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.]