May 2012


A common four-armed form of Ganesha. Miniature...

A common four-armed form of Ganesha. Miniature of Nurpur school (circa 1810). Museum of Chandigarh. Martin-Dubost, p. 64. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Ganesa is missing one tusk, a piece of which can sometimes be found in one of his four hands.  In another hand he sometimes holds a hatchet (parasu), which, according to some texts, is for cutting away illusion and false teachings.  Another of Ganesa’s hands often gestures fearlessness and reassurance (varada-hasta-mudra).  He also holds a goad (ankusa) like that used by an elephant trainer, symbolizing his insistence on proper training or spiritual discipline.  He sometimes holds a noose (pasa) used for restraining wild animals, here representing the restraint of passion and lustful desires.  Sometimes he is seen holding sweets (modaka), for which he is said to have an inordinate fondness.  Hence the belly.

Who is this strange-looking god, and what, if anything, does he have to do with the worship of Krsna or Visnu?’

Our Jurisprudence lecturer had the habit of asking intellectually provocative questions.  He had a thin, curved nose and a cropped beard.  His eyes bulged from behind his glasses.  The Professor went on, ‘There was a period in the history of Ancient Rome called the Classical period.  This was a revival of the days of Ancient Greece’.  The Professor paced in front of the chalkboard, his eyes occasionally glancing over our blank faces.  He paused, then challengingly asked: ‘What is a classic?’

No immediate response.  I felt like saying something, but thought I might make a fool out of myself.  I was one of the worst students in my class.  One girl, sitting on the floor, was finishing an essay.  A curly-haired boy, arms around his knees, stared blankly at the wall.  The students were dumbfounded.  The professor had dropped a bomb. ‘What is a classic?’, he repeated.  This time, the Professor’s words, pronounced with his strong German accent, seemed to cut the air.  Some of the students began to answer the question, but none to his satisfaction.  I put up my hand.  The students glanced around the room as if to say, ‘What does he know?’.  They were waiting for the Professor to give them the answer.  The Professor’s face was perspiring.   A strand of hair hung over his glasses.  He grimaced and his eyes squinted.

‘A ‘Classic’ is something that outlives its time’, I said.  ‘Yes’, hissed the Professor, wide-eyed.  I carried on, ‘Be it a work of art, a work of literature or a legal precedent’.  ‘Very good!  Very good!’, said the Professor.  The tension dissipated.  Some of the students looked shocked.  The others looked on appreciatively.

The weather was warm and slightly windy.  I picked up the call-box and called Elspeth.  ‘I’ll fetch you at the exit of the station, Michael.  Ask someone to show you where the exit is’, she said.  I struggled with my trunk, but managed to wheel it through the exit on a metal contraption fixed to turning wheels.

Elspeth was waiting in a silver stationwagon.  Her son, Thomas, got out of the passenger seat and helped me with my trunk, ‘Hurry, Mike.  Mom wants to get out of here before the roads get worse’.  ‘Viva! Viva!’, he screamed as Elspeth dodgemed the car out of the station.  Traffic streamed into the city.   The car beetled past Table Mountain, up De Waal drive.  ANC supporters ferried on the back of trucks shouted, ‘Amandla!’ and ‘Viva!’  Women ululated and ANC flags, formerly forbidden, fluttered in the wind.

The stationwagon halted in a leafy driveway in the suburb of Rondebosch.  Thomas rushed out of the car and into the house.  I hung my bag over my shoulder as Elspeth took the other end of my trunk.  ‘You’ll be staying here, Michael’, said Elspeth.  Thomas was in front of the television, watching Mandela and De Klerk walking over the cordoned-off greensward.  Thomas punched his fist into the air and shouted, ‘Viva!  Viva!’  I was trying to make sense of the strange ceremony between the two men in black suits.  A voice sounded in the passageway, ‘Would you boys like a cold drink or tea?