Friday 29 January 2016

Have you done your homework?

Have you done your homework?’ I asked my son, who was busy tucking a paper boat into his bag, for show-and-tell in school the next day. He nodded and pat came the question back from my kindergartner, ‘Have you done yours, mumma?

Homework? Me? I was a student many years ago, my dear. The only homework I do now is when I help you with your worksheets!’ 

But with his innocent question he had left me thinking. What would I, as a parent, consider my homework? Something as basic as planning the next day’s tiffin or the impending theme party? No. Something much more essential, to be prepared in time and with the child’s future in mind. And it took me no time to arrive at the answer - financial planning to help my son realize his dreams.

All parents plan for their children’s futures and careers form an integral part of those tomorrows. I may wish to see my son as a pilot, his father a doctor and he, in turn, might harbour his own unique aspirations. As parents all we can do is be ready – not just emotionally but financially too – for their various life goals.

While I Google searched to learn more, I chanced upon this video, a part of Axis Mutual Fund #DoYourHomework. 

Children were asked to draw a picture of what they would like to become while parents were asked to paint what they would like their children to become in the future. And, they couldn’t cross notes with each other! Surprisingly, great minds did not think alike in this case, and children expressed their aspirations to pursue careers contrasting to what their parents wished for or from them. 

It made me see how my child is perhaps much more aware than I was at his age, and with a mind of his own dreaming his own dreams. I came back to the question then – what were we doing today to assist him in his career choices tomorrow?

The same evening my husband and I got talking about it (because it is never too early, you know!) and discussed how investment in mutual funds made sense, and something which campaigns like Axis Mutual Fund #DoYourHomework, were trying to highlight. Rather creatively, actually! How?  

Firstly, by understanding parents’ perspectives about their children’s future and how they plan to fulfill their children’s aspirations. Then, children were interviewed to understand their views too. The comprehensive research covering various cities and children between the age group of 4 and 12 years was revelatory. For instance, it was found that children are getting much more independent in their career choices, and simultaneously increasing education-related expenses are the biggest parental worry. Questions beset our minds! Questions which rear their heads time and again, and this day thanks to Axis MF provoking us, asking us if we’re on the same page as our children, when it comes to their future. Who knows what heights tuition fee will reach by the time my son is ready? Am I prepared? What about foreign education? The list is endless… 

But now we know there is help at hand! 

Platforms like enlist the Why, the How and the What for parents’ reference. Parents can find out education costs for various careers across various countries, even in the future, and arrive at the ideal amount one should invest in order to meet the future requirements. The group has also curated books to inspire the children to explore career options by reading short stories on professions, colouring activities and even puzzles. At Crossword Bookstores and Kidzania, Mumbai, painting experiments as seen in the Axis MF video above were organized, with introduction to the education calculator.   

Oh, and in the age of Apps can homework be far behind? Through the Homework app, parents find out the costs of education across a multitude of courses in various countries at their finger-tips. The app not only gives info on the future value of the course which their children want to pursue, but also the estimated amount to invest to reach that goal.

Just like each child is unique in his aspirations, so are the planning paths for their parents. I guess the only important thing is being aware about their dreams as well as about those, like the #DoYourHomework campaign, who are working to make us aware and assist us in one of the most important decisions of our parenting lives. 

Friday 22 January 2016

To the ‘big’ aunty wearing tights, here’s a bigger Bravo!

I was preparing for medical entrance exams in Class 12. My chemistry tutor ran batches of 25 which began at 6 am till way past dusk, in his house. He was very good! Till that morning when he looked at me, smirked, looked away at the others and said ‘Those girls who wear tight jeans never clear these exams. I can write it down for you.’ I was 16. Everyone laughed uproariously. I never went to him again. I did get a call from a medical college in Pune. 
He wasn’t that good, after all!


A few months back I read about Amy Pence-Brown, a nearly 40-year-old woman, who stripped down to a bikini in the middle of a busy market, blindfolded. She invited strangers to draw hearts on her body in an effort to promote self-love; to promote acceptance of our bodies for what they are. Supportive comments poured in!

I quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a gift from a man and a most valuable one. 

According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking…suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated…but the pretence is always towards a power which he exercises on others. 

