Wednesday, 8 Feb 2023

The Elephant Hair, India 1996

Shizue Seigel

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“Today, I have something special. Only for you!” whispered Vijay, the young waiter at the Sai Anand, darting his eyes around the tiny restaurant to ensure that no one else had heard him. A knot of Indians chatted in the far corner, oblivious to us. Nonetheless, Vijay lifted his eyebrows to signal that he needed absolute privacy.

Looking up warily from my novel, I wondered what he wanted. In my cynical and disaffected state, I was not in the mood to be sold anything. I decided not to rise to the bait. I ordered a soda instead.

“Right away!” he said, and disappeared into the kitchen.

During my week-long stay in the tiny village of Puttaparthi, the Sai Anand cafe had become my haven from India’s twin pillars of sanctimonious spirituality and ceaseless commerce. Twice a day, I ran the gauntlet between the decorous precincts of the guru’s ashram and the backwater restaurant a half-mile away. To get there, I threaded through the lively disorder of an Indian market. On an unpaved street littered with banana peels and plastic bags, women haggled loudly over papayas and coconuts. Motor rickshaws, autos, and water buffalos nosed slowly through crowds clustered around souvenir stores crammed with sari-clad Barbie dolls and garish color portraits of the holy man.

The Sai Anand had few customers, so I had daily chats with Vijay, a graceful teenager with a round and earnest forehead who had recently started working at the restaurant to earn money for college. He was born and raised near the ashram. His father took care of the guru’s sacred elephant, Sai Gita. Twenty-four years earlier, when I had last visited the ashram, it was Sai Gita who had been the gawky adolescent; Vijay had not yet been born. It tickled me to think of boy and elephant growing up together. Every day, before he came to the restaurant, Vijay and Gita went down to the river and bathed together in the purple haze of dawn.

I ordered my usual lunch, chapattis and curry, and ate absent-mindedly with book in hand. By the time I was finished, the restaurant was vacant. After he cleared the dishes, Vijay sidled up and said bashfully, “I have something for you.” From his pocket, he withdrew a packet. Unwrapping it, he reverently handed me a thick black hair about six inches long and the diameter of a pencil lead tapering gently to a point.

I looked up at him quizzically.

“Sai Gita’s hair,” Vijay explained with dancing eyes. “When they hear my father is Sai Gita’s caretaker, many people ask to buy. But I tell them I not having hair.” He lowered his voice and waggled his finger for emphasis. “Not for everyone. This is for you. Special good luck. And…,” Vijay paused triumphantly “… keeps away bad dreams!”

Vijay’s earnest brow furrowed with a mixture of sincerity and secrecy – I suspected that the guru frowned on trading in elephant parts.

I wasn’t keen on taking possession. I rarely had dreams, let alone bad ones, and I didn’t believe in luck – especially when I found out that the discount price for this good fortune was 300 rupees, or about $8.50. It wasn’t much money, but I was leery of being scammed, and I didn’t want to encourage superstition. Besides, I was on a tight budget. I needed to make my rupees last through the rest of my six-week trip.

On the other hand, I had planned to contribute to Vijay’s college fund when I left. Three hundred rupees would cover Vijay’s school expenses for three months. There was no harm in giving the boy the money a few days early.

I forked over the cash with a rueful grin and coiled the hair in my wallet. The young man was practically wriggling with excitement. It was clear that he thought he was passing on a rare treasure.

“This is personal protection. Keep it with you always. On your person,” he emphasized.

I looked at my watch. It was time to get back to the ashram. I wasn’t really supposed to be at the Sai Anand in the first place. The good devotees never set foot off the ashram. They dutifully ate the bland food at the compound’s canteen and spent their free time reading holy books, not novels.

I headed back through the market, turning a deaf ear to the Kashmiri merchants who sang out, “Come! Just have a look,” as they beckoned towards the Sunday-Monday shawls and embroidered khurtas glittering in the sun.

The crowds that seemed to be relaxed and festive outside the ashram turned stiff and sober as they filed through the compound gates. Volunteers with shushing fingers at their lips marshaled the devotees into neat rows inside the three-acre mandir. The timing of the guru’s daily appearance was unpredictable, so pilgrims gathered early and sat silently for hours in the vast, open-sided prayer hall. When I got tired of trying to keep my mind empty and peaceful, I amused myself by writing in my notebook or sketching the ornate lotus columns picked out in pastel pinks, yellows and blues. They held up a massive pink-and-white coffered ceiling lit by a hundred chandeliers.

I remembered guru’s words: “I give you toys and trinkets that I may draw you near me. Then I can give you what is of real value.” The magnificent surroundings certainly seemed to be packing them in, I thought bitterly. The tiny little ashram which once barely held 700 souls had burgeoned into a mini-city that averaged 10,000 visitors a day. Five-story guest apartments and twice-weekly jet service had replaced the open-sided pilgrims’ sheds and seven-hour bus rides of the ‘70s, but today’s worshipful hordes made access to the guru impossible.

