Sunday, March 30, 2008

Wonderful, Wonderful Ganesh

Author's note: The following is a true story that was experienced by my youngest daughter, Cinzia. What prompted me to write this story was watching the new movie "Horton Hears a Who!" last night with my six year old grandson Niccolo, who happen to be her son.

The Puranas tell us that Shiva in a fit of rage tore everything in his path. He was so blinded with ire that he did not see his beloved son standing in his path of destruction and killed him. When calm returned to him, he saw the lifeless body of his son lying in thick layers of blood. His head had been ferociously and brutally cut off. Tears continued to flow out of his boy’s sightless eyes.

“What have I done? I have killed the son of my loins whom I loved because anger transported me into the darkness. I am going to die of grief!” And then he cried tears of blood.

The Goddess of Wisdom Saraswati appeared.

“Now you see with your own eyes what your hands have wrought out of anger?”

Shiva could not reply because he was weeping.

Saraswati saw that he was repentant and that anger would never enter his heart again. His son was brought back to life, with the head of an elephant – Ganesh.

“So be it,” Shiva replied. Ganesh will remind me never to lose my temper again.”

In Bangkok the Temple of Ganesh on Silom Road is a very unique place. Thailand is a Buddhist country with a Catholic and Muslim minority. Frequently, people of all faiths will enter the temple to leave a wreath of lotus blossoms or peonies as a way of giving thanks for answered prayers.

The adorable figure of Ganesh has always fascinated my youngest daughter Cinzia. I often repeated the tale of Shiva and Ganesh to show others the futility of anger and as a consequence – War.

Cinzia was a frequent listener to the highest rated radio and television show in Bangkok, which featured rock and roll and pop music. The DJ used to have contests wherein 8 bars of a song would be played and the listener who named the song and the band correctly won a fabulous prize – two weeks for two in a lavish suite at a seven star hotel in Chiang Mai. Well, Cinzia won and she was excited at the idea of staying all by herself in an opulent hotel. Indeed, she won so many times, that the producers of the show eventually banned her from participating ever again, but I digress.

One of my son’s classmates at Saint John’s Beaumont in Windsor and later at Stonyhurst, in Lancashire, the toney Jesuit Public School was in Bangkok for one of those adventurous trips only the very young set out to do.

“What? Did I hear you correctly? Simon and you are going trekking into the rain forests of Chiang Mai? I should think you would need to undergo rigorous training to go off traipsing into the rain forests.”

The reason I was incredulous was because Cinzia’s idea of exercise was riding a fine horse and putting him through the paces of dressage or going to the disco until the wee small hours of the morning.

Simon was allergic to every plant and substance known to man. I remember him getting hives at the sight of a wasp in our garden in Rome.

“Don’t worry Mama, Anand, the monk from the Temple of Kubera in Chiang Mai will be our guide/ He says you and I are magical creatures, and that nothing can ever harm us in the rain forest because we are not desecrators.”

I was worried – but some times the young have to do what the young need to do – learn through experience. Che sara, sara. What will be will be. I decided to set aside my Western thought and abandon myself to my eastern consciousness. With reluctance I gave in. My inner voices told me they would be safe, in spite of their conditions.

Anand kept reminding them that drinking Coca-Cola was very bad.

"Coca-Cola is even worse in the jungle," he declared.

They had natural spring water, mangoes, santol, and papayas for energy. He had a bag full of dried vegetables, which he could steam in a pinch. Their odyssey through the forest was calculated so that by nightfall they would be in a village or a settlement.

Without warning nausea overcame Cinzia. She retched all the Coca-Cola she had in her system and then she collapsed. She was unable to move. Simon, whether from stress or psychosomatic or psychogenic origin, began to gasp and choke.

“There is a village three kilometers away. I will go there and bring back some of the villagers with me. We will devise a way to carry you back to the village, “ Anand explained to them.

In the meantime, he gave Cinzia a drink of water from his clay jug. ‘’Now listen Kunying Chin Cha, Lady Chin Cha and Khun Simon – Mr. Simon. This is how you must breathe, through your nose slowly, hold and then expel slowly through your mouth. Do not attempt to stand or sit. Stay on the ground ka?”

Anand stood erect and serene, waiting for Cinzia’s reply.

“Yes Brother Anand. I will wait on the ground and Simon will wait with me.”

As soon as Simon feels stronger, in front of you is a banana tree heavy with small bananas. They are good for you. You must eat them. They have natural sugar and potassium. Just what you need.”

