Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Durga’s Annual Homecoming

[this was written two years back, and is a story about relationships as much as it is a mythological tale]

Life on Mt. Kailash can drive anyone crazy. Cold winds lashing the house all day long making it impossible to go out. No neighbours to talk to, nothing to do except watch the kids grow up and if time permits, read the occasional books. Even though she adores her children, and loves tracking their every milestone, Durga is starved for intelligent adult company. She needs a break. She wants to get away from it all, if only for a few days.
Clearing up after her husband, putting up with his sullen silences, accepting the blame for everything that goes wrong in his life and taking out all her pent-up anger on her kids – that is what her life has been reduced to. Since the kids’ school will be having an autumn break soon, she decides to visit her mother for a few days.
So thrilled is she with her decision, she prepares Shiva’s favourite butter chicken for dinner, and hopes he’ll come home on time – food never tastes as good when re-heated in the microwave.
“Darling,” she purrs as he dips his succulent naan into the gravy, “I’ll be going to Mom’s place for a couple of days.”
“What!!!”, he splutters, and spends the next few minutes dislodging the piece of chicken he nearly choked on. “Why do you need to go now? Haven’t you just come back from a holiday there?”
“I last visited my mother nearly a year back. And I feel like eating fish curry and talking through the night with my mother.”
“Tell the cook to prepare fish for you. I hate fish, but I suppose I can put up with it once in a while.”
“The fish you get here is utter crap. Not like the sweet ilish maach of the Padma river,” she snaps. “And that is not even the point. I am starved for adult company here – I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
“What about me? I may not be you intellectual equal, but…”
“You?”, laughs Durga derisively. “You? Company? And when do you even get the time to talk to me, unless it is to ask me to stitch on the tiger fang buckle that got loose? As long as someone is clearing up after you and ministering to your every need, you wouldn’t even notice I am not around.”
“That is not true,” says Shiva coming up and giving her a hug. “You know I love you.”
“Love me?”, Durga sneers. “You don’t even have any time for me. Home is just the place you come to when you want to sleep. When was the last time you spent a weekend at home?”
“Durga, you know that this is a busy time of the year for me.”
“Every time seems to be a busy time for you. I thought you were a god. What use is it being a deity if you can’t even delegate? Let someone else listen to prayers and grant boons for a couple of days.”
“Durga, please listen…”
“I don’t want to listen. I’ve had enough. And in any case, I am not asking you to change – I know you will not. I am just saying that I am going to my mother’s place for a holiday.”
“Don’t you try and stop me, Shiva. You may be a great god, who everyone else is scared of, but don’t forget that I am a goddess and your equal. I will do just what I please.” Durga stamps out of the room, banging the door behind her, leaving Shiva with a rapidly cooling dinner and no clue as to how to handle the microwave cooker.
Durga is angry, but oddly triumphant, so doesn’t bother to bolt the door to her chambers. A few hours later, an oddly contrite Shiva crawls into the bed and lays something fragrant and slimy next to Durga’s inert form.
“Look Durga, see what I have got you,” he says. “A hundred and eight pink lotus flowers. I spent the last two hours hunting for them in the pond at Viakunt. You do like lotuses, don’t you?”, he adds almost timidly.
Durga is touched, but doesn’t want to give her husband the pleasure of knowing it. “You silly oaf. Look what you’ve done. Putting dripping wet stuff on the bed. And on my freshly laundered sheets at that. Who’s going to change the sheets, may I ask? As if I don’t have enough to do already. Men!”, she snorts, as she allows herself to be hugged.
“Durga, about this trip of yours,” begins Shiva timidly the next day, but is cut off in mid sentence by his wife.
“My trip is not subject to deliberation any more. We settled that last night,” says Durga emphatically. “I am leaving tomorrow and don’t you try and stop me.”
“I’m not trying to stop you. But can’t you put it off for a couple of weeks?”
“Whatever for,” snaps Durga. “What is going to crop up in my mundane existence to necessitate something like that? Are planning to come home on time for dinner the Thursday after next?”, she continues sarcastically.
“Please, Durga. We are in a mess, and only you can save us. The whole world needs you, Durga,” his eyes plead. “I need you.”
Despite herself, Durga is curious. “And what may that be?”, she asks.
“There is a demon, Mahishasura, who is creating havoc on Earth,” says Shiva. “He needs to be stopped.”
“So stop him. You have never cringed from violence in the past, have you? Why are you hesitating now?”
“That is exactly the point. I cannot. And none of the other gods or warriors can, either. This Mahishasura has been granted a boon that no man, god, beast or demon can kill him.”
“And no points for guessing who granted that boon,” snaps Durga. “Honestly, husband, I think half the problems in the world are created by you. If you were not so easily pleased, and if you used the few brains that you do possess, things would be so much less complicated.”
