Tag Archives: Hinduism

‘One Part Woman’: A Book review of a heartbreaking book and some impressions on the pain of dissent in India

I really have to work on those long titles.

Dissent is not dead in India. It exists and is robust. It pops up often like a hard to remove carbuncle on a vain person’s nose, in the middle of summer. However, dissent in India is painful. Kind of like that carbuncle. Some would argue that it should be. Would dissent really be dissent if it was convenient? But we shall return to this theme later. Right now I want to tell you about ‘One part woman’.

‘One Part Woman’ is a book written by author Perumal Murugan, a well known Tamil writer and poet. The reason I ordered this book, was that I wanted to take my own personal revenge on fundamentalists.But the book came to mean much more to me.

You see, Perumal Murugan was hounded by fundamentalist groups who protested his portrayal of certain practices that took place in relation to the Ardhanareeshwar temple in Tiruchengode. For my non-Indian readers, Ardhanareeswar is an androgynous form of the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Ardhanareeswar is depicted as half-male and half-female, spit down the middle, and can be considered to be the ‘perfect being’ due to the balance of the male and female elements. The ancient practice, described in the book, that stirred up a hornet’s nest was that of ‘Gods’  having sex with women who desired to have a child. This practice took place on the 14th day of a famed Chariot festival in Thiruchengode. Of course, there were no ‘Gods’ that were impregnating the women, but the mere mortals from that area. But the practice, in the guise of divinity, had everyone’s approval.

The protests by the fundamentalist groups, who were incensed at the portrayal of the practice, were successful. The author decided to not write anymore.

“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone,”  He said.

In those words I can sense his pique and anger. But it is a pity that Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Because his book is breathtaking. I bought this book as my own personal act of dissent, sitting in faraway South Bend, Indiana (unsure of what it would be like and what it was about).

The book tells the story of a childless couple Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love. But they are constantly reminded of what they lack, by everyone around them. Ponna is considered barren and inauspicious, while Kali’s manhood is doubted on every occasion.  Things go on this way, till Ponna is pressured to go to the festival on the fourteenth day, to get the gift of a child from Gods. Does she agree? I will not giveaway anything here, because that is not really the point of a review.

What is remarkable about the book, is that despite its piercing and acute social commentary, on gender, women’s rights, caste, and masculinity, it remains a book about love. Murugan provides insights about a love that can only be born of years of knowing each other, burrowing into one another’s bodies. He describes longing and desperation in a couple in far away Thiruchengode with a universality that can touch cords in people everywhere. He describes in painstaking detail all the things that the couple do to please the Gods. The endless sacrifices, the penances, the sinking feeling when Ponna’s period comes with clockwork regularity every month.

Kali and Ponna could be any other couple, in another context, trying to attain what is unattainable.  And haven’t we all been there. Running after a scorecard, or a waistline, a salary, or love (depending on what your poison is). We have all had the crippling anxiety that makes us forget to live in the moment, and be prepared to make sacrifices before an unyielding idol. We have all allowed others to determine what makes us happy. That cruel master: social approval.

The author also uses a portia tree as a beautiful metaphor for the relationship between the couple. The tree is a source of cool shade, support, and when times are bad, a sinister menacing presence. As we turn a page we hope that the couple will find peace, will be able to live in the bubble of their love, without worrying about not having a child. Out of every page in the book there emerges a sort of lyricism, that enchants you and ultimately leaves you heartbroken.

But what left me more heartbroken was the fact that ultimately, a bunch of people who do not have any appreciation of art won. What sort of a person does it take, to read something so delightful and heart wrenching and then say that I shall have it banned? What left me the saddest was Perumal Murugan ‘the author’ is dead, though P Murugan the man lives. I always had an idea of my country in my head, and it was never one where fundamentalists thrive and authors hide.

