Sunday, June 8, 2008

My Devi Days

Adeet and I spent the winter of 2006–2007 in India. During that time, we stayed with his family, traveled, and had a traditional marriage ceremony. We will be returning for a visit this fall, and I find myself thinking often of India and my experiences there.

On December 15, 2006, I became a goddess. Not in a New Age sense of feminine self-affirmation. Instead, I entered the Mumbai home of my husband’s grandparents as a ghar ki Lakshmi, or “the Lakshmi of the house.” The devi, or goddess, Lakshmi is the bringer of wealth and good fortune. Traditionally, an Indian bride comes into her in-laws’ home with a dowry, and she might truly bring substantial wealth with her. I brought no material assets, but my new family still generously declared me their Lakshmi. They mixed kumkum, a scarlet powder made with turmeric and lime, into a pan of water and instructed me to step into it and walk through the house. I left a trail of vermillion footprints behind me, which signified the arrival of the goddess. Over the next few days, the footprints gradually faded, and I imagined that part of me had seeped into the tiles of the floor, literally making me part of the home.

What does it mean to be a goddess? Vijutai, the family’s cook, showered me with generosity. Nearly every day, she would call me into the pantry, open a drawer crowded with kitchen paraphernalia, and pull out a pair of earrings. Pink, purple, turquoise, orange, and green “gems” dangled from metal hooks, ensuring I had jewelry to match every outfit. When she learned that I had a craving for galub jamuns, she made dozens of the sweet, deep-fried dumplings. Vijutai also took me shopping, showing me how to bargain for saris and bangles and then sending me home with more treasures.

Vijutai has a quick laugh and is easily affectionate, betraying none of the hurt she has suffered. As a young wife, her husband beat her unconscious, landing her in the hospital. Her mother gave her an ultimatum: Stay with your husband, and consider your mother dead. Or return to your mother, and leave your husband forever. Vijutai chose her mother and later moved into my inlaws’ home, where she has worked for almost 20 years. She never had her own children but considers her employers’ family her own. My arrival meant she now had a daughter.

I learned that my role as Lakshmi went beyond receiving gifts. Vijutai has an altar in a small room to the side of the kitchen. It is crowded with gods–Hanuman, Ganapati, Mahalakshmi–as well as images of swamis and gurus. Vijutai talks to them, and her gods do more than bring wealth or remove obstacles. They listen to her. All homes have worry and heartache along with happiness, and as the ghar ki Lakshmi, I could offer empathy. My footprints had permeated the house, but all the love and joy and grief in the household had also become a part of me.

No longer in Mumbai, I often think of my devi days and long to be back, breathing in the spicy kala masala that fills the kitchen and listening to Vijutai. The altar might be cramped, but I know she would make room for me, her Lakshmi.

photos by Adeet Deshmukh


sandhya said...

This is lovely, Kate. I've always loved the tradition of stepping into the kumkum water, though it's not part of our post-wedding rituals. Only a month or so left till your trip, right?! Let the countdown begin!

Kate Deshmukh said...

Thank you, Sandhya. That post-wedding ritual was one of my favorite moments in India. Yes, the countdown has begun! One month and one day!