Mythologies for the modern woman

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Mythologies for the modern woman

Sunday, 10 March 2019 | Kalyanee Rajan

Mythologies for the modern woman

Awaken the Durga Within

Author : Usha Narayanan 

Publisher : Rupa, Rs 195

Through an animated retelling of mythology in a refreshing style that is never unnecessarily reverent or didactic, this book offers important lessons for modern Indian women, writes KALYANEE RAJAN

The woman of the new age straddles various roles and responsibilities with aplomb. Her definition of the self surpasses traditional notions of womanhood. She seeks to actively embrace every challenge and opportunity with an unmatched vigour, striving for excellence in all quarters, whether personal or professional. Needless to say, it is not possible, and perhaps to a degree also unadvisable to shake off tradition in its entirety as she raises a step towards modernity. Tradition and modernity become the two feet of a confident stride, one step anchored in your moorings and an ambitious step poised to ace the future and a new modern. In this essential and vital engagement, however, several women find themselves unequipped and ill-equipped by turns because the world around them has yet to learn to suitably respond to the liberated woman. She faces a slew of hurdles and obstacles at both home and the world, to borrow from the title of Tagore’s iconic novel of the same name, her emotional balance has to be wrought afresh every now and then as her various roles constantly collide in the journey of self-actualisation. To find her feet, a woman needs to rely on various versions of sisterhood, enduring friendships, and constant guidance from those who have been there, done that, to tell her that she is going right, and that the journey though extremely arduous at times, will bear fruit eventually.

Several motivational speakers, help groups, YouTube channels and shows both online and offline have mushroomed to cater to this urgent requirement of an urban, working woman. What better way to guide them then, than empowering narratives of trailblazing women from mythology? This thought seems to have guided storyteller Usha Narayanan, author of bestselling titles such as Pradyumna: Son of Krishna, PremPurana: Mythological Love Stories and Kartikeya and His Battle with the Soul Stealer. Narayanan’s Awaken the Durga Within: From Glum to Glam, Caged to Carefree is a delightful mixture of sound advice on how to tackle the trials of a modern lifestyle interspersed with carefully curated tales of eminent women from Hindu mythology. Narayanan, a gold medalist with a master’s degree in English Literature, is a full-time author who has managed a successful career in advertising, media and the corporate world. She draws upon her own rich and varied experiences, and the many conversations that she has had with women seeking her advice. With mythology, she treads familiar grounds with great ease, drawing fascinating portraits of women and goddesses, with compelling, defining stories of agency and success.

In the introduction titled “Everything you want to be,” Narayanan calls this a “handy book, easy to read and follow, to help you be assertive and reclaim your life.” What sounds like a rather tall claim soon becomes evident as the author handholds the reader throughout the book, in an easy, conversational style of chatting with an old friend, where anecdotes become antidotes to the low points of life. She begins by stressing upon the need to reclaim one’s own voice, through clarity of vision and avoiding the pitfalls of self-debasement and guilt through continuous overthinking and errors of judgment, these being easily the two most common ailments among women. She lists a number of possible scenarios where women feel they have been held back, denied and harassed by the people around them. She goes on to narrate the story of the goddess Durga who was created by all the gods by pooling in their energies to defeat the demon Mahisha. The tale of Durga offers useful lessons in the sense that here is a goddess who is considered to be merely an “object of lust…foolish and inferior to males,” however she turns the tables by countering everything with an unshakable resolve and achieves victory. Narayanan explains that the strategies she offers in this book are not a “last resort” to be turned to when one feels like they have hit rock bottom. Instead, they are suggested as habits and changes to be implemented “right now” in order to lead a “fruitful life”. Another good thing about the book is that the eight chapters can be read in any order depending on which aspect one wishes to address first. Narayanan hopes that the book will inspire her readers to “seek out a life of respect and dignity” and they will exercise their right to “speak up” for what they feel and desire.

The next chapter titled “What’s Holding You Back? Sati, Parvati and You” offers a comprehensive investigation into the issues which actually hold women back from asserting themselves. The story of Sati and Parvati, how both attained Lord Shiva as their husbands through different means, without compromising on their core values is deftly narrated, with inferences drawn duly. Every chapter proceeds thus: With an analysis of real life situations to possible strategies and solutions, to the mythological story and to the lessons learned section which ties the ends together and sums it up for the reader.

The three Cs as Narayanan calls them, of “Choose, Change, Create” are offered in the next chapter and repeated thereafter tweaked to other contexts. The tales of Savitri who engaged the Yamaraja in a verbal duel to wrench her husband’s life from the jaws of death, and that of Indrani who outsmarts a lecherous new Indra in the form of Nahusha are cases in point where the retellings make the characters come alive and offer better insights into their lives and actions. She also invokes “Ardhanarishwara: Being equal” and “Warrior Sita and the Thousand-headed Ravana” in the subsequent chapters, completing the list of illustrious female exemplars of victory and self-assertion by topping them with “Creating a New Shakti — You!” in the last chapter.

Narayanan’s approach may not cut much ice with the women taken up with western models of empowerment or rebellious shades of feminism, or even those enticed by the “Angry Indian Goddesses” of Bollywood, but admittedly, her immensely practical solutions to carefully observed problems can be implemented beyond doubt by women to straighten up their daily lives and lead calmer, more successful lives in future. The insights and strategies offered would be equally useful for men who find themselves burdened with similar hurdles in life. Overall, the book is an exciting and interesting read, a must have for all women interested in fashioning themselves as glam, carefree new-era goddesses.

The reviewer teaches English Literature at a Delhi University college

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