Elephants with Headlights
by Bem Le Hunte
Published March 2019
There is a case to be made about the relationship between accelerative capitalism and its eager embrace of Eastern mysticism’s notion of unlimited human potential. Both discourses use, for one thing, the lexicon of liberation – sex, good, superego, bad. And there is no way to stop the cosmic forces of either human consciousness or capital because apparently that is where the intelligent evolution of all existence is taking us. The controversial love-guru, Shree Rajneesh (aka Osho), once grunted that criticisms of his wealth, which included the world’s largest collection of Rolls-Royces, reeked of communist inclinations. Speaking at Woodstock, Swami Satchidananda urged American youth to aid the world spiritually now that they were leading it economically. Some of the greatest publicity for these globalised yogis were their celebrity devotees; Maharishi Mahesh, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, had the Beatles; Steve Jobs – whose Apple logo was, by one account, inspired by his reverence for the Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba – had reportedly only one book on his iPad when he died, Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Autobiography of A Yogi.
That consumerist hagiography and big-label money shake hands is hardly surprising; capitalism in its most aggressive, border-munching form rests with equal parts on the sanctification of personal fulfillment and bringing East and West together. Meet Siddharth Kailash in Bem Le Hunte’s fourth novel, Elephants with Headlights, a mogul-in-the-making heading an outsourcing company in India’s cyber hub, Gurgaon, near New Delhi. Siddharth has more in common with Elon Musk than his holy namesake, but this ‘shrewd futurist’ is near-transcendent in his more pragmatic faculties: ‘someone with demonic insight’ and an ‘angel investor, … a fearless oiler of the wheels for the juggernauts of business pushing their way into his country.’ We first catch his thoughts about bidding for driverless cars at an exhibition in Goa, where American AI promises this ‘Asian century’ to be the next techno-utopia; it was ‘Google who had come out from Silicon Valley to paint a picture of an India catapulted into an unrecognisable new era.’ In this symbol-heavy story, the driverless car has a double referent; taking your hands off the wheel is at once a gesture to lifting economic regulations, and to forsaking the self to the vicissitudes of gross existence, because any tempering with it will only perpetuate one’s samsaric wanderings.
Siddharth’s main goal is to leave a business empire behind for his teenage son, Neel, whose prospect of marrying the daughter of a wealthy friend has kept the family en fête for a while. Unlike his father, Neel is a man of little ambition. High on bhang, he sleeps with Mae, a Byron Shire girl on her schoolies, at a beach resort in Goa. Australia – synonymous with sexual awakening in this novel – rises on his horizon. In lukewarm rebellion, he forgoes his parents’ dreams for an Oxbridge education and an Indian bride and settles for a university degree in Sydney. Neel and Mae, soon an engaged couple, return to the family mansion in New Delhi, where drivers, sweepers, chefs, servants, gardeners, and nannies wait on them in preparation for their mega-wedding, or as the omniscient narrator puts it the ‘scared confluence of two rivers: East and West’. The only obstacle is Neel’s mother, the melodramatic Tota, a legal advisor at the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, who takes to her son’s engagement with the double standard of upholding endogamy and an aversion to patriarchal culture.
The reliance on marriage to broker socio-economic advancement is as old as the history of the novel. In its rudimentary form, the dénouement of the ‘wedding novel’ loosens up the existing social structures to accommodate a more integrated bourgeoisie, often achieved by betraying the aspirations of well-heeled parents. Elephants with Headlights sublimates this trope with an esoteric convolution of destinies of its characters, in this world and their current and upcoming reincarnations. Neel’s sister, the lit graduate Savitri, is under pressure to marry, for if she doesn’t, her grandmother, Dadi, will not be able to die, despite her late-stage MS. There is another glitch: Savitri is a Manglik, which means she is under a celestial spell that will bring about her husband’s premature death, unless she is wed to a tree first. That is the prediction of Dadi’s trusted astrologer, Arunji, a ‘mathematician of destiny’ whose life is roped to the Kailash family ‘in a cosmic collusion of the most outrageous proportions’.
The underlying parablism of the plot leaves us with an all-or-nothing problem, because to untie any of these knots means resolving everything in the novel. This creates a teleological charge which pushes the story too enthusiastically, too far, where otherworldly events (thisthing as the characters like to say), impel a new world order. Women will lead the way into this mobile – and nonetheless fundamentally religious – future with its shifting economic realities. Le Hunte’s favourite character, Savitri, is named after the Hindu goddess in the Mahabharata – the wife to Brahman, the god of creativity – who is evoked in initiation ceremonies for the boys of ‘twice-born’ (lower, but not lowest) castes to give them the rights of mingling among the members of higher ranks. One day, on an excursion with her grandmother, she stumbles into a teaching session by a 200-year-old local saint, called Guruji, to which she adheres with fervour. She enters a pact with her father that if he agrees to meditate under Guruji’s instructions, she will consider marrying another baby CEO. Sidharath agrees. His insolence, however, piques the holy man, who, in return, graces him with ‘all the worries of the world’. From then on, he hears every thought passing through anyone’s mind in his vicinity. This meeting kickstarts his journey towards nirvana, which he will attain by the end of the book, and so do Dadi, Savitri, and Tota.
