Tag Archives: religion

The Venus Flytrap: Patriarchy Is Taught, Not Intrinsic

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On Valentine’s Day, students at the women-only Mahila Arts and Commerce College, Maharashtra, were asked to take a mass oath declaring that they would never fall in love, have a romantic relationship, or marry someone of their own choosing. They would have arranged marriages, but without providing a dowry. The few among them who spoke to the press appear to have taken the oath by choice. It was not clear, however, whether they had been presented with a choice not to.

At another college, Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute in Gujarat, 68 women hostelites were forcibly made to remove their undergarments for a sudden inspection. The college’s bylaws forbid menstruating women from sitting with non-menstruating women during mealtimes. Their periods are noted in a register, and they must stay in the hostel’s basement during the same. Obviously, the college is not a co-ed one. Its name itself is patronising – to use “Girls” to describe women is to reduce their agency as adults.

The college’s egregious privacy violation, and the discriminatory mealtime segregation that led to it, comes because it is run by a religious sect that counts among its edicts that those who consume food prepared by a menstruating woman will be reborn as oxen, and women who cook while menstruating will be reborn as dogs. Specifically, as female dogs.

I can’t bring myself to use the correct English term in this context, even though I’m not averse in the least to its carefully-deployed or subversive expressions (including as reclamations of feminine power). One headline I saw used the Hindi word, as per a discourse by the sect leader’s, followed in brackets by the English translation. I’m not Hindi-proficient. I don’t know if it packs a punch in that language, but the effect of the English word in the mouth of a man, directed at a woman, is often stomach-turning. I felt the word inside those brackets. I felt its etymology of hatred towards all that is female, fertile and free.

These incidents have occurred around the same time as a senior politician’s statement that education is one of the factors that enables divorce, which he blamed for familial and societal breakdowns. Neither the nature of these incidents, nor of the mindset revealed in that statement, are new. In fact, they are oppressions we’ve collectively been challenging, and even changing, for a long time. Their resurgence is something to be vigilant about.

A hilarious and horrifying matrimonial ad – in which a man of many bigotries and no employment demands that potential wives who meet his thorough checklist get in touch via SMS but do not call him – has been making the rounds. Each time I saw it, it occurred to me how every mocking reshare also broadcast the ad further. There are women out there who fit the bill, who see themselves proudly in roles that scaffold a patriotic-patriarchal agenda. There are also women out there who may not think of themselves as rebels, who only lie that they’re not having their periods so they can spend time with their friends. Then there are women watching, counting down, making the connections. They’re coming for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 20th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Reconciling Spirituality & Resistance

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Last week, a possibly well-intended but definitely poorly-executed infographic made the rounds, with a pair of lists intended to distinguish Hinduism from Hindutva, the fundamentalist strain of the former. The infographic relied heavily on scripture and comparison, and erased completely the existence of oppressions of caste, gender and other divisions. As someone with a spiritual life, elements of which draw from practices which fall under the umbrella of Hinduism, I was appalled by its lack of political consciousness. I am not being purposely vague in my self-description. My phrasing is meant to register my opposition to many structural and practical aspects of organised religion, my discomfort in identifying myself with one, as well as the syncretism of my beliefs – while still acknowledging this part of who I am and what influences it.

This is a necessary self-reckoning for people of all spiritual inclinations and religious backgrounds. When fundamentalisms arise, responding by attempting to a-historically defend religions is not only insufficient but dangerous. When we do this, we participate in creating the veneer of gentility that allows for injustice and violence to occur and be swept under the carpet when it does.

I have only respect for those who find that the most effective way is to throw the bhakti out with the bhakts’ bathwater, as many distinguished sociopolitical thinkers have done. I can also extend my understanding to those who, unable to counter the sophistication of critical theory with a sound articulation of why they feel as they do, think that aligning with orthodoxy is the only way to retain the solace they receive from what is ultimately a deeply private engagement. They feel that they have no choice but to side with factions which, while possibly structurally oppressing them, will not overtly shame them (this is done covertly, by fostering insecurity and an inferiority complex). Both these sets of believers will disagree with me, but I do not see them as binaries and neither do I see myself as being in the middle.

I am speaking to – but not for – those who also belong to neither set, but who believe that a vital public rendition of one’s sacred self demands standing up against inequality, challenging systemic persecution and resisting tyranny. By its nature, this cannot be consolidated into a movement, but can interweave with the good work already being done.