Late in the afternoon after hours of waiting, a silent ripple signaled the guru’s appearance. Thousands of devotees inched their haunches towards a tiny saffron-robed dot at the far end of the hall. If I craned my neck I could catch an occasional glimpse as Swami moved slowly through the crowd, dispensing an occasional word or a smile, or gathering a few of the notes and letters held up by a thicket of hands.

Seeing the thousands of desperate, yearning faces around me, my heart sank. In the old days, when worshippers could be counted by the dozens, I could get close enough to be enveloped by the gentle charisma of his presence, to feel the touch of his all-seeing eyes that could shift in an instant from exacting scrutiny to boundless and loving compassion. Some days, I could touch the feet hidden under the flowing silk robes and entrust myself to the guru’s mercy. “Cling to the guru’s feet,” a sacred song advised. “Let them carry you over the ocean of birth and death.”

Clinging to the guru’s feet symbolized the bhakti path of devotion and faith. The ocean of birth and death was the constantly shifting web of desire and aversion that we humans swam in. The bhakti path suited me. I was much too undisciplined to achieve the empty mind of regular meditation. For me, the death of one thought gave birth to another and another, and I thought Ine could spend lifetimes chasing my thoughts and still never access the eternal calm from which each thought arose. But bhakti was devotion; you might even say I practiced blind faith, accepting and loving whatever presented itself as a gift from God. For twenty-four years, I had clung to the guru’s feet, often feeling that I was dangling in thin air in the middle of the vast Pacific, whipped with salt-spray, my legs flailing just inches above a watery demise. But after the collapse of my latest project, an HIV-prevention campaign for African-American women, I was tired of guessing and praying. After twenty-four years, I wanted certitude, so I came back. I wanted the guru to TELL ME WHAT TO DO.

Today, the guru’s form never grew more an inch tall in the far distance. As he retreated indoors, I realized that he was not going to personally answer my urgent questions about career. Swami had been answering my questions long-distance for twenty-four years by putting me in the right place at the right time. Why did I need guidance now from his own lips? Swami had given me the all-purpose answer to every question over two decades ago, scribbling it on a piece of paper and handing it to me: “Love is God. God is Love. Where there is Love, there is God. I am always with you. — Baba.” What could be simpler? Or more difficult?

In the evening, as I crossed the compound on the way to dinner, a sudden sharpness pierced the ashram’s hush. A woman snarled, “If you would just leave me alone, it will be okay. Go! Just go!” Pilgrims rippled away from the sound, drifting to the far side of the swept-sand walkway with pursed lips and averted eyes. I recognized that movement. I saw it every day in the States as people sidestepped panhandlers and street crazies. It saddened me to see that even in an ashram, people could not recognize the God that resides in everyone. I stopped to investigate.

A strikingly beautiful young woman sat on the ground, legs akimbo. She was a Westernized Asian from an indeterminate country. Her long black hair was tangled and her loose white ashram shirt and her pants were dusty. In heavily accented English, she hissed at a Caucasian man nearby. “Just go! All you want is fuck, fuck.”

I swung into outreach worker mode. Just as I would have done in the States, I squatted down beside the woman, putting myself at eye level. “Calm down,” I said gently. “It’ll be all right.”

The woman ignored me, and hissed at the man who stood awkwardly a few yards away. “Just go! Get away from me!”

“Could you please leave her alone? She’s asking you to go,” I told him.

He said tightly, “I can’t. Security told me to stay with her.” Years of pain lay in the pause before he added in a strangled tone, “She’s my wife.”

His wife! For an instant, I felt shamed by my assumptions. Then I smiled sympathetically. “It must be very hard,” I murmured.

He nodded, pouring out his story in a tumble of words. “She’s having some serious problems and she’s not taking the medication she’s supposed to take… I have to stay with her. She’s been causing trouble…”

The woman burst out, “Trouble?! You’re the trouble! I didn’t want to come and you dragged me here. ‘Swami will help,’ you said. ’Swami, swami…’” she said mockingly. “You fuck!”

“Do you mind if I talk to her?” I asked the man. “She seems pretty mad at you.” He nodded numbly and faded into the shadows.

I sat on the sand beside the woman, keeping my eyes soft and my smile gentle. “My name is Keiko. What’s yours?”

“Jenny,” she said. “My name is Jenny, but why should you care? Nobody cares.”

I touched her arm gently. “Your husband cares. And so do I.”

Jenny’s eyes snapped suspiciously. “Nobody cares about a bad person like me.” Her lips trembled and then loosed an outpouring of rage, fear, and guilt. To my Asian-American ears, sensitized to the unsung tragedies of war brides and bar girls and shoeshine boys, it seemed that the worst of the West’s unthinking impact on Asia was mixed up in Jenny’s ramblings about bad men, men who only wanted sex, men who made her do bad things. It was unclear whether her husband was perpetrator or rescuer, or maybe a bit of both.

