Guesthouse for Ganesha by Judith Teitelman
Publisher: She Writes Press
reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
For people of faith, the idea of some kind of supernatural being keeping watch over you every day, I imagine to be both a comfort and a terror. Your needs, fears, and desires are under constant scrutiny. One day you will fail your god. But what if you are watched over without your knowledge? What if the god is of a faith and culture not your own? This is the intriguing starting point for Judith Teitelman’s Guesthouse for Ganesha.
When Esther Grünspan is abandoned by her fiancé on her wedding day in 1923, she flees her tight-knit Polish shtetl and travels to Köln, Germany, to make her heartbroken way in the world. Trained as a seamstress from childhood, she earns her living by her unrivaled skill with needle and thread. As she struggles to survive, to learn language and culture, she hardens her heart to love and friendship. She seems to want to be entirely unseen. Look at my work, her actions cry out, not at me.
A loveless marriage follows, then the Nazis. A network of good people move Esther from home to apartment to boarding house, from country to country. They provide false papers and sewing assignments, everything from simple hems to elaborate gowns. Sewing is both her refuge and livelihood.
Esther’s life expands and contracts across a backdrop of some of the greatest horrors of the 20th century; we see crimes against humanity play out in the life of one woman. Watching with us is the elephant-headed god Ganesha of the Hindu pantheon. She encounters him in park in Köln, but does not know him as a god. His role in her life as a remover of obstacles is invisible to her. She does not see him give a cookie to distract her fretful daughter so she can finish a gown for a wealthy socialite in time for a party. She does not see him turn a head at just the right moment or move a hand to sign a document that allows her to escape to safety.
Still, like so many gods and superheroes, Teitelman’s Ganesha is not omnipotent. He can soothe a querulous child and save a single life, but he cannot prevent the Holocaust.
In the aftermath of the war, the story of Guesthouse for Ganesha takes a startling turn to fantasy. So, too, did arts and literature abandon the limitations of realism in the post-war period. Esther walks away from a life that has both sustained and constrained her, opening herself to a Hindu god of letters and learning who has, she discovers, watched over her with love and compassion all along.
Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and facts, and is creator of The Democracy Series zine collection. Her newest short story appears in the 2019 Gold Man Review. More at bronwynmauldin.com.