Book review

Poetry that reminds us of the all too human – and animal – needs of our gods

A new translation of a classic brilliantly conveys both the bodily desire and the spiritual longing.

In the KG Subramanyam reverse acrylic that forms the cover of Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, one that is part of a brilliant series where the artist invests Hindu gods and goddesses with humid eroticism, the woman’s right fist resembles – at least to my plant-life obsessed mind – a flower bud curling open into fullness.

That, after all, is the shape of fullness in our metaphor conditioned minds. It was to this painting that I found myself turning from time to time as I grazed through a stanza such as this one:

Drunk
with honey
from the opening lotus
pond the bee flies
to its hive in the sandalwood grove.

The sensuousness of these lines work at two levels: it reminds us of the all too human – and animal – needs of our gods; and it takes us back to how plant life has often provided subterfuge to eroticism. It might seem strange that I chose to begin writing about the “autobiography of a goddess” from a perspective we least associate with divinity: the sensual pleasures. To my English Literature trained apparatus, these lines – and the many which give such luscious girth to this collection – reminded me of Andrew Marvell’s poem, Thoughts in a Garden.

“What wond’rous life in this I lead!/Ripe apples drop about my head;/The luscious clusters of the vine/Upon my mouth do crush their wine;/The nectarine and curious peach/Into my hands themselves do reach;/Stumbling on melons as I pass,/Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.”

It, at first, seems remarkable that a poem on a secular subject such as a healthy garden should come to my mind after reading verses about a goddess. But there in the delight of these verses – they take us back to a time when boundaries between these different categories of experience had not been drawn.

But first to answer the question – who is Andal? Or, who are Andal?

It is no coincidence, this trail of metaphors from the garden, for Andal, the translators remind us is a “multiple voiced girl-goddess (who) wears a garland of names that mirror the arc of her ascension. As a girl she is called Goda/Kotai/Kodai – meaning “garland”, perhaps to be resonant with the occupation of her father, Periyalvar, the temple’s garland maker and as tribute to her beauty, which she details in her verses as “long-eyed”, “glossy-haired”, “she of the fine long hair”, “Kotai of the curly black tresses”, “she of fine forehead”, whose “eyebrows arch like a bow”. Such rich and meticulous self-description is at first slightly disconcerting, conditioned as we are to our imagined bodiless gods and goddesses, they particularly without body fluids.

Andal is, after all, the only female out of the twelve Alvar saints of southern India. The mythology surrounding her birth has its connection with plant life too: the Alvar saint Periyalvar found her under a tulsi plant in a garden adjoining a temple and named her “Kodai”, a gift of the earth. The rich links between botany and religion do not end there.

“She would also be known as soodikoduttasudarkodi, ‘maiden, shining bright as a golden creeper, who offered garlands after wearing them’. This final name refers to the most audacious episode in Andal’s life, when as a young girl she started wearing the garlands meant for Vishnu much to the chagrin of Periyalvar, because the flowers were meant to be pure and unsullied. After chastising his daughter, Periyalvar had a dream where Vishnu averred that he preferred the garlands after his devotee has worn them, which convinced him of the piety of his daughter’s actions.”

There are the flowers and the garlands – “Blossoms dripping nectar I string into garlands while chanting/The name of the dark one who tore Bakasura’s beak./I beseech You: inscribe my name on Your flower arrow/And shoot it into my lord Narayana”. And there are the stems and twigs – “With twigs that shall not split but surge/aflame I pledge my fidelity. I offer/garlands untouched by bees while hungering/for him who ripped the throat of the demon/bird. God of Love, I plead: aim/my flower body into his.”

There it is: “my flower body”.

A woman’s flower body, a devotee’s flower body, a lover’s flower body. Do we offer flowers as proxies for our bodies then? Why do these metaphors of female devotion and purity, Andal yes, and also Sita, have to be discovered as gifts of the soil, in gardens or on agricultural fields?