It is not by defending religion that we absolve ourselves, but in practising a deeper enquiry into where our beliefs, practices and the world intersect. We must look at the true guiding principles of our private faiths, and see how perfectly tenets like compassion and integrity match with tenets like secularism and justice. This is far from an easy process, and has costs including losing personally meaningful guides who espouse bigotry.

I learned that if there is no room for my sexuality, my politics or my love for the environment within an available framework, I must make my own. And we each should. Our very own, deeply personal ones, which do not seek to evangelise, but which allow us to move through the world ethically and with grace – in all senses of the word.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Female Dalai Lama

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Did you know that the current Dalai Lama guest-edited a 1992 issue of the French edition of Vogue? This incident is mentioned in a lengthy official clarification newly released on his website, which addresses some controversial points in a recent video interview with the BBC. In this interview, he said – not for the first time – that if he had a female successor, she would have to be conventionally attractive. The clarification alludes to how he’d once said the same in that magazine’s glamorous ambience, but not to how these remarks were repeated for decades to come, as late as 2016 and now, in 2019.

The clarification includes the following: “[It] sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humour in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.” It’s true that offhand verbal slips aren’t the only measure of a person’s character, and that one of the excesses of “cancel culture” is that contrition is rarely enough even in the mildest of cases.

But is there really any context where judging a person on parameters of attractiveness, withholding job opportunities because of them, or ridiculing those who don’t fit them (the Dalai Lama even made an expression he called “dead face”), are amusing? Or is it more likely that there are some situations where these statements can be openly challenged and others where they can’t? Many of the reasons why not will directly tie into structural inequalities, which branch into toxic workplaces, family hierarchies, public safety concerns and so on. As anyone who’s had to proffer a half-smile or hollow laugh at an inappropriate comment made in any setting knows, confrontation is not the only measure of disagreement. The statement would be offensive no matter who made it, a recruitment manager or a spiritual leader.

And this is the big context: in a rapidly regressing world, a female Dalai Lama would be a historical first, and of significance to millions. A spiritual life is a life of seeking, sometimes without solutions. The desire to reconcile faith and feminism is made fraught by such beliefs and actions, be they from powerful and well-connected religious figures, or from astrologers, gurus, influencers and ordinary people who internalise and propagate dangerous ideas, including communalist, misogynistic and casteist ones. People invested in equality who also have spiritual lives use their discernment, express divergence when possible, but also risk alienation equally from skeptics and their own teachers or circles. But the alternative – disavowal – is not necessarily compelling.

The women whose words comprise the ancient Buddhist anthology called the Therigatha knew about another kind of disavowal. They wrote about leaving their homes and losing their youth. The celebrated courtesan and monastic Ambapali was among them, with a famous poem on aging in which she described the failings of her body. But her translator Martin Wickramasinghe, whose idea was expanded by her translator Charles Hallisey, insisted that she was not lamenting the impermanence of beauty. She was saying she had been beautiful once, and was beautiful still. Or perhaps, who knows, she was saying she couldn’t care less.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 4th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sex Workers In Ayodhya

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Morari Bapu, a spiritual leader noted for his Ram Katha sermons held around the world, came under fire over the weekend for inviting 200 sex workers from Kamathipura, Mumbai, to attend an event which he conducted in the city of Ayodhya. This drew outrage from a number of other religious figures, who predictably spoke of sin and shame. Ayodhya is regarded as the birthplace of Ram, in whose praise Morari Bapu recites the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas’ 16th century Ramayana with the distinct religious tones which have since been popularly associated with the epic.

As one important criticism of arts-based activism more familiar to us goes: it is not enough to bring the kutcheri to the kuppam, when the kuppam is still (figuratively) kept out of the kutcheri. This makes Morari Bapu’s initiative admirable: he did not choose to just deliver his discourses in the red-light district, but brought the people of that district onto holy (and hotly-contested) ground. Sex workers who spoke to the media of their experiences at the Ram Katha did so in glowing terms.

But, here’s a pinch of salt: given the incendiary context in which we live, can we really read even generous acts as apolitical? How can they be, when religion is the expressed basis of compassion as well as the implicit basis of hatred? So what are Morari Bapu’s politics? I confess my ignorance: being non-proficient in Hindi means I lack access to much material and commentary. I wish I could offer the unequivocal hope that he is that unbelievably rare figure – a progressive spiritual leader – and that his welcome to sex workers is a feminist act. His dedication of a 2016 Ram Katha to transgender people, during which he was quoted as having expressed the wish that a person from the community should one day lead a similar event with his support, would be one such heartwarming example.

