“It’s called Tri-devi for a reason,” Parvati’s red and gold eyes flashed haughtily from under her lowered lashes as she perched on a bench of ice at the peak of Mount Everest. Her chin was pushed up as usual, her lower lip jutting out just the slightest bit – it was the look she got when she didn’t want to do something. “There can only be three in a triumvirate, Ganga.”
An aircraft circled loudly over their heads for the seventh time that morning, giving another group of twenty-four mortals the legitimate opportunity to post an airplane-window-selfie with the hashtags #MtEverest, #OnceInALifetime #Wanderlust on their social media profiles. Parvati frowned in annoyance and waved a finger at the plane – it spiralled out of control for a few moments, probably scaring the bejesus out of the mortals inside. There’d be twenty-four new #Survivor posts within the hour.
“Then we can call it a quadrumvirate,” replied Ganga in as reasonable a voice as she could muster while trying her best to stay still and not bob side to side on her watery stomach and betray her nervousness.
Her feet were still anchored by Shiva’s matted locks a few hundred kilometres away on Mount Kailash – a situation that remained unchanged despite Parvati’s best efforts. Ganga had got quite used to leaning. In more ways than one.
Parvati blinked and looked away into the distance and back towards her home on Mount Kailash, where she knew her recalcitrant husband, Shiva, was meditating. He probably hadn’t even noticed that she’d flown off in a huff after he’d smiled at one of Ganga’s antics. Parvati had left slowly, and noisily, in the hope that he’d open his eyes (the regular ones) and notice that his consort was upset with him. His beloved consort. His only consort. She refused to call that flirtatious squatter that had fallen into his hair from the heavens a consort. Parasite would be a more accurate description. “There are only three gods in the Trimurti, Ganga. You need to have an equal number of consorts in the Tridevi.”
Ganga tilted her head with a swooshy ripple, “Fine, then I could take your place. Lakshmi, Saraswati and I. As your older sister, shouldn’t I have precedence? After all, I’m the one Shiva loves.”
“You,” Parvati’s tone was acerbic, “are not the one he loves.” A humming started as another airplane approached the mountain. She waved her finger again in irritation, bringing on a massive blizzard that enveloped the peak. The plane turned around immediately.
“I think Shiva would disagree. He considers me as much his companion as you,” said Ganga, calmly diverting an avalanche with a tsunami-like wave of her body. There was a group of mountain-climbers below that didn’t deserve to die because her sister was perpetually in a bad mood.
It was a sticky point, and Parvati knew it. After all, Ganga’s residence in Shiva’s hair was entirely official and, despite all the hype about his self-control, her husband had eventually succumbed to Ganga’s charms after pretending to resist her for what felt like all of five minutes. Just like he’d succumbed to Parvati’s wiles to get him to marry her. There was a reason why mortal men worshipped her husband’s penis, she thought snarkily.
“Also,” Ganga continued, “I’m the only goddess who has been, in a sense, a consort to all three in the Trimurti. I flow from Vishnu’s feet into Brahma’s water pot and fall to earth from Shiva’s head. If anything, I should take precedence over all three of you.”
A snort sounded loudly in the air around them, sending a flock of golden birds uttering out of a cloud.
Parvati sighed, “Show yourself, Lakshmi.”
The blizzard clouds in front of them parted and Lakshmi, dressed in red athleisure wear and clutching a smartphone, flew towards them, leaving a trail of diamond solitaires in the wind behind her. She didn’t take her eyes off the phone to greet them but that wasn’t what had both the goddesses looking on widening their eyes in surprise.
“Er, Lakshmi?” ventured Ganga.
“Have you...put on some weight?”
This made Lakshmi look up. The folds on her body had indeed multiplied since they had last met. Morbidly so. She flicked her phone to standby, carved herself an extra-large platinum throne out of the ice with a wave of her finger and asked as she settled into it with an uncomfortable wheeze, “Have I?”
“You have,” said Parvati with a fair bit of disdain, her back bone straightening with subtle pride for her rather emaciated figure. Ribs strained against her skin beneath small, naked breasts and her midnight complexion glowed with even more stars than usual.