That the sensuous has to be a part of the spiritual experience comes to me every time I eat prasad, the khichuri offered to the gods one of my favourite kinds of comfort food. It is called “bhog”, and is both noun and verb, and hence the moral confusion. As food offered to the gods, it is, of course, noun; but it also means to consume, to relish, to delight and take pleasure in something or someone. Reading Andal, I began to feel at home in a world where the noun was also the verb. In other words, this is a world which refuses to make a distinction between yogi and bhogi. And what a delicious relief that is.

Bring me his garments translucent, yellow, shimmering
as pollen through which the dark majesty of his thighs rise
glistening and drape me in his scent
so my every pore is perfumed. Then shall I be content!

The translators, Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar, quote these passages in their detailed investigation of the Andal corpus in the Introduction, and in talking about the difficulties of the translating process with great transparency, mark the ways in which desire and longing for a god translates into various figures of speech. Of the various kinds employed, it is the allegory that seems most voluptuous to me. And I say this despite the beautiful allusions, particularly those Kalidasa-like equivalences between elephants and rain clouds.

The brilliance of the translators is easy to see in the weighing and then choosing of various options they created for themselves – the introduction is a great handbook for a future translator on the subject.

The brilliance of the translators is also easy to see in the way they remain invisible, in the way we meet Andal directly, without the service of middlemen.

Of all things, metaphors are the most difficult to courier in translations. As I grazed through this luscious text of desire and devotion, I could not help being struck by the abundance of the “flower body” in the translations. Bodily desire is, in any case, terribly difficult to translate into words as those of us who’ve felt lust at some point of time or the other know. And so is spiritual longing, which for a translator must be as bodiless as smoke.

It is to Chabria and Shankar’s immense credit that not for a moment does the energy of the emotions flag. Love, that most energetic of propellants, and also the wordiest, fuels every page so that one must rest from time to time and re-read what one has just read so that one doesn’t forget the beauty of drowning. If I hadn’t read Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, I might never have experienced the charisma of loving like a tree. Never again will I be able to think of a lover as human alone.

Vishnu, Andal’s beloved, is man and god and plant and animal, a wondrous hybrid. In one stanza I stood still watching over the descriptions of the hand, watching it metamorphose first into conch and then into lotus bud. After this indulgence to the eye, I found the metaphors move southwards. Passion had turned into fish.

Carp and cutlass fish nibble our young yielding thighs
as if with homely anxieties’ thousand mouths.

Has physical passion ever been described better? “Young as she was,” the translators write, “Andal had a profound understanding of mythology and Srivaishnava thought that infused her poetry as she recounts avatar after avatar and instance after instance of the great god’s attributes. Coupled with this allusive trait, she sings of physical passion”.

What is the nature of this passion? Is this passion gendered?

To answer that question, we need to ask the hagiography question about the Andal oeuvre. “Was she actually a figment of Periyalvar’s imagination, a pseudonym, a female identity he assumed to translate his love-fantasy of the god? ... The issue of gender bending has first to be contextualised: male bhakti saints almost routinely assumed female identities in order to temporarily relinquish power in patriarchal societies and thereby surrender to the divine,” write Chabria and Shankar. By the time I arrived on the last page of the book, Andal had gone missing from the social world.

This is in Periyalvar’s voice: “When the light disappeared so had She. ... alone to Srivillipur and continued tending my gardens, making garlands and composing hymns to my Son-in-Law”. After such blinding claims for and of love, is this the only way women must disappear? The trajectory continues. Surrender to overwhelming male power is how Radha and Mirabai and Lal Ded and Andal must show their devotion, and then be praised for it by being turned into metaphors. Perhaps that is why men expect this country to be Vrindavan or Thiruppavai and the object of their attention Radha and Andal, goddesses without “auto”, marginalised in their own autobiographies.

Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, translated from the Tamil and edited by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Ravi Shankar, Zubaan Books.

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