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The Birth of Kali celebrates the spirit of pluralism and fluidity in Indian myths, retelling them from the perspective of 9 feminist feminist voices that speak of inner feelings not usually addressed.
Indian mythology is full of multifaceted characters.
You get the drift? Indian mythology is anything but sanitised, and almost always shocking. Both gods and demons leave us awestruck and bewildered in equal measure.
In Anita Sivakumaran’s retelling of the myths, we are taken in for a zoomed in view. Parts are put under the microscope for us to rethink these stories. In the retelling we find parallels to the seemingly more mundane world of the world today. The familiar feelings of lust, shame, yearning, outrage, discrimination and the burden of duty. Nothing is as we always imagined.
The myths are retold by a new story-teller who celebrates that Indian myths have no one version but are ever changing in form and structure, so that they may entertain and instruct in equal measure. In that sense they seek to negate a sort of monolithicity and appropriation that is increasingly creeping in the mainstream. Instead we have a rather joyous telling of the myths with strong feminist voices, some belonging to women, being told.
For instance in Lakshmanan’s Circle, based on the famous instance when Lakshmanan in the Ramayana draws a circle of protection around his sister-in-law and tells her not to cross it in any event. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka arrives as a sage and chides her for not coming to him to give alms. Caught between listening to her brother-in-law and her duty, Sita leaves the circle.
The circumstances in this book are quite different. In this Sitai befriends Surpanakai, sister of Ravana and decides she needs to be free of Ram and her other wifely/daughterly duties. Surpankai asks her brother Ravana to kidnap Sitai and give her protection in a grove. Sitai walks out of the famous circle on her own will. Gone is the Sitai who adores her husband as a Lord rather than a companion.
Here Sitai seems stifled in her circumstances – of being exiled and being the mate of one so perfect and unflawed. It turns the story on its head and Sitai seems more human rather than one pure and sacred. Sitai’s feelings, Lakshmanan’s momentary lapse into adultery, Surpanakai’s being accused of being too free and audacious – an eerie resemblance to the many allegations of a single woman, living independently – are refreshingly new perspectives to an age-old story.
Instead of viewing the characters in this story, and the others in the collection as actors in a story, we see them as people with vivid inner lives, temptations, difficulties and yearning.
The narrative voices in this collection of 9 stories with mythological leads are not always women. In Krishnalila it is Krishna who speaks of the many women in his life – his friend Draupadi, his mother Yashodara, his first love Radha and the Gopis. This story spoke to me about adoptive love, shared love and a love that helps people withstand great shame. The author pulls quite a coup in the Kamsa chapter of the story, stressing on the power of the story-teller and the images they seek to burn in the mind of the reader.
This book is not for the faint-hearted certainly. The old stories are completely reimagined in ways one never really thought possible, and the language did make my chocolate skin blush in many parts for their spot on comparisons!
Reading the story of the pious Akalya, expecting her to be the passive victim who is tossed around in a play by husband and god, one prepares oneself to feel sorry for her. Instead the author throws these lines at us. “There I am, famous for my quiet beauty, peeling small onions the colour of inner labia for my husband’s lunch. I am also known as an exemplar of wifely duty.”
What?! The book is full of similar lines that will make you do a double take, and never see small onions in quite the same light again. This Akalya is no wallflower. She relishes a chance she gets to savour the chicken she stopped eating after being married to her aging husband, almost as if she is savouring life with all its juices. She chooses to make love and to be devoid of it on her own terms. The etiolated Akalya chooses to have her moment in the sun, knowing fully well that there will be a huge price for her to pay.
Sivakumaran’s take on Kannagi does not really deviate from the original, but conjures up an all loving Kannagi, ever in love with her philandering, weak husband who is weak of verse. The description of a woman who has left her comfortable family situation in favour of marrying a man for his artistic talent that never fulfills its potential but loses its way is well sketched out. Her love is true, her outrage and anger enough to burn a city.
The titular story The Birth Of Kali reads like a tremendous dance set to the beat of a thousand drummers. The story is abuzz with a controlled, frenzied energy, one which pulsates as we read the story. The image of Kali’s birth is vivid and powerful – she who is born of an emotion, and then seeks her place in the world.
The author presents each character with such great love and detailing, that we often forget that they are gods, kings, queens, great warriors, or demons. They are all presented as complex people with different fires that make them do what they do. Some stories end in great tragedy but the players in the act are all fully aware of their positions in the hierarchy, and yet they choose to leave the circle that binds them there, some willfully, others due to the push of circumstances.
Certainly a book I would recommend, even if a difficult read for the ‘believer’, it is a brilliant set of speculative fiction for the thinking reader interested in mythology and feminist narratives.
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Top image via Flickr and book cover via Amazon
Sheeba is the co-founder and editor at Little Kulture, a website dedicated to discovering
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