By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself...manifest in her gestures, voice, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. This has been at the cost of women’s self being split in two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…from earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life… Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’

Berger wrote this back in 1977. Such were the times, the expectations from women and thus of women. Appropriate it to today’s situation. Are you too thinking such are the times, still? At least partially?

Let’s go back to Amy who began this piece for us. When she exposed every popularly-defined 'ugly, fat and ungainly' part of her body what all did she do? She erased that split within! The ‘mother’ fought away her own image of herself, through years of conditioning, to free her three children from the burden of dominant beauty discourses. And the ‘fat feminist’ reclaimed her body!

And now come back to where you are sitting and reading this. What are you wearing right now? And why?

I’m inviting you to self-talk because it is something I once used to do standing before a wardrobe which always ‘played safe’ and knocked away any ‘experiment with clothes’ or ‘lust for the latest fashion’ that tried to get in. Because, will it suit me? In school there was little scope. In college the fantasies of wearing the most different dresses materialised in the changing room, and never walked out. Even after I hit 20, maybe especially then, since the world is suddenly visible to your adult eyes, a lot of clothes, accessories, make-up and hair-dos were secretly admired on others and dreamt about later. From two pony-tails in school I had graduated to one pony-tail in college, with the latest rubber band holding it, no more.  

I was very conscious of myself, and not just because of beauty magazines, advertisements, movies and social media feeding me their standards but also those people-to-people comments politely lecturing me on ‘what is okay for you’. So you know what a battle it must have been to wear my first ever halter-neck without worrying that my bust line is a shame! But when I walked out for the first time baring my back to the world, I slowly started arriving at a point of comfort with how I look in what I wear and where. It is then that realization seeped in – all these years of growing up, the ‘will it suit me?’ was more about ‘will it suit others’ idea of me?’ 

I was trying to please, to appeal to another’s sensibility. And it wasn’t even me who was doing that!  

A woman’s self-esteem is constantly crushed. Going back to Berger, girls often grow up in an ‘allotted and confined space’ and even as women face ‘tutelage’ from surprising quarters. The pressures to be dainty, pretty, shapely, combed, graceful, ironed wrap us in layers of self-judging, mummifying what we truly want to be. Colouring our image of ourselves in others’ tinted glasses. Because on our shoulders hang expectations, of others from us and those we women tend to have of ourselves as a result of constant conditioning. 

So the ‘big’ aunty in tights, walking gaily down the chic mall or the neighborhood market, and who still in a very evolved world generates snickers, may have run an obstacle course to get herself to buy her first pair, and climbed a mountain of belief to wear it! Against her family, her husband, her kids, her magazine, her friends’ sense of aesthetics, and who knows what else to reach the finish line of confidence. A true heroine, if you ask me. One who has succeeded in leaving beauty myths behind even if to don the latest fashion (for why should a tank top be the privilege of a few?) One who has accepted her body, as your ‘warts’ but her all! And one who burns the measuring tape you take to her thighs (like that despicable newspaper printing candid bum shots or a Right winger’s view on jeans) with an enviable self-assurance!

A lot is gained when we reclaim our bodies – its bulges, its scars, its pores, its patches - one step at a time. Because what we also reclaim is our Presence; social, emotional and even political presence in the world, in its truest sense. Just like Amy owned hers, in her black bikini. 

Nakedness was created in the mind of the beholder, in the Garden of Eden. And it continues to be today, in all its forms. Says Berger – 

‘She is not naked as she is.
She is naked as the spectator sees her.

Think about it.

[Entirely my opinion, the importance of which like any other is as much in its rejection as in its acceptance.] 

Sunday 17 January 2016

Older. Greyer. Fartier. Being.

Some thoughts accompanied me to the toilet when I got out of bed and walked towards it for my Birthday morning (hence probably special) dump of the day. As I sat my one-year-older behind on a Parryware commode which had clearly out-lived its pristine white life, philosophy slowly trickled out my mind. 

I am exactly a year older today. Just a teensy-weensy year, no more! What happens when we turn a year older? Inside, outside, upside, South side, all sides. What really happens? What changes? Or petulantly refuses to change? Or dithers between changing and maintaining status quo of the previous donkey years? Have you too wondered? 

