Review: Leela Devi Panikar’s ‘Bathing Elephants’

As the inimitable Khalil Gibran has stated, ‘Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’ Leela Devi Paniker’s stories have that depth and pathos, the few reluctant albeit genuine smiles, the tears of grief and longing and eventually eternal hope, sprouting from the womb of the earth, whilst inducing the character(s) to move on and rediscover life, says Monica Arora in this review

Bathing-elephantsOnce in a while, there comes along such a deep-rooted and evocative piece of prose that leaves readers spellbound and mesmerized for days after putting the book away.  Leela Devi Panikar’s ‘Bathing Elephants’ has this lilting, haunting, melancholic quality that touches the deepest cockles of the heart and wrings one, inside out!

Following her debut collection of short stories entitled ‘Floating Petals’, all six tales in ‘Bathing Elephants’ are characterized by simplicity of expression and brevity. The author brilliantly conveys so much pathos and emotion in very few words and uses an easy narrative tenor throughout the manuscript.

Right from the beginning of the title story ‘Bathing Elephants’, a sense of acute loss and foreboding inhabit the narrative and the reader gets slowly drawn into the inner world of the main protagonists. The fact that it dwells upon the recent 2004 Tsunami that struck Thailand, causing much devastation and affecting people all over the world, instantly brings back memories of more personal losses and the ensuing pain.

While ‘Inshallah’ deals with the  wreckage and futility of war, it also brings to fore questions about trust and faith on humanity in times of calamity as is narrated beautifully in the incident of a young orphan girl seeking refuge with a stranger. ‘Sequinned Slippers’ shines like a glimmer of hope in this strife-torn and imperfect world and stuns by its brief yet powerful climax.

Meanwhile, ‘I Was Killed in a Car Accident’ is that goose-bump inducing piece that spells doom from the word ‘go’ and yet offers a silver lining amidst the grey and fiery clouds. Another tale of unrequited love, longing, ambition and youth all gone awry!

The final two pieces which are more nuanced and finely etched in terms of detailing, namely ‘Stone Breakers’ and ‘Wild Orchids’ speak of different schools of marriage, the sanctity of the institution, the differences between an arranged and a love marriage, social stigmas and taboos, children, families, love, loss and renewed faith. Both stories, the former set in Bhutan and Nepal and the latter in Burma speak of two beautiful couples and how the wives in both cases prove to be the stronger half of these marriages. The dignity, grace, beauty and inner strength of Kamala in ‘Stone Breakers’ and Thura Khin in ‘Wild Orchids’ conveys the power of faith and love that these two women display despite adverse circumstances and paucity of funds and how for the sake of their children, they are willing to sacrifice anything and everything, including their marriages.

The analogy that instantly came to my mind upon reading these lovely fairy-tale-like pieces was that of the nine emotions or the navarasas oft used in Indian art forms, be it literature, creative art or performing arts such as dance. Human life is essentially a series of ongoing experiences, each infused with one or myriad emotions juxtaposing on each other and these navarasas very aesthetically convey these emotions through each carefully crafted or classified mood.

Thus, if shringara rasa denotes all that pertains to love and beauty, Leela Devi has effectively used it in all her stories, albeit tinted with different hues and flavours. Sample this excerpt from ‘Bathing Elephants’: ‘I am in our space. Michael unravels my knotted hair, flowers tumble to the floor, he buries his face into the warm flower scent, my musk…I walk onto the deck where a trellis of bougainvillea sprays, pink and white, keeps out the sun. Fallen blossoms underfoot form a soft carpet. The large sweeping bay of fine white sand lies soporific. A small garden to the side of the villa with more bougainvilleas is home to twittering birds and an open-air ‘rain shower’…here too, orchids abound’.

Hasya rasa or the emotion of joy and celebration is amply evident in the elaborate wedding ceremonies described in ‘Stone Breakers’ and the playful flirting of the main protagonists in ‘Wild Orchids’. This piece excerpted from ‘Stone Breakers’ beautifully demonstrates the Hasya rasa: ‘Buntings fluttered in the crisp wind, the village turned out decked festive to welcome the return of Bahadur…a troop of musicians, playing, walked behind him up the long winding path from the bus-stop to his mother’s door. She garlanded him and performed a puja before he stepped over the threshold. During the week of marriage celebrations…ceremonies, blessings from elders, salutations of well-wishers, flute wails, drum beats and flower scents, all washed over him’.

‘Bathing Elephants’, the lead story is laced with traces of Bhibatsya rasa denoting disgust or horror particularly in the heart wrenching description of the devastation caused by the Tsunami and Rowdra or anger is an intrinsic part of the helplessness and quiet suffering of Rai in ‘Stone Breakers’ after he loses his home, land and self-confidence, at the hands of the soldiers. This piece from ‘Stone Breakers’ amply conveys twin rasas of Bhibatsya and Rowdra: ‘Rai languished in anger, hate, despair and could not cherish his family and his wife’s acceptance of the place as home…Unbearable sadness, and a foreboding of tragedy, filled him, but he kept the information to himself. All day long he idled on a rickety chair, feeling used and useless. Face contorted in righteous indignation, he watched his busy wife. He hated that she worked hard, he hated he did not. Why was she happy, how could she smile with life reduced to that of a poor peasant. His dark love judging, he watched her simple pleasures and shrank from his pride’.

Shanta rasa or peace and tranquility is the inner strength of both Kamala and Thura Khin in ‘Stone Breakers’ and ‘Wild Orchids’ respectively, as also of Suchan in ‘Bathing Elephants’. The following extract from ‘Wild Orchids’ conveys this sentiment with much conviction: ‘Walled in her mother’s home, not wishing to evoke her wrath, she listened to her constant reminding of the mistake she’d made and held her peace. And so began a year of waiting. She never saw him again while she waited in her mother’s home but from time to time received messages and money. The messages became fewer, trickled. Cash dwindled, stopped. But Thura Khin never lost hope. She tried getting her old job back but was unsuccessful and ended up working part-time in a tea-stall, her income barely enough to look after the needs of her child…Everyday she felt that would be the day Minh Thida would come back to her. Each night she lay under the white mosquito netting awake, waiting hoping. At times she dreamt he came to her, the two of them close. Heard his voice in love and desperation. Each morning she was tormented by doubt, and fears of death. Each evening she waited for the day to end and for another hopeful night to begin’.

Besides, Veera rasa or heroism, Bhaya or fear and Karuna, signifying grief and compassion are omnipresent in the eyes of most protagonists, particularly, Jamilah and Ahmed in ‘Inshallah’ and Romesh’s concerned sister in ‘Sequinned Slippers’. Finally, Adbhuta rasa or the emotion of curiosity is also invoked quite elaborately when the orphaned Jamilah goes around looking for her school and home in vain in ‘Inshallah’.

The warp and weft of multi-hued human emotions weaves these intricate sagas of loss, longing and hope. As the inimitable Khalil Gibran has stated, ‘Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’ Leela Devi Paniker’s stories have that depth and pathos, the few reluctant albeit genuine smiles, the tears of grief and longing and eventually eternal hope, sprouting from the womb of the earth, whilst inducing the character(s) to move on and rediscover life. The experiences and sufferings endured by each character lend texture and nuance to this rich tapestry of stories inspired by life and inspiring life thereon.