My thanks to the author Anuja Chandramouli and Rupa Publishing Co Ltd for a review copy of this book.
Anuja is a writer of both mythological and historical fiction; this work falls in the former category. Mohini, the goddess of enchantment is the female avatar of the god Vishnu, often seen as an enchantress, one who beguiles and captivates, and perhaps has little role beyond that. While one comes across her in mythological episodes and tales, especially the samudra manthan or churning of the ocean of milk by the devas and asuras seeking amrita or the elixir of immortality, it is others’ perceptions of her that we see in these tellings; this book, however, tells her story, not only bringing her into the centre but telling it in her ‘voice’. Apart from her nature or the perception of it told in a discussion between Vishnu and his consort, we see all other events, whether the relationship between the devas and asuras, leading up to the samudra manthan; the consequences and Mohini’s role in restoring balance; the story of Aravan, Arjuna’s son; her relationship with Shiva and the birth of her son, besides also stories to which Mohini is a witness, from her eyes.
In her voice, we hear not only the ‘dominant’ versions of these tales but both sides, Mohini often highlighting the injustices that these versions might attempt to hide or downplay, and in which the sufferer is almost always, a woman (but not always, for Aravan, Arjuna’s son—never acknowledged or appreciated, is at the receiving end of it too; as are the asuras often painted as evil by popular lore, yet ones who have stood for right as well at times, while Indra the ‘king’ of heaven perpetuates wrong after wrong, and injustice after injustice, and is rarely held to account). In fact, this is a major theme explored in the book—that of sexism, patriarchy, and the biases and discrimination women have to face, even where they have done no wrong—like Kavyamata, the wife of Bhrigu who stands up for what she feels is right, giving succour and shelter to the asuras (who have faced their own share of injustices), and must not only face being tainted by Indra’s words but also lose her life; Tara who is tied to the vile and brutal Brihaspati, and faces all form of violence and maltreatment, but who is seen as the criminal for simply walking out and finding herself some happiness. Mohini herself is not spared this either for while she might well be ‘used’ by the gods when needed (to restore balance when death has been banished, or even be a bride for a condemned man) but whose character is given whatever quality that suits them at the moment—a beautiful woman, one of dreams at one moment, an evil fiend at another. Few voices seem to speak for right, even among the devas.
Mohini is seen as cold and unfeeling, but when she tells these stories, one can see that this is far from the case for she feels the pain and injustice of these women. She also speaks for Bhumi Devi, mother Earth, who is used, misused, and even abused by humans and the devas and asuras alike, suffering so much damage and being given precious little chance or time to recover—this is a theme that comes up in some of the author’s other books too, and one that needs to be raised again and again, for we never seem to stop damaging our planet, except when situations like the current one arise. But not to divert, Bhumi Devi’s plight too is felt by Mohini. But it is not only the unhappy tales that make her feel, the bittersweet ones do too: in her words
Sometimes in the presence of sublime love, even the eternal dreamer finds the courage to leave behind the simulated reality of the dream for reality itself, the bitter pill that was coated with such sweetness that one couldn’t help but wish for a tiny taste.
The book also speaks for those who do not fall within ‘accepted’ human definitions and categories and as a result face mistreatment and discrimination, once again with few voices and people standing up for them. In the exploration of these themes, one wonders why it is that the world of these celestial beings is simply a reflection of our own with pain, hurt, prejudice and hate, and only a few voices who speak or stand up for right. What then is their role in our lives, one wonders?
But these more serious themes come through in the various stories or episodes Mohini narrates, which also have brief moments of happiness for their characters, and times with a dream-like quality to them, when reality vanishes or is blurred away for just a little bit, as they love or live out their desires—Mohini is the enchantress after all. Of the stories, I rather enjoyed the telling of the samudra manthan episode itself, for what I knew of it, it seems, was just a bare sketch—the tale is a long one, with the devas and asuras (actually half-brothers) working together in a rare instance, and the ocean of milk bringing forth not just the amrita, but also many other gifts and treasures which once again bring their hidden natures and desires to light.
I think the author did a great job overall giving voice to and telling the story of a character whose perspective we never really get to see (and rarely even consider, for that matter), and through it bring out issues in mythology, which are not too different from what we face even today.
Have you read this one? What did you think of it? Looking forward to your thoughts!
Cover image: (for a change) my own picture.