There wasn’t much to make conversation with in the loo, though the shampoo bottle waved with eager ears like never before, so the monologue necessarily turned inwards. I dug the grey matter deep and thought … 

If we were to see our naked body in extremely super(duper)-subsonic slow motion over the years of our lifetime, what would we see? We should be able to watch strands of hair gradually turning grey and dropping off with the speed of feathers on a windless day. The wrinkles becoming prominent – deeper, longer, permanent. The eyes becoming puffier and lashes flying away, one tiny strand at a time. The hair on the chin getting coiled. Lips going thinner, arms floppy and a general loosening of the body taking over the face, the neck, the stomach, the bums, the … everything that can surrender to gravity. In slow motion we would see a hunch developing, the knees bending outwards and the white of the teeth, toe nails and eyes changing colour. And some parts just going poof! The ultimate vanishing act – naturally or on hospital beds. Both internal and external. 

And as we’ll see the Life of Our Physicality unfold before our eyes we’ll realize how we all, all, are permanently moving closer to an irreversibility of ... um … what should we call it … an irreversibility of unBeing? Physical unBeing, I mean…

An itch on the red glitter-star on my hand, the one my child drew at 12am last night, and a burp that was midnight's Chocolate truffle cake all the way brought me back to my present location. I looked at the shampoo bottle. It wasn’t waving anymore. All was quiet and I was alone again. So I decided to hang around longer. Clear the system properly, which, strangely, made a mission of itself today. So I continued thinking … 

How much of all of the above changes would we be able to see on our Birthday morning? Like this 13th morning of January for me. Surely some changes come about, loitering irreversibly towards unBeing, one nano-step at a time? See, Evolution seems like an intelligent woman. She must have a way of ticking things in her chart. And to keep her court in order and organized, she would use our dates of birth to draw away from us some keratin, or adipose, or sphincter muscle, or a pinch of enamel in order to make sure we’re right on track to being, well, older, greyer, fartier. 

'Happy Birth Day', the shampoo bottle cried!

I shook my thoughts away and instinctively stared myself down and up and down in the bathroom mirror, not married to the commode at the right angle. I smiled-unsmiled. Cheeeeesed-uncheesed. Nope. The crows at the eyes still have the same feet. Arms up-arms down. Arms up-arms down. Nope. The buddies didn't look any different either (not that they have in many, many years). I ruffled my hair, head hanging in anticipation, and pore deep into the crop. I am sure I didn't see any extra greys. Then I breathed in-breathed out, rubbed my hands, slapped my thighs and felt gleefully young.

I’m still exactly me from exactly the day before. Phew!

Oh sweet Gratitude, fly away both Skywards and Downwards for irreversibility being invisible to the naked eye (which has yet to behold a picture of herself from 5 years back!). And forget bras, just burn that Life of Our Physicality slo-mo movie reel if ever it catches you unawares on your shit pots. Think more celebratory thoughts. Revel. Yes. Yes! I should! I am 33 today and it's no joke! The only time when 3 and 3 doesn’t make a six. 33. Called 'all the 3s' in Tambola. 33. Like two strapless bras standing ready to embrace you. 33. Or a pair of pouty lips naughtily kissing another pair from behind. 33. And when you press the back arrow and shift the cursor to both, they become blinking Bs. B. B. 

Yeah, of course! BE. Just be you. There we go. There's the moral of the story. Now that’s better!

Which reminds me, dear reader. It is a rumour universally acknowledged that just Being (especially biological) starts coming naturally as you grow older. Say, being on a pot waiting for it all to clear up. (There will be time, my friend!) Burping with an embedded ‘om’ just before everyone else has finished their last bite, and smiling the smile of satisfaction right back at their stares. Adjusting the undies to not get them in a bunch in front of the video cameras at the entrance of a party hall. Farting with gay abandon in the Pensioner’s Queue without a challan from the Politeness Brigade. Clearing the phlegm in matchless crescendo. Why, I've even heard that talking to inanimate things like tea cups and shampoo bottles and spectacles and dentures begins unawares. Thus you go about your daily business, all the time getting older, greyer, fartier but then that much closer to just unBeing, more and more. Not to forget getting wiser as you get older (Trump is an alien!). 

Slowly over the years the lightness of Being replaces all clouds of the heaviness of unBeing, like Pudin Hara vapours calming three helpings of Thai Red Curry. And that epiphany can happen anywhere, just anywhere!

