Sunday, August 31, 2008
Serving the Goddess
A lengthy but worthwhile read from The New Yorker.com Letter from India Serving the Goddess The dangerous life of a sacred sex worker. by William Dalrymple August 4, 2008 “Of course, there are times when there is pleasure,” Rani Bai said. “Who does not like to make love? A handsome young man, one who is gentle . . .” She paused for a moment, looking out over the lake, smiling to herself. Then her face clouded over. “But mostly it is horrible. The farmers here, they are not like the boys of Bombay.” “And eight of them every day,” her friend Kaveri said. “Sometimes ten. Unknown people. What kind of life is that?” “We have a song,” Rani said. “ ‘Everyone sleeps with us, but no one marries us. Many embrace us, but no one protects.’ ” “Every day, my children ask, ‘Who is my father?’ They do not like having a mother who is in this business.” “Once, I tried to open a bank account with my son,” Rani said. “We went to fill in the form, and the manager asked, ‘Father’s name?’ After that, my son was angry. He said I should not have brought him into the world like this.” “We are sorry we have to do this work. But what is the alternative?” “Who will give us jobs? We are all illiterate.” “And the future,” Kaveri said. “What have we to look forward to?” “When we are not beautiful, when our bodies become ugly, then we will be all alone.” “If we live long enough to be old and to be ugly,” Kaveri said. “So many are dying.” “One of our community died last week. Two others last month.” “In my village, four younger girls have died,” Kaveri said. “My own brother has the disease. He used to be a truck driver, and knew all the girls along the roads. Now he just lies at home drinking, saying, ‘What difference does it make? I will die anyway.’ ” She turned to face me. “He drinks anything he can get,” she said. “If someone told him his own urine had alcohol in it, he would drink that, too.” She laughed, but harshly. “If I were to sit under a tree and tell you the sadness we have to suffer, the leaves of that tree would fall like tears. My brother is totally bedridden now. He has fevers and diarrhea.” She paused. “He used to be such a handsome man, with a fine face and large eyes. Now those eyes are closed, and his face is covered with boils and lesions.” “Yellamma never wanted it to be like this,” Rani said. “The goddess is sitting silently,” Kaveri said. “We don’t know what feelings she has about us. Who really knows what she is thinking?” “No,” Rani said, firmly shaking her head. “The goddess looks after us. When we are in distress, she comes to us. Sometimes in our dreams. Sometimes in the form of one of her children.” “It is not the goddess’s doing.” “The world has made it like this.” “The world, and the disease.” “The goddess dries our tears,” Rani said. “If you come to her with a pure heart, she will take away your sadness and your sorrows. What more can she do?” We had come to Saundatti, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, to see the goddess Yellamma—Rani Bai, Kaveri, and I. (The names of the two women have been changed.) We had driven over that morning from the town of Belgaum, through the rolling green plains of cotton country. The women, who had been dedicated to Yellamma when they were children, normally took the old slow bus to visit her temple, so they had jumped at the chance to make the journey in the comfort of a taxi. It was hot and muggy, not long after the end of the rains, and the sky was bright and cloudless. The road led through long avenues of ancient banyan trees, each with an intricate lattice of aerial roots. As we neared Saundatti, however, the green tunnel came to an end, and the fields on either side gave way to drier, poorer country. Trees, cane breaks, and cotton fields were replaced by strips of sunflowers. Goats picked through dusty stubble. Women in ragged clothing sold onions laid out on palm-weave mats set along the side of the road. After some time, a long red stone ridge appeared out of the heat haze. The ridge resolved itself into the great hogback of Saundatti, and at the top, rising from near-vertical cliffs, was the silhouette of the temple of Yellamma. Below, and to one side, stretched a lake of almost unearthly blue. It was here, according to legend, that the story had begun. Yellamma was the wife of the powerful rishi Jamadagni. The couple and their four sons lived in a simple wooden hermitage by the lake. Here the sage punished his body and performed great feats of austerity. After the birth of his fourth child, these included a vow of chastity. Every day, Yellamma served her husband, and fetched water from the river for her husband’s rituals. She used a pot made of sand, and carried it home in the coils of a live snake. One day, as Yellamma was fetching water, she saw a heavenly being, a gandharva, making love to his consort by the banks of the river. It was many years since Yellamma had enjoyed the pleasures of love, and the sight attracted her. Watching from behind a rock, and hearing the lovers’ cries of pleasure, she