Minority Report | Lite Black


Minority Report | Lite Black

It was a stumble upon moment. After digesting ancient and modern stories about Goddess Kali, known in Hindu mythology as a slayer of demons and the symbol of feminine empowerment in 20th Century writing, and a force of sexual liberation evoked through her violent manifestations, my mind had idolized and idealized a strong visual in her temple idols. That naïve thought accompanied me last week to the Kali temple at Kolkata’s Kalighat. Known as one of the 51 shakti peethas (temples with interpretations of Shakti as the main deity) of India, this temple is reported to be more than 200 years old.

In my growing up years, I was fascinated by the mention of Goddess Kali. References that she sprang from the anger of Goddess Durga to slay the demon Raktabij (Blood Seed) or that she was born when Goddess Parvati shed her dark skin, becoming the sheath, the dark, unrelenting “Other” while Parvati remained fair and righteous influenced my imagination. Iconography and calendar art which fleshed out these details visually formed the imagery I held to in my heart. That of a blue black, partially unclothed Goddess with a long red tongue blistered with blood, wearing a necklace of decapitated heads spewing murderous rage and stamping upon Shiva, the ultimate symbol of masculinity.

I was taken aback when she looked anything but that inside the shrine at the Kali temple. I had ignorantly assumed that her angry form worshipped by Tantriks and Aghoris would have some parallel representation here if not as the main deity.

The road that leads to the temple houses a police station. “Didi lives next door,” said a pandit referring to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s residence in the area. Even before your cab is parked, pandas (religious touts) promising quick darshan for as little as Rs.51 start swooping upon you. As in most pilgrimages, the relentless cacophony of these traders of God can make you tense—and if you aren’t exactly drenched in religious faith, you want to run.

On the temple street, dozens of small stalls selling religious paraphernalia offer sustained distraction. Attractive folk art impressions of Goddess Kali’s feet, her eyes and tilak, brass items, idols of other Gods and Goddesses, auspicious pooja materials fill these stalls. The colour red conspicuously stains everything—red and white bangles, red aalta (inky liquid used by Bengali women to make decorative patterns on their feet), shades of sindoor or vermillion—from blood red to fiery orange from tame cherry red to dusky maroon. Everything leading to the Kali temple, otherwise the embodiment of liberation is about signs of marriage. Every detail clamours to merge with that overarching idea of a socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual relationship, to be held up by the “married woman”. All other possibilities of human relationships and family ideals must be constructed from that core.

Inside the temple compound, a T-shirt and dhoti wearing panda offered me a VIP darshan for Rs.200. I could well see the long queue of devotees hounded by ruthless members of Tout Inc. and agreed for a VIP darshan but only after making a deal that I would pay only after it was done. What followed was one man handing me to another past the throngs till a tough looking guy literally pushed me into the shrine. But if I had plans to pray or stare in awe at Kali’s divinity, I was wrong. Swathed in layers of cloth, she looked rather subdued with only the orange etchings on her black, stone-carved impression visible.

I was already thinking about the sindoor as the shrillest normative idea in this procession of faith, so I reacted with skepticism when a priest forced my head down, took away my offerings, asking me for an additional Rs.1,100 and the name of my husband. But what if I was single? Will you allow me to pray for a second, I argued, accusing him of monetizing religious sentiments. He baulked for a moment but argued back saying the temple needed funds to run. I wrestled out of the space only to be handed over from one tout to another in reverse order. Mr Tout of the Rs.200 deal had materialized again and led me to an older man who looked stoned. After an empty sermon on Durga-Kali worship, he asked me for Rs.500 in exchange of a one rupee coin dipped in vermillion—apparently some auspicious key to unlock my destiny with. I refused.

It was only after paying Mr Tout his Rs.200 that I found a corner to reflect about the Goddess’s lite black temple existence. Her angry-victorious form is clearly only marginally important in popular forms of worship.

I have just begun reading books on Kali and the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History echoes loudly once again. But till I can resurrect her as a potent symbol, Goddess Kali’s demon-slaying imagery stands slayed in my head.