Book Review: Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi is snappy

  • Ashok Row Kavi, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Oct 11, 2014 16:55 IST

The story in the Valmiki Ramayana goes thus: A golden deer is seen roaming around the ashram where Ram, Laxman and Sita live out their exile. Sita wants the golden deer and pleads with Ram to go for it. Laxman, the sceptic, smells a conspiracy and says, “I really don’t believe a golden deer exists.” To which Ram says, “…and you should know Laxman? Anything is possible in nature. There are infinite possibilities and nothing is impossible.” And off he goes chasing that golden deer.

At any one time, if you go for a really well-attended LGBT party, like the ones those enterprising Bombaiyya lesbians in Gaysi arrange, you’ll chance upon Lipstick Lesbians, Diesel Dykes, ChinaWall-Lesbos, Trans-Kings, Drag Queens, Dhoru Kothis, Pav Bhata Panthis, Satla Kothis, Nirvan Hijras, Laser G--dus, Bheela Tricks, Gucci Guds, Gay Ghodis, She-Males, Chutney Queens, Susu Ranis, Muscle Marys… Oh, I could go on and on.

In an age where, for the first time, surgery and medical science have made it possible to change your sex and gender and mix and match them to boot, Devdutt Pattanaik has set up the perfect theology for post-industrial societies, their genital geography and mental mountain-climbing. The wonderful irony is that he uses a palimpsest of ancient Hindu myths and stunning human stories; by dragging the gods down to earth to make us rethink the possibilities Rama mentioned.

In many ways, I see this not only as a pioneering work that marks the rise of queer literature but as a monumental effort to put Hinduism ahead of the House of Abraham. It is important to say that this is practically a proselytising work of a community under siege from fundamentalists of every hue besides secular sexuality out to mould us into robotic circuitry. While other reviewers will tell you the great stories Pattanaik has carefully picked, I shall try to chart Pattanaik’s travels in this book. Though I wouldn’t call this a Dinanath Batra-kind of divyadarshan, it definitely defines the lonely path he walks as a troubadour of our community.

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Pattanaik’s observations are quite pointed. For example, he says "The celebration of queer ideas in Hindu stories, symbols and rituals is in stark contrast to the ignorance and rigidity that we see in Indian society"(Page 27). However, in trying to trace the rot in the system by sweeping through both Muslim and British colonialism, he says quite accurately that though "the courts of India have always upheld secularism and human rights" this courtesy was not extended to queer people" (Page 28).

And why would it be I wondered until I came to the next brilliant deduction: "We cannot expect better from civic institutions and political ideologies based on Biblical mythology". Our system stinks because there is no connect between our civilisation and the pedagogy. Pattanaik says this clearly: "Hindu mythology subscribes neither to the biblical framework where law is the solution to humanity’s woes nor to the Greek framework of oppressor and oppressed. Life is not a problem to be solved. It is a sight to be seen and contemplated upon". I love Pattanaik because he takes the path that every queer person sees as the dilemma of their lives.

He starts with dredging that deadly Mahakavya, the Mahabharata and it is but natural that he would zero in on Shikhandi. For sheer deadly delineation, there is nothing like the story of Amba, Ambika and Ambalika. No queer person on this planet will fail to see himself/ herself reflected in that amazing story of deceit and death that we play out on the roads and parks of this globe. Rejected by all, Amba promises to take revenge. She uses every trick that humans ever can — marriages, changing gender, sex change operations, getting a prosthetic penis and finally challenging that bachelor hypocrite, Bhisma, who didn’t care a fig about a woman being disrobed in public. I love the snappy way Devdutt outlines Shikhandi’s story. He even gives a footnote at the end neatly labelling Shikhandi "a female-to-male transsexual", an accurate medical categorisation. It’s this story that explains and tells the story of nearly every queer person: disappointed parents, rejections across class and sexuality, promises made and never kept, the gods playing with our lives and then bestowing strange blessings.

Also read: Book review: A Home in Tibet by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

Pattanaik also remind us of other stories that pin down specific lives. I identified myself with the Tamil god Thayumanaswamy or Shiva, who becomes a mother to deliver babies. Which senior gay man hasn’t mentored and mothered younger gay men and given them a fresh lease of life? Interestingly, every gay man or women in every corner of the world will identify their life on some page in this book and realize that the heavens are also peopled by us.

Two stories particularly stand out for lessons on gender isolation and their result. They are the story of "Pramila, who knew no man" from the Navanatha Charitra and "Rishyashringa, who knew no women" from the Odisha Ramayana. Pramila is practically a modern feminist and her woes start when she makes unflattering comments about a passing Gandharva’s male genitals only to be banished to a Stri Rajya or kadalivana (a banana grove!). Enter the sage Matsyaendranath, who answers her prayers (for a man, damn it!) and gets seduced only to land up fathering all the kids of the women there. Into this heaven comes his student Gorakhnath, who appears as a cross dressing singer and dancer, to remind his teacher of his bachelor ways.

The result? The men leave happy, happy land and Pramila is left all alone in her Stri Rajya. A queer story full of traffic signals going on and off at appropriate moments, this is a sort of warning to lesbians and bisexual women that they do need men once in a while, even though that now seems unnecessary what with artificial insemination on ready offer. The story of Rishyashringa is about masculinity gone queer and the eternal male problems with semen discharges — something that Indian men are obsessed with. Vidhandak’s inability to hold back leads to the queer birth of his son, from a doe, which eats the rishi’s semen. The rest is a comedy that features Rishyashringa, the son with the horns, who grows up never seeing a woman and equating celibacy with drought (actually poking fun at the Buddhist orders of monks) and a courtesan who dances outside the sage’s hut trying to prove she "was a different kind of man".

Finally, my favourite is story number 26 on ‘Narada, who forgot he was a man". This incredible fable from the Bhagavata Purana is pure high camp. It involves the most queer of all heaven’s denizens, that pouting, pusillanimous pest Narada,who is given a sound lesson in the exact difference between reality and Maya. The story transgresses Time, Space, Gender, Sexuality, linkages between Desire and Delusion besides other lessons in life’s objectives and goals. Krishna’s warnings are clear: "This is Maya, delusion produced by desire that makes you forget everything except the pursuit of self-gratification".

It’s a warning that secularists shouldn’t see Hinduism’s pluralism as something to be manipulated through politics. Pattanaik needs to be thanked by queer peoples across the globe for beckoning them towards the Queer Nation playing hide and seek in the tottering citadel now being shaken by the mutterings and perfectly legal interventions of the likes of Dinanath Batra. But he had better beware the peddlers of the Indian State. They might hunt him down for their houses are on fire by the myths of Krishna and Narada. But, as usual, he will win. As so shall we all.

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