Navratri has set in India and while the pandemic has brought down the festivities and the public celebrations, the love and enthusiasm of people to welcome their beloved Goddess to her earthly abode have not diminished. In usual times, the legend of Maa Durga battling Mahishasur and emerging victorious is recited through stories, drama, artistic installations and songs. For a lot of us, this is largely symbolic of finding our inner strength and destroying the demons — literally or metaphorically. The fierce idol of Goddess Durga standing over the slain demon incites fear, awe and respect.
The book Song Seekers by Saswati Sengupta seeks these legends which call out to the women to lead the battles — their own battles in the real world — through songs which are sometimes forgotten, cast away and mostly interpreted to suit the patriarchal notions of the war, i.e. men fighting against other men to reclaim their “honour”.
The book begins with a death in the Kailash Mansion (metaphorically meaning the abode of Lord Shiva) somewhere around the 1930s, then turning abruptly to our protagonist Uma entering the Chattopadhay household as a newly wedded bride. A death right at the beginning of the novel immediately sets your mood for mystery and intrigue. The Kailash mansion which Uma has to now reside in is both fascinating and intimidating for her. Uma’s mother in law is said to have died of illness very long ago, but her husband’s vague memory of witnessing her falling from the steps adds to the mystery.
As Uma tries to make herself comfortable with her husband and father in law, her only two family members, she forges a relationship with one more of its inhabitants. It is a woman, a widow with startling green eyes whose relation with the family is not mentioned.
All this would make one draw a comparison to a certain Manderley house, but the Song Seekers is no Rebecca, it does not delve on mystery alone. Instead, the mysteries in the Kailash mansion are a mere subplot leading to the main focus of the novel which is delving into the long forgotten and suppressed histories of the women of Bengal. And how does it do that?
It starts with Uma taking upon herself to read the Chandimangal, a book written as an ode to the Goddess Kali by the patriarch of Chattopadhay family Neelkanth — a man held in high esteem as the founder of Kailash. Chandimangal is indeed a significant part of medieval Bengali literature which eulogises Chandi or Abhaya, primarily a folk goddess, but subsequently identified with Puranic goddess Chandi/Kali.
Neelkantha’s son had revived Chandimangal at the peak of the independence movement in India and it quickly gained popularity among the elites of Bengal who were seeking inspiration for their struggle against the enslavement of their nation. The nation was recast as the Goddess, and militant Goddess was recast as the domestic, sacrificial mother needing to be saved from the “imperialists”. And somewhere in between, the real stories of the women and the Goddesses were lost.
Uma was brought up to believe in the story of Parvati who revered her husband so much, that (as the famous mythological story goes), she had cast herself in a fire in retaliation to his insult from her father. Chandimangal espouses and glorifies many such similar stories.
However, the women in Kailash, to whom Uma reads out to are hardened by their experiences of living in a man’s world. They are not so easily impressed. They lament, innocently at first, how even a Goddess was not spared from a life of domesticity with Shiva. They question how a free-spirited woman like Durga was irreversibly tied down to her house and invoked, conveniently, only when the Gods — the men — were unable to fight their own battles.
As Uma’s reading progresses, the women also realise how the folklores of the Gods that the lower castes believed in were reconstructed and reclaimed to suit the requirements of the upper castes. The realisation also is that it is only what is written down and publicised that has become the gospel truth, part of the religion, while what is being passed down orally from one generation to another within their community is relegated to the status of “folktales” for entertainment.
The novel gradually takes the reader to an understanding of real history which is often re-written to suit the needs of a patriarchal and caste-based society. The song seekers, thus, become the seekers of truth, while learning to read between the lines.
While Song Seekers focuses on the stories of the Goddesses in Bengal, let us also look at North India’s beloved story of Ramayana, more so because it is once again becoming the rallying point for the majority to uphold their misogynistic cultural practises.
The story of Ahalya — cursed by her sage husband for infidelity and liberated and redeemed by the touch of the feet of Ram — is a case in point. The point is to abide by the laws that society sets and you will be venerated; however, repressing the laws are to your individual freedom. A step out of the line and you “fall”, punished and cast out till someone — a man — leads you to the path of honour once again.
The Ramayana and other mythologies are filled with so many such stories of lower caste people and women being punished for their transgressions and rewarded for following the laid out rules that it is not difficult to discern that a deliberate attempt has been made to create and justify a particular social structure. The book Song Seekers make us reflect on many such stories and myths.
None of the women, barring Uma perhaps, really believe that what they suffer in the hands of the feudal, patriarchal and the caste system is ordained by the Gods, as works like Chandimangal tries to establish. Their understanding only gets validated when Uma, on their behalf, starts looking for real facts. The fact of the subjugation of the lower castes and the violent repression of the rights of women is substantiated as she continues to research. It is perhaps the writer’s way of telling that while knowledge empowers, it is your experience which enlightens.
Because the novel goes back and forth in time, narrating the stories of over four generations of the Chattopadhaya’s, it is rich in the description of Bengal. Bengal’s tryst with the Portuguese, the Swadesi movement that had swept across the nation, the partition of Bengal in the 1890s, Gandhiji’s non-violent call to protest, all became important pedestals in taking the story ahead.
Coffee houses, the space for ideological banter of the Bengali youth makes an appearance too, as the story moves from past to the present. Saswati Sengupta, thus, makes use of historical accounts to shape the stories of her characters, and we as readers are left to question and probe the history that we are presented with.
As I get into the celebratory spirit of Durga Puja, I remind myself to unfold and dissect the many layers of myths and legends, history as I find in the textbooks even, through this enlightening book.