I was asked at a dinner party in the United States, to name the one thing I loved and hated the most about America. I made up some polite sounding bullshit. But what I took away from living there was a sense of freedom. I know that not everyone enjoys that freedom to the same extent, and America (like any other nation) has insidious divisions. But I remembered the sense of freedom with which I could express myself there, and think. Nuance, that elusive thing, hovered in and out of discussions. Perhaps it was the university environment, but the sense of freedom was like coming up for air. Now I feel that I shall have to spend my entire life, unlearning that. That every expression of a contrarian view will be a struggle. The recent spate of bans does not make me any more confident. But I may be wrong. Are most of our universities still centers of intellectual curiosity (I know some are)? Is a divergence of views respected? Have you, dear reader, enjoyed an academic and cultural environment where you learnt to dissent, to question? Can we be a nation where authors can thrive, and fundamentalists respect their space to do so? ( In their defense, they would not be very good fundamentalists if they did so). Leave your views in comments below, and don’t forget to read this book.

For the love of the Blue one: or an unlikely girl writing about faith

Dear Reader,

I am writing a story here. But then, it is not really a story. Because nothing quite happens, and you do most of the work. But you can stay you know. I can promise it will be good. The veracity of the promise?

I don’t know.

(Also, Kiran Nagarkar has used the phrase ‘the blue one’ for Krishna in his Novel Cuckold, but that is the only similarity here. Just wanted to make sure I was clear on where the name came from.)

So she was curled up in a fetal position, in the pitch dark of the night. Utterly and completely alone. Was she crying? Well, from the dirt on her face, and the quietness in her body, you could imagine that she had just finished crying for a long long time.

What was wrong with her?

Whatever you want. She is your mirror today. Your insecurities. Your deep feeling of loss. Your sense of inadequacy. Your fear of rejection.

That traumatic incident which happened many years ago. That broken home. Violence. That flaming row. The loss of a loved one. That insensitive friend. Those jungles cut down. All the things that burn you like spent embers not yet quite cold. The fierce force of a life that  will not quit.

Project that on to her. That was what was wrong.

She is all of us in that moment, anyone and everyone.

The night is pitch dark, and the walls a pleasant cream. Funny, you would think the walls would be a more depressing color. The ceiling flat. Like pain. Boxed in, all of us. Unable at that moment to escape the prison of our lives, and box-like apartments.

She remembered a story from long a ago.. A story of a boy who used to be afraid of setting out in the dark forest. Was the forest dangerous? Or was it just his imagination? I don’t know. But he had to cross the forest to get to school. He was one of those boys you find in fables like these. (and this is a real fable from my childhood, mind you. This is not something I made up, though I am taking liberties with the retelling.) He was good, and poor. And always listened to his mother.

So he told his mother that he was afraid of the dark forest, and asked for her help. The mother was widowed, and had her own work to do. She could not really chaperon her son. So she said, if you are ever afraid in the forest, call Madhusudan. (for non-Indians, Madhusudan is another name for the Hindu God Krishna). He lives there. He will help you get across the darkness.

Now this story would be much less exciting if she had said Hanuman (or more exciting, depending on your perspective). Hanuman would probably just uproot the school and move it over to near his home. Anyway, she said Madhusudan. So that is that.

The next day our nameless protagonist went into the forest, he called out to Madhusudan. “Madhusudan Dada (brother in Bengali), where are you?”.  Lo and behold, there were soft footfalls behind him. There stood a man so marvelously blue. So delightedly, wholeheartedly committed to his blueness. With curly kinky hair, and a peacock feather tucked in behind his ears. He was wearing something yellow that certainly could not be found in Big Bazaar’s mega sale. And in his hand was a flute.

You are a musician? The boy asked? Madhusudan Dada smiled, and put the flute to his lips and played sound. He played color. He played the first song the first Koel would have sung. He played the feeling that you get when you smell the fresh earth. He played melancholy, and affection (he did not play love, because few have survived to tell the tale). As he played, he moved, swaying with the wind. He was the darkness, but luminously so. This was the Krishna of Vrindavan. The Krishna on whom Radha had staked her claim. The God, who was so Godly because he was possessed and owned by his devotees. Is there not real Godliness in being claimed? In playing along with mortals the eternal game of love, while you juggle planets on the side?

Well so the ritual was. They would meet in the forest, and Madhusudan Dada would escort him to school everyday. Playing the flute sometimes. Sometimes walking in peace. Sometimes speaking the language of the birds.