Shiva looks contrite. “You are right, dear wife,” he says. “But the fact still is that Mahishasura needs to be stopped.”
“You created the problem, you solve it,” says Durga. “Why should I forego my trip to my mother’s house because you are in a mess of your own making?”
“But only you can help me this time, Durga. Only you.”
“How so?”
“The boon says that ‘no man, god, beast or demon’ can kill Mahishasura. You are none of those. You are a Goddess – you can stop him.”
“I am just a harried mother, with nothing to do, and no time to do it in. What can I do?”
“Don’t belittle yourself, Durga. You may have chosen to become a mother, but you are one of the most skilled fighters around. All the Gods will lend you their best weapons. Mahishasura stands no chance against you.”
It takes a few minutes for what he is saying to sink in, then Durga pulls herself to her full height. “You are right, Shiva,” she says. “I can stop him, and I will. But I’ll not come home after the battle – I will go straight to my mother’s place after finishing him off.”
Durga, the manifestation of the Mother Goddess, does not see the incongruity of being, at the same time, the mother of all creation and the person chosen to destroy a demon. The way she looks at it, she is a mother, and the primary duty of a mother is to protect her offspring. If something threatens the well-being of her children, she needs to eliminate it, even if that thing is also of her own creation.
Mahishasura is a very good fighter, but he doesn’t stand a chance against Durga. Even on her own, she would have been a formidable opponent, but armed as she is with the best weapons in the possession of the entire Pantheon, there is no way anyone can even try to stand up to her.
Impatient though she is to get on with the job, she prolongs the battle, since she would rather not use weapons borrowed from others. But when she finds the battle dragging on, she sprouts four extra pairs of hands, and using all the weapons at the same time, pushes Mahishasura into a corner and drives her sphere into him.
Her pet lion pounces on Mahishasura’s buffalo, killing it at nearly the same instant that she finishes off Mahishasura.
Job done, Durga returns to her marital home only long enough to pick up her children, before going off to visit her mother.
It takes Durga five days to journey to her mother’s place. She can, perhaps, do it in less, but she needs the extra time to prepare herself. She knows that her mother doesn’t quite approve of Shiva, so she needs to internalise the act that she would have to put on to prove that her marriage is nothing if not perfect.
Her spirits lift as she nears her home – the place where she is at the same time the beloved daughter coming home after a long time, and the benevolent mother gracing her children’s houses with her auspicious presence. With an intuition that can only be called divine, her children seem to know that she is coming, and have made preparations.
Large and small. Ostentatious and simple. Traditional and trendy. Expensive and mean. There are idols of her in virtually every street corner. The mesmerising beat of the dakhi, the traditional drum, calls out to her and she enters each one of her likenesses, making them come alive with her presence.
For the next four days, she will be with her people – eating with them, singing and dancing with them, listening to their problems, accepting their thanks for favours granted, and even giggling and gossiping with them. For four days, she’ll happily forsake her sleep to devour the delicacies they prepare in her honour.
For four days, she will smile indulgently as her children walk miles to be catch a glimpse of her from as many pandals as possible – she will not spoil their fun by telling them that the spirit residing in each of the idols is the same. She will see the young children flirting mildly with people they have fancied for a year, but who they would not otherwise have been able to meet because of strict paternal supervision. She will admire the new clothes her children wear in her honour, and will check out the latest fashion trends so she can get her tailor to replicate them when she gets back home.
Her heart will overflow with love and affection during the aartis, when the heavy smell of camphor will mingle with the sound of mantras chanted to the beat of the dakhi to create an atmosphere which will cause goosebumps even on the arms of the unbeliever.
Durga is home with the millions who adore her, and she wishes she can stay forever. But she knows that Shiva cannot really get along without her, so after four days of revelry, she is impatient to get back.
Her children do not want to let her go, but reluctantly they do. The women smear themselves and her with vermilion, the time-honoured sign of matrimony, and extract a promise from her that she will return the following year. They weep while they take her idols to the river bank, and wail while immersing her idols in the river. But Durga’s eyes are dry – she has already detached herself from the Earth, and is mentally on Mount Kailash. She is wondering if her husband has remembered to feed that obnoxious pet snake that he insists on keeping wrapped around his neck.


Deb and Barbara said...

Love this story, Rayna! Wish I was cozy in bed with a cup of tea. It's that kind of story...

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Thank you, Barbara. I wrote this when I was a frustrated stay-at-home mother with a husband who was virtually working round the clock. I guess that comes through in the voice!


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