Lakshmi shrugged, “Maybe a little. But I own it, so it doesn’t matter. Besides, Vishnu doesn’t mind.” She ran her finger absently over the ice next to her throne and it turned into Italian marble.
Now it was Ganga’s turn to snort. A river-rapid flowed from her throat as she did so.
Lakshmi turned on her with a slightly malevolent look. “Just because you flow from my husband’s feet, doesn’t make you his consort.”
Parvati nodded emphatically, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell her!”
Ganga rolled her eyes, “You two are so insecure. Saraswati agrees with me.”
“No, she doesn’t,” Parvati and Lakshmi said at the same time. Lakshmi blinked uncertainly and gold coins fell from her eyes.
“Does too.” Ganga’s arms crossed over her chest with a giant splash. The truth was, she didn’t know. Saraswati had certainly made all the right noises when Ganga had complained about how Parvati got all the importance while she herself was left largely unrecognised as Shiva’s companion in the mortal world. Now that Shiva worship had reduced even more among the mortals and politically correct Vishnu was having his time in the sun, Ganga had been relegated to little more than a dustbin for mankind’s waste.
Perhaps, she had explained to Saraswati, if she were given a bit more respect and recognition, if she were a principal goddess within the triumvirate of principal goddesses, she would be left untainted by the mortals enough to complete her earthly journey with some semblance of dignity instead of carrying and dumping an entire country’s filth into the ocean every day. Most of the creatures that had thrived within her waters for millennia were dead, her clear pink colour had turned to a blotchy brown-grey, and the stench of decay and death never left her. She was exhausted of it all, she’d told Saraswati as she crashed her arms about in enormous waves. It was time to change the way things were done.
“Besides,” mumbled Parvati with a sneer, bringing Ganga back to the discussion at hand, “Saraswati’s opinion barely matters anymore.”
“I heard that.”
Saraswati walked up to them barefoot and unadorned, appearing out of the tempestuous air. She looked old and haggard. Her normally white saree was tattered and had large saffron-coloured stains on it. She caught the others looking and sighed, “I know. Don’t ask.” Her despair hung like a wrung- out shroud around her.
They waited for her to sit on the ice before Ganga asked, “Saraswati, do you think it’s unreasonable for me to be considered Brahma’s consort? I do, after all, flow into his water-pot and am always with him.”
Saraswati shrugged, “If you can make him bestir himself enough to realise he even has a consort, you’re welcome to him.”
Lakshmi made a sarcastic attempt at sympathy, “Is the poor thing still depressed?”
Saraswati looked Lakshmi up and down with a frown as she replied, “Dearest sister, not everyone can be as prosperous as you and your husband are these days.”
Ganga flowed over in a show of support but only ended up getting Saraswati’s saree wet. The saffron colour leaked a bit into Ganga’s own watery depths as she sighed into Saraswati’s limp hair, “Times are hard, I know.”
A tinge of wetness, whether from Ganga or independent of her, filmed over Saraswati’s eyes. “The very worst since he made the beginning. I don’t know what to do. He’s just barely hanging on by the skin of his teeth.” A wrinkled lotus petal fell from her eye on to her lap.
Parvati shivered a little, and not because she was naked. Times hadn’t exactly been peachy for Shiva either and, as his consort, they were even worse for her. Shiva had once been the most powerful god in the Trimurti. They had, as a couple, enjoyed the attention and devotion of mortals almost exclusively for a long time. But, of late, Vishnu got most of the glory while Shiva came a slow second and Brahma was almost entirely out of the race. She needed to get Shiva back on top. Things were on a slippery slope and Saraswati’s condition was testament to how bad it could be if she didn’t keep pushing to stay relevant. Ganga’s quest to replace her in the Tridevi could jeopardise not only her influence, but Shiva’s as well. The idea of a principal god coupled with a mere river goddess – it was ridiculous!
“As the most senior of us all...” Parvati ignored the disagreement on all three faces and continued, “I’d like to share my opinion.”
She looked at Saraswati, “Mortals are weak-willed, self- serving creatures. You have to give them what they want. You and your husband didn’t move with the times and you became irrelevant. Don’t ask them to strive higher, or be any better than their base selves. Just give them what they want.”