Needless to say, no adults in this story figured out that a God had come down to chaperon our dear protagonist. The mother, probably attributed her son’s ramblings about the blue one to white-lies of childhood. And the son, did not quite understand he was dealing with a God here. Kids are like that.

But one day, there was  a feast in the school, and each child had to bring one item of food for the whole school. (A rather unreasonable request, but then perhaps it was a small school.) When the protagonist went to his mother, and said “well mother, I have to take yogurt for the whole school tomorrow”, the mother panicked (because they barely managed to put two square meals together), and did what panicked people often do. Deflect. She said, “why don’t you ask Madhusudan Dada”.

So on the day of the feast, he asks the blue one for some yogurt to feed the entire school. Krishna, took out a small pot of yogurt and gave it to the boy. The boy took it with a sinking heart, because there was no way it would feed the entire school. But he took it because it was better than going empty handed.

Of course the yogurt was magic! When the people at the school, who made fun of him for only bringing so little, tried to pour the yogurt out into something else, there was a tiny problem. You see the yogurt never finished. It went on and on. No matter how much people ate. (And might I say Krishna has done this sort of stuff before, with Draupadi’s sari). Someone needs to speak to him about overkill.

Of course the boy was asked where he got it from, and replied with a straight face that his blue colored, flute playing, peacock feather wearing friend had given him the magic yogurt. Of course everyone rushed to find Krishna in the forest. But they din’t, did they? Because he never lived in the forest. Where was he? Go figure.

But our unhappy lady, on her floor, utterly alone, in the dark night thought of this. The corners of the mouth twitched in a smile. She understood why Radha, Meera and countless Gopis had longed for Krishna. He was the only God who switched places with the devotee. He took the pain, and the hardship, and you became divine. For a moment, you became unreal.

She called out. Softly. Very softly to the carpeted floor. Madhusudan!

The night descended on her.

Why I am an atheist Hindu.

The durga of an artists imagination

No, that was not a typographical error.

I am an atheist Hindu.

How is that possible you will ask? Aren’t the ideas of atheism and religion antithetical to each other.

Well sure, maybe for some religions, but I have never come across a rule that says atheism and Hinduism are antithetical to each other.

So here I am writing about the religion I grew up with. What gives me the right some might ask. Me and the ‘sikularists’ of my ilk have spent so much time bashing the caste system, the militant aggressive Hinduism of certain fundamentalist groups. Do we have the right to write about Hinduism? What gives me the right, when I don’t go to the temple ever, and think that the Ramayana was really the tragedy of a woman called Sita?

Well the thing is, it is as much my religion as that of anybody else. And while it is true that organized religion is a huge juggernaut hurtling towards something with an unstoppable speed, with all its experts and pundits on board, religion is also something deeply personal.

I grew up listening to stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I was enthralled, as a child, at the exploits of Krishna, when I first heard the story of how Krishna managed to join the Pandavas.



The story goes somewhat like this. (I heard this a long time ago, so I may have got some details wrong):

Arjuna and Duryodhana both go to recruit Krishna on their side before  the battle of Kurukshetra. While Duryodhana actually arrives early, he goes and sits near Krishna’s head. Arjuna comes a bit late, but goes and sits near Krishna’s feet.  When Krishna wakes up, he first sees Arjuna and exclaims with joy. But then Duryodhana points out that he came there first. Krishna then says that ‘Duryodhana, since you came here first you definitely have a claim on me. But I happened to see Arjuna first, so he also has a claim on me. In order to do what is equitable I give you a choice… On one side is the WHOLE Yadava army. On the other I stand. Alone. Unable to bear arms for either side. Pick whoever you want.’

Duryodhana of course picks the Yadava army, thereby nailing his own coffin. When he comes back to give the news to his camp, someone (Shakuni, I think)  reportedly tells him ‘You picked the 1000 sheep, and left the lion behind’.

Well Lions are legendarily lazy (given that lionesses do all the hunting), but I love the story as illustrative of the particularly wily nature of Krishna.

Something that I often wondered was, how Krishna-the-political-strategist is so different from the Krishna-of-Gokul. Are they the same person? If so, how could he forsake Radha and never call for her. Did he ever wonder how Radha was doing? Whether she missed him?

