Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2020

Elephants with Headlights, by Bem Le Hunte

Bem Le Hunte is a British-Indian-Australian author with an international readership.  Although born and educated in India and England, her writing career began in Australia when she moved here in 1989.  Her first novel, The Seduction of Silence (2001) was shortlisted for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize and her second novel There, Where the Pepper Grows (2006) was widely praised by the likes of Geraldine Brooks and Thomas Keneally.  Elephants with Headlights is her third novel, due for release next week on 1/3/20.

The quirky title comes in the prologue from the musings of Siddharth, when he is considering the improbabilities of an India catapulted into an unrecognisable new era.  His colleague is enthusing about driverless cars and the prospect of India being the first to have them, but Siddarth—despite being a shrewd futurist is not so sure.

What kind of algorithm or sensor would account for the cow that decided to give birth in front of the Toyota three cars ahead in the traffic jam on the MG Road? Or the cartwheeling, kajalled* child beggars by the side of the road? Or the elephants that returned home down the side streets after attending one of those grand Delhi weddings?  Why, they’d only fairly recently passed a law that these elephants would have to wear headlights at night—would they equip the prehistoric beasts with sensors next? (p.vi)

* kajal means to emotionally blackmail someone.  (See definition 5 at the Urban Dictionary).

This is the blurb:

…Elephants with Headlights is a collision between east and west, modernity and tradition – between driverless cars and ancient lore – and a world that needs revolutionary reappraisal. In this world, Savitri, named after a Goddess, refuses outright to marry anyone. Her brother, Neel is intent on marrying an Australian girl called Mae, much to the displeasure of their mother, Tota, and father, Siddarth. But do they have the power to command love or destiny? Only the family astrologer, Arunji, knows, yet his truth is tempered by obligations to the family that transformed his life.

It’s that collision between east and west, modernity and tradition which makes this novel so fascinating to read, and much of it is very amusing.  Neel’s mother with her status-conscious ambitions was never going to make it easy for her only son and heir to the family business to marry an Australian girl—and while Mae (who’s a Byron Babe with hippie parents) had wanted an Indian wedding, she has no idea at all about the social mores observed by the family she wants to marry into.  To further the bonding process, for example, she goes swimming with her future mother-in-law Toto—where she attracts the attention of the handsome lifeguard…

He watched Mae a little too intently as she climbed into the pool, attempting to disguise his appreciative smile.  Toto, who was standing between the two of them, noticed his gaze and turned to see that her would-be daughter-in-law had taken off her towel to reveal a blue wing painted onto her white left buttock.  Not only that, it was fully exposed in her G-string bikini, and seemed to disappear somewhere between her legs…

‘Mae, Mae, wait…’

It was too late.  Mae had climbed into the pool backwards, blue prominently on display, and had started her laps, speeding past every Indian lady splashing in the pool getting ‘exercise’ during that Ladies’ hour. (p.68)

These cultural collisions cause mayhem and before long this marriage is in peril. OTOH, Toto seems to be having no luck at all in finding a suitor for Savitri, who regards arranged marriage as an insidious trap.

The novel, however, is more than just an amusing clash of cultures.  The transition to modernity brings with it a loss of community and amenity, and also a decline in the old values that held the business community together.  Siddharth is resigned to the corruption that underlies the uncontrolled building boom, and uses his own connections to further the interests of his family and friends.  But he is shocked when an unexpected ‘gift’ enables him to learn about nepotism and embezzlement within his own business, and he is hurt and dismayed that a colleague of long-standing is prepared to do a runner to avoid being caught out.

At the same time, the author is alert to the inequities of Indian society, and the ‘accidental’ success story of Arunji shows that a great deal of impressive talent is wasted in a economy where the poor usually have no opportunity for social mobility because children have to support their families instead of going to school.

Savitri’s visit to Byron Bay celebrates the freedom that women have in Australia.  She discovers the joy of sunshine on her bare skin, of bodysurfing and of relationships free of the restrictions that steer women in India into soulless marriages.  Her actions force both her parents into a reappraisal of their expectations and the way they enforce them.  That’s not to say that India is presented in a negative light, because what we see is a vibrant, lively society where family bonds mean a great deal and there is a spiritual element to life and death, but still, this novel made me appreciate the opportunities Australian women enjoy.  It’s great to read a book that (as Sue Woolfe says in the blurb) dances through countries, cultures and ideas with wit and verve. 

Highly recommended.

Author: Bem Le Hunte
Title: Elephants with Headlights
Cover design: Josh Durham, Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760484, pbk, 290 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: and direct from Transit Lounge

You can read a sample chapter here.

 


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