'The Birth of Kali' is a collection of retellings from Hindu mythology that revisit the stories with the feminist gaze.

We need to fight the fascists Birth of Kali author Anita Sivakumaran to TNM
Features Books Thursday, August 16, 2018 - 14:15

Anita Sivakumaran was born and raised in Chennai. The author's second book, The Birth of Kali, is a collection of retellings from Hindu mythology that revisit the stories with the feminist gaze. Published by Juggernaut Books, Anita's stories offer a unique perspective of Hindu mythology, often altering the plot lines that have been handed over to us across generations and investing agency in her women characters.

TNM spoke to Anita about what prompted her to write the book, the political implications of publishing such a book, and the characters whose stories she has chosen to tell. Excerpts from the email interview below:

Could you trace your journey as a writer till the point you came up with The Birth of Kali?

I was born and raised in Madras. I did an excellent BA (hons) English Literature at Stella Maris in Madras, with a superb syllabus, introducing me to the best literature from around the world and also Feminist concepts. In a brilliant contradiction, the atmosphere there was puritanical, and the college staff mostly treated girls like cattle. This is a great experience for a budding writer.

Then Manipal, which allowed me to flourish like a rash, gave me adventures and taught me that I was no good at journalism or advertising. Then a lost year in Bangalore. Then I came to the UK to do a creative writing MA, at Lancaster University. I found myself here. The MA showed me my purpose, which is to write, and at last there were people who could guide me. I then stayed on. The Birth of Kali is part of my PhD. Writing is my job.

There have been several retellings of mythology, including ones that are from women's perspectives. Did you worry about sounding stale when you chose your genre?

There are brilliant retellings of European mythology. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, which is a collection of short stories, and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, which is a collection of poetry made an impact on me, personally. These are from a contemporary feminist point of view.

I also admire Roberto Calasso’s Ka. Calasso’s preoccupation isn’t feminist. There are no feminist retellings that I know of that remake the truth within Hindu mythological stories, or get to the heart of human consciousness. What there are suffer from a lack of imagination or the writing’s poor, to say the least. This profound lack is what spurred me to write my book. To refresh these mythologies, which are, in fact, stale male tales.

The women in your stories, who've usually been portrayed as helpless in popular narratives of the myth, have agency. For instance, it is who Ahalya chooses to turn into stone, it is Sita who decides to flee with Ravana. Is this agency a product of modern times? Or do you see it as something we didn't see in those characters earlier because those who told their stories were mostly men?

Human beings, past and present, male or female, have always had agency. You might know about Avvaiyaar and the woman who chased a tiger with a winnowing palette. If human beings didn’t have agency, the species would have died out long ago. So yes to the second question.

The stories are narrated in first person (except Nandi). Did you consciously decide on this before writing each story or was that something that happened organically? And why did you change it in the Nandi story?

Most of the main characters came up and told me they wanted to tell it themselves. Some didn’t.

A criticism that is often leveled at retellings of Hindu mythology is that we judge characters with contemporary prisms - like that of feminism, for instance, and that this is unfair because their actions should be judged within their context. What's your take?

We can only tell the stories we want to tell. I’m looking at creating mythologies for the future, and that is done by remaking the stories of the past, and that is done by adopting a moral stance, contemporary prism, whatever you want to call it.

For the last one, which is about Kalki, you've shifted from the short story medium to the play. Why?

Mythologies have oral story-telling origins. After passing mouth to mouth, they were constructed as plays. There used to be a village festival in my ancestral village, and travelling theatre troupes would come and put up an all-night three days long play, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, and make up quite a lot of it on the hoof, depending on how much toddy was being drunk by the players. So a futuristic, experimental myth had to have this form. Demands were made by the material to the author, and the author had to comply.

What do you feel about the appropriation of Hindu mythology by political forces in contemporary India?

I suppose my feelings have resulted in The Birth of Kali! We need to fight them, these Fascists. What is disturbing is not the act of appropriation so much, as who doesn’t do it, including me, for reasons various, but the fact that they are destroying the pluralism inherent in Hindu myths, erasing contradictory versions and crowing that there is only one version. Also conflating mythology with history. That is dangerous.

Hitler tried to realise a mythical place where the pure-race Aryans lived, Lebensraum, and see what happened. The idea of racial superiority is a myth. Hitler tried to make that a reality. Horror followed. The Indians need to be told that those blue-eyed, blond so-called pure-race Aryans bear no relation to the Aryan progenitors of the Indian subcontinent. In Hitler’s mind, we were like the gypsies he exterminated.

Need I say what occurs when mythology is taken to be literal truth? For example, you believe Rama was historical, rather than a mythological figure, then the fellow had to have been born somewhere, and soon we come to believe he was born here, and that other people usurped the place, etc, and hellish chaos is unleashed.

You can buy the book here.