Moebius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways by Giti Thadani

The more I read about Giti Thadani, a scholar based in Berlin and New Delhi, the more intrigued I became. Thadani dropped out of high school (Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi, y’all) when she was fifteen. She started India’s “first lesbian organization ‘Sakhi Collective’ way back in 1990″.  And she spent several years driving around India exploring temples and museums in order to understand the representations of the female divinity in ancient Indian culture. What’s not to like about her courage and commitment and her zero tolerance for bullshit?

Moebius Trip: Digressions  from India’s Highways  (Spinifex Press, 2007)  is a travelogue focusing on Thadani’s experiences as a solo female traveler in India, and on her discovery of female-centric iconography in Hindu temples. In the latter thread, Thadani considers religious semiotics, linguistics, architecture, and mythology.  She visits long-forgotten yogini temples and sites devoted to Matrika worship, deploring the kitsch that has invaded most of the better-known places of worship. She bludgeons apathetic museum curators into showing her long-neglected statues depicting lesbian relationships in Indian myth.  She ponders the histories that have been erased and the stories that have been appropriated over time to create contemporary (male-centric) religious practice in India.

This book was first published in 2003,  and much of its value lies in its commentary on the situation faced by women traveling alone in India. As a woman driver in India, Thadani must deal with “hordes of men, all trying to overtake so as to ascertain my gender.”  She meets men who help her change a wheel when her hands are too numb with cold, who go out of their way to help her locate hidden sites, and she also meets many idiots drunk on their masculinity. In one chilling episode, a truck deliberately makes her crash, and the truck driver boasts that the road belongs to men and he hence “had to” teach women drivers “their due lesson”. Public spaces in India have largely been taken over by men, as have most religious spaces (which have deliberately diminished and domesticated goddesses); we could debate endlessly about the causality here.

While I have nothing but unqualified admiration for the author, I must confess to mixed feelings towards this book.  Thadani is obviously deeply knowledgeable about the feminine in ancient Indian myth and culture, but her analysis in this book is mostly unanchored by documentation. She subverts many dominant narratives (which is great! I love it!) but often doesn’t cite a source. For instance, while summarizing the Ramayana,  she writes that “Rama never had children of his own”,  that “Sita remained virginal […] in his company” and that when Sita was later exiled, she “parthenogenically produce[d] two male twins. ” Now, the popular version (of what is arguably India’s most famous epic) has Sita’s twins fathered the usual way by Rama. I’m eager to consider a new story, but without the source it’s speculation, innit? Another example:  while writing about British India, Thadani says that any large-scale migration was punishable under colonial law–“people could have their hands and feet cut off.” I’d love to know where she got that information (and if such a law was ever implemented, and what the consequences were). But again, there’s no further detail about that statement. One could argue that Moebius Trip doesn’t ever claim to be anything but a travelogue, but that doesn’t preclude attribution.  The book would have carried so much more weight if only Thadani had bothered to document her sources.

My frustration/fascination with Thadani’s work was perhaps keenest when considering her prose. Much of the writing is beautiful,  poetic in approach and intensity, seeking to articulate profound mysteries, making for opaque yet hypnotic reading.  There are lovely insights–I was very impressed, for instance, with her description of a hotelier in Kerala who was attempting  to “finesse his culture” through his presentation of local cuisine.  Some of the writing is quite academic in tone, and I found it heavy going. And some of it is just plain clunky–for instance, she writes about “marriage processions composed of people who seem to believe they have to compensate for the empty jar of arranged marriage mediocrity by blaring their bandbaaja.” What?! Writing about her hotel room, she says, “Mosquitoes are rampant, and the electric repellent does not work.[…] The food in the adjoining cafe is equally repellent…” Aaargh! How can the same person who notes that “Each cosmology has its own aesthetics of light” also claim “…when I am completely concentrated, I can cover these two hundred-odd kilometers in three hours”? 

Despite the above complaints, I do recommend this book–when it’s good, it’s very good. And for another viewpoint, do check out Marilyn’s thoughtful review here.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for sending me this book all the way from Australia! This review goes towards the Global Women of Color Challenge.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

Most Hindus have a favorite god or ten, and chances are Ganesha will top the list. He’s worshiped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings, the god of intellect and wisdom, and he’s invoked as a patron of letters during writing sessions, and as the god of arts and sciences. And he’s particularly appealing to kids–he rides a mouse and is fond of sweets and has an elephant’s head, and has plenty of fun adventures. (Yes, theology is notably absent in my childhood memories of Ganesha.)

I requested Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth for review from Chronicle Books (Raincoast Books in Canada) because I liked Sanjay Patel’s previous book Ramayana–Divine Loophole. Patel is an animator at Pixar, and favors unvarnished text and clean-edged colorful illustrations that are utterly devoid of the soft-focus sentimentality that tends to permeate this sort of narrative. And yup, I asked for this book because I’ve been  searching for kidlit that explains religion without being all pompous and preachy and exceptionalist and smug and superior, and oh, panning for gold in my kitchen sink would have been a more productive quest by far. If you tend to answer your child’s questions about god(s) with a wary “Well, some people believe…”, you know what I’m talking about.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is based on the myth in which Ganesha is asked (by Vyasa) to record the verses of the epic poem Mahabharata. When Ganesha’s pen breaks, the resourceful god breaks off his tusk and uses it as a stylus to keep writing.  There are a number of versions of this story–it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that each Hindu family cherishes its particular oral history of this myth; my preferred interpretation is the one where the tusk is said to symbolize that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of learning. Patel however changes some major plot points–this book is not a re-telling as much as a re-invention of the tale. Those looking to take offence will be amply satiated.

