Two women. Two different sets of choices.
‘Finding Radha - The Quest for Love’, the anthology I co-edited with Dr Malashri Lal, has given me rich learnings on love, on the feminine persona, on conventional attitudes to gender and identity and their radical upturning, on physical and mystical bonds and Radha’s passionate determination to search and find her innermost self.
This is how I began: ‘How did Radha come to me ? Perhaps it was when I was roaming the narrow lanes of Vrindavan, in search of those elusive mysteries. Amidst the grove of ancient basil bushes stood a room with a bed in it, designed in the style of a government guest house in a minor mofussil town. It had iron shutters through which I could glimpse a postered bed. It was here that they met, those two, in a timeless nocturne, through the yugas, across the ages.
The attendant priest handed me a bundle of prasad. The packet he gave me contained some sweet crumbling pedas, fragrant tulsi leaves, a folding mirror, some bindis, glass bangles, a bottle of cheap fluorescent-pink nail polish. The last three items constituted a traditional ‘suhag ka pitara’ , a gift symbolising the auspicious feminine. It was a moment of illumination. The importance of it, the crucial nuance, came to me in a flash. The mirror was a gateway to the recognition of self-hood. The bangles were a form of armour. I don’t ever wear bindis, but they represent the awakening of the third - the inner - eye. It was the nail polish that moved me the most, it spoke to me of hopes and yearnings and betrayals, the entire tradition of ‘shringara rasa’ , the evocation of the mood of romantic and erotic love from the Natyashastra that is such a deep undercurrent of our culture.
Like Sita, Radha is also a manifestation of Lakshmi. Radha is the essential Shakti of Krishna, just as Sita is the consort of Rama. Yet their lives span very different arcs. Sita is the sterling emblem of familial duty, who unflinchingly complies with the diktats of her patriarchal and hierarchical world. She is relentlessly questioned and tested, and subjected not once but twice to the ‘Agni Pariksha’ of the test by fire, leading her to relinquish the harsh obligations of royal conduct and return deep into the womb of the earth mother.
Radha, the bucolic milkmaid, follows the dictates of her heart, of her instincts, of her passion, to seek union with her innermost self. She is her own mistress even in the act of surrender to her beloved. And it is this aspect of her that is worshipped, if not emulated, in shrines, temples, and festivals even today. ‘
Writing about mythology has taken me on a compelling journey into present day India. In the anthology ‘In Search of Sita’ I wrote in my introduction that ‘ Mythology in India is not just an academic or historical subject, it is a vital and living topic of contemporary relevance. The complex social, political and religious attitudes of ‘modern’ India cannot be deciphered without an understanding of our myths and their impact on the collective faith of our people. ‘
Two women. Two choices.