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.