The young Ganesha, cruising with his magical mouse (“Mr. Mouse”) searching for sweets, finds a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Laddoo. He pops the shiny blue treat into his mouth… and breaks his tusk. He tries to fix the tusk back on, but failing, hurls it away in frustration, whereupon it hits an old man walking past. That’s Vyasa the poet, and he asks if Ganesha will be his scribe for a special poem so long that “all the pens in this world would break before it was done.” Ganesha agrees to try out his tusk for the job.

(All book images from Sanjay Patel’s website Gheehappy.)

The tusk works great, so Ganesha sits down to record the Mahabharata, getting up only one hundred thousand verses later. And there’s still some laddoos waiting for him.

What a  sweet little story! I really enjoyed the ending (which reminded me of Max’s warm supper in Where the Wild Things Are) and the absence of a moral (well, “Don’t eat jawbreakers” doesn’t qualify IMO). The portrayal of the Ganesha as a child first and god second makes kids connect with the story in an elemental way–Ganesha is shown jumping rope, dancing to music, and ringing bells with his trunk.  The illustrations are superb–they’re drenched with color, and they beautifully reconcile traditional Indian motifs with computer-generated graphics. And while I did have context for the myth, my son has never heard of the Mahabharata, and he enjoyed the book because “it was scary when the tusk broke, but I like that the tusk helped him draw.”

Patel says the plot has been changed to “develop an original and, we hope, fun picture book” but I’m pretty sure many (Indian) readers will ask why he  didn’t stick to the original myth (the jawbreaker laddoo episode has been inserted purely to ramp up the entertainment quotient for kids). Well,  I understand the question and sympathize to some extent, but I personally think re-inventions and re-interpretations are true to the spirit of the religion–strict adherence to a text isn’t a characteristic of the Hindusim I know.  Look at this statue I found during a google image search for Ganesha:

That’s Ganesha with a computer, and his mouse is the computer mouse. I’ve seen statues of Ganesha playing cricket, strumming a guitar, holding a laptop and so on, and I think these are respectful yet fun, serving as an acknowledgement of Ganesha’s ubiquity in everyday Indian life. I’d recommend Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth to atheists, believers, the confused and the indifferent and oh yes, to all varieties of kids.

Note: For further reading on this topic, you’d probably do well to check out The Broken Tusk by the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami.  I haven’t read it (yet), but you can’t go wrong with her work.

Kabir the Weaver-Poet by Jaya Madhavan

Like most Indian school children, I studied about Kabir the Saint; like all school children, I banished him from my brain post-exams. If prodded (at knife-point), I might have remembered him as the one who said it didn’t matter whether you were Hindu or Muslim, and cited the legend about mourners squabbling over religious dibs at his funeral (cremate or inter?) only to find that Kabir’s body had been magically replaced by easy-to-apportion flowers.

So really, I didn’t know anything about Kabir, until the folks at Tulika Books asked if I’d be interested in this book review.  Jaya Madhavan’s Kabir the Weaver-Poet has now rooted Kabir in my mind as a gadfly who delighted in offending fundamentalists of all stripes, a religious poet whose work showcases an earthy, entertaining wit, a mystic as much as a logician, and a non-conformist who really didn’t give a damn about public opinion.  He might be a saint, but he was quite the dude.

So, who was Kabir? Born circa the fourteenth century, he is generally regarded as “the first Indian saint to have harmonised Hinduism and Islam by preaching a universal path which both Hindus and Muslims could tread together.” Of unknown parentage, he was brought up in a Muslim household, and was a weaver by profession, which of course seems peculiarly apt given his predilection for amalgamating contradictory religious dogmas. His poetry exhorts people to discover God through simplicity and goodness while shunning the accoutrements  of organized religion; the latter earned him powerful enemies amongst the establishment, with nasty consequences. This story could unfold today, and not much would be different. Gulp.

Kabir… is aimed at the 12 years plus group, and Madhavan uses several interesting devices to hold her readers’ attention,  such as a story paced over twenty-four hours, an abundance of weaving metaphors, and multiple narrators including anthropomorphic weaving equipment–a thread, loom, spindle etc.  chat with each other about Kabir. And thankfully, the author’s account of this saint’s life is no hagiography.  Madhavan offers inventive factual explanations for miracles attributed to Kabir without diminishing his persona, and her rueful, animated narrative makes you wonder why Kabir courts trouble as he does (he advocates for vegetarianism at a market meat-stall), even as you admire his steadfastness. And Kabir’s poetry adds further zing to the story. “Take ten cows, differently colored, yet the milk is the same,” he says, thus offending Pundits and Mullahs in equal measure.

I felt a sense of impending doom along the narrative (the first chapter warns that Kabir might be in for a sticky end), and the last section, which features a vicious outbreak of communal violence, will disturb younger readers. But the essential truth of Kabir’s arguments shines forth for readers of all ages, as does the joy this man found in his eschewal of all that was narrow-minded and ugly. Madhavan’s portrayal ultimately had me remarking on Kabir’s sanity rather than his saintliness, and that’s perhaps the best compliment I could pay this beautifully-imagined account of one’s man campaign to change the world. And you know what? He did.*

END

*According to Wiki, Kabir’s “…writings have greatly influenced the Bhakti movement…Apart from having an important influence on Sikhism, Kabir’s legacy is today carried forward by the Kabir Panth (“Path of Kabir”), a religious community [whose] members, known as Kabir panthis, are estimated to be around 9,600,000.”

Kabir’s influence is felt in popular culture even today. Check out The Kabir Project, which describes contemporary film and music themed around Kabir’s philosophy. The films look absolutely fascinating; won’t someone send me a Region 1 DVD?

This review is part of the Kabir blogfest, organized by Tulika in association with the Kabir Project.  “You can also blog about Kabir, write about how you have been touched by his poetry or the stories around his life or write about how you have responded to him.” Please, do.