So what’s the term for someone who’s a deeply committed agnostic (as much as one can commit to the idea of non-commitment) but still feels an overwhelming, irrational, almost implausible love for Ganesha? I know I’m not the only one. Somehow this symbol- this image- of an elephant head on a chubby man’s body- does funny things to my brain, making it those release feel-good neurotransmitters, giving me a sense of control, of solace, the feeling that things will be okay.
I collect Ganeshas, here are a few that I have with me in L.A.
Complete with mardi gras beads
I believe in Ganesha without really believing in the rest of the system that Ganesha belongs to and comes from, and that’s fine with me.
When I was 12 or 13, and in a strange place in my life, where I was undergoing a serious spiritual crisis (while also decorating my room with Backstreet Boys posters), I read this book called Loving Ganesha, published by an American Hindu organization called the Himalayan Academy. In it, along with many fun pictures of Ganesha meant to be colored and scribbled on, was the line- people who love Ganesha tend to look like him. And somehow that lodged in my head. Me, at 12 or 13, overweight and with the whole range of body issues that came along with it, suddenly found something to connect to. Of course I like Ganesha, I thought to myself. I look like him. And he looks like me. And he’s so loveable. He loves music and dance and his parents and has a sweet tooth, just like me, and he’s totally adorable and everyone worships him.
Not the way most tweens deal with body issues, but that helped. A lot.
As I grew up, and fell in and out of love with Hinduism with equal intensity, my very strong affection for Ganesha never diminished. I wrote stories about him, doodled him on the edges of my notebook, I even drew him as Santa Claus, complete with mooshika reindeer.
Now let’s flash forward to me in my mid-twenties, where I have inevitably wound up with a Ganesha tattoo on the back of my neck.
(People often tell me that they don’t want to get a tattoo because they can’t imagine the idea of permanence- the idea that they would forever be okay with whatever they tattoo onto their body. How did I get the confidence that I will forever be okay with the idea of Ganesha? And yet I did, and I know I will be.)
In 2011, I wrote the first draft of A Nice Indian Boy. Somehow, even before I wrote it, I knew that this play was going to be the play I was meant to write. It sounds stupid, I know, especially since I’ve barely begun my career, but something took over me when I wrote this, week after week, pages flew out with an ease that I’ve never experienced since. The play begins in front of the Ganesha altar at the Livermore temple in Northern California, where Naveen, my protagonist, first lays eyes on Keshav, the man he will one day marry. The play begins with the sound of a temple bell and Vakra Thunda Maha Kaya being recited by one of the leads, and maybe it’s cheesy as all hell, but if I was going to begin this play, I was going to begin it with an invocation to Ganesha, and there could be no other way.
Throughout the play, Ganesha kept popping up as a metaphor, in the most unexpected and wondrous of ways. My two lovers bond over their Ganesha tattoos (one of which is the one I have). Their relationship intensifies in the middle of the play as contemplate Ganesha’s inherent queerness- the misfit bachelor god in the mostly heteronormative Hindu pantheon.
Keshav, my Caucasian character who converted to Hinduism, is described as a modak, Ganesha’s favorite sweet, because he’s white on the outside and brown on the inside.
Ganesha is also the catalyst for my favorite joke in the whole play. After a particularly rough fight with his stubbornly homosexual son, Naveen’s father looks at a painting of Ganesha on the wall. “You understand father-son troubles, no?” he says. “You only got that elephant head after your father cut off your human head. Now those were real family troubles.”
Ganesha tied the whole play together. In a story that’s personal to me on so many levels, the fact that my favorite God, my imaginary friend, acted as my muse, makes it even more special.
So in the past few days I’ve been hearing some very promising news about the play and the production. Good things are happening, in general. And today, on Vinayaka Chathurthi, the new East West Players website went live, revealing the absolutely perfect new artwork (featuring such a beautiful Ganesha).
But here’s what made my heart sing the most.
So remember Himalayan Academy? The organization that published Loving Ganesha and started this whole thing? So they’re still a part of my life, as I occasionally write for the magazine that they publish- Hinduism Today. I am as agnostic as they are religious and conservative, but I am very fond of the monks who run the Himalayan Academy and am happy to help out.
I never told them about A Nice Indian Boy, though, because to be honest I was a little worried that they might take it the wrong way. To use overtly religious symbology in a gay love story- maybe they’d be offended.
I remember when I was 13 or 14, reading another book on Hinduism that they had published- “Hinduism neither condones nor condemns homosexuality,” the book said. I remember this so clearly, because it just didn’t make sense to me. How can you neither condone nor condemn something? What did that mean?
Anyway. Last week, I sent a very long-overdue email to the publishers of the magazine, to just give them a general update on my life. I mentioned the title of A Nice Indian Boy and the fact that it was getting produced in February, but nothing else. I didn’t tell them what it was about, but I attached the poster art for the production.
I quickly got a reply from one of the monks, Sannyasin Senthilnathaswami:
“You are brave to confront the issue of homosexuality in Hindu families, even at the level of marriage, in your plays. The Hindu world needs more stories like those you write. It is a very slow evolution our community is going through in this regard. We are proud about what you are doing to show people what they need to see, what more recent generations see quite clearly: it’s not a big deal; you love who you love; live and let live.”
How wonderful is this? How absolutely, thrillingly, surprisingly wonderful.
I was wrong to doubt them, as they’ve even put together an LGBT resource pamphlet for their Hindu student organizations, one that is marvelously progressive and kind, and expounds on what I think of as the best aspects of Hindu philosophy- the fact that no one is excluded from salvation, and that if you believe in the divinity of a God, you believe that that divinity exists in everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
The heart of A Nice Indian Boy- the actual midpoint of the story- is a meditation on Hinduism and sexuality, and the importance of storytelling and culture and belief in helping us accept who we are, and love who we are. One character thinks to himself- Ganesha might be queer. And Ganesha might be like me. Therefore, I might be okay.
Identifying with Ganesha saved me in some way when I was a kid. Having an anchor like that- an ancient, powerful symbol on your side- can mean everything to a misfit lost in this world, and I got to write about that in my play.
I can’t explain my love for Ganesha, and I can’t explain how all of the happy things relating to the play are clustering around Vinayaka Chathurthi. I’m still agnostic as the day is long, and I know this is probably a series of happy coincidences, but for now, I’ve got my imaginary friend on the back of my neck and in my heart and things are going to be okay.