[An edited version of this was published on Firstpost.com today.]
Sujoy Ghose’s Ahalya isn’t really much of a thriller, but it’s a competently made short film that has an eerie charm. Even if you guess the end correctly, you’ll give it the 14 minutes it asks of you because the old Kolkata home looks beautiful, legendary actor Soumitra Chatterjee is in it and Ghosh has succeeded in setting his film in a world that looks normal but feels weird.
As the title suggests, Ahalya is a contemporary take on a Hindu legend about infidelity. On an unremarkable day, Inspector Indra Sen (Tota Roy Chowdhury) comes to question artist Goutam Sadhu (Soumitra Chatterjee), about a missing person case. At Goutam’s home, Indra meets Goutam’s young and beautiful wife, Ahalya (Radhika Apte). The moment her foot ‘accidentally’ brushes against his ankle, you know there’s a whole lotta trouble lurking around the corner. Sure enough, there’s some heavy breathing, a little magic and an ending that is perhaps the weakest part of an otherwise good short film.
Although Roy Chowdhury’s performance lacks nothing, I can’t help imagining a version of this film in which Indra is played by a young Soumitra Chatterjee. Pitting two Soumitras against one another — one young, dashing and virile; the other, aged and wily — would have been excellent eye-candy and a riveting contest. (Editing geniuses, feel free to bring this fantasy to life. There’s enough footage of young Soumitra Chatterjee floating around the internet.) That tussle between the old and the young is, after all, very much at the core of the myth in which Ahalya is married to an old man and seduced by a young man.
Many of us in India are familiar with Ahalya’s story, thanks to Ramanand Sagar’s soap operatic Ramayana and perhaps some Amar Chitra Katha comics. Ghosh’s retelling appears to be a “bold”, modern version – an Ahalya who doesn’t melodramatically weep because she’s had sex with a man other than her husband; an Ahalya with a touch of evil in her. At first glance, she seems to be unadulteratedly contemporary in her little white dress and with curls in her hair, but spend a little time with the myth and the way it was woven into the Ramayana, and you’ll realise that actually, the ancient storytellers may still be cleverer and more sophisticated than our contemporary auteurs.
There are at least five different versions of Ahalya, Gautam and Indra’s sex triangle floating around the treasure trove of stories that is Hindu mythology. The most widely-known version is from Ramayana, but all of them have the same barebones. Ahalya is the beautiful, young wife of the sage Gautam. Indra sees her and becomes lust-addled. When Gautam leaves his home, Indra appears, disguised as Gautam, and makes love to Ahalya. Ahalya realises she’s been deceived when the real Gautam returns home and the fake Gautam is still in her bed.
Furious at being cuckolded, Gautam curses Indra (who has turned into a cat because he’s petrified of being caught) and Ahalya. Indra (de-felined) becomes sahasrabhagavat — or one with 1,000 vulvas. Since wanting to get into that body part had guided Indra’s actions and led him to abandon morality, Gautam curses him to be covered in vulvas.
Incidentally, it seems disguising oneself as another man and having sex with someone else’s wife was a serious problem in ancient India. The Brhaspatismriti tells us, “if anyone performs the sexual act in disguise, his punishment is the confiscation of all his wealth; he should be branded with the vulva mark [bhaganka] and then be expelled from town.”
Indra’s curse of 1,000 vulvas is eventually turned into something arguably more useful for the leader of the devas: the vulvas turn into eyes, allowing him to somewhat literally keep an eye on everything. Or at least 1,000 things. (And just like that, in a transition that is richly prophetic, Indra goes from sex-obsessed to potentially creepy voyeur.)
Ahalya points out to Gautam that she had been deceived and that she couldn’t have seen through Indra’s disguise. While Gautam accepts this, the fact that Ahalya had sex with a man other than her husband makes her impure and so she too is cursed – to be a rock for 60,000 years, in the Ramayana. In another version, she’s reduced to a skeletal hag. One of the earliest retellings says that Ahalya was cursed to become a dried-up river.
Although the Ramayana is what has kept Ahalya’s story in circulation, if you equate authenticity with age, the version involving Rama isn’t necessarily the ‘original’. Ahalya, Gautam and Indra’s affair appears in other texts, like Brahmapurana, which gives us some backstory, including details of how Gautam and Ahalya were married. In Brahmapurana, we find out that Ahalya was Gautam’s student for years. Indra and the other gods wanted to marry Ahalya when she came of marriageable age, but Gautam won her hand, thanks to his punning abilities. (No, seriously.)
Brahma, Ahalya’s creator and father figure, decreed that the one who could go around the earth fastest would marry Ahalya. All the gods raced off to perform this feat. Clearly, the only one keeping up with divine gossip was Gautam, who may well have taken inspiration from what Ganesha did when Ganesha and Kartik had to engage in a similar race in order to prove their marriage-readiness. However, Brahmapurana doesn’t tell us Gautam’s inspiration. All we know is that Gautam went to the divine cow Surabhi, who was pregnant, and walked in a circle around her. Because there’s a Sanskrit word for pregnant whose alternate meaning is “earth”.
