Friday, 2 March 2012

Fantabulous Fridays A-Z: A FOR AIRAVATA with Sita Brahmachari

Scribble City Central's brand-new mythic alphabet series kicks off in style with prize-winning author Sita Brahmachari giving us the lowdown on a legendary beast from Indian mythology - A for Airavata, the celestial elephant created by Brahma for Indra, Lord of Heaven. 

Sita's first novel, Artichoke Hearts, won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize last year, and is currently on the Carnegie 2012 longlist. When I read it, I was struck not only by its tender but unflinching depiction of the relationship between a dying grandmother and her grandaughter, but also by the vivid and unique voice of its narrator, Mira Levenson (then 12 years old). 

I was therefore delighted to meet Mira again in Sita's new book, Jasmine Skies, which I've been lucky enough to get my hands on early (it's out at the end of this month).  Mira - now two years older - travels to Kolkata to meet her grandfather's family for the first time. But there's a mystery.  Why haven't her mother and her mother's cousin spoken for so many years? What happened to estrange them all that time ago?  Why won't anyone talk to her about it?  Stolen letters throw up questions whose answers seem to lie in the tumbledown family house on Doctor's Lane - where she's not allowed to go.... 

Sometimes second books can be disappointing.  This one most certainly isn't.  In fact, I think it's even better than the first.  Sita's skill lies in making her reader really feel that intimate tug and pull of family relationships as well as the confusing ups and downs of teenage love, and in this book she also shows us facets of India not often seen in children's books.  I don't want to put up any plot spoilers, but I loved small touches like the practical solution the Kolkata mums find to the smelly loos at the dancing gala, which give this book the stamp of true insider realism. Mira is as tenacious and endearing as ever, and the tantalising ending promises what would be (for me) a welcome third volume in the series.  

Anyway, that's quite enough from me.  Here's Sita to give us some insights into her new book and to tell you all about that wondrous white elephant...

The Celestial Elephant Of The Clouds

SB: The name Airavata comes from the word ‘Iravat’ which means ‘one produced from water.’ As a child I used to remember the elephant’s name by thinking of the component parts ‘air’ and ‘water’ ( the ‘v’ is pronounced with a soft almost ‘w’ sound) . As you will see… the two elements of air and water are central to this elephant’s story.

Like most children, I was fascinated by the animal world and particularly large animals that could not easily be seen, except in zoos or wildlife parks. My youngest daughter is following in my footsteps. Not content with all her small cute cuddly toys, last year she asked Father Christmas for ‘life size cuddly animals’. I tried to persuade her that there might not be much room for these giant beasts to roam freely in our house, but she was not for turning and on Christmas morning Father Christmas dutifully delivered a giraffe (‘Jo’) and an elephant (‘Ellie’) with which she now happily jostles for space in her tiny bedroom. While squeezing around Ellie into her room one evening I asked her what it is about these enormous animals that she loves so much – ‘It’s because they’re bigger than me and you and everyone, but they’re still our friends!’ she answered simply and went on playing.

She’s right. I think it’s the disparity between their size and ours that made me first think of elephants as God-like creatures. In Jasmine Skies fourteen year-old Mira Levenson goes to India. She travels alone and is forced to step out of her family cocoon and experience a much wider world. As she faces challenging situations she finds it comforting to think back to when she was much younger. As a small child Mira remembers looking over her grandfather’s shoulders as he translated stories from the great Hindu tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Mira explains that as he read to her she only half heard his voice because her artist’s imagination was too busy conjuring images in her mind’s eye. In Jasmine Skies I don’t describe which pictures Mira is captivated by but I can tell you about the one that most inspired me as a child – it was the beautiful white elephant of the clouds, Airavata, with his five heads, tusks like a mountain range, and many trunks.

To explain to you why Airavata continues to live in my imagination I should start by sharing a few of my own childhood and adult meetings with elephants… though none of the elephants I’ve come across have ever been white!

An early childhood memory of a family holiday in India is of walking down a road alongside an elephant bedecked in garlands, painted and bejeweled, with a carriage on its back carrying a bride and groom to their wedding ceremony. They were accompanied by a procession of musicians, dancers and wedding guests. Romantic or what?!

As an adult I visited an elephant sanctuary in Sri-Lanka and was moved by the close relationship between the elephant keepers – the Mahouts – as they cared for, washed, bathed and splashed in the water with their ‘own’ special elephants. It was not until I saw a family of elephants playing in their natural element – water – that I began to really appreciate what noble and extraordinary creatures they are. Seeing how tiny their keepers are, some of them as young as thirteen, made me realise that it is the elephants who decide to be gentle with their human keepers. They are in charge.

Some years after visiting the elephant sanctuary I had a call from the parents of a school friend to say that she had been on a safari in Africa and had been trampled by a rogue elephant. She survived but the way she spoke about the experience afterwards was as if she had collided with an ancient God-like force. It is rare for an elephant to attack a human in this way, but I think that our fascination with elephants in life and mythology is because of this combination of potential power and gentleness (despite the enormous size of their feet, an elephant’s footfall can hardly be heard).

