, still holding the pages in one hand – the lower right one, Satyajit now noticed. He also couldn´t stop watching that huge body and wondering how could that big, gray, leathery skin fit in human clothing.
He (certainly it was a he, Satyajit thought; it never occurred to him to ask Villupuram if he also underwent a sex change when he turned to godmode) opened the two upper doors of the closet and craned his neck (what neck?, Satyajit asked to no one. He is an elephant, for crying out loud!)inside, as if he was looking for something.
Satyajit could glimpse several figurines inside the closet, which he now noticed was a kind of private shrine: a small silver Kali, a middle-sized golden Gautama Buddha, the ever-present minuscule white-and-blue china figurine (so out-of-fashion for decades now) of Kung-Fu-Tze fishing in a pond, a big purple Krishna.
And, in the center of the shrine, an almost life-sized Ganesh towered over the other gods and philosophers. It was a very colorful statue – the only one of the whole bunch which was full-colored – , all draped in real folds of yellow, saffron, and blue cotton. The plaster skin was painted salmon, as it was commonly depicted in the Indian iconography.
With the statue right by his side as if put there for comparison, Satyajit could see that Villupuram wasn´t so similar as Ganesh as his mother had told him at the airport. He looked more like a strange version of that old nineteenth-century Englishman, whose name he can´t for the love of Vishnu remember now but he knows that was dubbed “The Elephant Man”, because of his deformities, than like a real elephant.
Villupuram straightened his back again and shut the doors close. In his upper right hand, he carried a burning stick of brazilwood incense.
“It´s been a long time since I smelled brazilwood,” Satyajit said approvingly, sniffing the scented air.
“I know,” his friend said with what passed for a smile with that big elephantine mouth (at least he didn´t have tusks, Satyajit thought; he would have trouble to eat). “Your mother told me that the day before you returned home. Speaking of which, you didn´t tell me anything at all about your stay in the motherland. And about the workshop.”
“Oh, the workshop was great,” Satyajit said, managing a not very sincere smile.
“Then why are you here?”
Satyajit´s smile crumbled.
“It didn´t come out exactly as I expected,” he finally answered.
“And why not?”
Satyajit let out a deep, sad sigh.
“I didn´t get a good feedback on my stories,” he said. Then, after a few seconds: “People in the motherland seem to be so closed to themselves. It´s as if they didn´t recognized me as their equal. Sometimes I got the feeling that they can only really appreciate their own writings.”
“A surprise ending,” Villupuram said, looking at Satyajit´s story again.
“What?” Satyajit said, frowning. It didn´t become his friend, always so scientific-minded, to change subjects like this. (He thought that it also didn´t become him to have statuettes of gods at home, but that was becoming a common item now in the houses of many of his friends of the University since the Blossoming.)
“Aside from the complete absence of the supernatural element,” Villupuram added, apparently oblivious to his friend Satyajit´s amazement, “your story doesn´t have a surprise ending. Maybe that´s why the members of the workshop didn´t give this one, for example, the attention you thought it deserved.”
“But you think it was just because of that?”
Villupuram raised his enormous head and just looked at his friend.
“You know better than that,” he said.
Satyajit blushed and nodded, eyes lowered. Some things should be left unsaid.
“Anyway,” Villupuram went on, as if nothing had happened, “the underlying narrative structure of a short story is, as the name goes, much too short in order to allow the adequate development of a complex situation. One must create a sharp, shock situation, a scenario that gives the reader the impression that it simply sprouted from nothingness while things are going on all around, as if that universe was always there.”
“But, from the very start, the writer must feed the reader with small portions of his universe, as bits of paratha along the way.”
“I´m not sure I´m following you…,” Satyajit said.
“Do you remember the tale of Hansel e Gretel? Little bits of bread or cake are also in order. But with parsimony, otherwise the story doesn´t go off. Doing so, the writer can make the narrative go wherever he sees fit, until a finale that catch the reader unawares, taking him by surprise.”
“And how can I do that?”
“There is, indeed, an efficient method you can use,” said Villupuram, stroking his snout. “It´s the hidden story method. You tell one story in the surface, but in fact you´re telling a different story running in a parallel track, so to speak. In the end, you make it abundantly clear to the reader that the parallel narrative in the background was in fact the story that mattered the most, not the one on the forefront.”
“It doesn´t seem easy,” Satyajit Said. “Even more for a Fantasy tale.”
“It´s not easy at all, in no literary genre,” Villupuram said. “But Fantasy is not different, say, from whodunits or suspense stories, is it? Remember the pulp stories of Mohandas and Thomas that you liked so much to read as a boy.”