He clasped his hands together and bowed his head slightly in the Namaste Buddhist greeting and disappeared.

“I’m so sorry Cinzia. Please forgive me. I’m older. I should know better. It was my idea to go on this silly expedition.’’

“My brother will have you drawn and quartered if anything should happen to me,” said Cinzia, who never lost her black humor.

“Oh my Lord. Never mind Marco. I am scared witless about what your Mother will do to my entire family, and me,” rasped Simon.

“Merde, Simon. That comment was just my humor. I’m not so sure about my Mother and what her reactions would be. I don’t want to talk. I’m too tired. Just let me lie here in holy peace.“ They remained where they were for about an hour.

From nowhere a Mother elephant with her cub appeared. Their eyesight is not as acute as their sense of smell. She had picked up the scent of vomitus and of humans. She bellowed a greeting.

“Ciao Bella. Che faii qui? Avvicinati col tuo bel bambino.” Ciao, Beauty. What are you doing here? Come closer with your lovely baby, Cinzia said calmly.

Since Italian is considered the language of love, Cinzia surmised quite correctly as it turned out that the Mother elephant would react positively to Italian rather than to English. Some Pokka English had mercilessly hunted elephants in Northern Thailand. Elephants have long memories. It must be handed down through their genes.

The elephant was almost upon her. Cinzia could barely talk much less move. She remembered the acrid scent of the elephant and a teat dripping with milk wetting her boots.

Simon sat stupefied. He figured silence and stillness was golden in perilous times.

Mama nudged little elephant towards Cinzia’s inert body. He rolled his trunk underneath her tiny waist. Mama took over and guided baby to place the human on its back. She held on to Cinzia because she instinctively knew that this creature would fall off her baby’s back because it was to weak to balance itself with the movements.

Simon found the strength to stand up and lean against the baby elephant. The Mother coiled her trunk around him and lifted him on her cub’s back. He was now behind Cinzia. She barked an order, which Simon translated as “Hold on to her while I keep both of you safe and sound.”

Cinzia realized she was on the elephant cub’s back. She closed her eyes because the movements were making her dizzy. The baby was easily over six feet. They made slow progress through the trees, flowers and paths.


“Yes Simon?”

“How do you feel?”

“Wonderful beyond belief. Let’s serenade them. It will take my mind off my lightheadedness.”

“You do it. They seem to like Italian.”

So Cinzia hummed the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony slowly and melodiously. They she sang Paganini’s Fourth Violin Concerto ’’Ta, Ta, Ti Ta, Ta, Riam, Ta, Ta, Ti, Ta, Ta, Rium…

She had just begun Bella Ciao, an Italian Partisan song of World War ll when Anand and the villagers joined them.

“Khunying Chin Cha we heard your singing. Human sound is not easy to detect among so many cries in the forest, but the villagers have experience. I recognized your voice at once even if it was very weak.”

It was decided by the headman in the village of the “tribes with no name” that the Mother would be cross if they attempted to remove Cinzia from her cub’s back.

“We don’t know these elephants. We have never seen them before. They are bound to have a family. Therefore we must be strangers to her. Let her look after the young people until we get to the village. She is intelligent. She will hand them over to us when the time is right.”

The Mother Elephant and her cub stayed on the outskirts of the village the whole night. The villagers gave them their favorite tubers to eat.

After a few hours of rest and proper food and drink, mangoes, sweet water fish,  steamed rice and fried bananas, Cinzia was well enough to walk towards the elephants.

“Grazie di cuore. Non-potro mai ripagarvi. Ma non-VI dimentichero mai.” Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will never be able to repay you. But I’ll try to be more actively involved in protecting you. I will never forget you."  

I am a Roman Catholic, but as soon as I heard the story from my daughter‘s own lips, I had a huge bouquet of pink peonies prepared by the Hindu monks. Attired in a plain blue sari, I went to the Temple of Ganesh where I left them at the base of his statue.

Between Silom Road and Sathorn Road is a small road called Carmelite Road. It houses a splendid Carmelite Convent with a chapel dedicated to one of my most beloved saints – the Mystic and Doctor of the Church Teresa of Avila. On that day, and on my knees, I read her prayer book ”Let Nothing Disturb you”.

