The book The Merchant of Stories is most notably the spiritual journey of a creative entrepreneur. But it’s not just another arduous journey. Rather, it’s an adventure ride through the different corridors of life. There is the struggle of a writer and the rise of an artist. There is the essence of mythology and the tale of legacy. Something that takes you forward but also compels you to look back and contemplate at times. And lying hidden among everything is the strength of a woman that cuts across all time frames.
Though the ages, women have showcased their inner power and their excellent talent in different fields. Even in a male-dominated society, they strived hard to break free and leave a mark. They have been tested time and again but their spirit didn’t deter. History is stuffed with the stories of such brave women. Several mythological tales also sing the saga of the women who have made a mark for themselves.
But alas! That’s what they had remained so far—just some stories to read and forget!
Because somehow, even centuries later, the world is still not ready to accept woman in all her diversity. There are still some set standards on how a woman should behave and conduct herself. And the moment she chooses to differ, she will be beckoned with all kinds of weird names. Like Rahu says in The Little Light: “It is not easy being different”. And being a woman slightly diverted from the “standard norms”, I can assure you that it definitely isn’t!
But what amazes me more is how people sing praises of all the stories about strong women, but somehow manage to disregard the women around them. They worship the female deities for their power, wealth and wisdom, and yet ignore the girls of their own house. Even today, people cannot accept a powerful woman who possesses both the wealth and the wisdom to stand strong in her life. I totally agree with Dipa when she says that humans never fail to surprise us with their logic! And most of their hypocrisy tends to dangle around us, the women.
Still, we refuse to be tamed. We always have, since the beginning of time. No matter how many battles we fight, how many eras we struggle through, how much pain we endure, we never stop till we achieve our goals. Look at all the historical stories or mythological tales, and you will find that we have always managed to fight our fears and emerge victorious. After all, in the words of Rahu:
“Humanity evolves because of those who are unafraid to chart their own course.”
As I swiped my way through the pages of the remarkable book The Merchant of Stories, I soon felt the taste of an undying feminine spirit that refused to be tamed. Be it in the mythological stories of the Goddesses or the voice of the author herself, a sense of the indomitable spirit is always there. Naturally, I was intrigued by this quality and tone of her writing, and decided that I might as well have a little conversation with author Dipa Sanatani.
And as always, it turned out to be an amazing one!
Intertwined with myth and modern life, our interview brings to view different contemporary issues that need to be approached from a different perspective. Several things have changed since the bygone eras, including the position that women hold in society. Sure, things have begun to change again, but there are still so many things yet to be done. So many issues that need severe amendments to make the world a better place for one and all.
So, it’s time to awaken the strength within us once again and together fight for what’s right.
Sanchari: You said that you are born into a conservative Gujarati family where it is always the men who inherit the business. Still, by a call of fate, you are now carrying forward the legacy. Do you feel that there is a far greater responsibility upon your shoulders now, as an entrepreneur and as the bearer of your family legacy?
Dipa: I believe the family legacy was not so much men inheriting the business; but rather one of entrepreneurship. Who is an entrepreneur? It is someone who starts a business; not the person who inherits it.
I think the Gujarati entrepreneurial tradition bears the hallmarks of certain elements: an apprentice-style system of instruction, conservatism in that one prefers the time-tested way of doing things to avoid unnecessary risks; and in my case, an international—as opposed to a local—focus in business dealings.
Yes, this is a huge undertaking and a tremendous responsibility. And yes, it is a burden. However, that does not mean that I feel burdened by it. I am proud that I’ve had the opportunity to be the very first woman in my family to start a business from scratch.
Sanchari: You said in your book that you feel very drawn to the phoenix. The logo of Mith Books also has a phoenix in it. The mythical bird is often linked with the resilience of women. What do you think of this connection?
Dipa: I don’t believe resilience is a trait that’s unique to women.
To me, resilience is about not allowing your circumstances to define your life and what you will achieve. The phoenix embodies that. The failures, the defeats, the fights and the eventual victories.
Unfortunately, the world is not always ready for a strong and dominant woman. These women are feared by men and despised—or perhaps even secretly envied—by other women. That is why both men and women have sought to diminish women who stand in their power.
The ‘us versus them’ mentality is all too easy to adopt. Women are victims and men are the perpetrators. The feminism of today is a fashion accessory that doesn’t mean anything to most of the people who claim allegiance to it. If you dig deeper, you’ll see it. The cattiness, the competitiveness, the hidden anger and the passive-aggressive tendencies. I have seen men tear women down. I have seen women tear women down.
I think patriarchy is as damaging for men as it is for women. Imagine if there was a young boy who longed to be a chef, a nurse, a teacher or any other profession in a woman-dominated field. They would call him all kinds of names. We don’t value our divine feminine.
