I finished reading Antara Banerjee’s book ‘The Goddess in Flesh’ a few days back. I usually allow myself some time before I write about my perspective on a book to check how much of the book stays with me, to check if the book is still relevant for me, and if there are images from the narrative that refuse to leave me.
‘The Goddess in Flesh’ scores on all fronts.
The book has three stories - ‘Vama’, ‘Possessed’ and ‘The Forbidden Threshold’. The stories are about women – women shunned by society, women made hapless victims of archaic societal norms, women being treated dispassionately as objects of physical and at times, spiritual gratification.
Antara is a painter herself and as you turn the pages of this book, what strikes you immediately are the visuals she weaves with her lucid storytelling. You walk with a little girl along dusty, sun-baked roads in search of her sister who has been brutally sacrificed at the altar of the goddess after having been abducted from a fair, you cringe at the sight of gory rituals of human sacrifice in the depths of forests, you gape in awe at the elaborate and extravagant rituals in temples, your heart skips a few beats as you watch aghoris feast on human flesh through the eyes of a young, vulnerable child, and even the potua-para we are all familiar with, comes alive in the pages of this book. There is a theatrical feel to the scenes unfolding before the reader, especially in the grand climax of each story. As I spent the last few days with this book, the imagery managed to completely detach me from busy Kolkata streets and the comfortable familiarity of my bedroom, and the tranquillity of an aircraft packed with dozing business travellers. The narrative transports you to its magnificent and turbulent world - in time and in space.
In every story, as the protagonist takes up cudgels against social norms and patriarchal atrocities to protect a sister or a daughter or an innocent child she does not know, the thin line between humanity and spirituality vanishes. You see the divine power in the unlikeliest of women – the demure, submissive wife a high priest, a woman exploited by yogis to attain moksha through sexual gratification, or a woman devoted to her married lover, and shunned by society as a prostitute. The ‘goddess’ we seek in the idols we build and devoutly worship , lives in each one of the women we have fed, nurtured and showered our wealth on, only for their ‘flesh’.
What also strikes me is Antara’s deep knowledge of mythology and Hindu customs, which comes forth in all the stories. The way she depicts rituals in minute details, the way she draws parallels with mythology, and the way she then starkly portrays their futility and contradictions leave indelible impressions in the minds of the reader.
And finally, the review will not be complete if I do not mention the wonderful romantic interludes in the stories. The portrayal of the newly married Vama waiting in anticipation for her husband on her wedding night, the whirlwind romance and blissful domesticity of Sambhu and Vikata, the unbridled passion between Shodashi and Ramakanto are seeped in passion and intense romanticism. The goddess is, after all, a woman at heart ready to sacrifice herself at the altar of love and all-consuming passion. For centuries, she has been made to pay a heavy price for her pure, unadulterated feelings.
The stories in ‘The Goddess in Flesh’ are from another world and another time, yet extremely relevant in today’s context when atrocities against women continue unabated, when women continue to be commodified, when religion and social norms are but tools for exploiting a woman. Antara holds a mirror to us and makes us scurry for cover.