Just to play it safe, Gautam also made his way around a Shiva lingam, thus confirming my personal belief that he totes knew what Ganesha had done. Brahma decided Gautam’s version of circumambulation was acceptable and so, by the time Indra and the other devas returned, Gautam and Ahalya were man and wife. Indra (like Kartikeya) was furious, but could do nothing about it since Gautam (like Ganesha) was already married to Ahalya.
Later, when Indra heard rumours of how Ahalya was in a state of marital bliss with Gautam, he decided to go down to earth and see for himself. From here on, the story follows the familiar path of lust, disguise and curses. Indra’s punishment is the same in all versions. Ahalya’s punishment changes. In Brahmapurana, she becomes a dried river and there’s no mention of Rama. Gautam decrees Ahalya will regain her human body once her cursed form is able to join the river that washes sin away, the Gautami. So it happened, we’re told.
Somewhere along the way, someone decided that the Ahalya story was a good one to slip into the Ramayana (and the Mahabharata). What is it about this thoroughly domestic story that made the ancient bards think it belonged in epics about heroes, kingship, war and colonisation?
The most obvious connection is between Sita in the Ramayana and Ahalya. Aside from being flawlessly beautiful, they share an unusual connection through their names. Sita — furrow in Sanskrit — is named so because she was found at the tip of a plough. Ahalya’s name contains the Sanskrit word for plough. Both women live in the forest after marriage. Sita has a short stint in Ayodhya’s palaces before heading out with her husband Rama for his vanavas (exile). Ahalya lived with Gautam in Brahmagiri, a pastoral idyll that is believed to be in today’s Western Ghats. Both these women’s beauty drew the attention of a king — Indra, in Ahalya’s case; in Sita’s, Ravana.
Ravana initially tries to seduce Sita by appearing before her in his natural form. One version of the Ahalya story says Indra did the same. He praised Ahalya’s beauty in eloquent poetry, trying to woo her with words. But Sita and Ahalya reject these kings who attempt to impress them with their might and flashy words, and swear fidelity to their un-royal husbands. Indra and Ravana both respond with deception. They give up their youth and virility, and disguise themselves as old men. Indra takes on Gautam’s form while Ravana pretends to be an old beggar. Both of them appeal to the women’s moral fibre. Ahalya is being a good wife because as far as she’s concerned, she’s having sex with (and initiated by) her husband. Sita crosses the lakshmanrekha to give alms to the needy.
Later, despite Gautam saying she’s impure, Ahalya’s virtue is not besmirched. She proves her innocence and the fact that Gautam cursed her only underscores how she was misjudged and mistreated. Sita faces similar charges of impurity and she too clears her name and reputation. The agnipariksha that Rama orders her to undergo serves to prove her virtue and is a reminder of the unfairness she’s suffered. The two women survive years in wilderness because of their husbands’ lack of trust. Sita is abandoned in the forest while Ahalya lives all alone in her cursed shape (neither a rock nor a dried-up river have much by way of company). Effectively, they’re silenced and kept away from society where they could, perhaps, be seen or heard. Meanwhile, the men go on with their lives.
To think someone noticed the parallels between the stories of these two women and inserted Ahalya’s story into the Ramayana is a fascinating idea and one that becomes all the more compelling when you realise that there was clearly an effort made to ensure this tale wasn’t edited out of the epic. To ensure it would remain in Ramayana, a thoroughly tenuous link was forged between Ahalya and Ram. Her punishment changes as does her redemption, in which the young prince Rama is cast as her saviour. And so Ahalya stands in the Ramayana, unforgotten. We don’t know who inserted her into either the Ramayana or the Mahabharat, and neither can we authoritatively claim the reason behind that decision.
What we can do, however, is wonder and interpret. Because wound into an epic that reeks of testosterone, aggression and masculine strength is the story of a woman whom society and its code of ethics fail. She follows all the rules and yet is wronged by the man who marries her and used by another man who claims to be in love with her. Perhaps it’s a word of warning that in the games of masculine posturing, the victim and the pawn is the woman. This was true in the golden age with Ahalya, when Indra’s wounded ego demanded he have the last hurrah in his competition against Gautam and Gautam couldn’t tolerate the idea of having been bested by Indra. It happens again, 60,000 years later, when Sita is ostensibly the reason that Rama goes to war against Ravana. Yet when the war is over, Rama first rejects her as impure even though she’s been faithful to him and then abandons her. It’s almost as though the narrator is suggesting – albeit with great subtlety – that some things don’t change with time.
Ostensibly, Ahalya’s story is a rap on the knuckles of any woman who strays and no doubt this is the reason it’s survived in such robust strength. At the same time, it discreetly but pointedly notes ways in which women were restrained and straitjacketed. Even though he is her teacher and knows there’s more to her than her appearance, all Gautam can see in Ahalya is her beautiful body and how that beauty is bound to drive a man insane with lust. That she is physically flawless becomes a fault because of the reaction it evokes in men. Most intriguingly, Ahalya’s story is never told without mentioning the curse that Indra suffers as punishment. She is cursed, but we’re not to forget that Indra is the one to blame. And from the fact that his punishment quickly transforms into an advantage while Ahalya must suffer to restore herself, we’re to note that the stigma doesn’t stick to men.
