Tag Archives: Ramayana

Suvarnamaccha

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There is a limestone isthmus between two tiny islands – Rameshwaram and Mannar – that once connected the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka, by foot and for half a century even by rail. No bridge, made by nature, by people or by their machines, has been able to remain standing, holding these two points together. Cyclones, such as the 1964 one which turned Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu’s far south into the ghost town and another one dated to 1480, have overwhelmed every attempt with a watery erasure.

There happen to be dugongs in these waters – those gentle, sea grass-grazing creatures which many believe led centuries of cabin-fevered seafarers to experience visions of mermaids.

Many Ramayanas recount the episode in which Hanuman and his army of vanaras, men and god-kings (and at least one squirrel) build a bridge of boulders to Lanka, and some believe that this isthmus was the result of this endeavour. In certain Ramayanas, particularly those that come from South East Asia, the marauding army finds its constructions sabotaged. Each day, the bridge extends through their labour, cutting further into the sea and closer to the other side. Each night, it retracts. Hanuman watches closely and discovers a bevy of mermaids removing the boulders by darkness, working as efficiently as his own legion. They are led by Suvarnamaccha, whose name contains the words for “gold” and “fish”. She is impossible to look away from – everything about her, from her commanding presence to the alluring curve of her caudal fin, dazzles. It is clear that this waters are her dominion. She refuses to engage with him. Until she does.

What begins as a bureaucratic quarrel becomes love, or something like it. Suvarnamaccha notices how gorgeous the opponent is; Hanuman registers her desire, and with it, his own. There is a wildness in both of them, humming within their human consciousness, and which they each recognize in the other. Suvarnamaccha calls her army of fish-tailed women away from their task. The bridge is completed, and prepares to bear the weight of Hanuman’s legion as they cross the sea to arrive in Lanka, in search of a kidnapped queen. When Hanuman asks her why the mermaids had kept dismantling the bridge, Suvarnamaccha tells him that she is a daughter of Ravana, the kidnapper king who has more faces than a hall of mirrors.

This brings me to an interlude, and to a merging of tellings. This is what I imagine Suvarnamaccha did for her sister, in the renditions of the epic in which incest becomes the knotty underside of the embroidery. That sister (this is a kinship that is not necessarily consanguine) was the one whose mother was Ravana’s chief consort Mandodari. I imagine Mandodari somewhere in the innermost chambers of her palace, giving birth as silently and secretly as she can. She had meant to end her life when she consumed the grail of milk-mingled blood from a chthonic sacrifice; instead, she had become pregnant with a progeny cursed to bring about the king’s downfall. I imagine Mandodari walking alone to the shore, where she sets her newborn into a lined basket and lowers it into the water with a prayer. There is nowhere on this island that her daughter will not be found, and killed. The baby-bearing basket is swept into the currents. I imagine Suvarnamaccha coaxing the tides with her tail, gently leading her sister to a land where she will be discovered, and named by the king who would become her father as Sita.

Let us return to Suvarnamaccha who becomes pregnant too, later in this mythos, entwined underwater with the charming and devastating Hanuman.

Did he love her? When we consider how myths have been recorded across millennia, it becomes clear how rarely the question gets asked. And how much less frequently the answer has mattered to those who tell this story, or many like it.

In the South East Asian Ramayanas, Thai and Khmer among them, Hanuman is far from the celibate that most Hindu traditions hold him to be (but there is a Suvarchala, whose mother was shadow and father was sun, with whom he had a sexless marriage, as enshrined in a temple in Telangana). Jain beliefs also name among his wives Anangakusuma and Lankasundari.

His lovers and spouses are numerous, and he has at least one other child who is part-piscine, though born through stranger means. Upon burning Lanka – some time after leaving Suvarnamaccha – Hanuman plunges into the sea to cool his own flaming body, and a drop of his perspiration falls into the mouth of an unnamed makara, a mythical sea creature that itself is part-aquatic and part-terrestrial. Makardhwaja is cut out of his mother’s belly when she is caught by fishers in Patala-lokam, the netherworld, and becomes a warrior.

In the separate stories of Macchanu and Makardhwaja, they both meet their father – they both battle him, knowing or not knowing their lineage but bound by loyalties far more meaningful than blood. But what becomes of their mothers, or the memory of them? Does Makardhwaja ever learn his mother’s name, the one who became entangled in a net and was sliced open for meat? Does Macchanu ever visit the gulf of his birth, to meet Suvarnamaccha somewhere in its depths and swirl with her in her realm? Surely she is there, in some configuration of a story made of water, and therefore unable to be razed by fire: golden-tailed and ageless, the sunlight glinting on her scales when she surfaces from time to time out of the sea that carries the sky’s reflection, and peers up at the clouds to see if she can catch a glimpse of another tail – simian, strong and ever so slightly charred.

