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Posted on 7 Apr 2020 in Fiction |

BEM LE HUNTE Elephants with Headlights. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Bem Le Hunte’s third novel explores what happens when Australian mores meet Indian traditions, and old ways collide with new.

Siddharth is a successful Delhi businessman. The sort of person who, as Guruji sees, is keen to make it clear that:

… he didn’t lead a life of the idle rich: that some people were obliged to put food on the table, a Mercedes on the front lawn and an empire in the hands of their son.

Guruji is a 200-year-old guru who looks to be in his fifties yet ‘was born in the time of kingdoms, maharajas and stolen treasure chests’. Savitri, Siddharth’s daughter, and her beloved grandmother, Dadi, have become Guruji’s dedicated followers and now practise daily meditation, and Savitri has decided:

… that everyone needed to have their lives changed – nobody more so than her father, who she felt should meditate for health reasons if nothing else. What better way to reduce his blood pressure and manage his heart condition, after all?

She makes a bargain with her father: ‘If you go and see Guruji and learn to meditate, then I’ll go on a date with Mohan.’ Savitri, so far, has absolutely refused to get married and has rejected every suitable young man Siddharth and her mother Tota have arranged for her to meet. It certainly doesn’t help that she was born under ‘a tainted star’ and is a Manglik – which predicts that she will kill her spouse. So, Savitri’s bargain is, as Siddharth sees, ‘the uber alles bid to end all bids in the history of marriage negotiations’.

Siddharth’s sceptical meeting with Guruji leads the businessman to claim that meditation can bring him nothing he does not already have. Guruji concludes that Siddharth must, then, already be enlightened and have fully developed awareness, therefore the most powerful gift he can be given is ‘all the worries of the world’. Guruji knows about the potency of words, and that ‘from a single word a holus-bolus new story can emerge’, so he does wonder if this ‘blessing’ is a little extreme. And much to Siddharth’s surprise, he suddenly can hear everything others are thinking. Not only does it change the way he treats everyone around him, making him suddenly aware of the poverty and concerns of others, it also gives him invaluable access to the thoughts of his wife, his son Neel, and Savitri during critical situations, and, so, helps to resolve them.

The most immediate critical situation he must resolve results from the behaviour of the blonde Australian girl Mae, whose imminent marriage to Neel has suddenly had to be cancelled.

Neel had met Mae on a Goan beach where, probably under the influence of smoking bhang, she had seemed to come into his life ‘like the miracle of fire on water’. Neel was smitten, and Mae, who ‘had a passion for all things Indian’, wanted an Indian wedding. Neel had given Siddharth and Tota no choice but to agree.

Now, after 900 invitations have been sent out, and everyone including Siddharth (under compulsion) has been rehearsing the celebratory wedding-dance, Mae has quarrelled with Tota and demanded that Neel immediately change her ticket, because she is going back to Australia. Tota is not dismayed. She has already been horribly socially embarrassed by some of Mae’s inadvertent cultural transgressions (including swimming at Ladies’ Hour at Tota’s swimming club wearing a G-string bikini which prominently displayed ‘a blue wing painted on her white buttock’). So, finally, it seems that Tota’s undermining of the relationship between Mae and Neel has succeeded: ‘Now she would have her son back again.’

Neel is devastated and suicidal; Savitri decides to accompany Mae to Australia; and the predictions of the family astrologer, Arunji, all seem to have come true.

The Australian part of this story could not be more different. Mae and Savitri live in a semi-tropical hippy-ish paradise – a ‘Garden of Eden’ where bare-breasted mothers with small children are part of an environment of sun and sea and the freedom to live as one chooses. Savitri experiences a wonderfully romantic form of marriage to a laid-back Aussie man, Nitin, and a spiritual natural birth, but there is also a near-death. Her eventual return to India with Mae finally resolves the family problems in an unexpected way.

There are strong elements of magical realism in Bem Le Hunte’s storytelling. Guruji’s powers are supernatural, as is Siddharth’s clairaudience; Arunji, the valued family astrologer, knows the future from the horoscopes he calculates with great mathematical skill, but he doesn’t always speak the truth about what his numbers reveal and often fails to impart bad news. Savitri’s Manglik state is, it seems, magically avoidable; and Dadi and Mae’s mother each have some psychic abilities.

The book is steeped in Indian life and culture and readers who know something of India and its people will happily recognise many of the ways the Indian characters think and behave. Those who know Australia and Australians, too, will recognise the behaviour and beliefs exemplified by Mae, although the Australian scenes do represent only one kind of Australian easy-going life. There is a good deal of humour in the way people in this book see their own world and that of others. And the conflict between the two very different cultures precipitated by the meeting of Neel and Mae underlies the story. So, too, do the difficulties of adapting old traditional ways of life and social expectations to the new, fast-changing modern world.

In the end, Bem Le Hunte suggests it is trust which is needed to negotiate these difficulties and differences. It is like learning to trust a driverless car in spite of the problems you think you may encounter – such as ‘elephants returning home down the side streets after attending one of those grand Delhi weddings’. Siddharth is reminded:

 … of his persistent cosmic dream about taking his hands off the wheel of that driverless car. He thought about all the convincing numbers that would have to cohere to create such an unimaginable feat: a car that actually drove itself, with all the sensors and data and satellites at work. And yet the real mystery remained in that moment of lifting one’s hands from the wheel – lifting them off and observing the survival of self.

 Truly, ‘Many things that we believe impossible are about to come about.’

Bem Le Hunte Elephants with Headlights Transit Lounge Publishing 2020 PB 304pp $29.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (//ann.skea.com/) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Elephants with Headlights from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.