Sujata Bhatt

What Happened to the Elephant? by Sujata Bhatt

‘What Happened to the Elephant?’ by Sujata Bhatt is inspired by Hindu beliefs. Specifically, she focuses on ideas of reincarnation and a child’s curiosity in it. 

The poem is written in stanzas of varying lengths and without a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are prose-like in the way they tell a story, particularly in the speaker’s description of the child’s endless questions. ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’ takes its inspiration from religion, but one doesn’t need to be Hindu or have a great deal of knowledge about the religion in order to understand the poem’s meaning. 

What Happened to the Elephant? by Sujata Bhatt


Summary 

What Happened to the Elephant?’ by Sujata Bhatt is about a child’s curiosity and stories of religion. 

In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins by conveying the curious questions of a child who is trying to understand the Hindu story of how Ganesh lost his head and gained the head of an elephant. The child wonders what happened to the elephant who gave a head and if it was possible to give the elephant a new head as well, perhaps a horse’s head. 

Unintentionally inspired by the child’s probings, the adult narrator takes the story further in imagines the sorrow that the elephant’s family would experience upon seeing their fellow heard member decapitated and killed.

You can read the full poem here

Ganesh in Hinduism

Ganesh is one of the most commonly worshiped deities in Hinduism. His image is wide-spread throughout India and is easily identified by his elephant head. He’s seen a remover of obstacles and a bringer of good luck. The elephant head is thought to symbolize wisdom, understanding, and more. 

According to legend, Ganesh received his animal head after being decapitated by Goddess Parvati. The elephant was the first animal that Lord Brahma found when looking for a replacement for Ganesh. The original head was destroyed by fire. 

Themes 

The main themes of this poem are religion and curiosity. The poet conveys the curious imaginings and questions of a probing child and then uses an adult narrator to take the child’s questions further, imagining gruesome and sorrowful details associated with this now-expended version of Ganesh’s story. 

Structure and Form

What Happened to the Elephant?’ by Sujata Bhatt is an eight-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The stanzas contain lines that use very different endings. For example, in the first stanza, “elephant,” “stole,” “Ganesh” and “life.” The poet also uses stanzas of varying lengths. For example, the first stanza is four lines, the second is six, and the third is five. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the second stanza. 
  • Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader’s senses. For example, “of a beheaded elephant /  lying crumpled up.”
  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “bring” and “back” in lines three and four of the first stanza, as well as “horse’s head” in line five of the third stanza. 
  • Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of text. For example, “in his heard, the hundreds.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One 

What happend to the elephant

the one whose head Shiva stole

to bring his son Ganesh

   back to life?

In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker, who is revealed to be a young child, asks an interesting question inspired by Hindu religion and legend. The child wonders what happened to the elephant who is head was used to replace Ganesh’s lost one. The line also references Ganesh’s mother, Shiva, who ordered a new head be found to replace her son’s. 

These lines are spoken from the perspective of a curious child who is inspired to dig into the legends he learns but ends up asking questions that are more fantastical than helpful. 



Stanza Two 

This is child’s curiosity,

(…)

a way to prolong the story.

The second stanza suggests that questions such as that contained and stands a one can only come from a child’s “rosy imagination.” Children ask questions about stories, the speaker says, in order to find a way to “believe the fantasy” and a way to “prolong the story.” The poet was inspired by a child’s probing mind in her composition of this piece.

Stanzas Three and Four

If Ganesh could still be Ganesh

(…)

And what shall we do about the horse’s body?

Still inspired by the story of Ganesh, the poet conveys three more questions about what happened to his head and the elephant who gave up his. The child wonders if the elephant could have received a replacement head, asking instead. Perhaps, a horse’s head. This is an amusing and lighthearted suggestion that is clearly evocative of the child’s imagination.

The child also wonders which part of the elephant becomes the “true elephant.” Is it Ganesh with the head or the elephant body with the horse’s head? 

Readers should be unsurprised to find the final line of the third stanza, a question directed towards the imaginary horse whose head has now been given to the elephant in this child’s mind.

Stanzas Five and Six

Still the child refuses

(…)

on its side, covered with bird shit,

vulture shit-

The child refuses to accept the story as is, the adult narrator says. They are unable to let go of the fact that perhaps Ganesh’s mom, Shiva, left the elephant without its head, ending the story with death. 

The speaker is inspired by the child’s words, and when they see their own framed postcard of Ganesh on the wall immediately imagine the rotting elephant carcass that dedicated its head to the God. The elegant religious story changes, influenced by images of a rotting, crumbled-up body and “vulture shit.”


Stanzas Seven and Eight

Oh, that elephant

   whose head survived

(…)

no one talks about.

The adult speaker takes the child’s curiosity about the elephant further. They imagine what the elephant’s family might’ve done after seeing their family member beheaded. The beheaded elephant dies, “of course, “but the hundreds in his family most likely found him, stared at him for hours, swayed in sadness, and turned in a circle grieving the “headless one.”

The final stanza describes their morning as a “group dance” that “no one talks about.” The poet was inspired by the simple challenge to a traditional religious story and went down an imagined storyline in or among the intricate details of religion.

FAQs 

What is the tone of ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’ 

The tone is at times irritated and annoyed as the adult narrator contends with a child’s unending questions. But, in the final stanzas, it becomes more thoughtful and mournful as the same narrator, inspired by what the child imagined, considers the dead elephant and its family. 

Why did Bhatt write ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’

The poet wrote this poem in order to convey the charming and, at times, annoying characteristics of a child’s probing questions and how we all, no matter are religious orientation, fill in gaps in stories in order to prolong them and understand them.

What kind of poem is ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’

The Sujata Bhatt poem ‘What Happened to the Elephant?’ Is a free-verse poem that’s divided into eight stanzas. It is clearly inspired by Hinduism but conveys a relationship to religion that many readers are going to be able to relate to. 

What is Sujata Bhatt best known for?

The poet Sujata Bhatt is best known as the recipient of several major poetry awards, like the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in Asia and the Cholmondeley Award. Her poetry is read around the world and studied in classrooms. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Sujata Bhatt poems. For example: 

  • A Different History’ – teaches how to revisit one’s cultural past in a curious, sensible way.
  • 3 November 1984’ – shows how history plays a vital role in the process of writing poetry and its interconnectedness.
  • Search for My Tongue’ – describes the speaker’s struggle embracing a new culture and “tongue.” While fearing they’ll forsake the core details of who they are in the process.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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