The shampoo bottle agreed. It showed me a thumbs up and winked. I whispered a 'thank you' and got up like a Queen from her throne (only one knee groaned an arthritic groan).

Relieved. Relieved of all congestion. How strangely satisfying! 

Time to flush. 

Saturday 16 January 2016

'Sojourn in Sub-Zero' by Vasanth Gopalakrishnan

In his own words, Vasanth Gopalakrishnan is a ‘biker and family man’ who, in his free time, loves gazing at endless vistas from mountain tops with a camera in tow. While he dreams of finally leading a hermit’s life in Leh, Vasanth has taken up writing and photography which feed his passion for travelling, more often than not, on his Bullet! It is all this that forms the significant backdrop and contributes to his travelogue Sojourn in Sub-Zero

Now this is a teeny-tiny book with a great cover, the exact length and breadth you pick off the cash counter as an impulse buy, while paying for your proper book stash. In this ‘visit to Leh … nothing short of a pilgrimage’ Vasanth has ‘tried not to stray the line of making this a travel guide’, attempting to bring to the fore the otherwise hidden, and personal, moments of travel. A holiday comprises a wide spectrum of emotions, and so the author aims at not just a re-telling of done deeds but also including ‘those fleeting moments you spend preparing for the day.’ 

What we get as we read this travel account is a good idea of Vasanth’s idea of travel in general, a short peep into Leh’s local culture, persistent doses of marital humour and unexpected travel travails which translate into moments of epiphany as well as thoughts of gratitude god-wards. Cold is a constant presence and source of concern and rightly acknowledged in the title of the book itself.

‘When you actually “leave home”

Vasanth shows what the true essence of travelling for him is … ‘When you plant yourself in an uncertain terrain trying to figure out the way forward.’ The places remain the same. But ‘what changes is the experience that different people go through while travelling to these places.’ And it begins small, say trying to figure out the correct seats for catching the sunrise during the flight! 

Travel also means not just planning but being prepared for the unexpected surprises, like finding an abandoned bridge with breath-taking icicles hanging below it. In astonishing quiet, a traveler’s imagination should run wild and in all the din he should be able to ‘forget everything that you were complaining about, craving for or blaming the Almighty for.’ To simply sit, camera forgotten, and breathe in the moment. And then, ‘situations … teach you some valuable virtues’ without meaning to, even if it is Patience while waiting for a road block to be cleared and nothing to do. 

Those who love to travel will find through the author’s 80-pages long sojourn, what it means to them to travel, after the leaves from office have been approved and ‘all the fire in the world either diffused or deferred.’ There are thoughts in the book which make you meet truths you always knew but never acknowledged. How the ‘wonders of nature never get boring’, no matter how many times you’ve seen them. Or how ‘where devils go, there lies a great photo.’ You reach a ‘Line of Control’ and you realize it’s invisible, wondering where ‘the perceived difference between the people will end?’ And finally, how the same activity done in different times can generate different emotions, like packing for a trip and then again for coming home at the end of the sojourn.

It is at this essential level, where simple truisms reveal themselves, that fellow-travelers will connect with Vasanth the most. 

What you may also nod vigorously at is the marriage-humour that this trip comes full of. Except, it seems like the case of a wife who has been made to ‘practice monk-like meditation’ far too many times to seem plausible (says a wife!)

‘When have wives considered their husbands of any worth?’

Vasanth is doing his marital duties towards Sumathy. He is fulfilling the ‘obligation of finishing what would be spared by my better half’ one heavy breakfast to another. He is running a tips-and-tricks commentary for her about a terrain he has measured on his Bullet. And he is also showing the right amount of hero-bravado by stepping into high velocity winds. Best of all, he is leaving Sumathy in the cozy confines of her hotel when she wants to rest her feet, alone.    

However, Vasanth is the one doing all the talking, not just about Leh but about his marriage too. And not just talking, by the way, but reading his wife’s frowns, her sighs, her smiles and even interpreting her dreams, his own way! Between the wife and the driver he ends up picking the latter as a safer option for chatting. No surprise then that the only time we do see an otherwise quiet and still (and almost bored cold?) Sumathy leap out of the cab is to kiss a frog-shaped rock and ‘wager her chance for a better prospect.’ 

Sumathy is a constant presence next to him as the cold is around him. But one is left wishing, after all the good-humour around marriage, that she came through as a flesh-and-blood companion in this ‘Sojourn in Sub-Zero’.