But I’m wary. So what I’ll pay attention to instead is a contradiction: earlier this year, Morari Bapu criticised politicians who use the performative gesture of eating in Dalit households as a pawn to attract voters, going a step further by saying that marrying people from the same households would actually be meaningful. He is correct: inter-caste marriage is radical, truly risky (as murders by family members have shown in too many cases) and potentially revolutionary. However, more recently, he also criticised a CM’s comment that Hanuman was a Dalit, calling it a divisive statement while others like himself were working for unity.

This contradiction – of focusing on transcendence rather than reality – is where good intentions go to die. If we insist that our acceptance of others lies in our commonalities, we also insist on certain erasures. We can assume that the 200 sex workers who visited Ayodhya from Kamathipura were pious – but is that why they should be respected? Will the atheist or non-Hindu sex worker be offered the same? Will she be offered respect as a routine part of life, upon her return to her workplace – where, night and day, men whose actions are never questioned as they enter temples come to commit the sins of objectification and abuse?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 27th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When The Goddess Menstruates

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While so many are galvanizing resources for flood-wrecked Kerala, Kodagu and other parts of South India, a leisurely lot have been spending time and energy spreading the information that the natural disaster (even if not, technically speaking, a national disaster) has been because of the wrath of God. Specifically, that the Supreme Court case on permitting women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala has invited the deluge.

For some reason, this often gets conflated into “menstruating women”, as though the Supreme Court has specifically opened the temple to women who are literally having their periods. It’s worth remembering that the exclusion of women was brought into law by the Kerala High Court only in 1991. Prior to that, women generally did not participate due to tradition, enforced by conditioning but not by law.

Does Ayyappan forbid the presence of fertile women? That isn’t for me to decide. But the misnomer “menstruating women” calls to mind exactly that image, and myths around the same. We could begin with Parvati of Chengannur in Alappuzha district, one of the worst hit in these floods. Originally built in 300 AD, the clothes of the goddess here are checked every morning for blood stains. When they are found, the idol is shifted to private quarters for the duration of her period, during which the temple also remains closed. Menstrual seclusion is a part of this temple’s ethos, as it is in most (but not all, though of this I will not speak indiscreetly). Can ritual observation be read as honouring the feminine body, or only as disdain?

Cultures around the world have traditionally regarded menstrual blood as either polluting, or possessing a power that can be used for any means and therefore best avoided, an idea so nuanced that it unfortunately creates taboos. The elaborate and beautiful, though equally violent, Mayan myth of the lunar goddess Po is one example: discovered by her father to have taken a lover, Po is killed, her menstrual blood stored in thirteen jars that contain both evil and healing. The last one contains her essence, and she is reborn.

Myths of unequivocal celebration are rare, like the one about the Sumerian mother goddess Ninhursag, who created humankind through loam and her own menses. Surely, in the rich folklores of the world, far more tales have been created: whispered in menstrual huts, at the thresholds of forbidden kitchens, in factories where women without union benefits pack unaffordable hygiene products for other women. There are no experiences that don’t find themselves woven into stories.

Which brings us finally to the most legendary of them all: the temple in Guwahati where Kamakhya is worshipped in the form of a stone yoni that is kept perennially moistened by a natural spring. Each year, she is said to menstruate during the Ambubachi Mela, coinciding with the June monsoon. Is this celebration? Of the feminine principle, certainly. But I’ve still not heard even one menstruation story that’s simply about normalization. “And then the goddess paused for a while, and drank some tea, and pondered the merits of banana fibre pads over moon cups…”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 23rd 2018. “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: “Girl Power” Meets The Goddess

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A few months ago, at a foreign event promoting a book of writing by Indian women, an audience member posed a question about what they saw as the paradox of the mistreatment of women vs. how “everyone in India worships goddesses”. The question perturbed me, most immediately of all because each of us onstage was of a different faith background (the inquirer’s assumption only addressed mine). So I said as much – that the misconception that all Indians are Hindus is dangerous to begin with.

But the question was also disturbing because its reductiveness was familiar: we hear those statements in India too. Navaratri is an interesting time to ponder this. On the one hand we witness faith as lived expression, and on the other hand, for example, there’s the way brands “modernise” goddesses on social media. (Well, considering it’s Navaratri, perhaps there should be a few more arms and hands in this, but let’s get to those later.) Many attempts to contemporise fail to capture something vital: that the power of the Goddess is ancient, not modern. She exists, as all who actually know her know, beyond linear time.