An edited version was published in The Indian Express’ Diwali 2019 special edition.

The Venus Flytrap: Other Sitas, Many Ramas

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The lines flow like waves along their skin, or radiating circles. The same word over and over again in faded-tattoo green in the Gondi language, in Devanagari script. Ram Ram Ram. I came across the Ramnami people of Chhattisgarh in a stunning feature written and photographed by Joydip Mitra for the People’s Archive of Rural India. Ramnamis are descended from Dalits who rejected the caste system, and calligraphed the sacred onto their skin. Only the elderly write their devotion onto their bodies now. In the photographs, only their eyes and lips carry no ink, and around their shoulders they wear fabrics that repeat the name they hold holy. Ram Ram Ram.

“Ram is written all over us,” says Pitambar Ram of Raigarh to the journalist. “So, you see, we are the Ramayana.”

There are so many, you know. My newest book of poetry, The Altar of the Only World, began with someone who held this name holy too. It was always Sita, only Sita, for me, and this too is a long tradition – found in folksongs and variations, the way a story becomes a new one each time it is told. It began with her weeping in the forest – there is a Sanskrit word for that, “aranyarodhan”, even though the Sita I got to know was not a Sanskrit version at all. Instead, she is mothered by Mandodari, who drinks a grail of sacrificial blood and sets her miraculous, curse-born child to drift away on the water like Moses or Karna. Instead of being the daughter of the earth, she is the earth itself. As well as a Persian angel, exiled from heaven because of too much devotion, and a goddess of love and war who enters the underworld to confront her shadow, who in the ancient Sumerian texts that describe her looks strikingly like the lion-headed Pratyangira Devi.

When I started to write The Altar of the Only World, nine years ago, it felt like it was a safer world to tell stories in. And a safer world to tell the truth in, too. Not so anymore. This casts an edge over all the usual trepidation before a book release. And then there’s the ambivalence of letting go of something that has been incomplete in you for so long that you can hardly imagine it fulfilled.

A year and a half ago, I was on a flight that made a missed approach. Like other frightening things, I had never known such a thing existed until it happened. In a terrible storm, the plane almost touched the tarmac and then suddenly swooped upwards again into the roiling thunderclouds. We circled the airport for many long minutes, not a word from the captain or crew for a while. The cabin remained quiet, and there was applause when we finally landed. I remember feeling aware, not afraid. This is how letting a piece of long labour into the world feels like: you cannot tell if it will make it or not, but you must suspend absolutely the idea that you can control what happens. And given the vagaries of the journey, be grateful for touchdown at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: She Of The Coal-Singed Soles And The Stillwater Ponds

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In Wayanad some years ago, I found myself outside a temple compound in the forest, its doors closed for the malefic afternoon hours. It may have been lovely to enter the temple, but what I had come for was just beside it. A pond, its surface caparisoned by moss. Trees leaned toward it, cascading silent strings of leaves. Its water was perfectly still.

I sat under a tree and immersed in the quietude for several minutes. Was the sadness palpable in the place native, or had I carried it with me? The name of the pond was “Sita’s Tears”, and legend says that this was where Sita had wept before she re-entered the earth. Among the many Ramayanas, in one that culminates in Wayanad, it was in this forest that she lived the latter part of her life. The earth had cupped her tears and kept them, and they in turn had maintained a façade of serenity. While beneath that surface, a tempest of a thousand years teems.

As I sat beside Sita’s Tears, I recalled a dream I’d had some months earlier from which I had woken with great sadness. In it, I had visited a Sita temple near Nuwara Eliya, in Sri Lanka. This is where, in many tellings, Hanuman finds Sita, in the grove in which she tells him to take her jewels but not her. Lanka was destined to burn, for her beloved would only be suspicious to see her in the arms of another. Even if, as in Kamban’s verses, he lifts her not by limb or waist but by the earth beneath her body (for she herself, after all, is the earth). In Seetha Eliya, the earth is black, as if scorched by fire.

Some say she was born in Mithila, Nepal; others prefer the version in which she is a Lankan princess, daughter of Ravana, exiled upon water like Moses or Karna when a soothsayer reveals that she will be the cause of her father’s death.

