take a reader with you before you espouse the totally miraculous. Otherwise, you’re just speaking another language. There’s always that journey of induction into a magical world, into that liminal space.” Bem said that she played with this concept of spiritual realism. She wanted sceptics too in the novel, as a counterpoint. 

“I didn’t plan Savitri’s story until I went to live in Auroville on a sabbatical – and she came alive. I made her encounter the same storyline in a modern context that Savitri [of the Mahabharata] encountered when she demanded that she marry the man of her choice, despite the prediction that it was not going to work, that her marriage was fated. Savitri had the absolute belief about what she would do.” 

Neel, the son and Savitri’s brother, has an Australian fiancé. Mae is typically Australian. She is straightforward, she doesn’t hold back, in the way Indians would expect her to – no matter what she felt. Mae clashes with her prospective mother-in-law. Bem said, “Swearing at your mother-in-law is unheard of in India! Mae couldn’t have imagined how serious it was going to get, that was fun to play with. She had no idea what she was actually unleashing. But characters unleash the story and propel it forwards by their actions. That was totally unexpected that Mae went that far in being rude to her fiancé’s mother. And the mother-in-law being able to stand her own ground and stay calm through it and almost win the battle for a while”. 

I asked Bem about unconditional love and acceptance in her novel which ultimately binds these disparate characters. 

She said, “I think that that’s a role of fiction, but the problem is you often 

need to go through a challenge in order to realise the importance of it, so you do go through the dark and come out into the light again and it’s a realisation that’s a powerful transformation. Knowing how to repair and tolerate and accept is a theme for me because I move between cultures. 

In India, you can have a spiritual conversation. You can talk to people very openly about your connection with the divine without people looking at you as if you’re mad. What does it look like when you open up that whole world – which I say again is a gift of India – and see this boundary-free view of the miraculous and the spiritual? 

In Elephants With Headlights, I had to inhabit the world of the character Dadi at the time of her death, to go through the motions of what it would be like to speak a language with people who are from another side of life. How to capture the ineffable? I described it as like a butterfly, but for me, that was the moment of the sublime. Savitri was determined to be there. She was told to be there. She knew she was 

playing a cosmic part as an assistant in the journey for her grandmother, who was waiting for this date with destiny and just wanted to leave her body but couldn’t. I wanted to go on that journey with Savitri and Dadi. I wanted to understand what it would be like, and to capture some of the ineffable and inexplicable. I’m really intrigued by this whole idea of life not being bound within the book ends of birth and death. I’ve heard of method acting, but being in method when you’re writing, being in the world that you’re describing and actually living in it felt like I went with her too, as if it were on another astral plane. That scene came very easily to me. That was the first really powerful bit that came to me with the story, indicating to me that it was a story that needed to be told. 

I like stories that make a difference and that make you see things afresh and give you unusual perspectives, to help you transcend and also to bring joy and optimism. I’m not a negative storyteller, although I can tell a dark part of the story. But coming up out of that is really important. I don’t want to leave any reader without hope. 

It always feels authentic, it comes from deep within and with good intentions for the world and for the reader. I feel connected with my readers when I’m writing, so I feel like I have been of service, that I’ve been useful. I feel that’s the kind of satisfaction that I get from writing. It’s an incredibly worthwhile thing to do.” 

Elephants With Headlights is thought provoking, captivating, magical and a great read. 

Previous books: The Seduction of Silence; There, Where the Pepper Grows; Father of All Stories; (non-fiction): Creativity and the Sacred.