found herself longing to take the place of the beloved. This sudden rush of desire destroyed her composure. When she crept away to get water for her husband, she found, to her horror, that she could no longer create a pot from sand, and that her yogic powers of concentration had vanished. When she returned home without the water, Jamadagni guessed what had happened, and in his rage he cursed his wife. According to Rani and Kaveri, within seconds Yellamma had become sickly and ugly, covered with boils and festering sores. She was turned out of her home, cursed to wander the roads of the Deccan, begging for alms. Jamadagni belongs to that class of irascible holy men who fill Sanskrit literature with their fiery and unforgiving anger. In contrast, the goddess Yellamma, like Sita in the Ramayana, is a victim, suspected of infidelities she never committed, rejected by all. Though the story is full of sadness and injustice, devadasis—as those who have been dedicated, or “married,” to a god or a goddess are known—believe that the tale shows how the goddess is uniquely sympathetic to their fate. After all, their lives often resemble hers: they are cursed for crimes of love outside the bonds of marriage, rejected by their children, condemned like Yellamma to live on the roads, begging for favors, disfigured by sadness, and without the protection of a husband. I got a glimpse of the tensions in the devadasi’s life when we arrived in Saundatti. We had gone to a tea shop near the lake, at my suggestion. Devadasis are a common sight in Saundatti, where they often beg in the bazaars on Yellamma’s holy days of Tuesday and Friday. But they don’t usually brave the tea shops on the main street. Long before the glasses of hot sweet chai arrived, the farmers at the other tables had started pointing at Rani Bai, and gossiping. They had come from their villages to sell cotton at the market, and, having got a good price, were now in a boisterous mood. Although Kaveri and Rani Bai had the red tikka of a married woman on their foreheads, Rani Bai’s muttu—the necklace of red and white beads that a devadasi wears—and her jewelry, her painted face, and her overly dressy silk sari had given her away. Kaveri had once been beautiful, but the difficulties of her life, and the suffering she had endured, had aged her prematurely, and she no longer attracted attention. Rani Bai was different. She was in her late thirties, at least ten years younger than Kaveri, and was still, undeniably, lovely. She was tall and long-limbed, and had a large mouth, full lips, a firm brown body, and a lively manner. She did not keep her gaze down, as Hindu women generally do in the villages; instead, she spoke in a loud voice, and every time she gesticulated about something—and her hands were constantly dancing about as she talked—her bracelets rattled. She wore a bright-lavender silk sari, and had rings sparkling on each of her toes and up the curve of each ear. The farmers sat there as we sipped our tea, looking at her greedily. Before long, they were noisily speculating about the relationship she might have with me, the firangi, and her cost, what she would and would not do, and wondering where she worked and whether she gave discounts. Rani had been telling me in the car about the privileges of being a devadasi, about the way people respected her, how she was regarded as auspicious and was called even to upper-caste weddings to give her blessings. So when we finally fled the chai shop, to a chorus of laughter and bawdy remarks, her mood changed. As we sat under a banyan tree beside the lake at the edge of the town, she became melancholy, and she told me how she had come to this life. “I was only six when my parents dedicated me,” she said. “I had no feelings at the time, except wondering: why have they done this? We were very poor and had many debts. My father was desperate for money, as he had drunk and gambled away all that he had earned and more, and he said, ‘This thing will make us rich, it will make us live decently.’ “At that age, I had no devotional feelings for the goddess, and dreamed only of having more money and living a luxurious life in a pucca house with a tile roof and concrete walls. So I was happy with this idea, though I still didn’t understand where the money would come from, or what I would have to do to get it. “Soon after I had had my first period, my father sold me to a shepherd in a neighboring village for five hundred rupees”—about thirty-eight dollars at the time—“a silk sari, and a bag of millet. By that stage, I knew a little of what might lie ahead, for I had seen other neighbors who had done this to their daughters, and saw people coming and going from their houses. I had asked my parents all these questions, and repeated over and over again that I did not want to do sex work. They nodded, and I thought they had agreed. But, one day, they took me to another village on the pretext of looking after my sister’s newborn baby, and there I was forcibly offered to the shepherd. I was only fourteen years old. Rest of article.