Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

Reclaiming the night with Goddess Kali as the flâneur

We must begin in the middle, and so this piece of history about how Kali Puja came to be celebrated in the house of Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal: "Since 1979, we have been celebrating Kali Puja in our house. But there is a history behind this tradition. My brother got married in 1978. Back then, my mother had her own room and I had the smaller room which was Dada's when he was a boy. So there was simply no space to have a puja at home. One of my brothers was born on a new moon night on Kali Puja so he was named Kali... The neighbourhood kids would often play around with that clay, trying to fashion them into pots, pans, or images of gods and goddesses. That year, Kali made some small idols of the warrior goddess Kali and sold all of them except one.

"He then asked our mother if we could have a Kali Puja at home with his idol. Ma... said, 'So why don't you sell your idol this year and once Dada gets married we will expand the house a little bit, and we will have space for the pujo next year.' Kali agreed and sold his last idol for Rs 16.

The tantras and other allied literature tell us that Kali’s gruesome image is a representation of the ‘lower passions’, the things that need to be destroyed in us before we emerge as ‘pure’.

"A couple of months later when Kali was visiting our maternal uncle, one night, an awful din woke everyone up in the middle of the night. Our cousins saw Kali, standing stark naked, sticking his tongue out like the goddess, and shouting, 'Look at me ... look at the silver bells round my waist and on my ankles ... how could you sell me off for only Rs 16 instead of worshipping me ... was the money more important than devotion?' .... The trance continued for a couple of days and finally, the village priest was consulted and Ma offered a puja at the local Kali temple. ... We always use a small idol that Kali makes himself or at least puts some finishing touches on." (My Unforgettable Memories, Mamata Banerjee)

What I carry from this is the name of Mamata Banerjee's brother: 'Kali'. Kali Banerjee. This was not because there was a popular Bengali actor by that name, who had given memorable performances in Satyajit Ray's Parash Pathor, and Ritwik Ghatak's Nagorik and Ajantrik. Given that the 'i' and 'a' end-sounds usually indicate names of Bengali girls, it took me a long time to believe that 'Kali' could really be the name of a man. I was familiar with the tradition of Bengali girls being called 'Uma' if they were born during Durga Puja or Saraswati and Lakshmi if they happened to have arrived into this world on Basant Panchami and Lakshmi Purnima night respectively. Perhaps it was social conditioning that had made me uncomfortable with a man being named after a goddess. (What would be your first reaction if you met a woman called Jesus?)

Yes, there were stories and fables about Ramakrishna Paramhansa, about him 'turning' into the goddess Kali when in a trance, but in the popular consciousness, these were inextricably tied to the leitmotif of a devotee's madness. And my middle-class upbringing had made me look at insanity as something uncommon and distant. I remember carrying my unease about the name 'Kali' to my Bangla teacher in school, and she, always matter-of-fact, provided this annotation: 'Kali' wasn't the goddess alone; how could I forget that it was also the Bangla word for 'ink'? The girl 'Kali' took her name after the goddess and the boy 'Kali' after ink. (He of the mind, she of the body — old binary.)

The goddess Kali is worshipped on what is considered to be the darkest night of the year. It is interesting that that fearsome darkness should become a woman. The tantras and other allied literature tell us that Kali's gruesome image is a representation of the 'lower passions', the things that need to be destroyed in us before we emerge as 'pure'. Of course this is a shorthand description, but what is significant is that it should all come together — the scathing darkness, the exhibition of 'lower passions', and that all this should become manifested in the figure of a woman, a woman whose feet are on her husband's chest and whose hands hold severed heads of men.

If women are as powerful ('Shakti') as the figure of the goddess Kali makes them out to be, why do we have social and moral restrictions on their movement after sundown? Parents and politicians never stop tiring of telling us that we need to be careful about venturing into the dark. Social protest movements like Reclaim the Night — where women gather in public spaces in the night as a mark of protest against the physical and social violence meted out to those who refuse to let men own the night — tell us that like much of patriarchal religion, this image of a superwoman goddess as dark as the night, her hair untamed, her tongue sticking out, her indifference to social mores of daylight is a male conspiracy. For, in the end, it is exactly this highly sexualised and feminised image of the night that indulges and excites male fantasy. The 'Banjaran Manifesto' associated with Reclaim the Night rightfully claims flaneuring as the right of both men and women. For, if anything, Kali must be a flaneur of the night.

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