When I first met Anjoli Roy she did not want to be my friend. We were both doctoral students in the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa’s English Department. Being the only other South Asian student in the program we did not know we both were the wrong kind of South Asians—me with Caribbean ancestry, and hers with more complications. She had the complications that made it easy for other South Asian Americans to shame her for not knowing about what they imagined her heritage to be. It was with this baggage that we finally, one Diwali, started to unpack together, seeing how much in common we really had from the margins of the margins. Sticking out. Chronic health issues. An unresolved relationship with India and NRIs (Non-Resident Indians). A penchant for magic spells.
I have known Anjoli Roy to be fierce in her commitment for creating space for the literary arts, holding a radio show-turned podcast that features people with many complications of identity. Her generous heart is always looking for ways to hold people up, uplifting the voices of people around her—including Kānaka Maoli writers and creatives. This essay “An Impossible Spill of Elephants” shows the disconnect that she feels from her mythic homeland and how it erupts into every part of her life, including her news consumption and her relationship with her sister. This essay works with juxtaposed situations, recurrences, and the associative leaps she makes as she constellates her family, her estrangements, and a search for joy.
SPILL OF ELEPHANTS
After Ian U Lockaby’s lesson on CA Conrad’s somatic rituals
June 23, 2022
Anything can be a ritual if you want it to be.
I light candles on the old bookshelf where I’ve placed shells and rose water, a peacock feather, a daruma doll whose eyes I finished after helping me get through graduate school. When he moved in, my partner added parts of his father, ashes in an earthen jar.
I have a tiny tamarind seed there too. It’s smaller than a dime and hollowed out. Inside the seed is an impossible spill of elephants carved from ivory. They’re flecks, only a little more substantial than snowflakes.
This seed was a present from my dad when I was a kid. I’d been trusted to keep it safe. This, a big ask of the baby.
When I was little, staring at these tiny elephants, cupped in gummy palms, was a joy I could barely contain. I’d show them only to the closest friends, holding up my hands. I wouldn’t let them hold them. I’d return the elephants to the hollowed-out tamarind, one by one. I’d return the carefully carved cap to seal the seed shut.
Did my sisters get their own tamarind seeds? I remember, as a child, not wanting what they didn’t also have. That was especially true with Joya, my big sister. Eight years older, she was like another mom to me. I wanted her as spoiled as I was.
I hold the seed in my palm. Today, I am thirty-nine years old, and looking close at something this small hurts.
A few days ago, Snopes reported that an elderly woman had been trampled by elephants in Odisha, not once, but twice. The first time, she was alive. The second, she was already dead.
The official account says the initial trampling happened when she was collecting water outside a wildlife sanctuary. The next was when a herd of elephants crashed her funeral. One elephant took her corpse from the pyre, trampled her already-dead body again, and threw it into the air. Then the elephants fled. Kanak News posted a video of this.
A ritual might be asking these elephants what the hell happened, and why.
On social media, the account of this event is different. The woman wasn’t collecting water. She was helping poachers. She threw stones to distract the elephant so they could steal the elephant’s baby.
The elephant who killed the woman was the same elephant who at her funeral trampled her the second time.
Elephants don’t forget.
With these details, the double-trampling is justice, proof of a governing body, in the elephant world, as it might be in ours. The world is not simply one of random and relentless cruelty, full stop.
Snopes couldn’t corroborate this version of the story, though the site admits these details could be true.
Remembering correctly, or trying to, is also a kind of ritual.
But wasn’t I also a selfish baby? I fought with Maya, two years older than me, for all the things she had. Maybe it wasn’t until our parents’ divorce, when Joya was a teenager who saw what Maya and I didn’t, and was that much angrier, that I stopped wanting to be spoiled. I didn’t want to be treated differently. I didn’t want to be the baby our mom won over after she’d lost Joya.
I don’t know if I succeeded at this.
The tamarind seed says I’m enamored with presents. The tamarind seed says, with its mouth full of elephants, that winning me over easy.
Maybe that’s the truth.
Elephants fill up this story.
Each year, more than one hundred people are killed by elephants in India. Habitat loss is at fault.
Odisha is a mineral-rich state.
The domestic sale of ivory and its products in India has been banned since 1986.
I was born in 1983. My dad doesn’t remember when he bought this tamarind seed in India, filled with ivory.
I wonder how much this seed cost. I wonder who, with their impossibly keen eyes, carved this spill of elephants.
I don’t know how to describe what it means to look at something made to look like the thing it was killed for. I don’t know how to hold that in my hands, even though I’m trying to right now.
I’m not sure if that trying is a ritual.
I’m not sure if this ivory belongs on my altar.
Here’s another ritual: Each day I check the mail. I turn a flimsy key in a gray bank. Sometimes I find a book, drunk-ordered. Sometimes, I find a handwritten letter in a beautiful card from my aunt in Long Island.
In the darkened hush of 4:30 this morning, I found a book sent to Hawaiʻi from California, from Joya. I’ve been trying to make up with her.
There’s an elephant in our room, my sister’s and mine.
But some things are harder to open than seeds. Some elephants refuse to spill.
I looked at the book she sent across the Pacific Ocean. I’d read it already. I wished she’d asked before sending it. I hate wasting money, and I knew she went out of pocket for this.
I flipped through the book I’d already read. Something flew out of its pages and hit me right in the face, hard as a cockroach, then dropped to the ground.
It was one of those plastic butterflies wound up by a rubber band. A kid’s toy. A gag.
“It was just supposed to fly away!” she insisted over text, and then, a few minutes later, to fill the silence, “it’s making me sad that it scared you.”
“Don’t,” I responded. “We can laugh about this.”
I wonder if trying to make up, to make something right, in seeds and sisters, is its own ritual too.
ANJOLI ROY (she/her) is a creative writer and high school English teacher in Honolulu. She has a BA in individualized study from NYU and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. A VONA/Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation fellow, she has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, respectively. Anjoli is the author of the chapbook, Enter the Navel: For the Love of Creative Nonfiction (The Operating System, 2020). Her standalone work has been published in ANMLY, The Asian American Literary Review, Blue Earth Review, Creative Nonfiction’s Sunday Short Reads, Entropy, Hippocampus, Longreads, River Teeth, and others. Winner of the COG Page-to-Screen Award, her writing has placed in other contests, including as first runner-up in StoryQuarterly’s Nonfiction Prize and finalist for the 2040 Books James Alan McPherson Award and the Autumn House Nonfiction Contest. Her work was also shortlisted for the C&R Book’s Awards for CNF/Memoir. Anjoli is PhDJ for “It’s Lit,” a literature and music podcast that she cohosts with Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng and has featured more than 100 writers to date. www.anjoliroy.com