Elephants with Headlights is awash with these impromptu re-orientations, somewhat aligned with the typical inversion of human motivation in sacred texts. Wasn’t Paul the Apostle on his way to Damascus to persecute the church right until the famous horse accident? Didn’t the Buddha leave his princely abode for his Great Renunciation? Justin Clemens writes that the ‘supposed “sudden movement” from reason to affect in mystical discourse is as much situational as it is transcendent, intellectual as intuitive. Mysticism is a kind of materialism.’ This novel sets out as an allegory of the inviolable utilitarianism of divine revelation, but it soon forgets itself as one. A few chapters into it, the narrator oscillates between distance and total absorption in the gimmick of the story. Prolix language and a chain of arcane conceits expose the awkward contingencies of humour (the comedic and the fluid) in romance and the humourlessness of metaphysics. Marriage, in any case, is conditional and contractual, and the spirit absolute and incorruptible. The result is a satire that never really finds its footing. In one instance, Mae’s anger about Tota’s racist remark toward Aboriginal people is presented in extensive mock-epic imagery. Furious, she throws a cup, a family heirloom. It breaks, and so does her engagement to Neel: ‘Tota saw Neel’s gaze follow Anuj [one of the cooks] as he left the room, wishing he could be anywhere but in the firing line. Seeing that Mae had no reserve army, Tota summoned the courage to take another line of attack.’
We follow Mae to Australia to find her, like a character in a soapie, lying on ‘her beach’ with a heavy heart, the memory of seaside sex, sand between her toes, etcetera, etcetera. Following Arunji’s advice, Savitri joins Mae’s family, only to realise that they complement hers like yin and yang. Mae’s grandmother is a psychic, and her father runs an alternative home-birth studio. Savitri is immediately taken by a certain sexual decency in ‘this land of sun-blest dunes and bare legs’. She (who is offended by the mere thought of her Indian suitors) meets Nitin, a surfer, on her first day in Australia, and decides to marry him after exchanging a few sentences at the back of a campervan. The lovers begin their prelapsarian coupledom somewhere up ‘on the hippie hills’ in a single room in the tropical forest, ‘with no one but the lyrebirds to overhear and mimic the sound of their lovemaking, and nobody to observe them walking naked to go and pick fruit whenever they grew hungry for anything more than each other.’
Sexual tension and release mark the novel’s peripatetic structure. Land becomes a form of individuation in reverse. Savitri’s sexuality is matched neatly to an orientalist psychogeography; Australia features with all the therapeutic properties that an island could have (as if that was not an invention of Western imagination), while India remains an arid land, unable to sustain fertility, work out its perversity, or undo its astrological riddles. The couple fly to New Delhi upon hearing that Dadi is about to pass. Nitin turns out to be the son of Tota’s English poet-lover in her youth. Savitri experiences total spiritual unity with her past incarnations upon Dadi’s passing. The Kailash siblings and their Australian partners travel to the ancient city of Jaisalmer to perform Neel’s and Mae’s ‘desert wedding’. Nitin contracts a potentially fatal gastro, which gives Savitri the cue to marry a tree. The curse is avoided. Nitin’s miraculous escape from death begins the next historical cycle. Meanwhile in New Delhi, Guruji ‘gifts’ the otherwise sceptical Tota with mystical powers. Now that everyone is safely married, and/or has manifested as an avatar, the services of the family’s clairvoyant – the son of their clothes washer – are no longer needed. He is the only one with any ambivalence about the ascendance of an entrepreneurial, messianic echelon:
Absolutely unfathomable. It was as if the new world has no place for an astrologer. As if he’d been asked to evacuate the premises of the present to make way for the new, haphazard construction of an unpredictable future.
Where is this place after technological explosion? Is it better, worse, for who? McKenzie Wark has recently reflected:
When people hear the beginnings of a story about this no longer being capitalism, their resistance generally rises. Unless you happen to be worth several million dollars, the chances are you do not perceive this as something better than capitalism or a capitalism that always improves on itself.
Le Hunte conflates the question of divine privilege with that of social strata, the ways to organise the world and the means to disseminate an economic myth. Class is always and already mystified, with a tendency to obscure the processes with which it is reproduced. The transmutation of the opulent Hindu family into deific pantheon reassures them of their status in contemporary New Delhi, now motoring a free-floating ultra-liberalist system. The false consciousness that holds up this pyramid is grounded in the innate spiritual goodness of those who are lucky at birth. Arundhati Roy has talked about this as a ‘pollution–purity matrix’, which corresponds to ‘an elaborate system of caste-based, ancestral occupation.’
The extraordinary spiritual authorities that Guruji transmits to Tota turn her into a corporate ‘fourth wave’ feminist in the course of a few hours, making her match the tycoon high-rise builders in command and corruption. She now has the ‘power of Kali, mixed up with the thrust and heft of the law – that imperious, utterly worldly force. She was a female lawyer with her tongue hanging out!’ Such consistent hyperbole gives Elephants with Headlights an anti-political register in odd sympathy with Narendra Modi’s ‘Hinduvta project’; since Modi’s first election in 2014, his populist agenda has combined the speedy privatisation of the manufacturing sector with the paramilitarism of Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer organisation, relegating many millions of non-Hindus to second-rate citizens.
There are faint traces of a story about the violence of urban development and the near-impossibility of change for lower classes, manifesting as the thoughts of servants and beggars who scamper through Siddharth’s luminous awareness. That seems to have been part of the original project of this novel, submerged in multiple drafting and the exuberance of a doctrine. Affecting sober contemplation on the precarious future of this ‘new India’ feels misplaced in the very last paragraph.
What, among all the wreckage … the liberalisation and deregulation … the corruption … the new money … and even more new money, and the lavish farmhouses in Delhi’s food bowls and the new empires beyond in Gurgaon – what about those?
Indeed, what about those?
Justin Clemens. ‘Loving the Unlovable: Simone Weil Today.’ Arena Magazine, 138 (2015): 43-47.
Arundhati Roy. The Doctor and the Saint. Haymarket Books. 2017.
McKenzie Wark. Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse? Verso Books. 2019.