The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess Within, is an apt and provocative title for this substantial anthology of poetry, writing and visual art by Indian women, collated, produced and edited by IndieBlu(e) Publishing. Kali is a Hindu goddess who defies easy definition and contains contradictions and multitudes. She exists both within and outside of traditional notions of ‘the feminine’. Kali is a nurturing protector who ultimately seeks justice through the destruction of evil. A fierce and violent warrior, Kali is considered terrifying, ugly or beautiful depending on the context. She is primal and wild, yet able to complete seemingly impossible tasks, such as vanquishing otherwise unstoppable demons, with her cunning and nous.
Kali is the ultimate feminist icon; she doesn’t just break down the narrowly defined, socially-acceptable traits of womanhood, she smashes them to pieces. Kali is boundless and will not be contained. This boundlessness and her complexity stand out in stark relief against the narrow, restrictive and prescriptive gender roles ascribed to women in Indian culture, the same culture that, ironically, birthed her many centuries ago.
The Kali Project is both a document of what it is like to be a woman in contemporary India and a protest against the way women are subjugated and violated daily in that same culture. It is an important collection and a vital read for anyone wishing to understand the lived experiences of women in India. The poetry and writing in the anthology is largely confessional and personal in nature, lamenting the struggle for respect and dignified treatment in a culture that devalues women.
Themes that are tackled include the rigid gender roles that women and girls are expected to adhere to, including the heavily circumscribed roles of wife and mother. The Ultimatum, a poem by Abha Iyengar, is about a young woman who has been raised to believe she will have independence, freedom and agency in her life, but instead, discovers she is being groomed for marriage by her mother. The sense of betrayal conveyed is crushing.
Tales of domestic violence and femicide surface throughout the anthology regularly enough to act as a chilling reminder of the overt misogyny still present in modern-day India, a culture in which women are expected to serve men while lacking agency and even basic human rights. It makes for eye-opening, if sobering, reading.
The body also features in The Kali Project, both as site of abuse and as a vehicle for agency, pleasure, procreation and change. Mangifera Indecorum or How to eat a mango, a poem by Ermelinda Makkimane, describes the pure joy and pleasure of eating a mango, and taking mindful, conscious time out from the stresses of life and gendered expectations to do so.
The hypocritical paradox of how female goddesses are revered and worshipped in Indian culture, while real women are systematically subjugated and abused, is also explored throughout the anthology by various writers. Goddesses wield considerable might in Indian culture. Anita Nahal’s Homo Sapiens and Hindu Goddesses in India and America speaks to the power of invoking all the goddesses at once:
“I became all the goddesses when my son was born. I became all the goddesses when you tried to snatch him from me. I became all the goddesses when you abused me in public. I became all the goddesses when I rejected you. I became all the goddesses when I decided we must leave. I became all the goddesses when I fended alone for my son. I became all the goddesses when I did not compromise anymore. I became all the goddesses when I did not cry anymore. I became all the goddesses when I signed on the dotted line of our divorce papers in my America.”
Kali herself is woven through the anthology, as subject and as guiding spirit, in both the writing and the art. In the artworks, which are dotted throughout the volume, images of Kali – including illustrations, prints and paintings – range from the traditional and more representational to the symbolic and more abstract.
The Kali Project raises awareness, educates and documents the experiences of everyday women in India. If there is a clear message that the anthology conveys, it is that Indian women are justifiably enraged at the intense oppression they are subjected to. The anthology reminds us that women are still, tragically, far from equal and far from free. It’s a defiant, timely and important document in the current political climate, in which intersectionality plays a significant and vital role; we live in a world in which the voices of the most marginalised need to be heard the loudest in order to affect real progress. The Kali Project raises up and amplifies the collective voices of Indian women as they agitate to take back their power. This energy is captured beautifully in the following poem, #MeToo, by Bina Sarkar Ellias.
in the dark of night~
a sonic spear
that struck open
her voice locked
in the stealth
in the still of night~
that rose from
the grave of her guts
that swam through
her anxious veins
bathed in blood
and pain that stained
in the womb of night~
that rose from
of her shattered mind
and claimed its space
in the ruptures
The Kali Project: Invoking the Goddess Within is edited by Megha Sood and Candice Louisa Daquin. It can be purchased at amazon.com in paperback and kindle formats. You can also buy the anthology at Book Depository with free global shipping. And for those living in India, the anthology can be purchased at Pothi.