About the Author
Mrinal Pande was born, the daughter of well-known Hindi writer Shivani, in Tikamgarh, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. Her education took place in Nainital, in the hill of Uttar Pradesh, and at Allahabad University, where she earned her Master in English.
Her first published work was a short story in Hindi, in 1967, when she was twenty-one.
Later, she also studies classical Indian music, and the history of art and design (at the Corcoran School of art in Washington DC) and taught at various Indian universities before turning her attention to journalism.
Since then, she has been columnist, broadcaster and television presenter and written several collections of short stories, novels and plays including The Daughter's Daughter, published by Mantra in UK and Penguin in India.
Mrinal Pande is the executive editor of the Hindi daily Hindustan. She is married and has two daughters, and lives with her husband in New Delhi.
Back of the Book
Writer and journalist Mrinal Pande sees in strong passionate women who defy the strictures of a male-dominated world, shades of the Goddess. There were many such women in her life, women who succeeded beyond the expectations of men. First, there was her forceful mother, the writer Shivani. Then came Badi Amma, the most colourful woman in this book, her domineering, intellectual aunt. There were the friends who silently lived lives of emotional deprivation till they opted out of the world altogether. There were women who made the news-among them prostitutes, activists and reformers. And there were also the women who preyed on men, in conscious contempt of their vulnerability in the grip of sexual passion. In all these women, the writer sees the original Devi, created by the Gods to quell the forces of evil that they had themselves failed to contain, but quickly dismissed by them once victory was theirs.
But the Devi keeps coming back in a myriad manifestations of herself, sorrowing, vengeful, but always the prime mover in the lives of men through the ages.
In the Beginning was the Grandmother
Like every Hindu child from a conservative family, I grew up close to the Goddesses. We met each day, once at the beginning of the day, and once before going to bed. We, with our hands folded in supplication, they, their hands raised in the abhay mudra, the gesture that bade us be fearless. My first knowledge of the Goddesses derived chiefly from my mother's mother, Ama, a small, loving, sharptongued and lynx-eyed widow with many daughters, whose chief pleasure, apart from reading Hindi detective fiction and Gujarati poetry, lay in sitting down each morning and evening upon her deerskin-raised a huge cacophony of sounds, first with her chants and her Tibetan brass bell, and at the later stages, with a conch shell that she blew and blew injustice, divine intervention, then back to family. The order may change, but the shape remains cyclical.
To come back to Ama's puja room and the Goddesses therein, they fell broadly into two types; the loners, and the ones with families. The loners formed a triad: Laxmi, Durga and Saraswati. The lovely Laxmi, the earthy Goddess of wealth and prosperity, was always depicted wearing a bright red silk sari bordered in gold, standing upon a lotus, showering gold coins with open palms, and being bathed with holy water from the unpraised trunks of two elephants on either side. Then there was the fearsome Goddess Durga, Mahishasur Mardini, the slayer of the buffalow demon, with her armoury of weapons held in ten hands. The demon Mahishasur had a buffalo demon, with her armoury of wearsome Goddess Durga, Mahishasur Mardini, the slayer of the buffalo demon, with her armoury of weapons held in ten hands. The demon Mahishasur had a buffalo's body and a demon's (asura's) head, and died at her hands, splattering blood theatrically all around. There was the Goddess Durga depicted as Simhavahini, with her wild mane and wilder looking mount, a roaring lion. She held a naked sword in the of her hands and sundry other weapons in eight others. With her tenth hand however, she blessed her devotees so that no matter how many demons she herself may be called upon to fight, her devotees would not panic.
Saraswati was the least noticeable of the triad. She was the Goddess of learning, depicted sitting on a white swan, holding a veena, a chisel, a string of prayer-beads, and a book. In the manner of those who patronized music and learning, she seemed haughty, remote and somewhat detached from the twin feminine spheres of domesticity and motherhood. She had no individual temple to herself in our area. She perhaps needed none.
Of the family-oriented Goddesses, one was the coy Sita, standing next to the males of her husband's family, smiling hard enough for all of them and looking, in spite of her smile, somewhat weary and drawn, as if weighted down by the enormous gold crown she had to wear for the occasion. And, of course, there was Parvati, the gutsy, talkative and playful wife of Shiva of Mount Kailas, whose family was recreated each year in Ama's house in the holy month of Shravana.
The Dikaras, as the divine and somewhat wild family was called, consisted of the dearly beloved wife, Parvati, her snake, animal and hemp-loving husband, Lord Shiva, and the two sons-Ganesh and Kartikeya. Parvati was squat and maternal and being a daughter of the hills, was singled out for much feasting and fussing over when the Dikaras were crafted out of kneaded clay by the women of the region. Parvati, like the women in our family, was fair, had a round body topped by a round moon face, and an enormous nose flanked on either side by equally enormous eyes. Her happy smile, painted on her face with a twig topped with a bit of cotton wool dipped in red mahavar (the varnish married women applied to their finger-and-toenails) was broad and full of good homely cheer. She had her favourite son, Ganesha, he of the elephant head, on her lap, while her handsom first-born son, Kartikeya, sat grumpily by her side. Her husband's and sons' strange familiars, a mouse, a peacock, a bull and a snake, completed the Dikara tableau.