As devices go, Ahalya’s story is complex, intricate and full of possibilities – for both conservatism and subversion. It’s not often that we find stories that are so spectacularly slippery.
This is why Ghosh’s interpretation of Ahalya is disappointing if you know the myth. His take on Gautama is more interesting since the old man is turned into someone who almost preys on youthful masculinity. Ahalya, on the other hand, is her husband’s sidekick at best. She’s someone who reduces herself to a sex object and that too, seemingly at her husband’s direction. Perhaps the men that Goutam Sadhu sends up to his wife are feeding her sexual appetite. Perhaps she’s the mastermind – though there’s nothing in the film to suggest this. Goutam Sadhu definitely appears to be the alpha in their relationship – but even in that scenario, Ahalya is reduced to the embodiment of sexual appetite. It’s evident from the way Ghosh’s Ahalya dresses and moves that she’s titillating the men (and the viewers), but subtly. The brush of skin seems accidental, but isn’t. The clothes seem casual, but are studiously seductive. Ghosh seems to suggest it isn’t Indra’s fault if he’s turned on by this Ahalya. She’s goading him, with every look and every gesture. How can any man resist that much bare skin, that figure, the invitation in her eyes, is the unspoken question in Ghosh’s film. In this sense, Ghosh is towing precisely the line that Gautam and so many chauvinist commentators have when reading the Ahalya myth.
Not just that, by trapping Indra in one of Goutam Sadhu’s dolls at the end, Ghosh ensures that all our sympathy is for this poor man who, thanks to eyeballing a scantily-clad woman who was flirting with him, has suffered a horrible fate. Ahalya is the sexual predator in disguise, moving on to the next victim, mimicking the mythical Indra and fulfilling the nightmares that conservatives have of a ferocious feminine sexuality that once released will devour everything in its path.
Ghosh isn’t the first person to change what happens to Ahalya’s story. In one retelling, Indra’s testicles are crushed in addition to the spontaneous eruption of vulvas upon his skin. Another version says that Ahalya’s punishment would only end when Rama saw her as an ugly, skeletal hag and mocked her hideousness. Ghosh has chosen to see Ahalya as a woman with an insatiable sexual appetite. One can’t help wondering if the way Ahalya is remembered and how her punishment is recast over the ages is a reflection of how femininity is seen – and feared? – by Hindu society in that particular era.
Stripped of all the issues and complexity contained by the myth and its ancient retellings, Ghosh’s Ahalya stands as a decent but unremarkable story. Compared to how much the myth is able to weave into Ahalya’s story and the way it quicksilvers between conformity and rebellion, Ghosh’s Ahalya is monotonous and disappointingly conventional in its inability to see Ahalya as anything more than a sexy housewife. It’s difficult to imagine this story surviving and allowing for the kind of interpretation and inventions that the Ahalya myth has engendered.
Then again, perhaps the old myth nestled in the Brahmapurana would have suffered the same kind of obscurity had some bards not had the genius idea of weaving it into an epic that was being told and retold. By inserting her into male-dominated tales, they ensured that the vulnerable position of women wasn’t forgotten even while they celebrated male heroes and kings. Whether it’s being turned into a rock or a river or a hag, whether she’s abandoned or swallowed up by the earth, what runs under these literary devices is the idea that Ahalya and Sita were muted in their own time. The men who used the women as pawns were the ones whose exploits would be remembered. Ahalya’s army – this can’t be the work of one person since ours was an oral tradition – made sure that even if Ahalya was silenced by Gautama’s curse, her story would be told. That she would stand shoulder to shoulder with Sita, who made sure her story was known by being the one to turn Rama’s life into poetry and ensuring what happened to her wasn’t glossed over or edited. The pawn would be acknowledged in the epic poem of Rama and Ravana’s war, and that poem would be sung first by Sita’s sons and then generations of storytellers.
Ages later, someone slipped Ahalya into that tale. Over time, bards ensured Ahalya became part of Hinduism’s two great epics. They inserted her into many puranas, and told this tale that lays bare how women can be victimised by those who should protect them and how they become pawns in men’s games. None of the retellings forgive Indra for his deception or let us forget his punishment and how he managed to weasel out of the curse. Nowhere does Gautam evade the awkwardness of having to accept that Ahalya, whom he has cursed, is actually innocent. That’s the work of Ahalya’s army, the anonymous storytellers who made sure that we remember the women whom so many tried to silence.
And here’s the truly heartening part – despite the rigid sexism and conservatism of Hinduism’s guardians and followers, Ahalya was embraced, accepted and remembered with respect. Her story isn’t known as Indra’s escapade or Gautama’s unhappy marriage. It’s the Ahalya myth. So much so that aeons later, in the 21st century when Ahalya’s demoted to supporting cast rather than lead in a retelling, here I am, telling you her story.