So what does some cute graphic putting her in a pantsuit and a smart caption about how badass she is really do? Does it blur the distance between pedestal and mortal circumstance, or reinforce it using superficial symbols? There’s subversive and then there’s simplistic. The girl power-meets-goddess figure rhetoric is just as empty as any other get-clicks-quick scheme.

All major religions today need feminist reform movements. Hinduism’s faces a trick door: unlike other major religions, it already has principal feminine icons. The challenge then is not to excavate the buried feminine, as it is in Christianity for example, but to raise questions about the patriarchal co-opting of the same.

“We worship goddesses and beat our wives” is the most tired, most falsely equivalent condemnation there is, and ties in far too closely with another problematic proclamation: “Don’t treat her badly because she embodies the goddess”. Does she? What if she doesn’t want to? What if she’s neither interested in being your sister nor your idol? And if the average abuser doesn’t connect the abstract feminine with the actual woman, is it fair to expect that his philosophy be so literal? Have we actually considered what his philosophy may teach, instead of merely aggrandising its symbols?

It’s not goddess imagery that needs revamping, but our relationship with religion. For many people, the more their ethical compass develops, the more they will veer away from religion altogether. For those who find themselves still drawn to spirituality, a more deeply interconnected matrix is needed: one that brings together creativity, sexuality, the intellect, politics, ritual practice and the intangible.

This means interrogating what the highly subjective endeavour of “worship” means, studying scriptures, reinventing liturgies (like wedding chants, for example), challenging taboos and more. And for Indian feminists of most faith persuasions, the effort collapses completely if the end of caste is not also a leading principle. It has to be holistic. All in all, feminist spirituality is pretty demanding – but believers already know that the love of God always is.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 6th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Old Gods And New Ones

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I’m often asked how I reconcile my irreverent delight in multiple mythologies with my, well, devotion. How can I say that Rama is a terrible husband, but still murmur a couplet from the Vishnu Sahasranamam to soothe my weary nerves? How can I light candles in churches, wishfully say “Inshallah” and also chant in Sanskrit? The answer is that I see story, history and spirit as distinct threads. Braided together, they make an ethos, one way to absorb and encounter. To be a human reaching for the divine is to have the humility to know that only by holding those threads as distinct in the mind can the braid then be experienced in polyphonic fullness, through the heart.

We have the capacity to accommodate variations, unpredictability and what might appear to be inconsistencies. In forests, I rustle with the thought of the Rig-Vedic Aranyani; pining, I reach for the Inuit Sedna: when I sense the feline mystique, I remember the Egyptian lioness Sekhmet. If a story soothes my heart, is it not a prayer too?

New deities are constantly being made, just as old ones are being retired (have you read American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s unputdownable novel about what happened to the figures of European folk religions, gradually forgotten by migrants to North America?). It’s fascinating how, on a national stage, the latest expression of patriotism is to pledge allegiance to one such new deity, an artistic creation of late 19th century Bengal.

So Bharat Mata’s official temple, which contains not an idol but a map of India, is one kind of religious expansion. There are of course shrines to film stars and politicians, replete with garlands and aartis. There are also those which emerge from organic impulses, rooted in faith and incident, such as two dog temples in Karnataka built in 2008 and 2009, respectively – in Channapatna, the canine is worshipped as an animal familiar of the village goddess; in Ranebennur is a temple to a pet that’s said to have miraculous posthumous powers.  The Bullet Banna temple in Rajasthan, which sprang up in 1988, has an interesting origin: a rider was killed one night, and no matter how many times the police took his bike to the station, it kept mysteriously reappearing at the site of the accident. The idol in the shrine is the bike itself.

In the 1970s, a Hindi film called Jai Santoshi Ma popularised a new myth about a daughter of Ganesha. Until the film’s popularity had women all over the country undertaking new fasting rituals, the spot of what became the “ancient” Santoshi Ma temple in Jodhpur had been a shrine to the folk deity Lal Sagar ki Mata. Presiding deities are replaced, subsumed, emerge elsewhere, become obsolete, turn into cult figures. This happens both naturally and through imposition.

Spiritual practice is not monolithic – as lived belief, it is constantly enriched and complicated by many sources. It is porous, subjective, disorganised. When we streamline it, let be strictly defined, and – most importantly – limit the rights of others to pursue it in their personal ways, we lose more than just entwined stories and manifold possibilities. We lose spirit itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 24th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Devotion, Desire, Darkness

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There are places in ourselves we spend our whole lives moving toward, and sometimes we encounter them in literal landscapes, points on maps we can place our fingers on as we might on cherished skin. And sometimes, much later, having travelled far geographically and otherwise, we can go back. This was how I found myself in Kolkata, eleven and a half years later, with a hibiscus in my hand and a recentred (re-centred, or recent red?) heart. In the version of the story I had been telling for a decade about my first time there, I had painted myself as a fool. It was the simplest way in which to explain how something had not been for me, and I had chased it anyway.

