“Hymns would claim that reciting the names of the Panch Kanya—the five learned women from Indian mythology –would dispel sins. Alternative traditions would imprint us on a yet higher pedestal, honouring our devotion and integrity to be among the purest ones that have ever inhabited this planet. We would be called Sati.”
Sati. Pure. Pious. Devoted.
Ahalya has come to be one of the most wavering figures in Hindu mythology. Have we only been seeing her through a sheen of our self-constructed judgements and premonitions? Is the Ahalya that we see, actually the one that had walked the earth? Or are we curtailing our visions with some very easy and frivolous barriers that perhaps nudge us, to say: let’s not think about Ahalya too much. Let her story be buried under the foliage of remnants and bygone blunders, and let her philosophy wisp away like the smoky tendrils of an almost extinguished piece of ember.
But truly, this glowing piece of ember was once the manifestation of spotless purity, of seamless beauty and limitless submission. Eons of a stony fate, numerous instances of ruthless abandonment, numerous occasions where her ideals were discarded as something very trivial—could all of this supress the voluptuous philosophy that was Ahalya? Or did these make her more luminous, more radiant in forgiveness and more magnanimous in endurance?
Koral Dasgupta has philosophized Ahalya’s story in such a bright and exuberant way, that it ceases to be just a story. It evolves and transcends to represent the germination and thrive of certain ideologies, figments of emotions, and some very distinct trails of thought that question some of the very basic foundations of how we perceive and analyse. The Ahalya that emerges from the pages of this book is not just a woman, the Indra that shifts in and out of the storyline is not just the king of gods, and the Gautam that pronounces his stony curse is not just a revered sage fuming in fury. Each of the characters, each of the contexts, each and every premise—be it the rains, the thunder, the flowers or the birds—represent a cauldron of technical understanding of some underlying thoughtful constructs, which influence and sway.
The jasmine that places itself on the windowsill of Ahalya’s hut, emanates the fragrance of her devotion to homemaking, her faith in inclusiveness and starting afresh. The maddening rain that lashes at the trees astray, and tugs at the frayed edges of Ahalya’s garment—perhaps nudges at the faint feeling of imprisonment that might have sprouted in the core of her heart, triggering the scorch of fierce desire that she must have been subconsciously longing for. The tranquil waters of the Mandakini, washing Ahalya’s tender body each day, might have equipped within her the pleasure of temporary fancies, the joy of fleeting yet endearing charm. The cool mist that encircled her entity, providing feelings of solace and security—could also have instilled within her the fear of losing it all, the worry of oblivion.
Yet, Ahalya faces it all. Probably without knowing much of it. Bewilderment and innocent inexperience rattle her bones, draining out of her the most bereaving of emotions. The curse of ignorance, the pretext of setting foot into arenas not well aware—it eventually turns against her.
Koral keeps enough room for all sorts of imaginativeness. None of her proclamations are absolute and suffocating, they rather liberate and set free. It soaks in it all: Ahalya’s tears, Gautam’s sweat, Indra’s aura, and Brahma’s creativity. It doesn’t entrap the characters in segregated zones of right and wrong, or moral and immoral, or pure and impure.
Then again, what is pure and impure? Is the tender Ahalya’s body to be rendered impure and snatched of chastity, just because she had trembled in utter ecstasy on one unfortunate night, with the gentle touch of a man she had known for long, yet never had come close? Is Indra to be blamed? The most seductive of lovers, who is capable of igniting the hunger for desire even in the most reserved of women? What is that thin line that differentiates bodily longing from ‘pure’ attraction or spotless love? Is the adherence to whimsical joys really a setback from the ultimate goal of salvation? And how fragile is trust, that can crack apart much like cemented foundations yielding under the life force of a tiny sapling that pierces through.
The quality of empathy coats Koral’s book with a glaze of soothe and calm. The text, while reading, makes you visualize the interplay of events unfolding before your eyes. You see it all: the birds singing, the river gushing, the flower buds blooming……sky turning overcast and torrential rains pouring down, streaked with glints of lightning. Thus, you see Ahalya gazing up at the first drops of rain, you see Indra manifesting himself as the playfulness of the indriyas and coming closer and closer, but the Gautam in near proximity, vanishing fainter and fainter.
Koral Dasgupta has made us see Ahalya as the symbol of rejuvenation and innocence, as the one who heralds the sanctity of persona, let alone the body with its flesh and bones. Ahalya becomes the embodiment of a side to femininity that is so obvious yet so overlooked and undermined. The quality of unconditional submission, the ability to endure and adapt, the ability to understand and forgive, yet never forgetting the tough times. The philosophy of Ahalya commemorates the depth of character, the rightfulness of judgement and the purity of intentions.
“From the ground he raised himself tall again, as if pronouncing the curse had granted him solace and renewed vigour. With monarchical arrogance he walked back unscathed towards his reclusive life, discarding me like a scandal of one night….”
Thanks to author Koral Dasgupta for the book.