She came to us at night, during Guy Fawkes week. Our neighbours’ fireworks, to which we were never invited, hissed and squealed. I stumbled from window to window craning to catch the last sparks as they ate sausages in the square gardens along our terrace.
A single tea-light burnt on the shrine in my father’s abandoned study. In an act of transubstantiation common among Bengali ladies, my mother was ‘being Lakshmi’. By becoming the Goddess who presided over homes, saving electricity and counting the candles, women magicked the honeyed milk of prosperity from the plug-hole of their husband’s drinking. Lakshmi never separated my father from the bottle, however. Perhaps she was too gentle, too benevolent.
My father was at the petrol station, next to the pub, refuelling the car. He had been refuelling for two hours. Downstairs, my mother was glaring at warm pans of rice, dahl and curried carp. I was hungry, too. But to eat before one’s man was disrespectful.
I wavered before the watercolour of Calcuttan goddesses in my father’s flickering study, bought one year from a shack by the Howrah bridge during our return home to the UK. Here was Lakshmi, of the bountiful harvests, blessing the houshold in golden anklets. Dove-eyed Durga rode to victory on her lion. A protector, she was the favourite of most Bengalis. But I loved Kali, Creator and Destroyer of worlds, smudged in a corner. She was a rock star in a necklace of skulls, striding over her consort, Shiva, hair flying, holding a sickle and severed head in two of her four hands. From October into November Bengal exploded with Goddess-fervour, worshipping Lakshmi and Durga with dhak-drums, dancing. For Kali, there were fireworks.
“Black,” said my mother, herself proudly fair-fair, “But beautiful. So much shakti” – feminine power – “Shiva, most forceful of gods, can’t control her. But he loves her, extremely.” I gave Kali kudos for this state of affairs. However, from C.S Lewis to Indiana Jones, this complex goddess has been grossly misrepresented in the West. Even Germaine Greer, a self-professed Kali-lover, mixes up Kali’s meanings, calling her a “witch”; but then, Kali is a mistress of weird unions.
Portrayed as warrior, lover and killer, Kali’s name is rooted in ‘Kal’, Time. Appalling British Imperialists, she continues to haunt the cremation grounds. Self-destruction is feared in the West. Kali comes to her children, not to extinguish the tiny sparks of our lives but to destroy our attachment to thinking our personal term on Earth is parceled differently to those who came before and those who will follow. Through Kali our sense of Self shifts from the personal to the universal.
To love Kali is to love babies, wars, rapes, ‘evil’, equally, as manifestations of Her own sweet Will. In one of the myths of her inception, Kali guzzles the blood of venomous-veined demons, who have been vanquishing the warrior gods. Kali’s oceanic dark being absorbs all poisons and brings sweet relief. Devotees who accept Her Will describe Kali as overwhelmingly sweet. To love Kali is to find a Oneness behind the world, whatever that world inflicts upon us. “Who dares misery love, And… dance in destruction’s dance, To him the Mother comes,” wrote Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk initially sceptical of his own guru’s infatuation with Kali. You can see why the West fears Her. Where Christians see a demon, the East finds The Mother.
Vivekananda was buddies with William James, brother of novelist Henry. Their father experienced “vastations” of “abject terror…”, that sound suspiciously like Kali-visions: “some damned shape squatting invisible … raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life”. William James regarded his father’s vastation as “depression” – but then the West has mourned unhappiness since we were thrown out of Eden, lesser beings than God. By contrast, Kali urges us to destroy our human form and join in her mad dance. A vision of “abject terror” is often a first step in this dance.
You cannot ask Mother to make you her favourite child – Mothers don’t work like that. Why should any God save you and not another? But Kali, that almost-fireworks night, did bestow upon us a brief ember of togetherness. My father banged the door open. He tore his muffler from his coat pocket, toothy as a boy, curls awry.
“What’s this? What’s this?” my mother hurried up.
“Shanu,” he said – a diminutive rarely used – eyes shining behind his black spectacles, “Look!” He unravelled a tiny, brass figure from the navy tweed …
“MA!” my mother shrieked. “How did you get her?”
“But listen!” shouted my father – this was the model for their arias, one holler meeting another – “The landlady said to me she was given it by a regular to keep with her Toby Mugs and she didn’t feel comfortable. She told me to take Her.”
My mother held the idol by its edges. “It’s a Big Thing, to keep a Kali idol, do you understand?”
I’m not sure we ever did. How can you hug misery? After all, Kali came to us from the pub, from a toxic well inside my father that destroyed him. Chanting all his life before this idol, he struggled, all his life, to be granted a vision beyond Good and Evil, garage forecourts and gas bills.
My father drank his heart to an early death, in St. George’s Hospital, Tooting. I brought Kali into his room, before he died. He took his last breath, incense burning, under our tiny goddess’ dancing feet. My mother, never really comfortable with Kali, let me take Her home with me.
My son, like most children, loves Her, celebrating Kali puja with fireworks on our Welsh Marches hill, under the Milky Way. It may just be the rock star hair and gunpowder. How could a mother, turning sausages over the fire, lipsticky kisses clinging to her one mortal child, possibly know?
By Soma Ghosh