The Fool is the first card of the major arcana of the tarot. All journeys begin on a Fool’s footing.

I moved to India a couple of months before my 19th birthday, thinking I would live in Kolkata. It was a wager I had made with my parents after I ran away from (their) home – I’d return, briefly, if they would then send me where I wanted to live, which as far as they were concerned was only away from them. But only I knew of what had been appearing in my dreams, symbols I blandly tried to explain as the desires to study or to be free.

My first time in Kolkata crushed my spirit. Only the temples – Kalighat and Dakshineswar – held anything of meaning for me there.

And with that journey, the desire to move to that city disappeared. I understood that it had only ever been a pilgrim’s longing that had taken me there.

So when something – a book launch – called me back in December, I recognised the calling to be the same. Just as once, a long time ago, I had gone seemingly in pursuit of textbooks, I packed my devotion stealthily under guise of a love of literature and found myself once more in the goddess’ city.

One temple by night, the gold-tongued goddess in the red light district one sees only through shouts and shoving and swindling. And one by morning, bumping out of the city in the dusty dawn to the miracle of no queues, and a moment of sitting quietly by the western window of the sanctum sanctorum to have the priest reach through the wrought iron and place in my palm a compact of kumkum, and a deep pink hibiscus.

If my prayer was a secret, I wouldn’t share it with you. But I know it is etched across my face, these treacherous eyes of mine that yield everything. I want not only to let go of my disappointments, but to let go of my desire for the things that disappointed me.

I have known the darkness of feeling the goddess had let my hand go; and I know the gift of flight that belongs to those who never hold anything in fists.

And so, just as I have taught myself everything over and over again in my life, I will teach myself how to desire again.

 

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An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 14th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: The Goddess And The Nation: Mapping Mother India by Sumathi Ramaswamy

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The idea of nationhood (or, say, the idea of empire) is predated by a long, animistic history of the idea of the earth itself as a fertile, maternal source. The emblematic figures (Britannia, Mother Russia, Marianne among them), almost always associated with revolutionary or consolidating eras, that have been taken to represent these motherlands are in many ways developments from that fundamental impulse, even without religious connotations. In The Goddess and the Nation: Mapping Mother India, Sumathi Ramaswamy turns her attention to Bharat Mata. The book contains 150 fascinating images of and relating to this modern “goddess” – a pre-Independent Indian invention of significant historical interest.

Ramaswamy’s accompanying text, however, suffers from a number of failings, both in proposition and delivery. Overly verbose and almost tediously academic, the writing could have benefited a great deal from a sense of irreverence. Ramaswamy deeply dislikes the icon who is the subject of her work, mostly on account of Bharat Mata’s Hindu-hegemonic associations. To have expressed this dislike with more pluck and spark instead of thinly veiled contempt would have made for far more engaging reading.

It helps to begin by considering a brief history of the image: it originated in Bengal several decades before Independence, and the first of its most notable appearances was in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore (circa 1904) of an unadorned, sadhu-like woman. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s hymn Vande Mataram (“I worship the mother”) was brought into the nationalist movement by Rabindranath Tagore in 1896 (the writer otherwise opposed the concept of nation as woman/mother, as in his novel The Home and The World). The hymn became associated, at least per Ramaswamy’s narrative, with an increasingly militant, Durga-like representation of Bharat Mata. During the five decades or so of its greatest popularity, the new demigoddess could be seen draped in the tricolor, suckling the children of her nation, riding a lion, handing weapons to her favourite sons and so on – all while sitting on, standing in front of, or literally embodying the map of India.

The author makes one noteworthy contribution to the field of visual arts theory: the rather poetic term “barefoot cartography”, referring to “a set of demotic practices and techniques whose primary creative influence and aesthetic milieu is the art of the bazaar”, with the bazaar being taken to mean the kitsch style seen on calendars, hoardings, film posters and the like. The term is lovely, but its use in this book is largely condescending.

