The World of the Broken Tusk
Legend has it that Ganesha, the elephant God, wrote the Mahabharata with his tusk. The Mahabharata is one of India’s two greatest epics, along with the Ramayana, and has been hailed as a masterpiece of world literature on par with the Bible and the Quran. Ten times the length of the Illiad, the Mahabharata recounts the war of two related rival royal families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, over control of the kingdom of Hanstinapura in Northern India. The story goes that the sage and seer Vyasa, compiler of the Mahabharata, requested that the elephant god transcribe the epic at the same time that he recited it. Vyasa warned Ganesha, however, that he must also understand everything that he wrote down. For Ganesha, being the god of intellect, wisdom, and beginnings, this was no problem. The elephant-man sat down to the task. But within minutes his feather quill snapped in his hand. (Not an auspicious start for the Lord of Beginnings.) Ganesha happens to also be the god of obstacles; and, loathe to break his promise, he broke off his left tusk, dipped it in ink, and began to write.
There is a popular saying that, “if it doesn’t exist in the Mahabharata, it probably doesn’t exist at all.” Something similar could be said of India. Although the landmass of the Indian subcontinent doesn’t compete with behemoths like Russia or the United States, it is nevertheless a massively complex, sprawling country, with as many as twenty-two different official languages and practically all of the world’s major religions—not to mention a sixth of the world’s population. I’ve spent four years studying Indian politics, history, and culture at the University of Virginia. I’ve visited India three times, and speak Hindi and Urdu passingly well. And yet, returning to India, now, for the fourth time, I still feel as if I know absolutely nothing about the place that has devoured so many of my academic years.
This time I return as a researching Fulbright scholar, and am expected—no, being paid!—to say something meaningful.
Focusing on a specific region in the world in school is like learning a foreign language. You think you’re really good until you actually visit the country and chat with the locals. Then you realize how stilted and robotic your grade-winning language skills are. In the meantime, those who do not speak Hindi or Urdu believe you to be fluent. But those of you who have studied foreign languages know that fluency is a wearisome road—a skill set unable to be attained unless one has lived in a foreign country for years and years.
In the meantime, we area studies majors are incomplete students. We are unable to fully explain to our friends and family members what we do (which would require years of background reading) nor claim ourselves to be experts in the field (which would require several more years of background reading.) I once met an Italian waiter obsessed with America. He read Salinger and Hinton, drank Cokes, and listened to Elvis. He also wrote a murder mystery novel in America, in which he cloaked his D’Toquevillian commentary on my country behind thriller prose of mayhem, monsters, and gore. He knew more about the history of my own state, Oklahoma, than I ever would. But after talking with him for several days, I learned that he’d never once been to the U.S.
So could I say that he knew the real America?
We area studies majors must also ask ourselves the same question of the countries that we study.
I will be living in Jaipur and New Delhi for a year. Thirteen months, to be precise. Over these thirteen months, I will slowly assimilate to Indian culture. My head will wag yes-or-no when people ask me questions. I will negotiate with the ricksha drivers and learn not to get too ripped off for being white. I might even use my left hand instead of toilet paper when the “loose motions” strike. But over this period, as my in-between state gravitates closer to India, I also want to maintain my connections to America. I want to transcribe and convey this vast, dangerous, scenic, corrupt, hopeful, disillusioned and aspiring world to my fellow countrymen. If India lumbers forward with the same weight and scale as the Mahabharata, then I want to invoke a muse to render the complexities of this land faithfully to you. My invocation is not to the lithe, curvaceous, toga-ed muses of the Greeks, but to a big, bumbling inspiration—the kind who snaps his feather quill—to guide me, determinedly, through all of the obstacles I will inevitably face from the beginning.
I petition for the bounty of a broken tusk.