When I was eight, Mama taught me that in our world, there was power in words no more.
When I was nine, and he had dug his nails in my backside, I screamed and told Mama, and Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.
When I was twelve, and confused between angels and demons, praying for sinners and falling in love with sins, I stayed silent and prayed for mercy, because Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.
When I was sixteen, and in love with wraiths, a hand clasped my mouth and showed me darkness, the abyss that awaited only for me, and when Mama’s words rung like church bells in an empty altar, I leaped into an endless chasm, because in our world, there was power in words no more.
And life traveled at her own pace, passing days in hours and moments in lifetimes, and the world grew darker and brighter, the demons danced with the angels, and the angels made love to the devils.
Time danced in her little cage, welcoming me into her gilded prison, as she sung sweetened songs of mercy to my ears. My pretty young heart beat to her swan-songs, to secret dreams and unfulfilled hopes. And for a minute, Mama’s words sounded truth no more.
And the world moved on, the seasons changed, yellow turned into saffron and saffron welcomed the grey mornings of winter, and somewhere in between, I was a child no more, I had a voice no more.
Until one morning, the fires burned again, and the world discovered that we could speak, and the angels began searching for their broken wings, and the demons no longer danced in secret in their souls at night.
Slit throats sewed in severed heads, only this time, a feeble swan throat no longer bore the burden of pretty broken faces, now the lionesses roared and the she-wolves howled, their broken bones, their scarred faces, their crippled paws in display for the world to behold.
They wanted to look away, oh they wanted to look away, color themselves blind and the devils gave them their masks, their masquerade almost as grand as the art we made of our shattered bones, our severed wings, our lone feathers still drifting somewhere across the sea.
And so I walked to Mama, and Mama is old now, she walks with a cane and she breathes with effort, the fumes of the past choke her still, silence her still, and when she thinks I have come for my lessons, she opens her dried mouth to say, Oh child, in our world, there was power in words no more.
And I use my softened palms, so very different from world-worn roughened ones, to cup those cheeks that carry the battle-weary lines of time, like half-scribbled sketches etched upon her skin, and I say, No, Mama, no more, no more.
She closes her eyes, the softest glimmer of a tear seeps out from the corner of those half-shut eyes, and her smile seems juxtaposed, as if stolen from the lips of a child and gifted to the mouth of an old remnant of the past.
And then she mumbles, oh, she mumbles, a cornucopia of secrets between two women across the shadows of time, and I hope she believes in words, once more, once more.
Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.
In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.
And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.
The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.
So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”
Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).
So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.
In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.
Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).
But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.
In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.
But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.
And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.
Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.
“The night was shadows and wind and the smell of a storm on the way, for crying until the tears were gone but the ache was left. A night for imagining that you could step out onto the windowsill and say hello to the dark, say I am sad and have the wind say I know. You could say I am alive and the trees would sigh back We are too. You could whisper I am alone and everything ends and the stars in the sky would answer We understand. Or maybe it’s ghosts telling you all these things, saying. We know, we’re alone too, we understand everything and nothing ends.”
Summerlost, Ally Condie
Somewhere in between the childlike innocence of a twelve-year-old’s narrative of loss and belonging, Ally Condie uses the voice of Cedar Lee to speak the above monologue, of storms and shadows and winds and stars in the night befriending you, holding you, and although the sense of loss is never truly gone, it is shared.
I started reading Summerlost last night, and soon, there was this bludgeoning ache inside of me to finish it by today. And even if the novel is set in the beautiful summer haze of Utah, far away from the hustles of overpopulated cities, when I closed the book after the last words, I couldn’t help but say hello to the gray gloom that it leaves behind, as if even in the mist of melancholy, loss can be perceived as something beautiful, tangible and bearable.
Summerlost is about a child’s journey to deal with loss, the absence of family, death and newly found friendship; it is about the hollowing gap that only the loss of a loved one can leave behind and the repercussions of the same.
The story begins when Cedar, along with her mother and younger brother Miles as they settle in the small town of Iron Creek, after the deaths of her father and youngest brother Ben, in the summer months at a new house while the Shakespearean Summerlost festival commences. Befriending the quirky “nerd-on-a-bike” Leo Bishop, the two friends start working in the concession stand, selling candies and programs to the visitors of the festival before the plays begin every evening.
Alongside, bonding over loss and silence, Cedar comes closer to her brother Miles, as the shadow of Ben looms overhead, while her borderline neurotic mother concocts newer schemes of revamping the house to deal with the loss of a child and her husband.
Ally Condie merges past with present like beads on a string as the novel pushes forward, using the fictional memory of the life and times of an actress who made it big in Hollywood before dying under mysterious circumstances. Initially used only as a recurring symbol of memory overlapping time lines, Lisette Chamberlain, the actress, slowly merges into the plot itself, as if her growth traced in the story is a mirror image to Cedar’s own character alignment throughout the events of the novel.
But what outshines every other factor in the novel is Condie’s lucidity in using everything, from trees to bad soap operas to turkey vultures and little things left on Cedar’s windowsill, as an imagery of loss and new beginnings. The juxtaposition of every symbol over the underlying sense of loss is not fleeting either, it persists across pages, sometimes only found as the most thwarting of one-liners and in others as a monologue that rises and dwindles rhythmically to the beat of its words, making Summerlost a book which is better left perceived rather than read word by word.
Another brilliant use of language is the characterization of Ben, the late youngest brother of Cedar, who throughout the book has been described with suffering from symptoms of autism, without actually mentioning the term itself. Contemporary young adult novels have used mental illness as an ongoing plot motif throughout the scale of the story, sometimes going in for page by page descriptions of the illness in depth. Yet, Condie uses the innocence of Cedar’s childlike narrative to describe an almost inscrutable disease in the simplest of terms. That itself is quite an achievement.
The only spot in the sun is the climactic end of the story, perhaps considered anti-climactic by many. However, I feel I must defend that too, because a novel like Summerlost doesn’t necessarily need a bombastic climax to weave together its plot as a whole. It should beat, drift and dwindle by her own terms, leaving only a promise to return after.
I enjoyed Summerlost thoroughly, and one might say it is one of the best books I have read this fall. It was a speedy read, yet also touched with the weight of soulful realizations and melancholic half-smiles in the flow of its words, leaving only an aftertaste of the memory of loss and future promises behind.