Ramaswamy approaches the artists and activists associated with these images through a strangely skewed prism. Decontextualized, everybody from the nameless painters of mass-produced prints to Amrita Sher-Gil, Subramania Bharati and Sister Nivedita are tarred with the suggestion (if not accusation) of being in support of sectarian Hindu nationalism. The book is rife with bizarre logic: for example, that Sister Nivedita loved and wished to distribute Abanindranath Tagore’s benign painting while also being a devotee of Kali is “inconsistent”, as though spiritual leanings and aesthetic ones are always aligned (and how colonialist/Orientalist is the idea of a bloodthirsty, one-dimensional Kali anyway?). That Amrita Sher-Gil, who was once moved to declare that “India belongs only to me”, painted her Mother India as a dark-skinned beggar “seems sacrilegious” to the author, because it is unlike the recognizable luminous, light-skinned deity-figure who more popularly bore that name. Sacrilegious to whom? The purveyors of the Bharat Mata image, who essentially fashioned a new object of veneration, may have expressed themselves in traditional idioms but didn’t see ingenuity as blasphemy.

Consider also two examples of how non-divine women in propagandist paintings are read. In the first, in reference to a photo of women during a street march in the 1930s, there is this line: “women have a special claim on (a sari-clad) Mother India by virtue of being (sari-clad) females themselves”. In the second, after some discussion about how the female soldiers of the Rani of Jhansi regiment wore standard uniforms and not saris, she writes that “the barefoot cartographer[‘s] own vision of love-service-sacrifice could seemingly only accommodate the male body as the armed defender or map and mother”. What did women wear if not saris at the time, and why reduce them to their sartoriality? And how does realistically portraying the Ranis as they were dressed reflect an andro-normative worldview; would it be preferred that they fight in saris, too? Such an incredible disregard for historical context is frustrating and baffling.

Ramaswamy gives herself away in a series of adjectives midway through the book: “Bharat Mata’s offensive, divisive and embarrassing anthropomorphic form”. It is the last of the descriptors that is most revealing. Bharat Mata’s contemporary co-opting into the right-wing visual vocabulary is certainly problematic. But from a historical perspective, it is necessary to bear in mind that we are all bound by the orthodoxies, conventions and lexis of our times. She may be read as a Hindu nationalist emblem today, but through its heyday the symbol was, though naïve, mainly and merely nationalist – an allegiance that was less unpopular (in fact, downright subversive) in colonial times than it is today.

Multidenominational manifestations of the image, which could have benefited from deeper study, receive only cursory mentions: for instance a march in Rajahmundry in 1927 in which students sang Vande Mataram while carrying banners that said “Allahu Akbar”, or an image in Subramania Bharati’s Intiya magazine which also carried the Bharat Mata image as well as the Muslim phrase. And some omissions are evident: such as how, oddly, Ramaswamy completely misses the Christ-reference in a 1931 illustration of a crucified man within the outline of India.

The book’s most interesting chapter focuses on the first temple to the symbol, inaugurated in Benares in October 1936 by Mahatma Gandhi. Strikingly, the temple contained no idol: Bharat Mata was the cartographic India itself, a sprawling relief map in marble. Offerings such as flowers were not permitted. In many ways, this can be read as the most inclusive evolution of the symbol: non-religious, privileging the scientific, without demographic markers or restrictions. Yet here again, Ramaswamy chides the “refusal – in fact failure – to create a set of secular rituals”. What are secular rituals? Why should any rituals be created at all? The author suggests that their creation would have saved the monument from its relative obscurity, but it helps to remember that the symbol of Bharat Mata herself is a sort of anachronism from a time when such a symbol had, and to some extent fulfilled, its purposes. Aside from M.F. Husain (whose attraction to geopoliticizing the female form in a way that is possibly Hindu Ramaswamy seems vaguely uncomfortable with), there hasn’t been a contemporary visual artist in decades who has worked notably with the image.

The Goddess and The Nation is a passionless study about a subject that arose out of the passionate struggle of multitudes, then fell into disrepute. The book closes with a mention of the “delicious subversion” of the barefoot cartographers – something which the author otherwise refutes throughout it. Such contradictions are rife, but one in particular stands out – Ramaswamy writes that barefoot cartographers demurred from portraying the violent deaths of female martyrs for the nation, but when the assassination of Indira Gandhi is rendered violently, “the limits of patriotism’s barefoot cartographic imagination have been reached [because of] the risk of pointing to the death of the very mother and map for which many of its martyrs have given up their lives.” Barefoot cartography, by its nature, is diverse and constantly evolving. The only limits to such an imagination are those imposed by predisposition and condescension.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Many Lallas: An Interview With Ranjit Hoskote

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Ranjit Hoskote’s I, Lalla recasts the poems (vakhs) of the 14th century mystic Lalleshwari as the collaboration of many authors over six centuries. Excerpts from a conversation during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival.