She was bad, Jenny said, over and over. She was doomed. Why should she believe in Swami anyway? She only came because her husband wanted her to, but why should she believe him? He was a liar. He only cared about her breasts, and other women and fuck – all the time fuck – yes! And what about that other woman on the beach? He thought she didn’t know, but she knew a lot. She was not stupid…

As she talked, Jenny compulsively placed empty soda bottles into a plastic carryall and took them out again, occasionally clutching them to her chest like a dog guarding her bones. There was something primal in the hunch of her shoulders and her challenging stare as she did this, as if activated by memories of a rag-picker’s past when bottles had meant pennies and pennies the difference between eating and starvation.

I kept my hand on Jenny’s arm and babbled back. From my outreach work in the States, I knew that the actual words mattered less than the steady contact of eyes and heart. Jenny was worthy, I said. She was loved. She had done the best she could. Despite her past, she was not evil. There was something beneficent in the universe and at this ashram that could touch her if she let it.

Jenny shook her head, sunk in the conviction that she was irredeemably evil.

I groped in my bag for some leaflets from my outreach job. Pointing to the illustrated pages I had hoped to show off to the guru, I said, “Some of these women think they are bad, too. We all make mistakes, but God loves everyone. Swami can see how good you are.”

Jenny began to calm down, but she wanted to see what else was in my bag. She grabbed my passport. When I asked for it back, she began a prolonged game of keep-away, playfully threatening to tear it up. To get the passport back, I showed Jenny photos of my children.

“Oh, she’s pretty! I’ll keep this one,” Jenny cried, letting go of the passport and snatching a picture of Mina, my 23-year-old daughter.

I sat back on my heels. I was tired and hungry. I’d been on my way to dinner when I began this conversation. How was I going to extricate myself without setting Jenny off again? And as sympathetic as I was to Jenny, I was reluctant to abandon my daughter to her, even in facsimile.

Scrabbling quickly through my mind, I thought of the elephant hair. “I have to leave now. But I’ll trade you this for the photo.” I unwrapped the hair from its paper parcel.” It’s a hair from Sai Gita, Swami’s elephant. It will keep you safe. It will keep away bad dreams.”

Jenny cocked her head skeptically, but released her hold on the photo. Then she cautiously held out her arm so I could tie the elephant hair around her thin wrist. I pulled the ends tightly into a square knot, then I hugged her for a long time.

“I have to go eat now. I’ll come back after dinner. Remember, Swami loves you and your husband loves you. You are a good person.”

As I hurried to the Sai Anand, I was overjoyed by my solution. It seemed like one of Swami’s little jokes – if anyone needed “special good luck and protection from bad dreams,” it was Jenny. I could hardly wait to tell Vijay.

But when I told him the story, Vijay was not as pleased as I’d hoped. He even seemed a little hurt, I thought, as his huge brown eyes slipped away from mine.

After dinner I returned to the spot where Jenny had sat, but there was nothing, not even a soda bottle. I sighed. It was the same with my clients in the States. People poured out their hearts to me in the street and I never saw them again. I would never know what happened to Jenny. I would never find out if the elephant hair helped stave off the worst of her thoughts.

When I went to the Sai Anand for breakfast the next morning, Vijay confided, “Last night, I very worried. Elephant hair personal! For you only. Not for giving. In the night, I couldn’t sleep, so I ask Father. ‘Very bad,’ Father say. ‘One hair, one person only.’” Vijay’s brow creased mournfully.

“But I said you are good person. Father said give one hair more. Now I am happy,” he proclaimed, his eyes sparkling.

My cynical side wondered if the second hair would entail another 300 rupees, but Vijay handed me a new elephant hair without a word about money. “Keep it with you always,” he urged, his eyes round with concern.

The new hair was not nearly so nice as the first. It was stubby and crinkled, a bit like my often-crabbed soul, I thought. I thanked him and stuffed it into my wallet. When I left for Bombay two days later, I gave Vijay another 200 rupees for college.

As I packed to leave the ashram, I wondered if I had gotten what I came for. I never got close enough to the guru to ask him about my future. Perhaps being able to practice my profession on the ashram grounds was enough of an answer for now.

I forgot about the elephant hair until I returned to San Francisco. One day, feeling discouraged about my job hunt, I searched for the hair. Maybe it would help stave off my alarm over my dwindling savings. But the hair was not in my travel wallet or in any of the pockets of my backpack. As I searched, I thought about Vijay and Jenny. I looked at the framed and tattered piece of paper on which the guru had written so many years before, “Where there is love, there is God. I am always with you.” Those words were my elephant hair, I realized.

Within a month, I found a job that steered me on a whole new course. Like the outreach job, it was unexpected, and I was unqualified, except for two things: love and faith.

Shizue Seigel’s “The Elephant Hair’ is excerpted from Miss Goody-Good Grows Up, a memoir-in-progress. The writer’s lifelong search for meaning and positive engagement took her from farm labor camps and skid-row hotels to corporate offices and public housing. Her books include In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese American during the Internment.