And, of course, there were the clusters of sister Goddesses, the Matrikas, who had to be propitiated during all the festivities that marked a baby's birth. They were depicted as sixteen red dots on a hand-dyed yellow fabric and had to be felicitated with rice, milk, yogurt and roasted turmeric powder. A small bow and arrow were hung outside the door that led into the birth-room where a new mother and her male baby were quarantined for forty-two days. These objects were supposed to deter both the evil star Rahu and those sixteen fiery Matrikas from entering the baby's room and wreaking havoc in the form of measles, fevers, chicken-pox or other baby ailments. That it did not quite prevent the more determined ones from entering, was evident from the fact that many infants died before they left the room in the first six weeks. When a baby smiled in his sleep, it was said, with a shudder, that the Matrikas were tricking him into believing that they were his real mothers and that after much merry. Making in his dreams the poor baby would usually wake up ill and howling. It was also said that the mischievous Matrikas mostly singled out male babies for such tricks, because males were more precious than females and by hurting them, the Goddesses could hurt the family more. Some clever grandmothers, who had lost several grandsons to these male-hating sister, would dress up their new. Born grandsons in girls' clothes and even put bangles on their tiny wrists, kohl in their eyes and a dot on their foreheads to simulate feminity. Female accountrements, that steadily devalued girls, were supposed to perform life-prolonging tricks for young boys.
There were also festivals all through the year when legendary good wives, like Savitri, and good daughters like Nanda and Sunanda were worshipped as Goddesses, privately within homes, and also in public on the temple premises with great fanfare. The public puja, of course, was handled entirely by males and terminated in their carrying away the Goddess-image in a palanquin to the nearby spring, where it was immersed with a great beating of drums and blowing of conch shells. It was an incredibly sad finale to a glorious homecoming, to my child's mind. But that was men's way with Goddesses and daughters.
All these Goddesses, including the lean, mean Matrikas and the buxom and wide-hipped Yakshinis, were beings of immense importance, yet infinite kindness, employing their incalculable powers towards my welfare and somehow, in spite of their vast preoccupations, willing to take a personal interest in my well-being.
As I grew up I realized also that it is as silly getting sentimental over Goddesses as over one's own mother. These are Goddesses millions of women have worshipped all their lives, sometimes for strength, sometimes for protection but mostly out of an abiding love for their own kind. One can see why. Most of us have grown up surrounded by women notably lacking in power. When we do come into adulthood, we do so, unlike young boys, with no clear understanding of what girls can achieve, but a fairly firm social mandate on what they cannot and must not aspire to be. Pushed more towards docile forms of speech and behaviour, and steered away froms of speech and behavious, and steered away from the world of learning most of us have grown up feeling confused about arranging our unexpressed feelings into clear communicable thought. Stories from our times reveal how even after she's been to college, the self-control of a well-bred girl usually denies her a certain spontaneity of speech, a quickness of response and the ability to explode into good-humoured laughter. It is these qualities that the Goddesses have helped restore in our women-only to the extent it is possible, of course.
Laxmi with her frank and arrogant brushing off of fools and laggards; Parvati with her refreshing sexuality and sense of humour (she fashioned a son for herself out of body unguents and ear-wax to guard the unlatched doors of her bathing chamber), the cerebral Saraswati with her total self-absorption and her unconcealed hostility to the world of pomp and glory, are Goddesses no God can control. All of them have reopened the registers of contradictory emotions-through wit, wisdom and irony-to billions of our women, and helped them cope and fight back, win and capitulate, forget and forgive.
Our country has given cerebral deviants a strange freedom to abandon prescribed ritual. One needn't for example, wear a headband in order to proclaim one's love for Durga, or be forced to sit in meditative fast for the nine days of Navratri. Yet one is free to experience the fierce joy and elevating warmth of reciting, even to oneself, beautiful classic verses such as the Devi Sookta, the Durga Saptashati or the Ganga Lahari, believing wholly in the Goddess' manifestations in those weird and wild village women, that have guarded our villages and kept them free of disease and despair when governments have not High and low, all prostrate themselves before the Goddess as she 'appears' in the bodies of the women of lowliest castes. They ply her with food, flowers, balls of butter, kumkum and turmeric powder, offer her bangles, brassieres and saris to fulfil her desires and thereafter halt her pace so she may not rage through the village crying for more. To appease her hunger they kill goats, rams and chickens and if her tongue still lolls in her head, they offer her country-liquor that she gargles with and spews back at the people. Everyone accepts this liquor mixed with spittle as a blessing.