You’ve entitled your book of translations as “I, Lalla”, and believe that although there was a historical figure (a poet and mystic) by that name, over the centuries the body of work that was attributed to her was in fact composed by multiple people, many Lallas. So on the one hand you have the palimpsest and on the other, a persona that emerges from it. What was your experience of working with both?

It’s actually an inference you make after going through the material – you realize that it’s actually a polyphony. The corpus attributed to Lalla is a collection of many tonalities, lines of argument, different kinds of musicality, and different bodies of imagery. And it is possible through some turns of phrase and choice of words to infer that certain pieces came from earlier or later periods. There are certain internal evidences. For instance, certain administrative references (which existed in the 18th century but not in the 14th). Or when Shiva is referred to as “sahib”, as a word for “lord”. The poems have been continuously rephrased for contemporary usage; they are not frozen in an old Kashmiri text. There is no mythic old Kashmiri text.

You’ve used the word “confluentuality” to situate Lalla in spaces which are, alternately or at once, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other identities. This is a confluentuality that unnerves those with narrow sectarian interests. Tell us more.

I think the hard-edged identities of religion or ethnicity are to a great extent modern constructs. If you look at pre-modern India, what you’re really looking at is a set of intersecting geographies. The three major dynamics are trade routes, pilgrimage routes and invasion routes. You find a constant migration of people: new cults, new texts, new religious ideas and also new secularities. From the 12th to the 18th century this is what you have. A lot of this activity is in fact confluential – people who extend themselves beyond what is permitted to them canonically. We’re still playing out the politics of the 20th century to a large extent – which was a really divisive, annihilative politics, creating hard-edged identities at the expense of the other. In a situation like that everybody suffers but what are most damaged are forms that developed at the intersections. A particularly sad example internationally would be the culture of the Arab-speaking Jews, a flourishing culture from Morocco, Iraq and Syria, which completely fell between the lines of Zionist and Arab interests. It’s impossible to continue, pushed into an either/or logic. The imagination becomes less capacious in these terms.

The term secularism is often upheld as the preferred, politically correct narrative – how does an essentially syncretic figure like Lalla add to or complicate the debate?

Secularism is technically an equidistance from all religions. In India it’s come to represent an ability to embrace all religions. The tragedy is that however you interpret it, it involves simplifying or damaging the sense of all religions, their richness of detail. If by secular you mean something that is skeptical of the sacred, then that’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the religious imagination. My problem with this is that secularists tend to embrace the cultural concepts of religion while shying away from the philosophical and ideological.

This work is also interesting in the debate about cultural authenticity. You’ve said that “authenticity suggests an original against which comparisons can be made”, and that Lalla is “a perfect argument for how culture is always a hybrid invention”.

Until the earlier 20th century, the vakhs were orally transmitted. In the 1920’s there was a print version, which assumes authority, so what were earlier versions became variants. So long as it was oral or in the form of script it was still an open-ended text. This theory I’ve put forward of a contributory lineage allows us to look critically at the whole concept of authorship. From my point of view the corpus is full of performers, writers, editors and the unlettered people of the [Kashmiri] valley. In the nature of how such contributions work, what is important is not the name of the author (which cannot be known) but attributes made.

Men on quests of faith had the acceptable trajectory of being a son, a householder, a retiree and then a renunciate to look to. Female seekers like Lalla had to reject the system entirely. What are your thoughts on how gender might have come into play in the life and work of Lalla?

In the life more than the work. I would think the Kashmiri Saivite tradition has always been a tradition of householders. Even if there were ascetics who retreated to the forests, they were chiefly householders. For Lalla there was no other option. Her spiritual quest was at odds with what was expected of her as a woman, so she took up the life of a wandering seeker. The conventional reading has been to talk about the historical personage using scanty biographical evidence, mostly chronicles. To my mind this is not the most productive way to do this. I am more interested in the poems. The vakhs themselves contain very little personal information. I find it difficult to reduce it to a gender position. A statistical example would be that there are not more than four or five references to female labour in the vakhs. The rest are of male labour. It is wishful thinking to regard this in a gendered sort of prism.

You’ve worked on these translations for two decades, and as you belong ancestrally to the Kashmiri diaspora, lived with the idea or presence of Lalla for much longer. How has Lalla shaped your own writing or sense of the world?

