It seems that one of the things that stories want is metamorphosis—for their characters, and, hopefully, for their readers. It can be formal or abstract; it can be absolutely sudden or made necessary and probable by plot. A man may change into a bug; a woman may turn into a goddess. The impulse is old, definitely as old as the oldest myths, and carried well into the fables and fairy tales of all cultures. In Samruddhi G’s Lajja Gauri, a retelling of the fables of a goddess of the same name, the societal constructs around three women’s lives—the construct all manifestations of misogyny, patriarchy, and caste—are shattered through the intervention of the supernatural. The upshot isn’t a kind of ur-radical freedom within the social set-up; it is existence in a new shape altogether, one that throws a challenge to the reader, especially in how it leaves the narrative with a jagged closure.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
The headless stone sculpture reposes with her knees wide apart, her chest jutting out, and her hair dancing. We are sucked into the void where the head ought to be.
We dive into it and land on the outskirts of what is neither a town nor a village.
They call her Lali perhaps because she’s perpetually in the process of making a paan, slathering on various pastes and fragrant ground powders from her wooden box, and later, vigorously masticating the textured lump wrapped in a glossy betel leaf. She has been framed inside the epithet for so long that Lali has forgotten the name her father blew into her ear. She doesn’t particularly mind this. Lately, she does mind the paan stains left over her teeth though. Should she reduce the frequency of paans in a day? Or let paans linger for a lesser period in her mouth? Should she try to lighten her teeth with coal ash from her clay chuul? The men dissuade her every evening when they hear such ideas. ‘Lali won’t remain Lali if she doesn’t have the red stain of paan bloomed across her lips!’ they say while squeezing a shoulder or a knee, or taking her hand into theirs and patting it in sympathy.
We now hurtle towards the heart of this neither town nor village.
Gauri wipes off sweat after collecting every ounce of milk the goat has produced. The calf bleats pathetically, tied up at a distance of four hands. An acerbic mix of straw, caked dung and urine permeates the air. She surreptitiously drinks the raw milk before taking it inside. The line in the middle of her lower lip is perpetually cracked yet she can’t get rid of the compulsion to chew on it as she does now ruminating over how her entire family is gathering to discuss the next step. They had salvaged seven thousand rupees for the vakil’s fee yet after eight months, he’d simply given them the runaround. She was still married to the husband who wouldn’t stop beating her. Her brothers and uncles were cajoling her parents to simply marry her off again. After all, most men thought she was easy on the eye, the only problem was inducing them to accept her four-year-old Kiran. One of them had even reached as close as marriage preparations before reneging on the deal. The men in her family had nodded in sympathy. She now took the opportunity of an empty house and went to Kiran’s bedding. Underneath it were her crumpled, carefully preserved savings from the months of domestic work she’d put in a city bungalow. She fondly recalled the stern lady house-owner and counted and then recounted the notes.
The dark unconscious of this ‘neither town nor village’ ferries us over to the southern tip.
Suran has half her face covered with a cloth while cleaning the septic tank behind this house. Her eyes sting and she has to stop her hand’s movement every few minutes and step away to control her uncontrollable retches. Every second a dozen-odd mosquitos bite her exposed skin. It’s a wonder that she can see anything through her blurry eyes. She thinks she might as well smash her hockey stick against a wall and bury the splinters in this maggot-infested dump. She might as well dispose of the soggy sheafs of commendations and the cold medallions into the tank’s revolting blockages. The wooden stick should have guaranteed her any job other than her current one. Bitterness has set in her now—no matter how many championships she’s won, it wouldn’t matter… What did the empty glory achieved in a single moment matter? It hadn’t lifted Suran out of her circumstance. Her caste, this place with its conservative people, remain constant, she thinks while plunging her hand once, twice, thrice into the septic tank. The sludge swirls, sucks her whole.