Millions of women, denied revenge on their tormentors, or the simple human joys of wandering way from their homes, through empty roads, swimming endlessly in mountain streams or enjoying at will the sheer lazy abandon of a get together at temples and teashops, have sought, through closely observing these wild Goddesses and their actions, a similar untethering of secret wants, emotions and desire for creativity. Like Durga, all those that wish to ride a lion, must need be proud, and watchful of compromises, even if it means losing security and friends of a certain kind.
To follow the Goddesses' tales is to slip inside alphabets and go off into an uncharted territory that makes nonsense of sense as we know it.
My mother, who grew up in the terribly restricted Indian upper-crust way of living in the '30s, was able to escape most of its crippling bounds with the help of circumstances that packed her off to the 'universal' poet, Rabindranath Tagore's university of Shantiniketan for over a decade. She carried around her an aura of a hard cerebral restlessness through most of my growing years. True, it set her embarrassingly apart from most women we knew; but this was what protected her undeniable talent for writing from being devoured by those voracious social mores that stood panting at the heels of all high-born women of her time. And this, her dry aloofness, helped her realize her artistic potential in a way few Indian women of her generation have. She wrote, she broadcast, she brought literature and music into our lives (shrugging aside all loudly uttered fears about both making women 'cheap'). She saw to it that we, her daughters, read and heard the best there was, even if it meant our going without the necessary apprenticeship to housekeeping, and winning friends and influencing people in the father-in-law's house.
In the manner of many daughters, we were not terribly supportive of Mother initially. Memory also tells me that we were frequently discomfited by her persistence and occasionally even rather fretful and bored. But today we, her daughters, are enormously grateful to her for what I now perceive as a rare gift of a great and abiding love for the Goddess in ourselves. I remember when I was a precocious and highly-strung ten, and always getting into bitter and embarrassing arguments with family elders and playmates, subsequently having nightmares each night and waking up the babies with my terrified and feverish shrieks, mother introduced me to the Goddess-tales from the Markandeya Purana and to the Devi Kavach, a cluster of verses known literally as 'the divine armous'. I was to recite the Sanskrit couplets aloud, read the meaning given below in Hindi, and then put the holy book under my pillow to soothe my anguished sleep. It worked somehow, during the sleeping hours at least. My waking hours continued to be somewhat chaotic and cantankerous though, because in domestic matters Mother was not a great housekeeper or a patient and diplomatic problem-solver.
Once I began my own long forays into the world of the printed word, I was to relearn that language or Vac, is a form of Saraswati, the Goddess of learning. She is the one that has sprung the lock for millions of women, like my mother and myself and helped minds leap away from the fearful prisons of silence. To meditate on the Goddess' names is to find in the natural phenomena around us-our rivers, seas, mountains (each of which is named after one of her manifestations)-the compasses to guide those difficult journeys to unknown lands. To follow the tales about the nine Durgas, the ten Bhairavis, the sixteen Matrikas, or the numerous Gram Devis or village Goddesses, is to rediscover countless pathways hidden around ourselves. There is also that conjuction when mind meets mind in a space that is totally free, and we can begin to see tales from our own time reflected in the pool of timeless stories.
Discoveries such as these, and other things, conspired to make me in later life both a writer and a journalist. But ironically, when I first became a journalist, Mother was alarmed. She thought I would not be fulfilling thus either my duties as wife and mother, or my own potential as an artist and writer. For a time I was aware that I frightened her as I replayed many of her experiences in my own life: bulldozing my way into one male preserve after another, speaking my mind, alienating bosses, relatives and friends and earning an unfemininely.
Life my mother, I have survived even as Scheherezade had survived, also the thirty-two fairies of the Dwatringsha Puttalike stories, cursed with the responsibility to shoulder and guard King Vikramaditya's throne of Truth. We all escaped to our freedom with the help of the stories we created and recited, notwithstanding the distractions around us.
Or perhaps it is the distractions that gave us our ability to locate and string the tales together. Who knows? All we know is that the Goddess-tales lean towards human tales. They soak each other up.
These days, with my daughters grown up and gone far away in pursuit of their own careers, I go through my days wondering exactly like Mother, what will happen in our terribly mobile lives next? Will my daughters at some point be able to shake off this fearsome legacy of a duty to settle down, and be like everyone else? Or will I one day get a sudden letter or phone call, informing me of a major decision they have taken, or not been able to take because they are my daughters they will be principles involved in their decisions that I may understand little of and Mother even less. Yet we know that our decisions may somewhere be interlinked. It is an acute agony that strikes all independent women of our times, mostly in the middle of the night, when the body may be at rest, but the mind is free to wander.