Because of these experiences the story of Airavata in all his power seems to speak to me today even more strongly than it did when I was a child. I’ll try to re-tell this story in the way that it was told to me. I’m not sure how much is drawn from memory of childhood tales, or illustrations, and what I might have added along the way, but I think that’s the power of all great myths; that they can live with us from childhood into adulthood and feed our imagination. I hope this myth fills your mind with pictures as it has mine… and Mira’s!

Even Gods need friends…
The day came when the noble Indra, the Lord of Heaven, needed a powerful animal to help him fight his battles, to create rain in drought and well … to be his friend! Even Gods need friends. So Indra journeyed to the great creator Brahma and asked if he could dream up such an animal. Brahma churned the milk oceans and after stirring the sea he lifted from the waves an enormous egg. Imagine this! When the shell cracked open it was not birds that emerged but a herd of baby elephants with wings! Among their number was only one bright white elephant and that was Airavata. As they grew, the elephants spent their time careering through the sky and sometimes small birds would even take lifts on their grey mounded backs. One day, while messing around, the herd crash-landed into a tree – as teenage elephants tend to do – and nearly flattened a holy man who was sitting cross-legged praying in the shade of the branches. The holy man lost his rag, cursed the wayward elephants and stripped them of their wings. From that day on the poor elephants never flew again. Just imagine how different the skies would look if elephants could fly!
No matter how much Airavata loved to hang out with the herd he knew that one day he was destined for greatness. So it was that when Airavata was fully grown he became the most loyal companion and protector of Lord Indra. According to the Mahabharata, in the battle field Airavata ‘showered weapons on enemies like lightening charged clouds driven by the winds.’ But Indra knew in his heart that Airavata was more than a war elephant. He was so gentle and playful, especially when bathing in the rivers. When Indra looked into Airavata’s great dark eyes, he glimpsed the deep wisdom that lay within his powerful friend.

The dry weather came, as it always did, and it felt like the rain would never fall on the earth again. If you have not experienced life without water, never walked for miles to a well in the scorching heat of the sun, then you cannot know how terrible is the suffering that comes with drought. So it was that Indra looked on his people with great sorrow. The earth was parched, mouths were parched, and nothing grew on the land. Soon Indra knew that bellies would be empty, a sight that he could not stand to see and this is why wise Indra had asked Brahma for a companion that could be so much more than a beast of war.

The day came when the beautiful Airavata, walking in his majestic lilting step, arrived at his favourite place by the river to bathe, but he found it dry – dry as dust, dry as bone. Then Airavara raised his huge trunk to the sky and roared, a roar so full of sadness it is said that his master, Indra, the Lord of Heaven himself, was brought to tears. These tears spurred Indra to bring the suffering of his people to an end. So it was that Indra called on Airavata to reach his trunks deep into the bowels of the earth and draw up water from the ancient underground springs. When Airavata’s heads finally re-emerged Indra ordered him to trumpet the water up into the sky to form rain clouds. Thick elephant bellied clouds gathered in the sky as Airavata sent up a deafening triumphant roar that ricoched through the universe. The great elephant reared up on his hind legs and pierced the clouds with his forceful tusks. Celestial rain poured down upon the earth and the rivers filled once more with water.

Born of an egg, with the strength and power to fight, befriend mankind and make rain in times of drought, it is no surprise that the beautiful Airavata is one of the most sacred elephants in world mythology. He truly deserves his place of honour resting on the points of the Earth’s compass, supporting the deities who carry the weight of the entire world on their shoulders.

In Jasmine Skies Mira is often moved to tears by the poverty she sees around her. The poverty and suffering caused through drought and flood in many places in the world, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Africa, is appalling. If I were to tell a story written in a landscape of drought or flood Airavata would definitely make an appearance because his presence would always bring hope.

I wonder if Terry Pratchett drew some of his inspiration from the mythology around Airavata when he wrote the amazing Discworld series. The image of the elephants holding up the disc-shaped world, with the waterfall flowing over the edges, is such a potent one.

There are moments in Jasmine Skies when Mira realizes how small and insignificant she is in the vast universe. Mythology is a way that humans have always attempted to make sense of our world. Many myths are born from the human search to understand the wonders of nature, in all its power, frightening force and unpredictability. For me, the epic scale of nature’s wonders is celebrated in Airavata – the beautiful celestial elephant of the clouds who is, as my daughter said, ‘bigger than you, me and everyone.’

SCC: That was fascinating, Sita, and I've learned such a lot I didn't know.  What a wonderful story - thank you so much for getting the Fantabulous Fridays A-Z off to such a great start. My Lovely Blog Readers can join in the discussion about this post on Twitter, using our special #FantabFri hashtag.  Sita and I would love to hear from you!

Next week: B for Basilisk with N. M. Browne, author of Wolf Blood.


catdownunder said...

WoW! What a start! More please!

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Cat. There's lots more exciting stuff coming, don't worry!

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