THE WARRIOR MOTHER
I woke up in a panic with my heart racing. I rub my eyes and remember where I am, Calcutta. My sheets are thin and itchy and the blanket barely covers my toes. My pillow is lumpy and my eyes are puffy from an allergic reaction. I didn’t come for comfort, I came on a mission. I remember my dream. I had been having nightmares of my own death since I got to the City of Joy. They are always the same.
A crowd has gathered, I am walking behind them to see what they are shouting and cheering for. Suddenly I float upwards so that I have a birds eye view, I see it is myself being led to a courtyard and prepared for hanging while the crowd pumps their angry, blood thirsty fists in the air. My hands are tied and I am being led by an executioner to the center of the courtyard, to be tied to a pole. To be burned. I look at all the faces and see them twisted with anger and thirsty to see me die. What have I done that would hate me so much? Is it because I am a woman? Because I am a woman struggling to be free? The dream was always the same, except sometimes I was hanged or stoned to death instead of being burned. I was always in a courtyard and always surrounded by an angry mob. I feel a strange sense of dread about going to Sonagachi to teach the sex workers today. I feel as if I am walking to my own death, but I cannot explain why. The animal sacrifices I had watched at the Kali temple had blurred together with my subconscious dreams of being burned and the line between waking and dreaming reality started to blur in the malaria dream Technicolor streets of Calcutta. I felt like my anxiety was making me go crazy, but I focused on breathing and forcing myself to relax and face the fear but keep moving in the present moment. One foot in front of the other I steeled myself to go teach yoga in the sex slum, still I felt I was walking towards some mysterious death.
I dressed in a long skirt and a shawl so I wouldn’t offend anyone with my bare skin on my shoulders and ankles. My guide would be here soon and we were going to a famous Kali temple before I went to teach in the red light district. My second trip to Calcutta to work with the sex trafficked women and I was suffering from deep anxiety. I used to take medications for anxiety before I found yoga because my panic attacks were so intense my lungs would shut down and I would stop breathing. We ride through the noisy streets, bumping along in an old british ambassador taxi with ripped upholstery and springs that pinch my ass. The taxi lets us out on a busy street, the asphalt is hot and the sun blazing overhead. Beggars with broken limbs scoot around on wooden carts with wheels. One man holds out his hand to me with no fingers, probably his own family cut them off when he was a child. Stalls sell chai in clay cups and overflow with statues, beads and souvenirs from the temple. I follow my guide through the mayhem into the temple, which is even more chaotic. People are pressed together and the heat of the day is making a mood of irritability. Kali is the patron goddess of Calcutta. She is considered the primal energy that creates all things and absorbs all things, the mother of birth and death. She holds a curved sword in one hand and a severed human head in the other, which signifies her freeing her devotees from suffering and illusion to give them liberation. Many people are suffering in the city of joy.
This is the most famous temple in Calcutta. Here in the Kalighat temple they still perform live animal sacrifice to appease the primal Mother Goddess Kali. The crowd to see the Mother and get her blessing is crushing each other. I feel a sharp elbow in my back as I am pushed and shoved in line, I stand my ground so I don’t get trampled. My guide knows a priest who cuts us in line for bakshish, a Hindi word which means both bribe and tip. The cut in line saves us about an hour of waiting. The woman in a green sari we get cut in front of starts screaming, “Why? Why?”. She is screaming and getting everyone’s attention. “They are not used to it” the priest says to calm her down. “Not used to it! Why should we be used to it and treated like cattle while they get cut in line?” “They” means the white people. I agree with her on principle that it is not fair, but I am too hot and the crowd is too aggressive to care about principles today. Today we are the ones cutting in line, tomorrow we may be the ones getting cut in front of. I have to firmly grip my guide’s arms so that we don’t get pushed out of line. The emotions of desperation turning to fear and anger are churned up to a fever pitch as we get closer to the holy of holies, the Mother statue inside the temple. The mothers children are angry and violent. People in line are holding their hands folded in prayer at their hearts and their lips move silently as they make their fervent prayers to the Mother Goddess. A fat police man starts grabbing people and throwing them out of the sanctuary. A skinny man comes flying out, tossed by the police man. I keep gripping the metal bars separating us from the holy statue and pray not to die today. When it is my turn, I feel hands grab my shoulders and push me in front of the statue, I say a prayer and look into the eyes of the statue, a primordial chunk of rock with three bright orange-red eyes staring back at me. Blood red eyes. I feel a wave of energy pass through my body, a feeling of power and grace. I feel hands pull me away, my turn is over. My prayer was for peace inside myself and the world.
