Prayers Against Exiled Goddesses
By Putul Verma
Alpine Fellowship 2019 – Writing Prize Second Place Winner
My mother talks about her life in India, collecting the stories together like knives and forks. Sometimes she lays them out in order, more often a sudden memory hooks on a story and she pulls it out and gives it to me. These are the stories of the first seven years of her life in Kashipur. Mangos turned to liquid in their skins, the sticky juice running down her arm to the elbow in the still afternoon heat. A tree in the woods that shed a pink and yellow carpet and grew its roots from its branches. Festivals celebrated on evenings with the fug of firecrackers in the air. Sacrificed goats and banana leaf plates. I’ve heard the stories so often they’re mixed up with my own now, jangling against dirty city snow, rhubarb crumble and the smell of ballet classes.
My mum, Bashita , was the seventh child, and a girl at that, unwanted by her mother. “She hated me” she says, but this was before partition when she was her father’s favourite and he took her on his visits and she was going to be a doctor just like him. Her mother’s coldness didn’t matter then. It mattered years later, long after partition and the bus journey with women and children from the village to the Calcutta slum. Her father broken, her mother set on survival told her it was marriage or medicine, the choice of one to save the family or the other to leave it forever. This, she was told, was the limit of her power in the world. My mother’s resolve, rooted back there in those visits with her father, had grown tough. She chose exile.
I visit her in the house in the little Midlands suburb. When we came here I was the same age she was when she took that bus to Calcutta. Today we sit surrounded by things from the decade she made this home for us – the hostess trolley which makes people smile and mention Demis Roussos, but still used for visitors. A glass fronted cabinet with small bowled wine glasses with green stems. There are no gods and goddesses. She closed a door on them when she left and hasn’t opened it till now.
Because this time, as she recounts those years in Kashipur, there’s something new. In the village, my mum says, goddesses shared the verandas of the village houses. Light, strength, power, wealth, wisdom – those are things you want to seep into your home through the walls. But out there in the woods was a banished goddess, not powerful, but frighteningly disfigured - and untrustworthy because of her sympathy with snakes. Bashita, the little girl, finding her way home in the dark, ran past the thicket where the infective goddess lived and she prayed: Hare Krishna – protect me, Hare Krishna – protect me – Hare Krishna protect me.
Manasa goddess of snakes, ancient, one-eyed, ugly and powerless, watched her run.
In the rainy season, the women told Manasa’s story, reading from the epic tale of her life and praising her. It was the time for snakes and so for this brief moment they flattered her for protection. Manasa has few powers and this minor one isn’t enough to end her exile, but from her dark place in the woods she heard her story told aloud and it pleased her for a while.
And that’s how Manasa is evoked today, entering through this one memory and sitting next to me while I listen. She has one scarred closed eye and there is a green and black snake winding up her arm, its flat sleepy head resting on her shoulder. Her sari is faded rough pink cotton with a lime border and trails mud. She’s pleased to be remembered, although still furious as she always is - and when I leave, she comes with me and sits next to me in the car.
Manasa would prefer to have her story told to her, but I’m an exile too and don’t know how, so she resigns herself to telling it herself. I don’t think she always tells the truth.
She tells me she’s Shiva’s daughter which seems impressive and unexpectedly grand on the M42 to London. But she was an unwanted daughter born in secret and hidden deep in the ground. From there she drew her power over snakes, but that’s an ancient rural power which doesn’t give her status amongst the newer gods and goddesses in the shiny cities of the world and this makes her seethe with the injustice of it. She’s tenacious though and fierce in her belief she deserves more, even if she’s ugly and comes from the mud with the snakes. She’s been in a lot of fights. I look at the scarring and think that must be how she lost her eye, but she doesn’t tell me and I don’t ask.
When we get home she comes with me into my flat, cardboard packing boxes making me weave awkwardly into the front room. Manasa’s already waiting for me there as I put down my bags. She’s feeding milk to the snake from my mug. The mug says “I 💚 tea” and I wonder about the appropriate crockery for a goddess and her green and black snake.
I sit down opposite her and she nods a gesture questioningly around the room. The boxes closest to us are half filled with books and around the boxes like pinned butterflies, books are laid face down on the ground to keep their place. A box of saucepans is a table for an empty wine glass and a pizza box. All the signs of a reluctant get-away. “I’m leaving” I say.
There’s a long look from that eye as if she’s considering something – I wonder if it’s a question. It’s not though – it’s more of her story. Maybe it’s an answer.
She’s Shiva’s daughter, she tells me, but her place wasn’t amongst the gods and goddesses reborn over and over again in gold and silver, jade, alabaster, copper, marble, porcelain. Her snake’s eyes are red but there isn’t a statue in the world where they are represented in rubies. Her skill is only in the squalid guts and mess of nature and remembering her stories was left to women. This, she was told, was the limit to her power in the world. But she wanted to be worshiped and this nurtured a simmering rage that turned murderous.