In the square of this ‘neither town nor village’ where every event of import happens, low voices rustle and whispers gather. The most unfortunate nine days of the month are here. The days when a peculiar goddess descends among the living and everyone avoids her presence. She could be disguised, she could take the wind’s form, she could look at you through the water’s surface, and her attendance could materialise in your dreams. She is no one’s reincarnation. She has an endless void in the place of her head. Nobody knows how she appears, yet they’re terrified of the things she might whisper and the urges she leaves behind in those she haunts. She isn’t interested in ornaments of fine craft or artifice, she simply strings up objects which hold her fancy—certain pages, entire books, a plant’s leaf, baby hairs, broken green glass, a lone ghungroo, an old woman’s cry, the darkness of a well, a wriggling baby snake or an old man’s anguished red eyes…. She clothes herself or moves in her veritable form at whimsy. Anklets can’t shackle her feet to earth. Every piece of jewellery gives her fantastic abilities, transforming into a weapon, or rearranging into a vehicle that defies imagination and challenges preconceived notions of beauty. Soil and bark bend at her command.
The sky is far too timid to pinion her so the people grow anxious – who can keep her in check? Surely with such terrible prodigious powers, she needs to be subdued. In desperation, they pray for the celestial heavens to control her, yet she leaps boundless. The people are reduced to cowering if and when they have the misfortune of happening upon this goddess. They hurl many adjectives at her—‘shameless’, ‘slut’, ‘whore incarnate’. Hoping she doesn’t eavesdrop, they add: How dare she do as she pleases? How dare she wander wherever her heart takes her feet? They say she’s frigid and numbed in one moment then call her paroxysmal in the other. They spin tales of how her passion contains enough fire to consume the world and that she shall raze it to the ground soon enough. She has no will to nurture or forge. They murmur that you can’t predict what she thinks because she possesses no face, perhaps as a punishment for her existence. She whispers rebellious plans in the naive ears of women, turns them into a wrathful, awry and vociferous mess of writhing desire.
For these nine days, they warn the women to cover their ears with drapes of saris, go out in groups at daybreak, and never complain for that would simply invite the goddess and she will raze everything to dust.
On the second night of her wandering, the goddess visits Lali’s dreams, torments her with questions and strips her from her inhibitions. The next morning, Lali’s wooden paan box disappears. She searches for it frantically; asks thieves, neighbours, clients as her mouth dries up deprived of habit, her parched tongue steeped in desperation.
On the third night, the goddess passes by a raving Lali screaming into the night for her paan box, following the crescent moon, a Lali whom nobody dares approach because they assume she has been touched by the goddess. They cower, for her madness is contagion. The goddess fringes upon Gauri’s dream and chants her spell through the four-year-old Kiran. The following dawn, Gauri finds her house empty. Bewildered, she knocks on doors, scours the alleys and marketplace with Kiran on her back. With every door that shuts on her face, a mix of confusion and panic rises inside her. Speculation begins simmering: The head of this ‘neither town nor village’ can’t simply disappear one morning, the people say. The young mother, their own daughter-in-law Gauri, must have killed them and buried their bodies in the night. They thirst to make an example out of her, to parade her. So they chase her through the alleys, the square, the school, and the public toilets at the southern edges. Gauri can’t go far with Kiran smothered to her back, so she hides in the lake. At first, she holds her breath for two minutes, then three and five. She thinks every time after surfacing that she can’t possibly hold it for longer and that she can’t force Kiran to hold it any longer. But they dive inside quietly again and again. By nightfall, Gauri and Kiran find that they can hold their breaths for ten minutes at a time. The people from the ‘neither town nor village’ won’t return until daybreak.