Loka samasataa sukhino bhavantu
May all beings be happy and free from suffering
On the way out we stop at the bali sacrifice pit, where they are beating drums, burning incense and sacrificing goats. I join a crowd standing on the steps to watch. There is a stone pit below us with two altars covered in red blood, orange marigold flowers and grey ash from burning incense sticks. Silver coins wink in the sunlight from small offering bowls at the feet of the altars. My heart is racing as I hold my hands over my heart in the prayer gesture. A bare chested priest in a white dhoti smeared with blood drags in a goat. It is a small goat, a baby. I think of all the goats I grew up raising on the commune farm. They were like my pets, so playful and smart. The goat struggles and cries to get free from the priest. The priest holds him tightly and brings him to the altar. He stretches the baby goats neck to the U-shaped chopping block and lowers an iron rod so the goat can’t break free. The priest raises a large curved silver sword. The blade winks in the sun like the coins in the dishes. The drums are beating, the smoke from the incense burns my nose. I feel electric, I feel horror and fear, still I force myself to bear witness, to keep my eyes open. Time stops and I hold my breath as the priest stands frozen with the blade. Suddenly the blade falls and the goats head rolls on the ground. My stomach flips. I begin to cry, still I force myself to keep my eyes open. A second priest brings out a second goat, bigger this time, and puts its neck on the chopping block. The drums beat louder as does my heart. Death is part of life, I remind myself. Why do we live in a world with so much blood shed? So much fear and suffering?
Goats are called sin-eaters because they are used as sacrifices for others sins. I think of the prostitutes in the red light district, they are the sin eaters of society. The blade falls, and blood pours out over the cement, the priest pulls the goats body away and the legs are still twitching while the heads rolls a few feet away. The blade falls again and again.
The goats crying stings my ears. Each time they sacrifice a goat I make the sign of the cross over my heart. I was born a Christian not a hindu. I remember an old prayer, Forgive us father, for we know not what we do.
After the round of sacrifice ends, I walk to the U-shaped chopping block and put my own neck to the metal where the goats heads were placed. There is still blood on it from the sacrifices.
Thy will be done.
I leave a small rupee coin offering in the dish and we leave the temple. The Kali temple is like the world, beautiful and terrible. There is so much in this world that is painful for me to see, and somehow I must keeps my eyes open. I must learn the wisdom of having the courage to struggle and change what I can and the wisdom to accept that there is some guiding principle, some call God, whose will I can surrender to when I cannot understand. Why? I think like a small child questioning their parent. Why do some people suffer more than others? Why are we so cruel to each other?
The cab driver stops and we get out to go into Sonagachi. I look into the eyes of the prostitutes lining the alleys of this sex slum. Why isn’t life fair? I ask myself or God. There is no answer. Why isn’t the right question. Why will only drive you crazy. How? How can I change myself and be the change I want to see in the world? How gives me purpose in a crazy world. Women sat against the brightly painted walls, in equally bright saris, all staring at me with black eyes rimmed in kajol as they wait to be selected by customers to be paid for pleasure or some fascimile of pleasure. Their eyes looked back at me like the eyes of time, dark, glassy, unpenetrable. I feel fear and tightness in my lungs walking through the decrepit alleys that twist and turn, the buildings leaning in towards each other so that it stays cool in the brothel neighborhood, but doesn’t let in much light. The air is thick, moist and sweaty, not able to pass to the sky, creating a feeling of gloominess. Like water that becomes brackish when it can’t flow back to rivers and the sea. Water like that you aren’t supposed to drink, they call it “black water”, because it doesn’t flow.
