July 27, 2020
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Swadeshi Seduction

A narrative for our times

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Swadeshi Seduction
Daughters Of The Ocean: Discovering The Goddess Within
By Shobita Punja
Viking (Penguin India) Rs 300; Pages: 312
INDIA sells. It awaits its plunderers with a reckless generosity. The raiders come in many guises: smart-talking technocrats, smooth industry barons, fumbling bureaucrats and, not the least, imaginative artists. The richness of India lies in its bounty of myths, legends, tall-tales, folklore, rituals—its wealth of imagined creations. Invade its mythical landscape, barricade its folklore and tribal art, mine its impossible multi-culturalism and still you have only won what can never be taken away.

India sells, especially now. Everyone is buying Indian—from films on Buddha toimmersion of rock stars in the mythical Ganges, to the slew of books on ideas/ideologies Indian. Shobita Punja's Daughters of the Ocean: Discovering the Goddess Within is another seductive milestone in a journey that proves yet again that nothing seduces more than the swadeshi, the home-spun fabric of Indian mythology.

We are the new voyagers, our enterprise the discovery of worlds already discovered, the drawing of maps already drawn. So it is with Punja's book. The core of the narrative is Shakti, or more specifically the re-casting of Shakti. In fact, for the unwary, gendered reader, the fly-jacket clarifies that this new, improved Shakti is ungendered, a principle that exemplifies "the capability and potent energy to be found in all men and women.... The ability to learn, to act, to transform ourselves, to care and to be humane". The preface further refines the authorial position (ing). Punja writes: "I have chosen well-known stories that relate to the life cycle of all human beings." Continuing in the same vein, though with a trace of self-consciousness, Punja apologetically spells out her choices: "They are all about Hindu goddesses not because I am a rabid (!) feminist, but because that is the theme I have chosen. I could have quite easily written about other myths—male-oriented ones—but I will save them for another occasion."

However, Punja's choice of subject, the desire to explore the symbolic manifestation of the fascinating Indian goddess is neither novel nor really problematic. In recent years, the Indian novel, especially as written by women novelists, has turned to the principle of shakti in new and exciting ways. Indeed, the symbolic space allocated to Shakti has always been an imaginative minefield—witness kitschy Bollywood productions.

What places Punja's book at both a distance and at parity is her manipulation of a symbolic web of association about the manifold avatars of Shakti: "the capacity to do". Thus, where others have relied on the normative and used it in terms of a person breaking free, Punja seeks to create a universe where each individual is freed from bondage to self. The interesting departure is not the discovery of the goddess within—that has been done elsewhere too—but how each one has the capacity to transform his or her own life.

It is a narrative for our times, a Baedaker, a panacea, a heal-thy-self primer, a guidebook to steer through the wreckage of a frantic cyber-space, post-modernist, increasingly elusive world. Targeted seemingly at an audience of liberals, Daughters of the Ocean speaks to and for the surging mass of politically correct per- sons. Indeed, the subtitle could very well be "Politically Correct Stories for our Times". What comes across most forcefully is Punja's need to prove the colour of her ideology: liberal, humanist, feminist, environmentally-conscious, and a staunch proponent of equal opportunity. Yet, despite its overriding ideological thrust, its sexual-textual baggage, the account of journeying within, of questing for new, better selves has a certain power and resonance. Punja's accounts of Durga and Sati especially make for compelling reading. What is never in doubt are Punja's credentials to engage with the subject of her choice. An impressive knowledge of mythic patterns, ably supported by a respectable reading list, makes Daughters of the Ocean anything but fluffy psycho-babble.

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