I finally received an answer to a question I had posed sardonically: “I wonder when Sita Navami is?” It turns out that it is this Sunday, and is in fact observed annually on the 9th day after the new moon in the month of Baisakh – although clearly not with any major aplomb, anywhere. The only information I could find was painful. To celebrate Sita as an ideal wife is equivalent to celebrating her suffering. And to do so with words like ‘chastity’ and ‘sumangali’ are nothing but celebrations of the suppression and subjugation of women everywhere.

I had wanted to know if a Sita Navami existed because I had wondered if she had been forgotten; instead I found that she had only been misremembered.

But this I know to be true: we celebrate Sita most often when we don’t realise it. When we vocalise support for single mothers. When we stand up for those abandoned by their spouses. When we breathe quietly in nature and allow her alone be our witness.

I have sat beside the still water of Sita’s Tears. If it rippled at all, it was because of my own.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 12th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired By The Ramayana

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Breaking The Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired By The Ramayana, edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, is out now from Zubaan Books. It contains 24 stories, from authors including Kuzhali Manickavel, Tabish Khair and Manjula Padmanabhan. I have a short story in it called “Petrichor” (not to be confused with my poem of the same name).

In India, you can purchase it from the Zubaan Books website, as well as retailers including Homeshop18 and Flipkart.

A Poem In Mandala Journal

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The Exodus issue of Mandala Journal contains a poem, “Carceral“, which is part of one of my longterm works in progress, an installation called “The Country of Intangibles”.

Also, the Kiski Kahani (300 Ramayanas and Counting) project has republished my ars poetica on Sita/Lucifer/Bulletproof Offering, which first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Kindle Magazine.

The Venus Flytrap: Year Of The Aranya Kandam

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Some of my friends tell me they have had a year from hell, but I know that what I endured was a year in purgatory. Purgatory because of its impermanence, its seemingly endless yet certainly finite suspension. Purgatory that may or may not be connected to the word “purge” – the ridding of the self of toxicity, the negative; cleansing, absolution. Purgatory, above all else, because I was not condemned. I asked for the descent.

Mythology and Jungian psychology teach us how the descent is a rite of initiation, a necessary and transformative undertaking that one can either resist or rise to. Because its timing is so often arbitrary, the last vestige of control remains in accepting it as adventure. Like the Fool, the first card of the tarot arcana, one volunteers for the exploration – or as I think of it, the excavation. Like Sita setting forth into the forest, the beginning of multiple exiles, kidnapping and banishment, one receives the fall from grace as grace itself. We enter the forest, the desert, the underworld heroically. These are not necessarily physical landscapes, but archetypal ones, metaphorical topography. Bewilderment – becoming the wilderness itself.

Like Ishtar arriving at the gates of the underworld, I screamed my madness at the gatekeeper and demanded entrance – If thou openest not the gate to let me enter/ I will break the door, I will wrench the lock/ I will smash the door-posts, I will force the doors/I will bring up the dead to eat the living/And the dead will outnumber the living – and how I was given it, stripped of every ornament, stripped of pomp and circumstance, lowered through each subsequent level, until I stood buck naked before my shadow twin, chastised and begging for rescue.

Nothing prepared me.

She who enters the forest like a queen leaves it like a commoner. She who enters the desert like a fugitive leaves it like a free woman. She who enters the underworld like a dying thing leaves it resurrected. Purgatory changes you. It challenges you, shatters the boundaries of your being, breaks your heart to make more room, pares your body to take less space. It makes a pilgrim of you, and if you’re lucky – if the rules of mythology apply to you, and I find that if you believe in them, they do – it will bring you to deliverance.

This was my year of the Aranya Kandam, and it is in this knowledge that my second book of poetry is ingrained and taking shape. I have spent the year identifying with things I never imagined I could see myself in: the pepper vine laying its heart-like leaves against the bark of better-rooted things, the pining Sita, the wounded and the war-weary. I have spent the year seeking sanctuaries: villages, hill country, communes, the sea, and always, always trees. I have spent the year bringing myself back to life.

Ishtar, finally rescued, ascends through each of the lower realms, reclaiming her lost embellishments – only to find that she is less loved than she had believed. The one who she demanded entry into the underworld for has forgotten this kindness. Sita walks through fire not during exile, but after it. The long wait ends in humiliation, not happiness. Knowing this, can I be blamed if I choose now to linger just a little longer, savouring the petrichor, the silence, the love of the good earth…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.