The Goddess resides in each and every single one of us–regardless of our gender.
Sanchari: Your book enlightens us about the Chopda Pujan, where one invites Goddess Lakshmi, the symbol of wealth, along with Lord Vishnu, who teaches us how to take responsibility for wealth. Can we then say that Goddess Lakshmi is also incomplete without her Vishnu, just as Lord Vishnu claims that he is nothing without his beloved Lakshmi?
Dipa: One of the core tenets of Hinduism is that one has to live life according to dharma. It is difficult to translate the concept of dharma into English. It is duty, deed, and one’s obligation in respect to one’s position in society. As to what this ‘obligation’ is; it is once again hard to define as it varies from individual to individual and is contingent upon the context that one finds oneself in.
In the case of wealth, it is not enough to merely seek it, desire it or even to earn it. A business owner needs to understand the nature of wealth itself.
If we look at the world today, it is not the countries that are ‘resource rich’ that are ranked amongst the wealthiest in the world. It is the countries that have a highly-educated workforce and a system of governance that attempts to distribute wealth in society to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
The myth of the Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Vishnu draw our attention to the fact that wealth inevitably leads to conflict and strife when it is not handled with care and respect.
If we think of it in terms of a relationship between two people, it is the same story. You could have the most wonderful spouse in the world, but if you don’t treat this person with care and respect, then the relationship will eventually deteriorate. Balance is at the heart of any strong relationship.
In the case of our Goddess Lakshmi, she is renowned for leaving a household where she is not treated with the respect she deserves. Many desire her, but she desires Lord Vishnu; for he does not desire her for wealth or pleasure, but rather, he understands that she–as a personification of wealth–is his responsibility.
Sanchari: Your book talks about how your visits to the Sri Mariamman Temple, dedicated to Mother Mari, have replaced your “endless doubts with firm faith.” Why do you feel that happened? I mean, what connected you to the Rain Mother?
Dipa: I recently visited the temple with a colleague who asked me the same question. My visits to Sri Mariamman Temple remind me of my grandfather, Ratilal Dada. He was a devotee of Hanumanji and went to the temple every Saturday. As a child, I always thought it was always ‘Dada’s Temple’. I heard he was very good with children and a strong feminist. Somewhere, I always felt a sense of a loss that I didn’t have the opportunity to know him.
As I grew older and became a woman, my visits to Sri Mariamman Temple shed new light on my own concept of femininity—one that went beyond the nonsensical trending topics that is the bane of our social media existence.
Sri Mariamman Temple is Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple. The worship of Mariamman is believed to have originated in pre-Vedic India. That’s well before 4000 BCE! It may be hard for us to imagine; but women in ancient India held a far more esteemed and honoured position in society than we do today. Women were scholars, warriors, healers, mothers and so much more.
At Mariamman Temple, I got to know the stories of these women first-hand. Not by reading about them in books, but through the stories, customs and the rituals that have kept the stories of these women alive.
Sanchari: You wrote in your book how Navratri is a ritual to “venerate the divine femininity that gives birth to all creation.” Is the concept related physical birth only or do you think it includes the birth of the indomitable qualities that defines the strength of a woman?
Dipa: On a purely biological level, only women have the power to give birth. This also means that we have the power to decide who we marry and who we choose to bring into the world. In recent history, these rights have been taken away from women—but men are not the sole culprits of this. If women themselves choose to prefer sons; then what could this woman possibly teach a daughter about her own value and worth?
To think I haven’t even started on the global worldwide soap opera formula that has taken the planet by storm! The cast features a tyrannical mother-in-law, a long-suffering daughter-in-law and the utterly clueless son/husband who is manipulated by everyone.
I am tired of hearing tales of victimhood, especially from women who’ve made poor choices in their lives—and refuse to take the steps to get themselves out of it. I’m also fed up of hearing that being a mother is the most important job in the world. Due to the unique biological needs of human babies, we take a long time—when compared to other mammals—to become independent. If a woman chooses to be a homemaker when other options are available, then that is her choice and I respect that. However, preaching that it is the most important job in the world downplays the contributions and achievements that people—regardless of gender—make in all other aspects of life. Every soul is unique and equally important to the Creator. How can anyone think that they have the most important job in the world when we are all equals in the eyes of the Creator?
Strength is born of fighting for one’s convictions and beliefs. I believe it is a personality trait that is not inherent in one’s biology. I know women who are weak and women who are strong. I know men who are strong and men that are weak.
Having said that, I know, understand and fully appreciate that there are places in the world where women do not always get to choose their destiny; where there are severe limitations that are placed based on one’s gender or social standing. It is truly heart breaking that this continues to perpetuate. I do not think that poverty or lack of education is solely the cause of this; but rather a deep set attitude and a way of perceiving the world and a woman’s place in it.
