An alokhhi’s translation of Lakshmi Pnachali: Translated by Averi Saha

Averi Saha
A bounteous merchant once lived in Srinagar,

Noticed Lakshmivrata in Vidharbh Nagar.

Boundless in riches, he brothers had five

Happiness overflowed the family hive.

He asked the devotees in scoff and disdain

What was the vrata and what was its gain?

Replied the women, as mantras they chanted,

Good luck and prosperity is all we’ve wanted;

Whoever worships her and observes her fast,

Is showered with riches and glories that last.

The son of the merchant retorted with pride -

“Can such prizes entail her rite?

Without hard work she bestows money and fame?

What all impossible and useless claim!!

Wealth amassed in lazy rituals

Corrode your values, corrupt your morals.

If prayers alone can e’er fill your coffer

I’d concede your vrata has truth to offer.”

Pronouncing this, the boastful went his way

Sailed argosies to lands far away.

Outraged, the goddess unleashed her wrath,

Hauled the mast, cargo littered the froth.

On land, his mansion, engulfed in flames

Defeated, destroyed him in fateful games.

Thus, goes the tale of the conceited merchant of Srinagar in Lakshmi Pnachali. Seated on my Dida’s lap, I would listen to these tales, engrossed in their narrations of vengeance, benediction, separation and reunion as she reverently completed her Lakshmi puja for the week. I just loved the element of divine intervention and the fantastical twists and turns in the story. By the end of my two months of summer vacation, I would have memorized the entire pnachali. By my teens, I had already begun to raise my voice against the parochial dictates that I could discern in this text and I felt women were being gulled into internalizing them. How devoutly and with such faith did my grannies and aunts recite it because the pnachali was considered a holy text and it rested somewhere in the shrine of the goddess with utmost care. Other women in the family, women in the neighbourhood, all judged each other on the basis of how the pnachali defined the chaste and the unchaste (‘sati’ and ‘asati’), the virtuous and the vile and most importantly, the ‘lokhhi’ and the ‘alokhhi’. If Lakshmi or Lokhhi represented the virtues of a good housewife, the ‘alokhhi’ was a title reserved for the lazy and the inefficient wife who did not manage her household well.

Unlike other gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, Lakshmi is not only a member of the divinity: She is an icon. Throughout India, she is revered as the goddess of wealth and prosperity. And who does not need wealth? That probably accounts for a major part of her popularity. But prosperity is not wealth alone – its adequate food, family, children and harmony. Thus, by extension, Lakshmi is the goddess of food, corn, crops and of fertility – fertility of the land and fertility of the woman. The image of the child-bearing daughter in law is, therefore, cast in the image of Lakshmi and by reverse analogy, the onus of the family’s prosperity and happiness comes on the newly-wed bride. She is also referred to as Grihalakshmi or the resident goddess of the house. The Grihalakshmi is supposed to usher in the other forms of Lakshmi or prosperity like Yasholakshmi, the goddess of Fame; the Dhanolakshmi, the goddess of Wealth and Bhagyalakshmi or the goddess of Good Luck. The connotation of the word Lakshmi is also stretched to mean beauty as in lokhhishree, virtue as in lokhhimonto, goodness as in lokhhimeye. A close observation of marriage rituals reveal that they require the usage of many sex and fertility symbols that are considered auspicious in Lakshmi puja as well, like fish for it releases millions of eggs in the breeding season, rice, the colour red and cowry shells because it was both used as a currency and resembled the yoni. Thus, superstition, associating natural articles to human desire on the basis of resemblance (as in cowry and yoni), the wish for material affluence, sufficient food and clothing, comfort, success and long life of the breadwinner – all come together in the cult of Lakshmi to weave a rich tapestry where it is difficult to distinguish one strand from the other.

After the brahminical rite of Lakshmi Puja is over which does not always need a priest to be present, the hostess-worshipper begins singing the pnachali. Because lakshmivrata is conventionally a community worship where womenfolk of the neighbourhood are invited, the recitation is listened to by other women with a blade of durba (a kind of grass with medicinal properties) held in their folded hands. The text opens with the japmantra and ends with one hundred and eight names of the deity (ashtottar shatanaam) which are probably brahminising tools to command reverence. The narrative text commences with a fairly similar exposition in all the versions where the divine sage Narad solicits Laksmi to revisit earth and restore prosperity.

