This commanding officer is not like other officers, in that he is as concerned about his men, soldiers and non-soldiers alike, as if they were his children. More than that, he is little concerned with hierarchy, at least in the current circumstances, so much so that he has not gone elsewhere to eat, but is here, taking his place around the fire, and if he hasn’t yet participated very much in the conversation, this is only in order to put the men at their ease. One of the cavalrymen has just asked the question that has been preoccupying them all, And what are you going to do with the elephant in vienna, mahout, Probably the same as in lisbon, nothing very much, replied subhro, there’ll be a lot of applause, a lot of people crowding the streets, and then they’ll forget all about him, that’s the law of life, triumph and oblivion, Not always, For elephants and men it is, although I shouldn’t really speak of men in general, I’m just an indian in a foreign land, but, as far as I know, only one elephant has ever escaped that law, What elephant was that, asked one of the laborers, An elephant who was dying and whose head was cut off once he was dead, That would be the end of him, then, No, the head was placed on the neck of a god called ganesh, who was also dead, Tell us about this ganesh, said the commanding officer, Sir, the hindu religion is so very complicated that only an indian can really understand it, and even then not always, Now I seem to recall you telling me that you were a christian, And I recall answering, more or less, sir, more or less, What does that mean, though, are you or are you not a christian, Well, I was baptized in india when I was a child, And then, Then, nothing, replied the mahout with a shrug, So you never practiced your faith, Sir, I was not called, they must have forgotten about me, You didn’t miss anything, said an unknown voice that no one could quite locate, but which, incredible though it may seem, appeared to have come from the embers of the fire. A great silence fell, interrupted only by the crackling of the burning wood. According to your religion, who was it who created the world, asked the commanding officer, Brahma, sir, In other words, god, Yes, but he’s not the only god, What do you mean, It’s not enough just to have created the world, there has to be someone to preserve it, and that’s the job of another god, called vishnu, Are there more gods apart from them, mahout, We’ve got thousands of them, but the third most important god is shiva, the destroyer, Do you mean that what vishnu preserves shiva destroys, No, sir, with shiva, death is understood as the main creator of life, So, if I understand you correctly, those three gods form part of a trinity, indeed, they are a trinity, just like in christianity, In christianity there are four, sir, if you’ll forgive my boldness, Four, exclaimed the commanding officer, astonished, and who’s the fourth member, The virgin, sir, The virgin doesn’t count, we have the father, the son and the holy ghost, And the virgin, If you don’t explain yourself, I’ll cut off your head like they did to that elephant, Well, I’ve never heard anyone ask anything of god or jesus or the holy spirit, but the virgin can barely cope with the torrent of requests and prayers and supplications that arrive at her door at all hours of the day and night, Careful now, the inquisition’s out there somewhere, so for your own good, don’t go straying into dangerous waters, If I get to vienna, I won’t be coming back, Won’t you go home to india, asked the commanding officer, No, I’m not an indian anymore, And yet you obviously know a lot about hinduism, More or less, sir, more or less, Why do you say that, Because it’s all words and only words, and beyond the words there’s nothing, Is ganesh a word, asked the commanding officer, Yes, a word, which, like all the others, can only be explained by more words, but since the words we use to explain things, successfully or not, will, in turn, have to be explained, our conversation will lead nowhere, the mistaken and the true will alternate, like some kind of curse, and we’ll never know what’s right and what’s wrong, Tell me about ganesh, Ganesh is the son of shiva and parvati, who is also known as durga or kali, the goddess of a hundred arms, If she’d had a hundred legs we could have called her centipede, said one of the men with an embarrassed laugh, as if regretting his words as soon as they were out of his mouth. The mahout ignored him and went on, It has to be said that, exactly as happened with your virgin, ganesh was engendered by his mother, parvati, alone, without the intervention of her husband, shiva, who, being eternal, felt no need to have children. One day, when parvati had decided to take a bath, it happened that there were no guards around to protect her should anyone chance to come into the room. And so she created an idol in the form of a little boy, made out of a paste, a kind of soap I suppose, that she herself had prepared. The goddess breathed life into the doll and that was ganesh’s first birth. Parvati told ganesh that he must let no one in and he followed his mother’s orders to the letter. A short time afterwards, shiva returned from the forest and tried to get into the house, but ganesh wouldn’t let him, and that, naturally, made shiva very angry. The following dialogue took place, I’m parvati’s husband, therefore her house is my house, Only the people whom my mother wants to come in can enter here, and she did not tell me to let you in. Shiva finally lost patience and launched into a fierce battle with ganesh, which ended with the god cutting off his opponent’s head with his trident. When parvati came out and saw the lifeless body of her son, her cries of grief soon became howls of fury. She ordered shiva to bring ganesh back to life at once, but unfortunately, the blow that had decapitated ganesh had been so powerful that his head had been thrown far away and was never seen again. Then, as a last re-sort, shiva asked for help from brahma, who suggested that he replace ganesh’s head with that of the first living being he met on the road, as long as the creature was facing north. Shiva then dispatched his celestial army to go in search of just such a creature. They came across a dying elephant lying with its head to the north and, once it had died, they cut off its head. They returned to shiva and parvati and gave them the elephant’s head, which was placed on ganesh’s body, thus restoring him to life. And that is how ganesh was born again after having lived and died. Fairy tales, muttered a soldier, Like the one about the man who, having died, rose on the third day, retorted subhro, Careful, mahout, you’re going too far, warned the commanding officer, Look, I don’t believe in the story about a boy made out of soap who turned into a god with the body of a paunchy man and the head of an elephant, but you asked me to explain who ganesh was, and I did as asked, Yes, but you made some rather rude comments about jesus christ and the virgin that didn’t go down at all well with some of the men here, Well, I apologize to anyone who may have felt offended, it was quite unintentional, replied the mahout. There was a conciliatory murmur, and the truth is that those men, both soldiers and civilians, cared little for religious disputes, what troubled them was that such arcane matters should be discussed beneath the celestial vault itself. They say that walls have ears, well, imagine the size of the stars’ ears.