Sonagachi is a fully formed little universe, with all the sex workers and all the businesses that serve the sex workers and business of prostitution. There are chai wallahs sitting on stoops pouring the sweet brown liquid into the red clay cups that are a signature of Calcutta. There are carts full of fresh frying samosas and puri. The sticky smells of spices and sweat cling to my skin. Calcutta, city of joy, the laughter of the sex workers children rings through the alleys. Some of the children have just gotten out of school and are wearing their neat uniforms, the girls with their glossy black hair tied in braids and ribbons, they buy snacks at the street stalls. My guide says many of the women got here because someone married a poor girl and then sold them to Sonagachi, to the madams and pimps who are part of the eco system of prostitution. It would be easy to descend into madness here, except that this is a place just like all other places, and there is a logic to survival. Above all, we humans find a way to survive. I feel a strange sense of dread knowing I am going to teach yoga in a few hours. My dream flashes in my mind, I see myself hanging in a courtyard with the angry mob shouting. My chest tightens and I will myself to relax and breath. I cannot explain this feeling, it feels like the sense of dread a warrior would know when battle is approaching. What battle am I fighting? What secrets of my own subconscious are being churned from deep in the sea within me? I have my own memories and fears stirring inside me. The old demon of anxiety that I have felt for so long, the ugly fear of abuse and sex that makes me feel powerless. I must confront my fear, it is the path of the warrior. The only way out is through, one step at a time.
We find the Durbar building, grey and concrete. Climbing the stairs I see giant boxes of condoms and we pass a brightly lit room with women chatting on the phone. This is a place the sex workers come to call each other for reminders to get tested for STDs and to go the doctor appointments. There is even a bank in the building for the women to be able to save their money. We walk up the stairs and with every step I feel more anxious, but I know what I have come to do. We get to the roof where I will be teaching yoga, concrete floor and a green plastic roof. The women filter in and soon there are fifteen of the sex workers. No one is wearing yoga clothes or has yoga mats like my students in America. I have a translator who tells the women to sit down in a circle.
“I have come from America and I love India”. I begin. “I want to teach you yoga because it has helped to make me happy. I used to feel depressed and like I had no power, until I found yoga. I was a single mother who used to struggle to make money to feed my child. It is not easy to be a mother. We need a lot of energy and strength to take care of our children and ourselves. The most powerful energy we have is the power to create life, our Shakti, the energy of the Goddess. All women are powerful, all women are mothers are like the Goddess Kali. All women should feel respected and worshipped. Yoga will help you feel this power in yourself. Even when life is difficult and you cannot control the things around you, you can always feel this connection to Shakti power in yourself.”
I begin to teach them a breathing exercise called bastrika, where they pump their arms up on the inhale and down on the exhale. This exercise always makes my body tingle with electricity and I encourage the women to really go for it, to pull the Shakti energy into their bodies. They women begin laughing and some look self-conscious but I smile and motion for them to keep going. The energy in the room builds and after five minutes I tell them to rest and close their eyes to meditate. I look around the room at their glowing peaceful faces, it looks like all the worries are gone in the heightened energy field. The class is going well and the women are in a good mood so I keep going. I have them do some stretches and vigorous yoga movements. We laugh with each other while we do the yoga. When I try to show a yoga move to a curly haired woman she gets competitive, “A Bengali never loses” she says pointing to her chest proudly. “No contest, we are friends” I point to both of us. “We both win” I say and all the women are laughing. I end the class with a meditation where they put their hands on their hearts to feel the Shakti, divine feminine energy. When the class ends, I tell them I want to film them if they are willing, so that they can send a message to the world. “What do you want to tell the world about your lives?” I ask.
