Kali fights her demon, an author her ghosts

Oh Terrifying Mother
December 15, 2000

This book's title boded ill, as I expected a celebration of women's sexuality through the study of the goddess. My heart sank further when I realised that Sarah Caldwell would include herself and her personal history in the text. Only much later were her choice of subject and need for self-reflection apparent. These revelations allow for a very different reading, generated largely through the emotional response demanded of the reader, hence my separation of the book into intellectual and emotional parts - somewhat different from the division made in the text - which come together only near the end.

Caldwell's intellectual subject is her ethnography of muyiyettu , a Keralan drama depicting Kali's battle with the demon Darika. She examines the Sanskritic and vernacular traditions but never quite brings them together. Despite her rich descriptions of the drama and people's interpretations of it, the Malayali context does not become specific enough. Caldwell is concerned only with the pre-modern world, and she ignores the material conditions of her informants. Do the performers and the audience not watch television or films? Are they not influenced by movie and television genres?

Her methodology combines the study of myths and legends, most famously practised in the Indian context by Wendy Doniger. Her interpretations are too often over-determined by crude psychoanalytic readings, based on untenable assumptions that suddenly take on the status of facts. She does not theorise her ethnographic methodology, but it is through discussions with her informants that she raises crucial issues: in particular, her remarks on child abuse, both sexual and violent, are timely and deeply reflective. Caldwell's overwhelming desire to integrate in Kerala goes beyond the usual experiments with clothes and behaviour, to the extent that she, her Guatemalan husband and her young daughter undergo an Arya Samaji conversion to Hinduism. Caldwell's husband, whom she sees as coming from a "macho" and "third world" culture, beats her and leaves. She reveals that she had been receiving psychological help as a survivor of child abuse and had, after a college breakdown, become a Hindu.

The jigsaw begins to fit, yet questions come to mind: is this intimate self-narrative a legitimate part of academic work? Can one evoke the reader's emotional sympathy for an intellectual project? To do so explains Caldwell's relationship to her subject, which is complicated, but I think she needs to intellectualise her feelings more. This may help her to explain her identification with Kali and lead her to a deeper understanding of Kali devotees. However, Caldwell's use of other people's life stories to write about herself and her experiences of sexuality, violence and worship - though not her role as mother - bring into question the place of this narrative in the intellectual project of the academy.

Rachel Dwyer is senior lecturer in Indian studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Goddess Kali

Author - Sarah Caldwell
ISBN - 0 19 564462 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 320

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