Birthing Ganesha (an extract from a novel)
‘I shall swim into quiet water’—Virginia Woolf, 1940.
Portentous watery images occur repeatedly and hauntingly towards the end of Virginia Adeline Woolf’s diaries, which run out suddenly, shortly before she committed suicide by filling her pockets with stones and wading out into the River Ouse: ‘wet passages … water broken, white, roaring … may the flood last forever … wild grey water …’ The entries terminate shortly thereafter; there would be nothing further. That channel was now dead.
If one were to ask our Adeline how she had chosen her name at the age of sixteen (as is the tradition these days), she might well cite as influential these diaristic references with their suggestion of a dark prescience. Perhaps she wanted to be a larger-than-life literary seeress immortalised in a mythic death scene (for who truly does not want to be a superhero like that?). And of course Adeline—like anyone sufficiently Romantic—wondered what might have come next in that truncated diary if Virginia Adeline Woolf had lived to tell the tale. It was, she thought in later life, somehow similar to Paul Cézanne’s final order of oils arriving a day or two after his death in 1906. What might those paints have become? Certainly Pablo Picasso—who called Cézanne ‘the father of us all’—would have wished to know, and, like Adeline, will have mourned for what might have been.
Riley definitely wants to be a comic-book superhero; he wants this so much that he has now dissociated to the point where he is almost no longer real outside of his fictional self. Perhaps he is now only a character in a sort of graphic novel without pictures. But, however much he may have lost or gained in this transmutation, this is not a story about Riley, who waits, frozen in his charcoal shadow, for some possible future revival: this is a story about Adeline, who, in another life, allegedly bore splashing witness to a remarkable and divine metamorphosis—perhaps a birthing.
(A lost valley, somewhere in the flooded blue jungles of southern India.)
This happened on Adeline’s eighteenth birthday, just a few weeks after she killed her father with a spade (of which there will be no mention here). She was a mycology student back then, on a field trip to India to study the fungi of the Subcontinent, which has, after all, one third of all the fungal diversity of the world, much of it still undescribed and unclassified.
It was a place of rearing elephantine baobab trees, of giant arboreal tigers, many of them white as Siberians, almost as big as elephants, curled like freakish housecats in their high nests. (One hears them growling from above, but they seldom attack in such narrow daylight.)
Blood glistened upon the jungle-water, attracting freshwater sharks and zombie-catfish; smoke drifted through the trees, rising like a spectral offering to the gods above the thick canopy. Adeline had arrived in the wrong season, as the forest was currently drowned to a depth of three or four feet. There would be no discoveries of nameless toadstools on this expedition, but anyway and undeterred she came, lurching in her ornate howdah at the head of the procession, riding a huge Asiatic elephant bedecked.with silks and gems.
And so she splashed through the shark-infested shallows, through the drowsing trees, through the pillars of green sunlight, and all the air mad with birdsong and huge dragonflies, into the lost valley beyond.
‘I seen a horsefly,’ sang Adeline gaily. ‘I seen a dragon fly; I seen a housefly … but I be done seen about everything …’
But then, as the Tiffin hour approached, what was that scent of blood and fire? Adeline pulled up her mount, signalling the caravan to halt.
‘Nillisi, nanna prītiya ānegaḷu!’ she cried in hushed and urgent tones, in Kannada, the elephant tongue, raising her hand like a trunk, waving her pith helmet aloft.
And Adeline and her company peered through the trees to behold a great wonder.
There in a ghost-glade was a blue boy, perhaps fourteen years old, no more, blithely sawing off his own head with a large, curved knife. Rolling in the water beside him was another head, that of a juvenile elephant, leaching blood and ichor into the smoky ripples, for it seemed that the water itself was somehow alight. And as Adeline watched, the slender, straight-limbed, headless youth—vivid as lapis from the haunted mines of Shortugai and Sar-i Sang—with all seeming unconcern, lifted that great head by the tusks and placed it where his own had been, whereupon it seemed that it miraculously attached itself and became alive again, though now it was half boy.
And this was the legendary moment of the birthing of Ganesha, god of wisdom and words, deva of science and art, patron of new beginnings and humble hopes.
And so Ganesha, mighty Lord of Bananas, Spouse of the Speaking Tree, there amidst the steaming waters, danced and splashed himself to life before ascending on invisible wings into the shimmering upper air.
And the date thereof was the twenty-second day of the eighth month, which is hereafter laid down in the law as holy and inviolate.
And Adeline and her yawing équipage retreated then in fear and wonderment, back to lesser lives, nevermore to speak or think of such marvels.