Saraswati looked at Parvati and replied in an even voice, “Like you and Shiva did? You gave mortals everything they wanted and now even you’ve lost your hold on them. Unbridled lust, drug-filled orgies, bloody carnage – it’s no wonder that mortals turned into walking vats of guilt. It is staid old Vishnu, who has never had a moment of fun except when he fornicated with sixteen thousand mortal women as Krishna, who has won in the end.”
Lakshmi’s expression struggled between glee at her husband being acknowledged as the most powerful god in the Trimurti and irritation at the thought of him fornicating with sixteen thousand women.
“It need not be the end for Shiva,” piped up Ganga, refusing to let go of her own agenda. “Maybe all that is needed is a change of scenery. Let’s face it – Parvati’s time as his consort has been a bit...intense.”
At that, Parvati began to lose her temper and look like red-tongued, demon-skull-clad Kali instead. Ganga wasn’t intimidated. She pointed at Kali and said, “See? Too intense. Maybe it’s time for a more family-friendly image for Shiva.”
Kali screamed and began to dance in fury. Blood and fire flew everywhere. The mountain trembled and the heavens flashed. A massive quake rocked the earth beneath her. She roared and grunted, grew a thousand times bigger and then roared and grunted some more. It was a spectacular, apocalyptic sight.
Ganga, Lakshmi and Saraswati sat, sedate and unimpressed, waiting for her to calm down.
Finally, Kali brought down a massive ball of fire on Ganga. It washed away easily in her waters as she grew to the same size as Kali, looked her in the eye and said nonchalantly, “Are you done with your little tantrum?”
Kali’s red eyes met Ganga’s blue ones, and blinked. Then, in an instant, she was regular-sized Parvati again, sitting with the others on the blizzardy mountain-top, sighing to herself.
Ganga receded gently, but her eyes were angry, “Okay, look, I’m going to level with the three of you. I actually have no desire to be part of your precious little Tridevi club. What I want, what I need, is to either be shown some respect on earth or to just go back to heaven, where I can flow in peace. I can’t go on like this. I’m getting dirtier and smellier by the day. Even Shiva is beginning to notice and, let’s face it, he doesn’t exactly smell like roses himself.”
Parvati’s eyes lit up, “So go back to heaven then.” It was the perfect solution. Two birds with one stone.
“I can’t,” cried Ganga in frustration, “I spoke to both Shiva and Vishnu. There was no point speaking to Brahma. No offence, Saraswati.”
Ganga’s sigh rippled outwards, “They refused. They’re both perfectly happy to, ahem, dip into my waters regularly. They don’t want things to change.”
Lakshmi exclaimed, “Vishnu does not dip into your water!”
Ganga gave her the eye, “Yes, he does. And not just his feet.”
Lakshmi glared at her.
Parvati decided to ignore the exchange and instead asked plaintively, “What did Shiva say about your taking my place in the Tridevi?”
“He told me to speak to you about it.”
Parvati rolled her eyes, “Typical.”
Saraswati shook her head, “It’s impossible to expect them to do anything about it. Gods made men in their image and, unfortunately, that means that they will take advantage of you, just like mortals would. You must take control of your own destiny, Ganga.”
Saraswati thought about it for a moment, “Dry up, like I did.” She had been a river on earth at one time too. “If your water is the only thing about your situation you can actually control, then give up your water. Let both god and mortal try to cope without your sustenance. It would take a little time but, once you’ve dried, you can return to heaven in peace.”
Ganga considered it and then said, “But, if I’m not a river, I won’t be worshipped or considered a goddess anymore. And if I’m not a goddess then what will I be?”
Saraswati chuckled, “Free?”
Ganga sloshed backwards a few paces and gazed upon her companions – the principal goddesses that formed the Tridevi. Bad-tempered Parvati, fat Lakshmi and worn-out Saraswati. She smiled.
The others watched as Ganga’s smile slowly widened into a grin. She turned and waved over her shoulder as her waters raged in a flood towards Mount Kailash. When she’d disappeared, the Tridevi looked at each other with pensive expressions. After a few agonising moments of silence, Parvati said aloud what they were all thinking, “I wouldn’t mind being free either.”
Excerpted with permission from Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan, Hachette India.