A thin woman in an orange sari steps forward from the group. She tells the interpretor that she does not mind showing her face on camera, many of the other sex workers have asked to have their faces blurred. She has sharp cheekbones and two dark, piercing eyes, one that looks at me and one that points in the opposite direction. It makes a strange combination, the fierceness of her one-pointed energy and the lazy eye. She points a long, thin arm at the camera and says, “We are the same as you! We are mothers who do what we have to so we can feed our children. The men have left, but the women will never leave their children!” Her anger rises as she almost spits her words out. The psychologist Carl Jung said rage is a feminine emotion. “The men are drinking and beating!” She shouts, pointing her sharp finger at the camera. Rage at betrayal and abandonment and unfair cruel treatment by the men in her life, by the men in this society in general. “I am like Arjuna” she says, pointing to her chest. “I do what I have to in my role as a mother, it is my dharma, but I do not take the karma for my actions!” She looks defiantly into the camera. I feel all the years of anger at the judgement and abandonment of society she has felt as a sex worker. From people who would have done the same in her position. Who would watch their child starve? Shouldn’t that make her a survivor, a warrior hero not a whore? Arjuna is the hero of the most popular spiritual book in India, the Bhagavad Gita. In the story Arjuna is a high-born prince who must fight one side of his family to try to save the other. He wants to give up and walk away because no matter what he does he loses. One side of his family winning means he must kill other members of his family and fight against his own teachers. God appears to him as Krishna and tells him he must stay on the battlefield, it is the path of the warrior, he must live in a world of action. He was born into this role and he must play his role in the theater of life, there is no escaping this law of dharma. All actions bring negativities, karmas, that is the law of the world. But if he can perform his dharma, do his best actions and surrender the outcome to God, then he will be free of negative karmas. “You have a right to your actions, but not to the fruit of your actions, those you offer to God” is a saying from the Gita. When she said she was like Arjuna, she was a low caste prostitute who was rejected from society comparing herself to the flawless hero of this famous epic. It was a seditious and powerful thing to say, turning popular culture and religion on it’s ear. She was like Arjuna, she stood on the battlefield of life and had to act as a mother, that was her dharma, to act as a mother must act to feed her children. She was saying she did not take the negative karmas, sins, for having sex with men for money because she was only being a mother. It was a powerful message to society, to all those who prefer to judge or turn a blind eye and allow these women to live in the shadow of sexuality, carrying the negative energies of society on their backs.
The woman in the orange sari stands with her dark eyes wide, her arm in the air like a sword. Then she turns and points to me. With her bony arm in the air and her finger pointing for emphasis, she tells the translator, “Tell her not to be afraid. We are all with her”. It is like she looked right through me and saw my own fear, anxiety and past of shame and secrets. How did she know I was afraid? Filled with so much terror I have not been able to sleep at night with nightmares of dying. I am supposed to be the strong one and she is supposed to be the weaker sex trafficked woman I came to help. Our roles are reversed. The Hindus believe in re-incarnation, that when our body dies, our soul returns to be born again another lifetime. The body is recycled, the soul lives forever. If all our souls live forever, then it would make sense that we have met some people in previous lifetimes, in different bodies. Maybe I have known this sex worker from a past lifetime, maybe we stood together on a battle field, two fierce warriors against all odds. Maybe she has saved my life before.
Tell her not to be afraid, we are all with her echoes in my mind. This courageous woman is giving me some of her courage and I feel it enter my body as a gift.
The women get up to leave and I am left sitting cross legged on the floor. I feel exaughsted and happy. Some fear has broken free inside me, some gift of grace has been given because I faced my fear. The woman in the orange sari is a fierce warrior. A warrior-mother for her children, facing the battlefield of life for what she loves. Love can make us capable of unimaginable bravery. I am in awe of her ability to take care of her children even in such difficult circumstances.
I wonder if my visit will change these women’s lives at all, if it will make a difference. I pray it will create some change for them just as it created change in me. I will tell the story of her courage. I will carry the message she asked me to carry to the world. “We are the same as you”. These women should be respected not shamed. I am so tired of shame.