As a country dedicated to be a hub for Westerners to feel ‘at home’ or to ‘re-find themselves’, India peddles a lot of things right by your nose — to the delight of the omnipresent DoucheColonial Gaze– as long as they fit the frame of being ‘exotic’ and condescendingly charitable. Like the handmade paper by limbless workers, the Snake Dance performed by devdasis or Temple Dancers or anything that evokes the same sentiment that Slumdog Millionaire did: consumable, understandable and decoded culture, set to lively Bollywood beats, ready for you to devour it and then feel better for being as far away as possible from a culture or space that ‘terrible’. In this process of re-packaging and selling culture, we’ve started buying it ourselves. That our religions or gods were indeed some mystified beings, that they did really exist at one point, and we will seek legal proof of just that — as opposed to the previously held belief that they were well written and formed myths or epics — that festivals need to be celebrated collectively, publicly, catastrophically till all semblance of an ‘I’ is washed away and in its place remains the bigger, more heavily inscribed ‘We’, till the act of worshiping god becomes an exhibitionist ritual while the personal in religion is coloured invisible.
Eyes glowering. Sometimes raised, sometimes fixed. Rock steady.
The last two weeks have been what we call in India ‘Navratri’, where most of the overtly Hindu regions of the country break into a folk tradition of dance and celebration to felicitate the myth of a Goddess who slayed a Horrid, Horrid Monster some centuries ago and in her memory we perform this ritual. There are ambiguous reasons behind this Goddess Amba some say she is another avatar of Shakti (the root of all feminine folklore), some believe she existed outside Shakti and some believe she is tied up with Creation itself, seeing how she is the Mother of the Universe. Whatever the reason may have been for her creation, today she is one of the ideals of femininity; an extremely non-threatening one at that. The myth I grew up with was the demon Mahisasura had got himself a boon of immortality and specifically speaking requested that “No god nor animal” will be able to match up to him, conveniently forgetting to include ‘Woman’. So the Gods from their Heavenly Seats decided to make such a woman, where each God gave her some of his special powers, she was given extra limbs and a weapon in each arm, to kill the demon. One thing that strikes me is how she is ManMade, how she is created with a specific purpose in mind, she has utility for the DudeCouncil and that she wouldn’t exist at all — or even occupy the few hundred lines she does in our epics — had it not been for one vain demon. Just like Eve, she too is half, incomplete without her demon; she has no role to play except fly into a rage, use her Shakti to restore peace unto Earth, displaying sanctioned amounts of rage on the source of ‘Evil’ after which she dissolves into obscurity without a trace.
Mouth set. Not a word ever escapes out. That fixed smile sets on me.
Last week as the house settled into preparations for Dusshera, the proverbial ninth day when Amba is said to have killed Mahisasura, we prepared the pyre where a caricature of the demon is burnt, and my LadyBrain wandered off to thinking alternatives to this ritual, whether it was possible at all and (perhaps?) tried to understand my problem with this Goddess. As she is a creation of the DudeCouncil, obviously she has problematic elements as discussed above. What worries me greatly is how most modern re-tellings don’t focus on her origin, at all and simply skip to her heroic deeds; which is doubly ironic considering the Mother of the Universe has no history or rather that her birth is wiped away with the hopes that she will stand out as a figure in her own right. Instead she steps further into darkness, or she’s simply seen as an extension of Durga and therefore her history is again tied up with the bigger mythological narrative or Origin and Creation and by extension all the Patriarchal Pantheon of Gods. I remember asking my grandmum as a child who hadn’t yet learnt to keep such questions to herself, “But what about HER?” and this is the only time she didn’t have an answer ready. It’s extremely disturbing to see mothers and daughters praying to this Goddess to seek blessings, to seek the ‘calm’ she has, to seek the qualities she has and most important of all, the ability to please everyone. There are other Goddess who are more subversive then her, some like Ma Tara (another avatar of Durga) who can be plainly described as, “almost naked with matted hair and a blood-red rolling tongue and sitting upon a tiger’s skin with four arms, wearing a garland of freshly severed heads; she wields a blood-smeared cleaver as she stood victorious, dripping with blood, over a dead corpse with an erect phallus”, or Draupadi who hints at sexual promiscuity in the most patriarchally inclined text such as the Mahabharata or even Laxmi, who stands for wealth — much to my surprise for she’s probably one of the most SpineLess goddesses — who decides whose house she enters, indicating agency and free-will. But, obviously, we choose to mass worship this particular Goddess, precisely because of how unproblematic her entire story is, from start to finish.
Now the eyes don’t glower. The mouth has crumbled away, a few years ago. What is left is a shell.
Twice a day we prayed near her idol, for nine days as the ritual dictates. On the last day, we immerse the idol in water to bid her goodbye into the universe — where she truly supposedly exists — and for a moment I thought I saw her head move. Like the idol, we too are somewhat set in stone, existing for others, occupying spaces on the fringe; never taking center stage to any narrative, just slipping in and out of collective consciousness, but never really being. That moment I realised my real problem with her: she reminded me too much of the lives of women I see around me, the woman I am expected to be someday. The reality of what we are as women will never be enough to the DudeCouncil because unlike Amba, we talk too much think too much are too loud are too ‘rebellious’ and ultimately are too ‘us’. As I saw the caricature of the demon burn I thought of burning HER instead, futilely hoping that her shadow will come off my skin too. Maybe, someday it will. Today, I’ll have to settle for being ‘hysterical’.
I don’t mean to offend any one’s religious feelings or inclinations channelised through and to this Goddess, rather examine her from a cultural distance. Please make sure the comments stay in this direction as well, instead of attacking anyone’s belief.