At recurring points in our lives, we all want to move, only we do not know how to judge things and directions. We desperately need a structure against which to measure things for ourselves, a context into which we can fit deviant human behaviour including our own. And yes, there are times when we find it hard to live with the extremes of feelings within us that are ripping us apart, yet of which we understand so little.
'Listen, my dear one, to these indescribable tales, Hard to follow, and still harder to narrate.'
Goddess-tales, all the tellers will tell you, are ever-changing. They can never be encountered in the same shape twice. Some read or sound better than the others, some are barely received, some we forget no sooner than they've been recounted, only to have them swim up one night as the mind flows with the currents of insomnia.
Sunahu tat yeh akath kahani.
Indescribable tales that travel in small groups.
Tales of women behind closed doors, women weeping quietly, women walking down endless roads and forests, women laughing out loud. Women sighting the Goddess. Women whom the Goddess' spirit has entered. To recount their tales is to move into mysterious grey cremation grounds littered with the half-burnt bones of generations. It means stepping into the timesless kingdom of Mahakali and the Nine Durgas, there to tick like mad clocks, striking minutes and hours off time.
Shailputri, she who is the defiant daughter of the mountains, Brahmacharini, the loner, who has chosen to be a celibate, Chandraghanta, she who wears the moon round her neck, Kooshmanda, she who is the moon round her neck, Kooshmanda, she who is the warmth of the ova within the womb, Skandmata, the mother of Skanda the warrior, Katyayani, who has slain fearsome demons like Katyayan, Kalratri, who is the dark destructive Goddess of the final night of Navratri, Mahagauri, the fairest of them all, and ultimately, Siddhidatri, the giver of the ultimate boon.
'When being consumed by fires: when in the midst of a battle among enemies, facing a tough, hard and lonely journey, scared and confused, we turn to Thee, to remove the impediments and set us free to move.'
For Indian women, Goddesses have always been there, normal and magical at the same time. They learn from them all the time. Without knowing it, of course.
Men have eternally tried to convince the Goddesses that they too are their worshippers and so the divine beings must come to them as loyal and gentle mothers. Since few Goddesses have children, in their secret wishes men want to take their children's place and so reinvent the perfect mother, wild and fierce, yet loyal and all-pardoning.
Strange tales are being used like tools to hammer and carve the Goddesses into mothers of men. Grimly, steadily, almost ritually, these tales are replacing the real legends. Loudspeakers play raucous modern songs sung by the sons of Mata-a benign mother of men, enthroned in the house, steady as a rock. Day and night, television and films wring away the life from sublime stories to fashion serials around this Mother Goddess, as testaments to the transferring powers of men and money. Here, Goddesses are presented through word and image as overdressed, bejeweled and fawning mothers, givers of wealth and gentle imposers of discipline. Those unpredictable outbursts of temper, that fury of wild hair, those rolling eyes, the lolling tongue and other manifestations of an inexplicably complex presence, are all being erased from Goddess-lore. One hears songs that ask the Mata to come to Bharat and slay the infidels, to present worshippers with houses with marble floors, to help the daughters-in-law bear only sons, to help businesses prosper and daughters get married early to suitable boys.
We, the tellers of tales, are sardonic witnesses to this sly coming together, in the name of the Mother, of the land-grabbing urban householder, the corrupt rural farmer, the oily politician and his supporters in the gutter press. They wait to find of gap in the tales, then rush in to substitute the fake for the authentic.
And we, the writers and narrators of tales, have nothing else to guide us out of this swirling fog of lies, except a certain restlessness in our bones that we translate into language.
Move. Move. Move, the stories say.
Move. Move. Move, says the Goddess.
Then one day, we sit down and begin to write. Of all that which will no longer happen. We write of our mothers cooking, cleaning and swabbing with a timeless vitality. We write of fathers with their voices raised in command. We write of the rituals we saw and religious tales we heard as children. We write of the first sly sightings of adolescent hairs and the fragrance of the garbhagriha, the womb-rooms of the temples. We write of the smell of a woman lusting for a man. We write of homes that have no men and children. We write of children that are yet to be conceived.
We write of men, powerful, handsome and attractive.
WE write of men, mean, vengeful and repellent.
We write of women fulfilled and happy.
We write of women betrayed.
We write of women who, when they've had enough, lift their ravaged faces to the moon and bay like she-wolves.
We write of men who give an answering call. We write of the years gone by the years to come, and of the No-Man's-Land that borders the inner spaces of all mankind, where men, women and children hurl about like meteorites.
Welcome to the world of Goddesses.
Of Related Interest :
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A Kali in Every Woman: Motherhood and the Dark Goddess
Shakti - Power and Femininity in Indian Art
Durga - Narrative Art of an 'Independent' Warrior Goddess
Lakshmi and Saraswati - Tales in Mythology and Art
Dharti Mata(Mother Earth)
Children’s Books (51)
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