The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:
“My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But oh my foes and ah my friends
It sheds a lovely light.”
I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.
This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:
This time the topic of my Feeling Bookerish workshop was ‘Mythology’. Almost all my young participants fell back upon the familiar and turned up to discuss the Ramayana and Mahabharata – the two epics of ancient India.
Of course these texts are an endless source of delight and entertainment for Indian kids – with myriad stories within stories but in the end the good winning over the evil. Thus Mahabharata unravels the genesis of the Great War between two families – the Kauravas and Pandavas – while Ramayana is all about the victory of heroism and the just over treachery and the unjust.
Somewhere along the way, we also got discussing gods and goddesses of Greek mythology and their Roman counterparts – Athena/Minerva with her wisdom and quiet courage turned out to be a particular favourite of the older girls in my workshop, especially in comparison to her brawny, vain brother Ares/Mars. Zeus and Poseidon were the subject of numerous anecdotes – thanks to teen fantasy fiction and movie representations which seem to have become more popular than the original mythological stories.
But where were the fascinating tales of Arabian adventure from 1000 and I Nights, brooding heroes like Odin and Thor from Norse mythology, the complex facets of Egyptian gods like Ra, Isis and Osiris and fascinating Native American creation stories? I wish the participants had taken a bit more effort and ranged a bit further in their reading. But as the session continued beyond its scheduled two hours, I realized that at least a spark had been lit and the next time the kids would find themselves in a bookstore or a library – virtual or real – they just might reach out for that book on mythology that is unfamiliar, remote and strange…
With Goddess Durga bidding us mortals farewell for another year, I started thinking of what Durga Pujo actually means for contemporary Bengalis, scattered across the globe.
Being the five-day long, elaborate, highly ritualized religious occasion that it is, Durga Pujo is, these days, primarily a communal affair. In cities with large Bengali population, neighbourhoods organize their own Pujo whereas in places with limited Bengali presence, people come together to form cultural associations which then take the onus of organizing the Pujo. Though there are still some ancestral families in Bengal which organize their private Pujo, their numbers are few and gradually declining.
In foreign lands on the other hand, festivities have to be planned, not according to the religious almanac dates, but on a weekend when people can afford to take a couple of days off from work. even then, a thousand details need to be thrashed out well ahead, starting from the idol, priests and dhaki ( those who play the traditional drum) needed to be flown in from India to arranging ingredients needed for the ritual worship and finally of the immersion of the idol.
So, why make the effort – especially in places like this, where even coming across a Bengali on a street is enough to make me cross it and introduce myself in my mother tongue. I guess, it has to do with the innate human desire to connect over common cultural practices, especially when faced with the prospect of being subsumed by a different majority culture. Bonding – even for four days – over shared tastes, fragrances, language, music and visual images is deeply satisfying and sustaining. For me, there is the added interest of facilitating my daughter’s awareness of Bengali rituals and customs. so, though she did not feel compelled enough to wade through Ashtami crowds for the afternoon ‘bhog’ of ‘khichuri’, the same evening when, the tall tiered lamp was lit with a hundred and eight lights for Shandhi Pujo, her face too glowed in wonder and appreciation – and that was enough for me!
Part of the fun in following the lunar calendar is its variability. And so with the beginning of each Gregorian year – based on the solar calendar – on 1st January, Bengalis around the world first take a peek to check out when the Hindu month of Ashvin would come about – anytime from mid-September to mid-October.
Ashvin is special for Bengalis not just because it has always ushered in a much desired change in the Kolkata weather – from hot, humid days to cooler, crisper mornings but because it marks their biggest religious and social festival, Durga Pujo. Over five days, Goddess Durga is worshipped according to rules laid down in ancient Hindu scriptures though like all complex religious symbols, she means different things to different people.
The dominant theme is of course, of the victory of good over evil. There are in fact two stories exemplifying this theme and associated with Goddess Durga. According to the story of origin, the Goddess was created by pooling up the resources of powerful Hindu gods in order to defeat the buffalo-demon king Mahishasura whose growing powers were on the verge of driving out the celestial beings from their abode in heavens. Later the Hindu god Shri Rama would worship Goddess Durga and invoke her blessings in his campaign against demon King Ravana. Both stories end with the defeat of demons and victory of gods.
My personal favourite however is the story which represents the Goddess Durga as a beloved daughter. Married to Lord Shiva who lives in the remote peaks of Himalayas, Uma – an avatar of Durga – spends the whole year looking after her husband and children. In the month of Ashvin though, Uma with four children makes the long trip down to her natal place where her family – and everyone else in Bengal – celebrates their divine daughter’s and grandchildren’s stay with five days of merrymaking and feasting. Indeed in the ‘Agomani’ songs which herald the arrival of Durga Pujo around a week ahead, it is this story that is narrated – and which echoes in the heart of every daughter who is always a goddess, a source of love and strength for her family – no matter how far away.
On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.
As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.
I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.
What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.
In Kerala for a holiday weekend, this realization struck me with wonder and a tinge of regret. In the north Malabar city of Kannur, or the erstwhile Cannanore, is located the Arakkal Museum. Though rather plain looking to eyes used to Mughal glamour and Rajput grandeur, the traditional architecture of the Museum building – with its low long structure, laterite tiles, gleaming wooden beams within and pearl white walls without – blends beautifully with the palm-fringed verdant landscape.
The Durbar hall of this former Arakkal-kettu or palace complex has now been transformed into the main display area where a visitor can glimpse various objects associated with the royal family, ranging from the original handwritten letter to the East India Company to weapons, utensils, furniture – right down to an antique telephone which still has instructions for use.
What I found most interesting though was the presence of so many women in the photo gallery of the Arakkal rulers. Kerala has a history of matrilineal social instiutions – where lineage passes through the mother. Even then it was more often the eldest male member in the maternal family who would be the real power centre. The Arakkal famly is not only the sole Muslim royal family of Kerala but also has the distinction of having the senior most member – whether a man or a woman – as the ruler. While the male ruler would take on the title of the Ali Raja, the female ruler would be known as Arakkal Beebi.
Queens and female rulers have been less of a novelty in India than mainstream historians would like to believe. And yet only few writers and researchers have bothered to find out how such women negotiated deeply entrenched patriarchal institutions to fight and rule. Who knows, some day the Arakkal royal history may yield fascinating new knowledge not just about the country’s and state’s past but about its women rulers as well.
Quiet and gentle, Udita is an eighth grader of our Feeling Bookerish with Kids club and is a keen outdoors girl. Here is a blog post by her…
“Pack your bags, we are going for a motorcycle trip!”
One fine day, my dad stunned me with these words. So there we were on the road on 14th may 2017 – doing a trip from Bareilly to Puh via Dehradun, Rohru and Sangla Valley. As we advanced, the gentle slopes of Himachal Pradesh were replaced by tall, rocky, cliff mountains.
The way was full of ups and downs – both literally and figuratively. We had a flat tyre, the chain of our bike came off and, to top it all, we even had a bad tumble. Thankfully none of us got hurt. We had to stop at many shops since it was raining. But the friendliness of people everywhere lifted our hearts – they always helped us out with information about the places ahead.
At times, the roads were really smooth but then quite bad at some places. At Sangla Valley, we enjoyed the local cuisine of the hills. After we returned, on 20th may 2017, I was so tired that I could barely walk.
There was so much I learnt from this trip. – India is beautiful. Live in the moment and enjoy life. Dare to take challenges in life. Many difficult situations will arise along the way but don’t back down, laugh a lot and keep moving ahead with a positive attitude!