Act Of The Goddess

    Pooja Roy’s short story, Act Of The Goddess is the winner of SheThePeople’s FEMINIST NARRATIVE. Submitted for TMYS Review December 2020. The year-end issue of TMYS Review (a digital quarterly for Humanities) was themed on Sensuosity and Sexuality in Contemporary fiction. 


    "Yaa Devi Sarva-Bhuteshu Shakti-Roopenna Samsthitaa।

    Namastasyai Namastasyai Namastasyai Namonamaha ||"


    (To the Devi Who in all beings abides in the form of power,

    We bow before Her, We bow before Her, We bow before Her, We bow before Her again and again)


    The lilting notes came floating in at the wee hours. She emerged, roused her daughter too, after a dark night’s sleep. By the light of her lamp rose her own magnanimous shadow to match the dawn of her infinite consciousness. It towered over the stains of time on the wall etched by the cheap oil burning in her lamp for decades. Her hair flowing, hanging free, created a halo around her haggard skeletal framework. However, the bony face was aglow today. For once, all arrangements had fallen in place. The asura, reeking with the smell of blood, had been immersed, disposed and an unusual Devi-pokkho saw the breaking of dawn. A mortal Durga, with her daughter, prepared for yet another journey on this Earth.

    *            *            *

    Once upon a time, long ago, there had arrived another such devi-pokkho. The clay goddess stood amidst incense, and garlands surrounded by the ladies of the house while the lesser goddess presided over the jalsa-ghar obscured by the infernal fumes from the hubble-bubble, decked with the choicest mogra jasmine surrounded by the male dynasts and their minions. The chandelier above deflected the precious kohinoor in the middle in 108 ways just like the lotuses at the Devi’s altar, blooming with beauty, bursting forth in rays, burning up the amusement room with the timbre of her voice; her ornaments lighting the way down the broad alley of her neck to the dark, inner sanctums of her red robe.

    Oh! That lift of the eyebrow and hundreds of hearts would lay slain. She loved all the attractions but preferred none. It made her feel that she was loved. Beauty dripped from her moon-face and men sipped at it. Her beaux were many, but what kept her imbued were the nimble movements of her feet and her renditions of thumris and dadras that summoned up a form of  intense femininity. When her nightingale voice delivered the saga of the departed lover, in the depths of her eyes welled up the pangs of the lovelorn; yet on another instance her ditties would bring up in her eyes all the manna from heaven while she serenaded of passionate love-making from the popular lore. Then again, one could see a glimpse through those eyes, of the restive adolescent, fidgety, busy  bee, whirring, buzzing, scampering away to careless glory. She contained them all in her soul, in her gestures,  and it was through her art that she glided from Shakuntala to Radha to Hiraman of the folklores that she had heard as a child. With a magic act of her feet, she could dissipate this heathen court of the nouveau riche where few understood what she delivered and she would recreate the courts of Lucknow of her bygone days. Lucknow, her real place, her own place, her mother? No, she didn’t know whether that place could be called so, she had never known or seen a mother. But she felt an abyssal bond with the place that had reared her up to be as talented as the revered geisha from Japan, even before the dawn of her consciousness. Her world since then had revolved around raag and taal and her life’s pace had matched perfectly to the tune she had grown to adore until that day of the tectonic transition.

    Months later, under this chandelier, as she waltzed and waltzed, the words came slurring out,

     “Ai nachwali!”

    From a booming, inebriated voice that in a flicker shrunk her world back to where she was – a mere zamindar babu’s music room – that knew not beyond sleazoid cheeping nor about the many languages in which the metal bells of her ghungroo spoke. Jolted out of her musical reverie, with a crease on her arched brows, she cast her smouldering glint at him. With heavy eye-lids ajar, he repeated,

     “idhar udhar adaa korke dikhao, ei chhun chhun achha nei lagta”.

    Chagrin filled her up, her eyes couldn’t betray her ire at the dishonour hurled at the remnants of the art she had dragged along over this long distance.

     “Babu, zara tameez se pesh aayein. Main koi aam nachwali nahi, Luckhnow ki tawaif fankaron se talim mili hai mujhe, humein apni adakari apne tareeke se nibhanein dein. Woh to kismat ke fer hai jo main aaj, abhi, yahaan…chhodiye, aaplog nahi samjhenge”.

    But the lips that were never trained to speak coarsely and hoarsely failed to articulate the intensity of loathing for this already distasteful world. Suddenly, like a whirlwind, by a visceral reaction, mutinied the hands and feet in Kalika Tandava. Lo behold! This court of pleasure with all its lechery, extravagance and indulgence was set ablaze in reverberating clangs while their marginal Kalika revelled in celebration of her body and soul in vigorous pulsations. The men sat stunned while their nautch-girl immersed in her search of the ever-elusive goddess in herself, the spirit that the world of men professed to worship in idols but stripped off in real women around them while the real women shrouded in veil peered from behind the wicker-screen in awe or in derision?

    Days passed, among the women of the house, the bit of awe felt before faded; yes they all agreed in ones and twos amidst the blur of the cauldron smoke in the family kitchen.

    ” A false daring,” one said.

    ” A show, isn’t she a just nautch-girl, a lesser woman? Meant for nothing but spectacle?”

    ” No no, a witch!”  whispered the third lady, “didn’t you see her eyes and hear her snake-charmer’s voice? I say it would hypnotise even Vishnu and Shiva leave alone our lords!!”

