Nisha Ramayya’s first book is a welcome affirmation of the feminist power to be found in Hinduism. It reclaims a tradition more intellectual, open and radical than either the current brand of violent Hindu populism (Hindutva) will accept, or the Western yoga-pose market will allow. Weaving colonial history and contemporary politics and thinking through Tantric philosophy and Sanskrit etymology, the book is an urgent work of rare lyrical and critical depth, and a treatise for women, particularly of South Asian origin. Part memoir, part poetry collection and part reflection on translation both literal and metaphorical, its unclassifiability is what makes it so exciting to read.
The book’s title is taken from “the ten states of falling in love” – the translation of the Sanskrit term smaradasa by Sir Monier Monier-Williams, compiler of the 1872 Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Born in British India (his father was Surveyor-General of Bombay), he was educated at the East India Company College in Hertfordshire (now Haileybury College). He became Boden Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University; Joseph Boden was a soldier in the East India Company who believed that the empire’s role was “to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion”.
Almost a century and half later, the Glasgow-born poet and academic Ramayya begins her own story with Monier-Williams and his dictionary. Her opening essay notes his adherence to Boden’s colonial beliefs, but also recognises that his lyrical interpretations of Sanskrit words offer a way for her to excavate her South Asian identity. “My name is Sanskrit,” she writes. “I ask Monier-Williams what I mean.”
Monier-Williams translates the “ten states” as “joy of the eyes, pensive reflection, desire, sleeplessness, emaciation, indifference to external objects, abandonment of shame, infatuation, fainting away and death”. Ramayya uses these states of love as a linguistic ladder to explore her own relationship to the goddesses of Tantra, the Mahavidyas. What follows is a spiralling account of personal and political decolonisation, a testimony to cultural and gender fluidity, and a falling in love with language.
Mahavidya is a compound word that literally translates as “great or full knowledge, skill, incantation”. This serves as an apt description of Ramayya’s work. To call it experimental would be incorrect: her style springs naturally from the many literary cultures and languages, Western and Eastern, that she may consider her birthright.
Tantra, she writes, “may be understood as the knowledge that spreads”; any attempt to understand it “is made problematic by its resistance to definition”. Using dictionary definition-style entries, Ramayya reclaims terms such as “mantra” and “Tantra” and offers a rebuke to modernist literary canons that exclude South Asian-origin (and particularly diaspora) writing for its implied lack of “civilised” control:
Mantra [Sacred Formula] The pleasure of syllables like so many pearl ornaments in the Hyderabadi style. In this context we can say with confidence: form is sometimes more than an extension of content: “Mantras are a typical product of Indian civilisation – a civilisation where form is all important.”
She also subverts, through the very act of writing the book, the Brahmin tradition of Sanskrit as an oral language meant to pass only between male teachers and students.
Her poem “The Lexicographer-Priest” explores the cyclical nature of time. This is built into the structure of the whole book, which uses the phrase, “Begin with” as a chime and refrain, evoking both Christian incantation and Hindu mantra, urging readers to embrace “the endless possibilities of return”. The concept is central to Hinduism and it roots her fresh approach to Tantra, language and womanhood in a centuries-old tradition.
In personal mode, Ramayya writes movingly about grieving for her grandmother as her “home” in India, and reflects on funeral rites and responsibilities. She reminds us of Krishna’s words from the Bhagavad Gita:
The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead. There was never a time when I did not exist, not you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future, in which we shall cease to be.
This renewal is echoed in her own translation of grammatical terms, which delights Ramayya and carries her readers with her:
Samasa [Compound] Love/the sound between them/the bit of a bridle; firmness /the sound between them the bit of a bridle; fragrance/the sound between them/the bit of a bridle, and so on. Child of different of child; her debt of debt her; she serves all sorts of misfortune of sorts all serves she, and so on.
The book does not shy away from today’s harsh realities. One section deconstructs the violence and shame that empire and partition have wrought on women of South Asian origin. Another damns Hindutva – the nationalist ideology of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – for its weaponising of Sanskrit to serve its brutal and divisive agenda. A passage on global media responses to the sexual assault of “a woman known as Nirbhaya” in 2012 becomes a powerful rejection of the relentless silencing and shame that mass culture (both Western and South Asian) inflicts on women, and challenges the old narrative that South Asian women are made for “submission, consent, dutifulness and desirability”.
Resistance is built into structure here too. Ramayya reclaims the goddesses, and Tantra itself, from Hindutva and from Western “New Age” appropriation by taking the goddesses in reverse order to the traditional listing, beginning with death and moving to reveal them as the connected manifestation of a single, powerful life-affirming force.
In her commitment to investigating love, Ramayya finds a lyrical but controlled form that can critique the most painful subjects and remain hopeful. Using South Asian feminist mythology as a language and a system of knowledge, she describes the Mahavidyas as “words, actions, meanings, and the supreme stage of language that transcends words, actions, meanings… They speak me into being.” The resulting voice is fierce, inspiring and sublime.
Preti Taneja’s novel “We That Are Young” is published by Galley Beggar Press
States of the Body Produced by Love
Ignota Books, 220pp, £12.99
This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning