critical essay by Navya Dasari

On screen: turbaned brown figures cloaked in ruddy light, chanting in a foreign tongue before an idol. With an ominous drumbeat, the camera pans up to the idol itself, a distorted imagining of the Hindu goddess Kali—arms outstretched, eyes full of fire. Despite the crimson mist, the premise is clear; her worshippers intend a human sacrifice. A savage act for a savage god of a savage people.

Not all depictions of my religion are so dehumanizing as 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But growing up in America, Indian girls still watch our goddesses the way we watch ourselves: through the Western gaze. Exotified if demure, demonized if powerful, these stolen deities are everywhere.

An Indian campaign against domestic violence spreads images of Hindu goddesses with their faces bruised, attempting to highlight the hypocrisy of the men who abuse some women and worship others. Hundreds of white media sources celebrate the campaign, as Indian women protest: we do not seek to be deified, but humanized. But we trade these words for apology, not recognition. Friends inform me with urgency that they are sorry for the way Indian culture has subjugated us. I look then at my grandmother, who went to college against her parents’ wishes, who protested for the rights of tribal people in her state. I hear stories of her grandmother, who joined the police force in the 1920s, at a time when married American women were still barred from work; who helped to run local government independent of the British Raj. I see my mother, the strongest person I know. I cannot find their intensity, their rebellion, in the meek Oriental caricature who waits for her white savior.

Meanwhile, on television, we watch the goddesses we pray to as they are sexualized, fetishized, killed. In Supernatural, screenwriters group Kali—a major goddess of the world’s third largest religion—with the pantheon of religions largely extinct, a group that includes Mercury and Thor. Celebrities use divinity as costume: Lady Gaga aligns herself with Shakti, the embodiment of divine power, equating her adoring fans with Hindu devotees. Heidi Klum selects a goddess for Halloween—Kali, yet again. For fierce-looking Kali, she bestows the title of the “scary goddess,” telling reporters, “she’s so mean and killed all these different people and [had] fingers hanging off [her] and little shrunken heads everywhere.” Iggy Azalea, too, tries to parallel herself with a Hindu goddess in her video for “Bounce,” couching her performance in a series of fetishizing clichés.

We are diasporic girls, suspended between two countries, and in society we see the reflection of our cage. We see the Indian woman as submissive, as hypersexual, as monstrous. We see our brown bodies distorted and appropriated, our self-image forced in on itself. We see what we value as sacred and empowering taken to satisfy a Western appetite for the strange. Yet our traditions persist. In Draupadi, the legendary princess of the Mahabharat, we find an unapologetically complex heroine who washes her hair with the blood of the man who molested her, taking justice for her own. In Shakti—the cosmic energy, coded as feminine—we find validation of female power and purpose. And in Kali, who protects the world by annihilating evil, we find comfort.

So we reclaim our identities, bit by bit. M.I.A. plays with the goddess image, shifting ownership of our culture back into our hands. A friend spurns a boy who tries to manipulate her by calling her beautiful “for an Indian girl.” And I read news from Asian media sources, trying now to discover a world outside the Eurocentric perspective. This is a clumsy revolution, but a vital one: freeing our goddesses, finding ourselves.

Critical Essay, 2015 Scholastic Writing Awards, Silver Key

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