Of course, there are some others who they meet and who become people in the book.

‘Thand kaisha lag raha hai?’

From home stay owners to restaurant servers, from Habib and family to the loyal driver and guide and the ‘stickler for punctuality’ Haq Saab, Vasanth has, with great regard, shown the innate goodness of everyone he met. 

The locals ‘hold the fort despite the aggressive onslaught of the freezing weather’. The magnanimity and feeling of humanity, even if in the form of homemade cookies and green tea, makes our travelers realize how small towns hold a warmth that bigger cities don't any more. The beauty of communicating without a shared language and the wonder of realizing that strangers can be saviors make for heart-warming memories. Like the ‘unsaid agreement’ between drivers of cabs moving together on precarious routes, watching each others' backs. Or the ‘shroud of sadness’ in Haq Saab’s eyes when it is time for Vasanth and his wife to bid goodbye. 

It is these people who give an enormous amount of character to the book. And it is this portrayal which creates an unknown land in our mind’s eyes, much better than any information or description of any site can, or has in the book. 

Of course, not all is pretty and travel comes with challenges too.

‘I was scared.’

Travel travails come in all sizes. Imagine being told that you have to wait for the television to come on, for it takes a while for it to heat up! Or the water in the commode being frozen! And now imagine a head heavy with AMS and a cab taking three hours to cover mere 10 kms of a road full of slippery snow, water streams, landslides and deep pits. All this after giving the cars TLC in the form of quilts for engines and tea down the radiators for warmth. 

Sojourn in Sub-Zero’ tells us about problems typical of the harsh climes of Leh and the ingenious solutions devised by the locals, with a gentle reminder that these bits, novelty for us city-dwellers, are means of day-to-day living for those in Leh. 

The roadblocks in ‘Sojourn in Sub-Zero

... and there are a few which interfere with enjoying this trip fully!

Vasanth made us expect a different kind of travel account, an unconventionality of holidaying that doesn’t believe in site-hopping alone. However, despite the moments of surprise encounters, the book predominantly moves from one popular tourist site to another. Which would have been fine, except Vasanth fails to bring alive those exotic places in the readers’ minds through his words. The ‘wide spectrum of emotions’ he wanted to convey is not so wide, and usually told, not shown. ‘I felt like I was watching a movie through a bioscope’ and the many cross references to movie scenes at opportune times make for insufficient description. The book is ridden with references to him taking photographs and capturing beauty. The reader will find herself wishing for those pictures, hoping they would make up for what the descriptions fail to create. 

Then, it would have been useful to know if the airport in Leh is not ‘possibly one of the highest in the world’, or the name of ‘special wooden instrument’ used for making Ladakhi chai, the ‘some kind of inflammable liquid’ used in Losar celebrations, what the ‘parade of burning hay-balls’ is actually called and so on. Vernacular terms would have added an authenticity to the account which those interested in travelogues hunger after.  

The tenses in parts of the book are out for a stroll, 'breathe' usurps 'breath' space and ‘arctic conditions’ is perhaps not the best phrase to describe an entirely different geographical location. 

Like a travelogue is meant to do, ‘Sojourn in Sub-Zero’ does somewhat acquaint you with a place which retains its mystical charm despite its tourist popularity. It also makes you meet some lovely people there. It carries moments both serene and shocking, throwing light on facets of travel and bringing to you lessons drawn from Vasanth’s own life. But it leaves you asking for more, falling a tad short of fully satisfying your traveller-curiosity about Leh. Descriptive attempts fail to evoke images of the described, the reader remaining unable to see Leh fully through Vasanth's eyes.

What does come across completely is Vasanth’s love for this land and a young spirit hungry for adventure. Perhaps, a conversation with  Vasanth will more successfully enthuse one about Leh and about travelling, making up for bits that his book ‘Sojourn in Sub-Zero’ lacks. 

'Sojourn in Sub-Zero' by Vasanth Gopalakrishnan is published by Notion Press, 2015.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Saturday 2 January 2016

'Shakti the Divine Feminine' by Anuja Chandramouli

How inadequate genre tags can be! Shakti the Divine Feminine by Anuja Chandramouli is Fiction on the back cover. In the Author’s Note, we are requested to not bother our heads too much about which parts are fiction and which derived from ‘documented mythology’. So for some it becomes part real! And then, after reading the book, you may find yourself taking it all as a very true story; of women and men, rapes and witch hunts, honour killings and patriarchal diktats and other earthly evils. 

Except, we’re talking about the world of gods and goddesses here, living on holy clouds and who we thought to be untarnished by the faults of the lesser mortals. What has Anuja done? She has held a mirror skywards, erasing lines of holy-unholy, divine-mortal and man-god in order to make contemporary ‘the numerological nightmare that was the divine pantheon’. How? By bringing to the discussion table, through the events in the book, gender issues, ideas of morality, of justice and rigid conventions by, ahem, making use of ‘all the devas who had allowed their consciences to snooze for so long’. 

Unlike her previous book Kamadeva the God of Desire, this book is not a subaltern “mythology told from below” in a slap-n-stick satirical story meant to make you laugh, uncomfortably. ‘Shakti’s power as a book lies in its unashamed exposure of the gods’ chauvinism and patriarchy, intelligently created scenes of dialogue provoking gender discourses and the striking way in which the ‘divine feminine’ rises. What finally emerges is Anuja’s, and perhaps our own, sense of an Ideal of living. This is packed in visually entertaining epical scenes reminding you of Homeric battles, heart-wrenching voices of women violated and power-packed spectacles of the innate ability of the feminine – not just divine, do note, but of the human kind too.

Before we begin anything auspicious, we must invoke the gods, right?

The story leaves no scope to doubt ‘tantrum-throwing pubescent’ Brahma’s ‘senselessness of the true masochist’, Vishnu’s ‘hubris’ and even Shiva as the ‘unmitigated jerk’. ‘Aggrandizement was the elixir that kept (the Gods) immortal’. It is how they all are, here in Anuja’s world! However, it is ‘the consummate politician’ Indra who bears the satirical brunt of Anuja’s thunderbolt the most, because it is to his deeds and misdeeds in the plot, as the King of Gods, that the birth of the various avatars of Shakti can be attributed to. In that sense though, he’s to be thanked. Otherwise, ‘the heat of greed, lust and an insatiable taste for spilled blood’ drives him. Worst of all, he’s a betrayer of love and friendship. Of course, he’s not alone up in the clouds!

Most gods harbour a patriarchal, authoritarian and oppressive attitude in ‘Shakti’. When they are not sprouting extra heads to feast on feminine assets, they are setting moral codes of conduct for women to be ‘ladylike’ and punishments for being otherwise. Lascivious intent exists only in the women. The men are being, well, just men! Beautiful little female things were made for ‘convention and sacred duty’. So if Usas, the goddess of Dawn, lived free from their rigid structures, baring her breasts brazenly, she had to be ill-used and driven away with betrayal and raucous cheers. Female indomitable spirits needed to be broken to the gods’ satisfaction, and ‘honour of the immortals’ thus restored.  The ‘suppression of divine femininity’ was so imperative, that a sabha full of ‘movers and shakers of the three worlds’ like Brihaspati, Dadichi, Vishnu, Indra, Saptarishis and Manu decide how crimes against women need to be forgotten and ignored, laws of female decency to be enforced and ‘iron laws of Manu’ to be given permanence. All this after stripping the many avatars of Shakti of all her merit in defeating demons single-handedly! To undo the contamination of the goddess’s cult is their ‘cause’. We’re talking about the celestials here. Too real to not remind you of us mortals.

As the story of ‘Shakti’ rolls on, you see ‘the three worlds are filled to overflowing with sexist swine.’ Rambha weeps – ‘You have to put a stop to this madness. So many of us … We did nothing wrong… There was nothing left of Menaka’s face… those ungrateful bastards to whom we gave so generously of our love have no mercy, now that they have had their fill of us!’ Thus emerge the Mother Goddess and her various avatars – Usas, Durga and Kali. Herein lies the need of an alternative, more compassionate, power. And unlike the masculine one, this one evolves with the hour. In its birth and progress in the book also lies the strong current of feminist discourse that forms the backbone of ‘Shakti’. 

But first, what is this divine feminine?