If you've never lived in the East … especially, India or Thailand, then you may not appreciate how special elephants can be. You would also not be surprised that while I was writing this, my husband Stevan,  saw a video of an elephant who could paint his own image on YouTube. It is just too great to be missed, and so I refer it to you as well.



  1. Good thing they chose Brahms and Paganini instead of, say, Kenny G, or else they'd have been ditched.

    I first "met" Ganesh through this item at the Philadelphia Art Museum, one of my favourites which always drew me back to linger over:

    That cone-shaped thing in his left hand is some kind of treat, or candy. You see there's a bit more to why Ganesh had his head cut off.
    He was being a naughty boy and really asking for it. His punishment of decapiatation - even if a bit excessive by Western standards of justice - was a reminder not to get "too big for his britches." But then his improvised replacement head is a reminder that even if you bugger something up and it seems to be ruined, you can always find some creative solution to your own mistakes.

    As a naughty boy who loves sweets, Ganesh is kind of an englightened version of the Wonka character, Augustus Gloop:

  2. By the way, dear Contessa Isabel, would you please tell us who is the handsome woman in the photograph you posted with this article?

    My first impression is that she looks
    rather North Indian, like a REAL "Aryan" (and I do NOT mean in the way the Nazis abused that word.)

    Her nose, mouth and chin bear strong resemblance to a certain type of Irish - another nation who are closer to the original "Aryans" of Central Asia than most Germans are. And far more so than the very Asiatic-looking Himmler, but this is not to say "Asiatics" aren't good-looking; Himmler was just a very ugly example of a mongrelised part-Aryan, part-Hun, part-Mongol mongrel. His ugliness
    was not in his genes, but in his own soul. I'm just pointing out that the whole Nazi desideratum of an "Aryan" "race" was bloody unscientific, and hypocritical too considering how Himmler and Hitler were not exactly exemplars of physical excellence OR of "racial" purity... ;-)

    But I digress. As I was saying, this handsome Lady's features remind me, first of all, of North India. (And maybe a bit of Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

    And as a dilletantish note (dilletantish because I, of all people, seldom give a damn about clothes, as long as the clothes are decent and dignified) - I like the wooden "button" on her garment, as it reminds me of something similar which one of my best students from Shanghai often wore.

    Also, the way the "scarf" (or whatever its technical name is) part of her garment sways beneath her neck, is worthy of a painting.
    I wish I were a talented and well-trained painter like my mother is (I have only recently begun to learn oil painting - around the same age as Churchill did); I wish I had the skill to paint this photo in oils. Someone should do so.

    Ah, now I can see - even as a CARTOONIST (I'm good at cartoons and drawing, just not yet at painting) - now I can see. There is a special geometry in this photo, and my artist's hands can feel how to sweep, almost effortlessly, across the paper (or canvass), following the lines of this photo. And THAT tells me something about the SUBJECT (the Lady in this photo) - my artist's hands tell me, that this Lady is a very "non-linear" kind of Lady. By which I mean, she is a very "organic", a very "ALIVE" kind of person - and that is why my very alive hands feel so able to follow and to represent the LIVING (non-linear) lines of this picture.

    Dear Contessa, does that make any sense to you?

    One more thing: the geometry of this photo is PERFECT, precisely because of its slight imperfection.
    Kindly allow me to suggest that you (and your readers) do this experiment: draw an "X" between all four corners of this photo.
    Then you will see how elegantly proportioned it is, in a way which seems to be IN MOTION, "alive." There is a kind of "symmetry-IN-MOTION" between the bottom left corner and the top right, and the bottom right corner and the top left. Can you see it?

    AND, as the BOTTOM LEFT of this photo is bright red - leading up toward the Lady's face, in a direct sweep until it meets a SMALL dark corner - and then the BOTTOM RIGHT is an even BIGGER patch of (moving, alive, with living lines) bright red, counterpoised by an equally big patch of DARK (with a hint of green) at the upper-left - AH! - it's like, the whole photo represents a non-linear (and yet PARTIALLY linear!) stage-direction,
    moving from the bit of light at the bottom left, diagonally toward the GREAT light (her face) NEAR the opposite corner, and then just a margin of "fade back to dark/green"
    at the final corner in the upper right.

    The whole picture says, "WHOOSH!" from the bottom left to the upper right. And it's suffused with life-in-motion, yet in a stable, enduring way.

    Dear Contessa, please tell us, have I described the PERSONALITY of the person in this photo?

    And then please tell us who she is!


Isabel Van Fechtmann

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