But when I read bits of the Gita (the bits that I can understand), I see that he did put into practice his idea of nishkam karmayog. After the Gokul chapter was closed, he did not look back, simply because his Dharma did not allow him to.


Another incident that comes to my mind is the first time I learnt about Pap-and-Punya. On a hot summer afternoon in Bhubaneshwar, when I must have been four, one Bhagirathi (an Oriya boy about 20 years of age) told me about what Paap (sin) was, and how we acquired Punya (I don’t know what the English translation of Punya is, virtue doesn’t quite cut it). But his idea was (and a rather crude one it was), if you did good things you got Punya and would  be born as a higher life form in your next life. If you committed Paap, you would not be born as a  very nice life form. And the two things tended to cancel one another out.

Now this system really made sense to me when I was four.(though I later learnt that there are far more intellectually sophisticated schools of thought in Hindusim). So the next day I was on the lookout for ‘good’ things to do. As I lay in ambush I saw a Gecko in our compound wall, stealthily approaching a moth. The moth seemed blissfully unaware of what was going to happen to it. Quixotically I stepped in, and shooed the Gecko away.

I then went to Bhagirathi and reported to him that I had done my good deed for the  day. Bhagirathi was pleased at his pupil’s sincerity, but delivered a crushing blow to me by saying ‘But you deprived the Gecko of its food! It will have to go hungry now.’

That was when I, as a four year old, realized how complex right and wrong were. It is sad that so many people, baying in the name of religion, don’t understand this simple truth that was evident to a four year old child.

I also remember going to the temple every evening as a child. This was the red brick Ram-mandir in Bhubaneshwar. It had a lot of shrines dedicated to different Gods. The Rama shrine was the biggest of course, but I never took to it. Firstly because it was big and impersonal, and secondly because even as a child I did not like what Rama did to Sita. But my favourite was the Krishna shrine, because I loved the god, the Hanuman Shrine, because no one visited him much, and I felt a little bad for him. I am very ashamed to admit that I went to the Shiva Shrine simply because the pujari used to bribe me with sweets. But hey! I was seven.

Later ofcourse I saw Shiva as the radical God that he really was, and some what of a destroyer of the status quo. (Primarily because he just destroyed stuff when he got mad, so the status quo had to be very careful, as one Daksha learnt when it was to late). I will now go to a Shiva shrine gladly. Bribe or no bribe.

One particularly sweet memory is that of listening to the story of Mahishasur-wadh in Oriya on a cassette player. My baby sitter and indefatigable housekeeper had this tape that he loved playing. In the afternoons I would sit by his side and listen to him play this cassette till the point that I had memorized it.

I remember why Durga was created, and how she was empowered. I remember listening to how Mahishasur taunted her till a great battle ensured, and how she killed the demon.

Ujjal Chakraborty, an uncle of mine, gave this a beautiful interpretation. He designed a Durga idol once, for a pandal in Kolkata. The Durga was a tribal girl, armed with beautiful birds. Wearing a white saree with her  dark hair flowing, she was slaying the colonial conqueror. The demon was a European man, come to drain the country of her resources, and Durga was a slip of a tribal girl, standing up to him..

So yes, Hinduism is as much my religion as that of anyone else. To me it was never an insecure religion. You could believe anything you wanted, you could form your sect, have your beliefs and it would embrace you and your new ideas. Its beauty was that it did not need to discredit others or make them feel small, to be big (I doubt any religion does, but then I am not an expert). But this was the religion I grew up with.

And slowly I began to read history. I learnt about the caste system and the terrible ways in which some castes were exploited. I also learnt about how wiser, greater men than most, tried their best to fix it. I learnt about the unforgivable horrors of the partition, and the lie that two big religions could not co-exist. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Partition)

After that I got bitten by a radioactive bat and turned into a ‘sickularist’.

Of late focus has shifted away from this tolerant beautiful Hinduism. People feel the need to assert it aggressively. I don’t know if I have a right to comment on that, since religion is deeply personal. But such chest-thumping distracts one from the beauty of the religion, its many nuances.  I just wanted to show you, dear reader, what this religion can be.

I can say no better thing about it, than the fact that it lets me be an atheist Hindu.