The women were respectful to her and it was worship of a kind, their secret admiration of her scars and the resolve that lost her the eye. But the men could not stand her, this muddy snake goddess. They would not pray to her. Manasa was not a goddess to direct armies. To her the only fights worth having were gouging, bloody fights where you had a hundred chances to show pity and didn’t take a single one of them. So Manasa looked for the bloodiest fight to show her power. She picked a rich landowner who hated her most. He was repulsed by her ugliness, her shameful birth, her direct unrefined way of talking with none of the coy, sly manipulation that soothes a man’s pride. He was incensed that she asked for more than those things entitled her to – the space she took up in the world and no more. He used all the power he had to ban any worship of her. Manasa chose him and demanded he pray to her and she demanded it over and over again. He laughed at her and refused every single time. Manasa didn’t have the skill of the higher goddesses – serene and entitled, their revenge falling cold and cleverly plotted on the heads of the poor humans who have slighted them. She reared and lunged, an attack triggered by pain. She killed six times. Six men – his six sons – all poisoned and they died as painfully as she could make it happen.
The goddess Manasa fills the room as she describes her murders, her voice slithering around the boxes and seeping in through the walls. It’s hard to tell if it’s a whisper or a roar. It feels like a heartbeat vibrating inside the earth.
The wine glass wobbles, then smashes on the floor and the lush saturated colours of Manasa’s story are whipped out of the room, leaving us together in the dim monochrome of my flat. I get up to find the dustpan and brush in the hallway cupboard while Manasa leaves her coiled snake sleeping and starts picking through clothes in a box. By the time I come back she’s shed her sari for jeans and a red and black Metallica t-shirt. Kill ‘em all tour 1983. Not subtle, but it’s a good look on her.
Manasa sits down and the snake winds its way up her arm and settles its head on her shoulder again. There was a seventh son still alive, she says, after she’d poisoned his six brothers. He was due to be married and his bride-to-be, Behula came to the goddess to beg her not to kill him too. Unlike my mother and Manasa, Behula didn’t want to fight her way in the world. She’d fallen in love with a seventh son so there was no family money left for him and neither of them minded that. They planned a quiet life doing exactly what was expected of them.
Behula was skinny and pale with dark circles under her eyes. She was older than brides usually were and up to now had lived by brewing herbs and infusing oils and creams as cures for illnesses. She didn’t look extraordinary in any way, but she could read herbs like a musician reads notes. She heard the tone of every leaf, tea and tincture and listened as she layered them together to create a score, each one with a semi-quaver of difference to suit the patient. People came for miles when they needed her skills, but they were suspicious of her command of nature, thinking it supernatural. She lived alone in the woods outside the village and was never invited to weddings or naming ceremonies. It was one thing to risk dark forces when illness or death was the alternative, but there was no reason to bring them into your home at times of joy.
Manasa looks peaceful now as she tells the story, cross-legged in the armchair, her empty eye closed but less scarred I think. I suddenly feel a sliver of hope. My mother prayed to her in the woods and Behula came to her for mercy. Both exiles just like her. I look around at the half packed boxes and think I’m an exile too. This is why she’s here. To tell me she will be here to help me if I ask, just as she helped Behula when she asked.
Behula married the seventh son and on their wedding night, Manasa came to their bed and killed him.
Even though Behula’s father-in-law had lost his seventh and final son to Manasa, he still saw her power as a sordid thing she happened on by birth, more natural than supernatural - useful in its place, but too low to worship. So he cajoled the respectable gods and goddesses by making sure no rite was forgotten. Six daughters -in-law before her were ordered to burn on the pyres of his sons and now it was Behula’s turn. This, she was told, was the limit to her power in the world.
Her husband was laid out on a raft and Behula climbed up next to the body and set off past the burning place and into the distance, the life she’d planned shrinking behind her. Every day she prayed to Manasa. This is unjust, goddess. This is unjust. This is unjust. Not begging, just a fact. She guided the raft for miles through the web of backwaters, the body of her husband next to her as pale and cool as the day he died, preserved by poison. She passed village after village. The people were startled to see her at first and then as she went further they came to the banks when news reached them she was approaching. Thin, burnt dark by the sun and delirious in the heat of the day, only the constant mantra to the goddess kept Behula going. Children swam to the raft with fruit and water and eventually the people, impressed by her conviction prayed to the goddess too. Months passed like this and Manasa listened to each new voice saying her name.
Manasa tells me she took pity on Behula and returned her husband to her. Was it pity though? I’m not sure she has a knack for it. Was she finally satisfied by the worship of the people who joined Behula in her prayer? A hundred times as many wouldn’t have been enough. Then I think about Behula. This is unjust, this is unjust. It was a prayer to power but not to Manassa’s. And I wonder if maybe, just that once, Manasa performed an act of worship of her own.
For a moment, I hear every one of those hundreds of voices too - this is unjust, this is unjust, this is unjust. Just as they become unbearable, they fall quiet suddenly and I see Manasa is wearing a pink sari with a lime border again, but iridescent silk this time, shot with silver thread. The green and black snake turns it’s head. It’s eyes flicker like rubies.
Then I’m alone. All that’s left is tackiness like mango juice on my skin, the flat dead smell of ancient mud and the sickly sensation of rocking on water. I get up and begin to unpack.