I think that as with all translation projects, you are shaped by what you translate in ways that are manifest and sometimes not so manifest. It’s been very important to me in terms of extending my own work. Many people have commented on how these translations don’t sound like my poetry. The aim of the translations has been to restore the jagged, colloquial, very sharp quality of the originals. It’s been an amazing opportunity.  It has allowed me to sort through a number of ideas about the sacred and to understand the sacred as something that stands beyond orthodoxies. The sacred is compelling and it is elusive; it eludes the names and the forms.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: Women Awakened: Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India by Swati Chopra

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In traditional Hindu dharma, the seeker on the spiritual path – provided he is a man – has a clearly delineated chronological paradigm: he is an unmarried youth, a householder, a retiree in contemplation of hermitude, and finally, a renunciate. These stages of life, while restricted to those willing to fulfill their worldly duties before pursuing their inner calling, allow a space for devotion within the scope of society and even civilization. For the female seeker, however, no such prescribed model exists. Swati Chopra’s Women Awakened Stories of Contemporary Spirituality in India takes as its catalyst the practical difficulties of being female and spiritually predisposed within a patriarchal framework.

By interviewing or studying eight women who chose (or were chosen for, as it were) the ascetic life, Chopra explores the fundamentally transgressive stance that is the choice to break away from the designations and limitations of gender in the quest for God, presenting questions about threats to security along the mendicant path, rebellion against family, celibacy versus partnership, biological motherhood as opposed to “universal motherhood”, the place of femininity and emotionality, and being taken seriously once having entered the fold.

Most of these questions remain largely rhetorical. While the book begins on a peaceful, open note, as it progresses little emerges that is challenging or thought-provoking, and though each individual encountered is distinct in her own right, some chapters seem almost no different from others. The eight women mystics and seekers who are either personally interviewed, or whose work is discussed via their disciples are: Sri Anandamayi Ma, Sri Sarada Devi, Mata Nirmala Devi, Nani Ma, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Mata Amritanandamayi, Ven. Khandro Rinpoche and Sadhvi Bhagwati. Although each of them has a journey worth learning from, or at least investigating, and weighty questions are put forward in all cases, one comes away with very little illumination. Even figures as extraordinarily enigmatic as Anandamayi Ma, or as much of a contemporary phenomenon as Mata Amritanandamayi (better known as Amma, the hugging saint) are inadequately considered: neither the nature of their appeal nor the intensity of their own encounters with the divine are conveyed memorably.

There are large gaps in inquiry – six of the women seekers, including two who are foreigners by birth (Nani Ma and Sadhvi Bhagwati), are essentially rooted within the Hindu religion, though they may follow or have originated guru-centric cults. Only the book’s last two chapters, which also happen to be its most comprehensive and insightful, are interviews with two Buddhist nuns, one of British origin and the other a Tibetan of a yogic lineage. But the lack of diversity otherwise is striking, considering the many narratives from other faiths that Chopra could also have included – in syncretic India, surely it would not have been impossible to find a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Jain perspective, and these are only taking into account major traditions.

It’s also particularly interesting that the question of women’s roles within the scriptures is grappled with only in the chapters relating to Buddhism, where questions about the Buddha’s alleged misgivings about opening the sangha to female novitiates as well as the problem of a prayer in which one asks to not be given rebirth as a woman (because only men can achieve enlightenment) are posed to Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Ven. Khandro Rinpoche. The texts of the Hindu religion, the focus of the remaining chapters, are not taken to task for the misogyny and other inequalities within them. Chopra’s rather beautiful evocation of the Devi Mahatmyam, though relevant and inspiring, presents only one perspective of the role of the female – divine and otherwise – in theological literature.

To the author’s credit, she maintains a very neutral tone throughout the book, almost as if her own narration is only incidental, and not integral to the heart of the matter at hand. Only once is a significant personal involvement encountered: when she attempts an Internet exercise proscribed by Mata Nirmala Devi and is unmoved by it, but by itself the episode says very little. While the lack of subjectivity, which could easily have manifested in proselytizing or argument, is refreshing, it also eventually becomes somewhat unexciting. Spiritual experience is profound in both its ecstasies and in the wretchedness of its longing – as the passionate Sri Ramakrishna, who emerges ironically as the bedrock of the chapter ostensibly about his partner, Sri Sarada Devi, illustrated. A little more sharing about Chopra’s own spiritual quest – as Carol Lee Flinders’ At The Root of This Longing: Reconciling A Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst, Margaret Starbird’s The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine or any of the numerous books of the past few decades that have explored a women-centric faith have done – could have enriched it by a great deal. Religion is structural, but spirituality is personal and individual. This is the book’s core message, but lost in its own telling.

 An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.