The goddess chuckles, her walk marked by faint tinkling as she searches for Suran’s dark dreams. Suran’s dreams are difficult to enter; the goddess discovers that this fierce little Suran is aware of the other presence and fights it. This tomboy whose muscles ripple is a rare gemstone. The goddess pokes and prods and wheedles her way in. She wonders for the surest way to lead Suran into madness—she must simply nudge a little, the already boiling cauldron of babel inside Suran will certainly overflow. As birdcall invades and dawn approaches, Suran prepares to visit the day’s houses, throws a glance at her beloved hockey stick, and tries to shake off her viscous dreams. On her way to the first house which is adjacent to the head of this ‘neither town nor village’, gleeful faces whisper about the women who have been turned into deranged creatures by the Goddess. Who shall take Lali’s place, they wonder in relish. The woman of the first house Suran is called to emreges from the mob, commands Suran to follow and supervises her. She remarks that for a ‘bhangi’ Suran looks very put together. Suran’s mood sours, so she says if she hears the term one more time, she will refuse to work at all. The woman mutters that everyone and their dog nowadays feel they own the world, but Suran knows the woman is desperate to keep her, to keep the wheel going because who else will do their dirty work for them?
As she waits, the woman shouts in bewilderment from the back of the house. “What’s happened to our septic tank? Aho! Get up! Look our tank has vanished!” One after another, as Suran visits houses, they complain of the same thing. Relieved and puzzled, she gathers that something drastic has happened when they hold a meeting in the square and are too engrossed in the discussion to notice her. By the end of this meeting, they conclude that Suran has dug up every tank. Someone raises the question that if Suran really did it, why does the waste still keep on disappearing then. The elders decide that Suran has cast some magic spell with her hockey stick and vote to break it so their septic tanks are returned. Inside her hut, before they can grab it, Suran picks up the hockey stick and waves it around daring anyone to approach her. Now the people hesitate, even though they outnumber her, because they know her defiance—they have watched Suran play all their lives and she never misses her target. They’re hypnotised by the dark depths of her eyes which now reflect all the darkness Suran has experienced. A snake has her throat in its clutches, or rather, the snake is lodged inside the walls of her throat, writhing to strike. She grabs her potli as they hammer at her door and brandishes the stick at the stretched wire of a mob, carefully making a way out for herself.
The horde follows Suran across the wooden bridge over the lake which proves to be a bottleneck. The snake inside her throat strikes out, confined no longer. In an act of finality, Suran leaves behind a scream of madness, of victory, of truth, and the goddess amplifies the primitive sound. Lali who’s encircled by goats, looking for her paan box through the hay, hears it. Gauri and Kiran surface from the lake and listen to the primal sonic call. They watch the people from ‘neither village nor town’ on the bridge, balled into a quivering mess, mumbling to the heavens about what they’ve witnessed, a snake springing out of a woman’s mouth, and pray fervidly for this calamity to vanish like it never existed.
Well after the first star peeks, Suran sits knees to her chest, back resting on the bark, recovering her breath under a huge Paarijaat – the sacred celestial tree. Soon she is joined by the dripping forms of Gauri and Kiran whose skins have become wrinkled and green, who possess tails instead of legs, bearing organs that allow them life in water. Through her descent into madness, Lali has battled the dryness of her mouth, the obsession unwittingly inscribed into her, and decided to end her search for the paan box, may it remain forever lost. Her mouth salivates in yearning to suck on the textured lump again but she endures the flood of saliva and the rapid desiccation after the tide in her mouth recedes. Though crimson or vermillion no longer stains her mouth, the colour has manifested into an epidemic of semi-translucent flakes all over her skin. When she walks, a trail of dehydrated, red skin cells follows. Nobody bothered to see her out of the ‘neither town nor village’ after the goddess imparted insanity and colour to Lali. ‘What am I now?’, she wonders and wanders, trudging behind the strange green young mother and her child.
We have witnessed three specks across a canvas scattered in a triangle, arriving beside each other. We have witnessed the fabric of fate unravelled by human hands, embroidered into a tapestry of their own design.