Usas hated being owned in monogamy. Her rape was meant to be! But while she runs away in banishment, from herself and her cowardice, she vows to never be a victim again, and instead to ‘dig deep to find all the resources she needed from within.’ Thus emerges Durga, from the core of Shakti, whose power surpassed that of the Holy Trinity. No one knows what goes on in her head, but everyone knows ‘it’s all in her hands now.’ And it is. What is? Deliverance from evil! In battle after epic battle which make the reader gasp at the women in a red sari taking on blood-thirsty demons – through her mind, her talk and even her sexuality.  As a ‘vision of loveliness’ she annihilates Mahisha’s best men ‘without even getting her hair mussed up’. Lances which felled rampaging rhinos fall broken on touching her hip chain! Beyond the pale of understanding are her ways. And why not? For she heals as she annihilates, unlike the masculine. She exposes evil to its own evil, and then comforts with compassion, absorbing their pain where regret sets in. 

New women evolve out of old injustices, women who ‘prefer being feared to abhorred’. Kali is born when things come to such a pass. A different kind of the divine feminine where ‘neither compassion nor forbearance are her strongest suits’. A bloodthirsty female to counter bloodthirsty men, yet still with a presence which is ‘strangely soothing’. Even Indra, dying because of her, feels her mother’s touch. The shakti of Shakti is this. And that of the mortal feminine too. 

Shakti the Divine Feminine encourages thought about gender relations, marriage, conventionality, the idea of morality and the morality of punishment. Anuja wraps the celestial stalwarts in dialogues which dot the narrative at important turns to incite argument and hence enlightenment. Trishiras’s dialogue with Indra, about the lust for knowledge, before Indra kills him speaks to the seekers in us. Then, the powerful discussion between Mahishasura and Durga in their final combat raises important aspects of violence, deception, compassion and how the lines dividing a hero from a villain are vague. Vritra’s philosophy, rejected by the Gods as madness, argues its case for androgyny, how traditional roles for women are limiting to their power, how the power play between the sexes needs to stop, and how men have wiped out women’s contribution and given them the burden of honour-keeping. An assembly of powerful Gods is seen rejecting such unconventional ideas of equality as a ‘unique brand of garbage’. And then the scene between Kali and Shakti, about the kinds of women and their roles, much like two kinds of feminists chatting over coffee and holding their own, and making peace with how ‘these things boil down entirely to perspective.’ Finally, Kali and Indra’s discussion about ‘tight-assed high priests of conventionality’ judging women with free will who reject childbearing roles. By now, the reader is looking around wherever she sits reading and saying, this is us and our minds Kali is talking about. Clever Anuja!

With a book thus power-packed with feminine punches, the closure which sees Shakti uniting with Shiva may seem to dilute the whole idea of powerful, independent female survivors. But Shakti’s confrontation of Shiva in taking away the ‘power and memories so that it would be easier to chain me to your will and plus-sized ego’ is an important scene. The reader envisions a married couple arguing about curtailment of freedom and rights, and needless protective possessiveness. While Shiva whispers how ‘I took your memories to build a bridge between the many identities you have created … to reconcile themselves’ and Shakti sees it as ‘a hostile takeover of my very person’ by self-appointed protectors, the reader is left to examine human relationships via the medium of these two celestials. 

Cannot help but wonder … Is Anuja upholding the ideal of a harmonious, balanced couple over a goddess who always walked away from an unfair Shiva, even if to return? Is Anuja saying a woman needs a man’s support to bind in peace all the many roles that she plays in life? Or is it simply a way of affirming one of the commonest strands of feminism, based on lived everyday equality? Every reader will answer this for herself. 

You will close the book on the very note that it began with. There is no way of knowing what was real and what wasn’t in the events of this story. Sachi, Indra's wife, says ‘there is no history, only stories. And the beautiful thing about stories is that they can always be rewritten to suit the need of the hour’. Anuja Chandramouli has done exactly that, and in that act of hers created an alternative epic (or an alternative to epics!) containing all that ‘has gotten lost from the collective consciousnesses’ and not been included in books by the ‘members of the Vedic brotherhood’. What remains without doubt is this – 

‘There would always be the need for a resourceful goddess, who could survive against the odds, learn from her mistakes and evolve with the passing of the ages.’

A formidable book that first exposes and then inspires thought about our reality, albeit through the Heavens above.

Shakti the Divine Feminine by Anuja Chandramouli is published by Rupa Publications, 2015.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]
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