    All prying eyes dilated and  slanderous tongues slashed and dark cavernous heads of the females nodded in unison. Somehow, this seemed more convenient to be accepted, dispelling, at least, for once all domestic chaos, disagreements, dissatisfaction and lovelornness of their woebegone lives. What more could brains indoctrinated with the chants of patriarchy have realised? How could clarity ever fight its way out of the shroud and veil and blurry smoke that formed the cloud of bigotry which knew not that it had to shed itself?

    They say women are their own worst enemies. The cloud floated far enough and this ‘witch‘ was to be cast away.

    Yet another deposition! The day the Lucknow Nawab was dethroned had spelt the doom for tawaifs like her. Overnight, tawaifs lost their heaven. The descent gave birth to nautch girls as they vanished towards the hinterlands, clutching their meagre belongings, with melody jingling in their souls but not sweet enough to allay clawing hunger wrenching  at the intestines. A fragment of their hearts lay behind clinging onto the strings of the sarangi that now lay deserted in the abandoned mehfils.

    She had thought she would recreate that aura anew in the new city that had so many patrons of art and culture. Alas! It took her time to realise herself as the nightingale trapped in the golden cage.

    Furthermore, all that glittered was not gold. It was dross painted in  fake colours. Music played, the dulcet sounds rang but the apathetic hearts of most of  these men were impregnable. Few heard; imbibed. Kanai babu heard it too…

    It wasn’t for nothing that Kanai babu came to the rescue of the much coveted ‘witch’. He set up an establishment for his paramour. He owned her. For all the staged act of welfare, how was he different from the society that found such sadist pleasure in stripping her of her femininity! Living in a strange land, never her own and albeit compelled by circumstances she could go nowhere but she had no misgiving about her identity! She was an artiste, in art lay her emancipation from all the bestiliaties of the human world. In art, she fluttered out of the temporal feminine form to attain a fluidity of spirit that could at once be Krishna and then again Meera. The pursued and the pursuer were all in her. She had to discover it palpably enough to leave an imprint upon her soul. That would be bliss, something she never felt even in her undesirable motherhood.

    How sardonic! The witch, the lover, the mother! She felt none of them! But she couldn’t throw away the form swathed in white particularly on knowing that it was a girl. The pink little face made the mother shudder at the carnal stench that permeated her being. Kanai babu came as usual, traded with her art and her body, left. It was her khamaj that brought in men into this lair. Men staggered in and out – they played with the body as she lay stiff, cold weaving symphony in silence. They had colonised her body but couldn’t go so near her soul ensconced in melody. It still knew how to revel in azaadi as music stood as sentry. Her inner world was a fort unto itself.

    So, a decade and a half passed and chauvinistic imperialism thought it could annex more… Now, the daughter, a blooming lotus.

    The mother instinctively gripped her shield even before she could construe the muffled shrieks. The mind raced as she ran upstairs. She had often heard it inwardly, resounding through her, tearing through her vocal cords only to dissolve in her tongue. There was no mistaking this wailing, that could only emanate from a soul on the verge of losing itself, on seeing everything one owns being vanquished.

    There!!!!! There!!!

    All was unfolding , rather being undone before her.

    Kanai babu!!!!

    How could a human hand bring itself to maul like a beast, upon the tender juvenile body! The daughter shuddering, not yet capable of interpreting the savagery, lying prostrate, eyes dilated, frozen in fear –  the cataclysm yet unintelligible to an innocent mind how confounding the ways of the world could be…  a long-forgotten, visceral tug of the umbilical cord was recalled but the hand accustomed to no other gesture but that of tehzeeb couldn’t gather them together to act. In a flash of double exposure, she saw the apocalypse, the black hole, her daughter repeating her history, living the life of a lesser or no woman, bearing the burden of lust, another scapegoat that would keep fending for the asuras until she lasted due to a mother’s inaction! Why! there was still time, an opportunity, a retribution.  A mother ought to… the catatonic state ended… she charged and at the helm of a fiend’s orgiastic euphoria… the woman’s shield turned out to be a diva’s weapon… The colossal wrath of the mother/creator came crashing down, the asura’s vertebrae had undoubtedly split...

    Blood trickled from the hatchet.

    A future was redeemed!

    A super-woman lying nascent was invoked.

    The Red that had eluded her, spurned her, mocked her through all these years endowed the long-cherished womanhood this day. The sarangi, the sehtar gave way today to the bugle and the conch-shell to bring home at last the realisation of a valorous triumph to be everlastingly etched upon their souls. The elusive goddess slumbering under layers of rusted womanhood manifested herself in her. With a heavy hand but a lighter heart, the goddess realised  a sense of emancipation and her (their) much-cherished bliss; an incandescence at the end of her dungeon.

    Her hatchet, she reckoned, a lovely claret red, needed to be cleaned.



    Author: Pooja Roy

    Author intro: A keen observer of human nature, Pooja Roy is intrigued by the chimeral permutation and combination that make up human nature and it’s this enigma that she dares to capture in her write-ups. It is the visual that appeals to her the most which she loves to vivify for others. She enjoys painting through words, human relationships, the diversity of human nature and her favourite city Calcutta in all its glory and squalor. One would find her at most times drawing up images of all that she reads and delivers to her students; sometimes even grammar comes alive before them! At other times, you would find her in all those alleys, dingy lanes and antique localities collecting fragments of her past to make sense of her present. 



    Vibhuti Bhandarkar says (Dec 19, 2020):

    Oh my goodness! This story was riveting and moving. What brilliant storytelling. More poetry than prose. What vivid pictures planted into our imaginations through the exquisite choice of words. Kudos!

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