Two books in fairly quick succession on almost the same subject—the presence of the goddess within living beings, the necessity of recognising the link between myth, ritual and lived, everyday experience. First, the book I reviewed only a few months ago for the same magazine—Shobita Punja's Daughters of the Ocean: The Goddess Within. And now, in the same space, by the same reviewer yet another review of yet another book that seems to tread the same intellectual territory: Mrinal Pande's Devi: Tales of the Goddess in Our Time.
Three women: two writers and one reviewer, women writing women, women reading women, women empowering women. Yet, each so differently. If Punja's argument was centred around the need to create an ungendered principle of Shakti, one unlinked with biological, social or economic paradigms, Pande's avowedly feminist design to present a gendered, womanly Shakti effectively denies male participation in this demonic principle.
However, despite the seeming dissimilarities in style, attitude and technique, there are still enough links that reflect a shared agenda. Both writers write out of a deeply felt need to bridge the yawning abyss that confronts post-modernist women and men. In a society that steadily consumes everything—ideas, issues, myth and rituals—the need to recover the true meaning of an evocative symbol, to connect it with individual lives, to rescue pulp religiosity from its tinsel trappings and transpose it on individuals, becomes increasingly vital.
Nevertheless, where Punja is content to dwell in the lands of popular psychology, Pande needs and seeks to do a different thing. Devi resonates with a deeply felt anger, a divya-Shakti much like that which the text attempts to describe. The prefatory remarks—characteristically forthright—clarify the positions taken.
Far from the reality of a consumerist, patriarchal society that coalesces the several avatars of the Devi into one—that of Divine Mother—is the Devi that belongs to women alone. Thus, rescued from the sentimentalist tradition that limits understanding of the goddesses to their mothering roles, is Mrinal Pande's account of the several goddesses and their kinship with their mortal, womanly counterparts. According to Devi, the goddesses belong to women, reflect womanly concerns—anger, rejection, sexuality, deviousness, even deceit—that help them survive a blighting patriarchy.
If there is the Devi Mother, she is like a woman's own—loved yet criticised, turned to in the hour of need, always placated, deified and never, ever defied. The goddesses belong to women everywhere, not to the male guardians in their sanctums with their picture-perfect goddesses—lip-sticated, perfumed, dressed to kill. Pande's goddesses live free, impart freedom, and belong to "millions of women", who "have worshiped (them) all their lives, sometimes for strength, sometimes for protection, but mostly out of an abiding love for their own kind".
What emerges then is a portraiture of goddesses as endearingly human. We have Pande's re-visioning of the female triad: "Laxmi with her frank and arrogant brushing off of fools and laggards; Parvati with her refreshing sexuality and sense of humour; the cerebral Saraswati with her total self-absorption and her unconcealed hostility to the world of pomp and glory are goddesses no God can control." It is a refrain that sings its ways through the narrative—no male control to check the energies of womanly power. What compels one most is the skilful manner in which, like the epical Penelope, Pande weaves a complex account of mythic goddesses and real life women. Thus, manifestations of the Goddess can be found in a diverse range of Pande's familiars—the wrathful, dark Vijaya driven to suicide, the sexually powerful and dangerous rustic, Saruli, and not the least, revered, devious, sexual yet cerebral Badi Amma.
Indeed, it is the spelling out of the secret places from which and into which the narrative of Badi Amma flows, that is the abiding strength of Devi. Neither the accounts of Medha Patkar's indomitable will nor Bhanwari Devi's amazing resilience capture the imagination as profoundly as the astounding narrative of an unknown Amazon who lived in the sleepy hills of Vishnupur.
Ultimately then it is the hills of Uttarkhand that remain lingering in one's memory long after the last page has been absorbedly read. Hills with little Devi temples, hills where women become devis.