“But they really happened,” Satyajit countered. “Thomas just happened to retell their cases in the format of detective stories.”
“Some of them, yes,” Villupuram said, scratching his elephant ear with his upper right hand. “But let´s not forget that, after Thomas´ death, further novels started to be written by other authors, keeping Thomas´ name as a house name. And they always follow a preordained formula.”
“But that doesn´t make them necessarily bad stories.”
“No, you´re right,” Villupuram said, twirling in the fat fingers of his lesser left hand the pair of glasses that didn´t fit in his currently overgrown head. “But that formula is just one element of the equation.”
Satyajit listened to his friend´s lesson not in a rapture, as he always did when he came there to study Literature in the past. He was trying very hard to listen now, but the ears flapping, the snout moving up and down snakelike, the four arms gesturing all at the same time, all of this was very confusing and tiring. His cup of tea grew cold on the table.
When Satyajit arrived at his friend´s house, everything was normal, as it should be. The transition to divinity status, however, went so smoothly that several minutes passed until he noticed Villupuram´s ishvara manifesting itself. He never even knew Villupuram, being an intellectual and an accomplished writer, would have an ishvara. Even so, it became manifest the only way it could for a man of letters: Ganesh, the Indian elephant god of wisdom and writing, who acted as a scribe for the sage Vyasa in the Mahabharata.
Villupuram/Ganesh didn´t even seem to have felt the transformation of his flesh; the abnormally grown elephant head, however, had substituted the former one, a beautiful head doted with silky white hair and a long salt-and-pepper beard, and also bright dark eyes framed by prescription glasses.
His two human arms now were four, ending not in elephant paws but in bloated hands, not quite human as well. The upper left hand held a cup of tea with fingers fat as sausages, the upper right one grabbed a saucer, and the two lower ones flipped through the pages of Satyajit´s story.
“Let´s see, then. This paragraph here, for instance,” and the Elephant God showed Satyajit something he felt his former student must see.
* * *
Satyajit knew what Villupuram was talking about. After he said goodbye to his friend, he went home in a kind of daze. He strolled around, watching the streets in the rush hour brimming with people in full godmode and simple mortals, walking to and fro, minding their own businesses.
When he got home, he spent hours reading again the pages of his story, slowly, deliberately. He tried to find any error, grammatical or logical, but to no avail. His teachers at the University had already told him that every writing needs a time to breathe, like a good wine. Only with a certain amount or drawer time the author will really be able to read it without acting like a jealous father.
Maybe it would be all for the better. Maybe his story – an utopian tale in which every single human being had the powers of a god – should be rewritten, or even abandoned for good.
* * *
Later, Satyajit watches the blood-red sun setting slowly from his window. He stopped his writing for a while, and automatically called to mind the words of the Bhavagad Gita: Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward; Work not for reward; but never cease to do thy work.
Writing is just a means to a greater end, not an end in itself. He should have known this by now.
His father came into his room to tell him it´s time to leave for the Festival. He would meet him and his mother in a while: he rose from his chair and walked to the rosewood bookcase near his bed, picking from the topmost shelf one of his favorite books: Ten Little Tigers.
The entire collection is still there: Death on the Amazon, Murder on the Punjabi Express, and many other books featuring the adventures of the famous lawyer/detective Mohandas Gandhi and his loyal friend, the American journalist later-turned-Buddhist monk, Thomas Merton. Maybe these are the kind of stories he is meant to write. There is no blame in that. He just needs to figure out if that it´s what he truly wants to do before trying to write his next story.
Book in hand, he goes to the windowsill. The moon is rising. It´s the full moon of May, the Vesak: the time of year when, according to Buddhist tradition, Siddharta Gautama was born, reached illumination, and died. Satyajit and his parents will follow the ritual procession all the way to Hunchback Mountain to celebrate the Vesak at the feet of the gigantic statue of the Enlightened Buddha.
From up there, they will watch the fireworks and see the lights of the entire city of Vaisakha Nadi, with its big river cutting the land in half, the River of May, which gave its name to the capital city of the Indian colony of Virupakshanagar, in South America.
And it has been much more beautiful since the Blossoming, when the gods started to incarnate in the bodies of humans, for they will always dance and congregate with simple mortals in festival times.
It´s going to be a beautiful night, Satyajit thinks to himself. Literature can wait until tomorrow.
Ganesh, in the Afternoon (c) 2009 Fábio Fernandes. First published in The Nautilus Engine.