Book review

‘The Birth of Kali’: Women from mythology reclaim their space in the stories men wrote about them

Anita Sivakumaran does a thorough demolition job in her fiction on the patriarchal images of mythological female characters.

The title of Anita Sivakumaran’s The Birth of Kali is a great point of intrigue because the name Kali is laden with meaning and metaphor. It could either be an allusion to the dark-skinned and fearsome Hindu goddess, or to the yuga or age of Kali – the terrible, misshapen times that we are supposed be living in. Either way, it smells of disruption and undoing. We find out eventually that it is the title of one of the short stories from this collection, but the force of feminine agency runs strong through all the stories.

Sivakumaran’s heroines are brazen – the “dangerous” free-thinking kind, who were being dragged to exorcists or burnt at stakes until a few centuries ago. It is an absolute delight to watch her women characters tear down patriarchy, sometimes with fury, but mostly with absolute nonchalance. Each of the eight short stories and a play in the collection features a woman who – whatever her station in life – is unwilling to bend in the world of men.

Sita stirred (not shaken)

Sivakumaran uses the story of Sita as her starting point for dismantling the status quo – the first block knocked off the Jenga tower, as it were. And there could not have been a better choice, for Sita is that painfully “perfect” prototype, whose image contributes greatly to women’s problems in India.

“Lakshmanan’s Circle” opens in the forest with Ram(an) out doing those saviour type things, leaving Sita(i) under Lakshman(an)’s watch, a watch so intrusive that the poor woman can’t even poop in peace. Ram’s absences are so long and the uncertainty so heavy that we find Sita almost wishing him dead. Better mourning than not knowing. But Sita’s “saviour” is around the corner in the form of Surpanakha (Surpanakai).

In much of modern feminist literature, Surpanakha has been recognised as an independent woman, in charge and unashamed of her sexuality. Sivakumaran’s character is no different, except that she pushes the envelope just a little more. We Indians, who are used to even our rakshasis being proper, are sure to feel a little shocked when we are allowed to enter Surpanakha’s head and witness her fantasies of Lakshman going down on her. Even more shocking is that this Lakshman actually does it. It appears that a sexually-starved man will have sex, especially when a woman is willing.

Sivakumaran’s mythic world is unapologetically like the real one where desire is a reality, and no one is beyond its reaches. The author does not shy away from acknowledging the sexual tension even between Sita and Lakshman. But she does it artfully, with Sita mouthing, “Time rushes like a river between us (my brother-in-law and me), quenching neither of our bodies of its tension.” Morality is equally real, for the same man compensates for his “sins” by overtly projecting virtue on to the woma(e)n he lords over. Lakshman’s rekha is a metaphor, much more of a line of control in the relationship between him and Sita than it has to do with her and Ravana. It is that blazing circle of propriety of Manu’s law, of all that is certain and “right” and lasting.

Surpanakha offers Sita a choice to cross over, and she takes it. Abduction turns into emancipation – freedom offered in a way that only one woman can offer another. There are no villains in this story; just a wilful end to a relationship that is worth nothing. “Taking time, savouring it almost, I shed first the betrothal ring, then the wedding pendant, then the carved ivory combs, then the conjugal toe rings, and with them, I shed bit by bit, my marriage to Raman.”

Wanton women’s club

Sivakumaran’s story of Sita – easily the best in the collection – forms a template for her leading ladies. The reader learns early on to expect anything but conformity from the rest. Another Ramayana story follows, this time with Ahalya (Akalya) in the lead. While the original myth is known for her release from petrification thanks to Rama, Ahalya’s story here is actually one that tackles the tangle of morality and sexuality. For our Ahalya has no doubts about what she wants. She chooses Indra’s virility and comes clean. When her former husband tries to change the narrative, to cover her “shame” by forcing her to admit she was tricked into adultery, she refuses. “A woman’s tongue is taught always to say yes. No, the powerful negative, the zero occupies me…” She chooses to shut down to the world (like a stone!), rather than let it dictate the story of her life.

The third story, “Kannaki’s Anklet”, is an abridgement of the famous Tamil epic, Silappathikaram. This heroine’s act of rebellion is in her stoic love and a refusal to suffer. She is a noblewoman, who calmly accepts all transgressions of her wayward poet husband, simply to abide by her own decision to stand by him. “I knew,” she says “that once I allowed myself anger, it would grow and never stop.” Kannaki has no place for self-pity or false pride but when her “mission” is snatched from her, she burns the town down.

Disruption, satiation

“The Birth of Kali” comes next and is arguably one of the most succinct renditions of a particularly difficult and esoteric subject. The symbolism of this goddess is complex and layered, and creation stories are abstruse, but the author maintains perfect control and coherence, skilfully conveying the most metaphysical of ideas into tangible meaning in the opening paragraph:

“From the intense quiet begins a hum, a resounding nothingness. The hum grows and spins, node on membrane, skin on cartilage. Into what is perceived to be an ear. But who does this perceiving?

Only the ear receives the silence. Then there is the head between thee ears. Two eyes, a tremble of pupils behind lashed eyelids. Eyes, then nose, mouth. Hair. Matted, dirty locks springing from the wasteland of the scalp. Thrown down to the shoulders, breasts, a caving belly and legs. And the place all the resonance reaches and swirls into. The empty O, where nothingness echoes endlessly. The mouth that swallows worlds. The eyes open.”

Thus is Kali born in Sivakumaran’s story, keeping the reader riveted whether she is drinking blood at Durga’s kill party, having orgies in the cremation ground, or devouring everything in her path, including Shiva.

In The Making of Avvai, the author alludes to the tradition of solo female poets in Tamil literature. Loving, pining, losing, and renouncing are the stages of this heroine’s journey. She finds herself first through the love of Velan (Kartikeya), and then the asceticism of Pillai (Ganesha). Sivakumaran’s Avvai does not settle for a lesser, mortal love. If she cannot have the god of amorousness, she wants nothing at all.

The next two stories are retellings of tales from the Mahabharata, and the last but one an adaptation of a Puranic tale. Interestingly, the gender of the protagonists starts changing at this point, and by the time we are in the last piece, a play, the concept of gender is completely annihilated. The first Mahabharata story, “The Terrible Oath”, is that of Shikhandi, who goes from being a woman to a man in two births. Just as the retelling begins to seem ordinary, the author casually tosses in an audacious twist by making her Bhishma kiss her Amba!

There is no escaping all kinds of instincts in Sivakumaran’s stories. A woman gives, and she gives good, such as in the seventh story “Krishnalila”. The protagonist of this story is surely Krishna, but the reader remembers only Krishnaa (Draupadi) in the end because she becomes her own redeemer in this version. The play, “The End of Ages”, begins with a sexless mud blob and ends with a cardboard cut-out, and a darkly comic depiction of the end of the world in between. The man, metaphor, metaphysics – they all dissolve at the end into Kali’s dark mouth that is the eternal nothing.

Sivakumaran in not the first to produce a book of feminist retellings, and will surely not be the last, but hers is an important voice. The Birth of Kali is an easy book of difficult ideas, especially if read through patriarchal eyes. It isn’t hard to imagine case of “hurt public sentiments” being filed against the author by some random “man”, because her heroines overturn every traditional idea on its head, threatening to disrupt all known social structures. They are all Kali indeed, who must destroy norms and wipe slates clean to be able to write new narratives. There is no room for doubt or shame in her renditions, which may well serve to remind women to reclaim their space in the stories men wrote about them.

The Birth of Kali, Anita Sivakumaran, Juggernaut Books.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.