Sanchari: You wrote that “Kali Amman is both comforting and frightening.” As a child I used to be very afraid of Maa Kali. But as I grew up, I began to feel very peaceful around her. I still don’t know what brought the change in me. What do you feel so comforting about her?
Dipa: In Sanskrit, Kālī is the feminine form of “time” or “the fullness of time”. Her name draws our attention to time as the changing aspect of nature that creates life and brings death. To me, Kali Ma is all-encompassing compassion. Abundant in her love and terrifying in her wrath. Her ‘fierce form’ only seeks to destroy evil in the world. In Hinduism, Kali Ma represents the Primordial Mother. She is a fighter, a warrior and a rebel.
I have heard countless tales from grown men who are frightened to gaze at her image or worship at her altar. As for me, I have always felt abundant love whenever I visited one of her temples. She is known never to abandon her devotees and to bestow them with the knowledge that leads them to moksha liberation.
Kali Ma only asks that you come to her with an unblemished heart and a clean soul. I have never felt terrified of her—although I do know that this is the case for many. In addition to life, Kali Ma also represents death. If you accept death as a natural part of life, then there is nothing to fear; for when death comes, you embrace it as you would an old friend.
Kali Ma, as a personification of nature in its most primal form, also represents uninhibited sexuality. Sex is the creative life force that permeates all of existence. Kali Ma represents this untameable force. This force is stronger in some people than it is in others. A healthy expression of one’s sexuality is central to the creation of life itself.
To me, uninhibited sexuality is not about the freedom to do as one pleases, but rather about discipline. Giving in to our desires to indulge in momentary pleasures gives birth to massive disillusionment. Capitalist institutions, through the vehicles of advertising and mass media, encourage us to indulge in material pleasures. This, however, does not bring fulfilment. It only creates a ceaseless pit of desires that can never be satisfied.
I have heard all sorts of nasty names for women who express their sexual freedom. We also have all sorts of nasty names for women who may not want to have sex! Oh, it’s ludicrous! And it doesn’t end with women. I’ve heard all kinds of degrading names for men who have no interest in ‘playing in the field’ and choose to commit to one woman.
Whether we are aware of it or not, what we are truly seeking is intimacy. Intimacy comes not from trying to solve our own neediness and personal insecurities through another person, but by developing our own inner abundance and maturity. Then, we have so much love to give that we naturally draw lovers towards us.
To me, the extremely famous depiction of Shiva lying at Kali’s feet symbolises the supremacy of nature over man. It shows that even a powerful force like Lord Shiva must surrender to her. Our bodies are merely clothes that we must discard when our time on earth is over. No one–neither rich man nor poor man–has the power to defeat death. Kali Ma was there at the beginning and she will be there at the end. What we choose to do in the interim is what ultimately defines our short-lived existence on this planet.
People may choose to portray or perceive Kali Ma as a frightening goddess; but to me, she is sensitive, warm and kind. Just be careful not to cross her! For she is the destroyer of evil and illusions.
Sanchari: In a previous interview, we have discussed how people don’t usually portray Queen Draupadi as a “mother”. And in the case of Maa Kali, we call her “Mother” but she isn’t bestowed with the typical qualities of a mother. Why do you think that is?
Dipa: Queen Draupadi’s polyandrous marriage to five husbands is something that unsettles a lot of people—although we don’t seem to bat an eyelid to cheating/abusive husbands or men having multiple wives.
Firstly, Queen Draupadi wanted to marry Arjun; but due to Kunti’s misunderstanding, she had to marry all five Pandavas. Secondly, there were rules set in place regarding how the polyandrous marriage was practised. And thirdly, there are some stories that even say that Queen Draupadi wanted to many Karna, but couldn’t as she was a royal woman that had to marry someone of her social standing; and Karna was—at the time—mistakenly thought to be a charioteer’s son.
I see Queen Draupadi as having suffered tremendous injustice in her life. She had the strength not to cower; not until she bathed her hair in her perpetrators blood. We may say that this is an ‘extreme reaction’, but she was publically humiliated after one of her husbands gambled her away in a game of dice. Her husband may not have valued her, but she valued herself enough to fight till the very end.
Whether we are speaking about Kali Ma or Queen Draupadi, I think neither of these goddesses espoused the ‘traditional qualities’ of a dutiful mother who sacrificed herself for her husband and her family. Instead, they stood in their own worth, challenged conventional norms and dared to fight against them.
I, for one, find that deeply admirable.
“I cannot be restrained. I will not be tamed. Shackle me, and I will break free.”
~The Merchant of Stories by Dipa Sanatani
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