Suran discovers the icthyo-creatures, who used to be women, near the Paarijaat and drags the strange mother and child to a well, away in the wild interiors. Their scales, partially obscured by moss, happily gleam in the moonlight. Suran asks if they need anything. The mother declines and dives into the depths of the well. Only toads with their spinning eyes and gawping mouths leap over the well’s stone. A bat flies onto the nearest tree and appoints itself as the guardian of the well. The next morning, Suran finds Lali staring off at the horizon, taxis and trucks snaking along the highway. She shares the fistful of rice grains she brought from that miserable hut back in the ‘neither village nor town’. She drags herself and Lali through the tilting grounds and oppressive clouds. She prays to the goddess who never receives many requests. She reaches the outskirts and watches buildings at the edge, spinning clouds around them like cotton candy. She rubs the medallions she received in some international competition. The diligent athlete whose inevitable future is being a forgotten newspaper headline, reluctantly put up on a pedestal only to be savagely torn down, a plaything of the fickle, dissatisfied masses. Suran digs the earth and plants her hockey stick in the city’s land fertile with ambition. The goddess has decided to spur her cherished gem onward. The future is no longer a body of shifting sand, it is carved inside stones and concrete, wood and metal. Day after day, the earth absorbs the stick, then Suran, into itself, germinating a tiny hill which, year after year, shall grow massive, towering over the jungle of phallus-shaped buildings.
Through the journey Lali has reluctantly undertaken, she understands why the paan box disappeared. She remembers the name her father blew in her ear as a newborn: Lata. When she returned home after she had heard her in-laws planning to set her on fire, her own father burned her beautiful beloved name and painted over her the frames of Lajja—shame—because that’s what she had brought to the family. When she started accepting money for male company, at first she and the men had been too coy to label the transaction. Then one fallen king had gifted her a wooden paan box after a night of perversion and confided that a woman like her should always have paan stains blossoming on her lips – nothing was more attractive and welcoming than a red mouth, was it? The daze of dilated pupils, sweaty backs and palms, curly pubic hair, salty and rank odours, the protruding stomachs had confined her further and further into a trance, transfiguring her from Lajja into Lali – the perpetually red-mouthed seductress. Only when the paan box was lost did the daze dissipate at last.
Once every nine days, the goddess provides relief to the parched Lata whose skin cells now permanently hold a crimson hue.
Once every nine days, the goddess blesses the well camouflaged in obscurity where Gauri and Kiran reside, with water so that it never dries up.
Once every nine days, the goddess blesses the tower planted of Suran’s hand, the dark structure an amalgam of Suran’s identity and amorality while it rises, spinning a moat of its clouds.
Lata, Gauri and Suran have it locked inside and only share the secret with each other. They now understand the goddess. She haunts not to create new victims but to whisper schemes of liberty. They are certain the goddess is an incarnation of truth because in their dreams they have heard it – the clarity, the regard, the abundance. They have seen the bloom where her head should repose, they have seen the universe in her void. The goddess stretches lithe in her explicit pose – knees wide apart, chest jutting out, hair dancing. They call her Lajja Gauri—the goddess of shame who spreads ignominy and scandals, and ruins the fragile ideas of respect and honour rampant in society. The women address her as the goddess of emancipation who germinates chaos and subversion and liberty in her wake.
We hurtle out of the void and are spit over our chairs, heads lolling. When we look back, we swear of having witnessed a manic expression folding in the three specks which multiply into millions, teeming where the goddess’s head should be, but it has vanished in a breath.
© Dariana Arias. All rights reserved.
The iconography of Lajja Gauri is not for the prude-of-heart. No amount of philosophical posturing can drape over the naked fecund generative fertile biological fact the Goddess represents. Most of the classical representations however have a functional, absent-minded quality. However, we were struck by Venezualan artist Dariana Arias’s conception of Lajja Gauri. The Saatchi has a collection of Dariana’s work. Insta: @art_pop_ups.
Samruddhi is an aspiring novelist and short story writer. She likes to explore gender and identity through her writing. Currently working to publish her first novel, she writes book reviews on Substack. Her short stories and literary reviews have been published in The Inklette Magazine, Verse of Silence, Usawa Literary Review and others.