Assured, Narad, begins his account

Of troubles that humans cannot surmount.

O Mother! The earth under famine reels

Not a trickle of happiness a mortal feels.

Disease, bereavement have stricken a many

Deliver them Mother from this agony.

Poverty drives them to end their lives,

And desert their children, parents and wives.

O Mother! The protector, who devises all good

Stay a while, O kind! so travails get resolved.

Restless you are, in random motion,

Stay, rest, shower benefaction.

Be pleased O goddess, may you be pleased

Without your grace can sufferings be eased?

So saying Narad, bowed in obeisance,

Now the Mother spoke, worried and anxious –

Mankind suffers not for my wandering

I cannot stay and approve their flouting.

Have created women to reflect my soul

Can never sanction their actions so foul.

 They have done away with all traditions

Are leading lives on their own terms

It is sad to hear of human distress

But listen, it results from their offence

Household chores and values discarded,

They roam all exposed and move unguarded.

Women talk and laugh in a voice so strident

They sleep unresponsive at dawn or sunset.

Neither do they know nor follow the scriptures,

Unafraid are they of oncoming disasters.

Neither do they know nor want to cook

 Children are uncared for, dust in every nook.

Floors unclean, the garden without care

The smell of dung-water so repels her.

At dusk, incense or lamp she does not light

She spends the day in quarrels, in laziness the night.

Women are dishonest, selfish, unkind

 Respecting elders, they never bear in mind.

They eat before their husbands, in-laws, guests

In holy books they display little interest.

In fiction, she remains engrossed all day

 From virtuousness, she has gone astray.

She bears no love for her husband and his kin

Parts her hair on the left and wears shoes of skin.

Tell me O Narad! How can I sanction these?

And stay in such households in comfortable ease?

Rather such women as wake up at dawn

Bathe and with pious minds themselves adorn

With marks of a bride – vermillion, shell bangles,

And leads a virtuous life without scandals

I reside in her soul, her home and life

Protect her from misery, misfortune, strife.

If she cooks and herself rears her children,

Stays away from squabbles and food forbidden,

Reveres her in-laws and attends her husband

I bless her with prosperity abundant.

(Translated from Lokhhir Pnachali by Sitanath Basak Tapan Library, Kolkata)

This detailed account which much reads like the medieval instruction manuals for young maidens is indeed a similar ‘how to be a virtuous wife’ manual for married women handed down in the guise of a pseudo-religious text and promoted through the cult of a popular deity to ensure compliance. Most of the concerns here are understandably domestic and not philosophical or spiritual. They reinforce the proverbial Bengali dictum, “Sonsar sukher hoy ramonir guney” (The family’s happiness rests on the woman) where the man is acquitted of all responsibilities of contributing to the family’s happiness quotient. The omnipotent and omniscient author who is nothing less than a god here grabs this opportunity to garb himself as a goddess and enlist behavioral changes that supposedly invaded the territory of tradition in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the time around which most of the pnachalis were composed. Originally, pnachalis were scripted for performance where the five elements of song, music, dance, drama and verbal duels or torja were fused into a form of folk entertainment. With the invention of printing press, these performances began to be printed and recorded. Thus, they were propagandist in motive and were facile attempts to avert European cultural colonization and to hopelessly hold on to age-old values and morals. True to the norms of the age, the value-system upheld in the pnachalis is patriarchal to the core. Women’s education, women reading fiction, wearing shoes, parting their hair on the left in imitation of the west – were expectedly frowned upon. The disintegrating joint-family structure, the insecurity generated by women venturing out of their domestic periphery – are all intriguingly captured in the pnachalis. Judging by the standard set by the pnachali, all modern women can be tagged as ‘alokhhi’. If treated as important socio-cultural documents that record the “forms and pressures of the age”, these texts pose no threat as opposed to their being revered as holy religious texts whose repressive diktat reinforce the already inhibited conditioning of women.

A note from the translator: There are various versions of all the pnachalis. I have chosen this version because I found it the most restrictive and most detailed. 
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Bionote: Averi Saha is Assistant Professor in English at Kanchrapara College. She is a translator and critic who is specially interested in folk literature and culture. Collecting folksongs from village fairs and festivals are her passion. Presently she is working on a project of translating Lalon songs and Bhadu songs.

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