Touch as Metaphor: Reading “Ahalya’s Waiting” by Nandini Sahu

Dinesh Kumar Mali


To me, Nandini Sahu’s pivotal poem, “Ahalya’s Waiting” is the supreme example of protest literature. The Ramayana has been written by men from men’s perspective since time immemorial. Here Nandini takes up the responsibility of protesting against patriarchy in one of the world’s most powerful myths through her poem, “Ahalya’s Waiting” from her Amazon’s Bestselling poetry collection(2022), A Song, Half & Half. A first reading of the poem would apprise one with the question, ‘Was Ahalya actually waiting for a touch, in the first place?’. Because, the fundamental question of the poem is, ‘Was Ahalya waiting for the benevolent God to come someday, touch her, and redeem her of a sin that she actually never committed?’

With these tensions in my mind as a content reader of Nandini’s poetry, in this research, it would be pertinent for me narrowly to deal with:

ü  The anomalies of defining realism, modernism and postmodernism in the poem “Ahalya’s Waiting” by Nandini Sahu

ü  Realism as content or realism as an effect on the reader vis-à-vis “Ahalya’s Waiting”

ü  Modernism and postmodernism as a continuum and as typical classifiers vis-à-vis “Ahalya’s Waiting”

ü  Post-Modernism and the inner self of Nandini as a creative writer

ü  Division of ‘realities’ in modernism and postmodernism, vis-à-vis “Ahalya’s Waiting”

ü  The use of creative writing to explore extreme experiences in myth

ü  A comparative analysis of Nandini’s Ahalya with that of the character from Ramacharita Manas

ü  The apt use of the metaphor ‘touch’ in “Ahalya’s Waiting”


Nandini Continues to write social mobility literature here in her recent poetry collection, A Song, Half & Half, as elsewhere, through a poem like “Ahalya’s Waiting” where the personae Ahalya waits for a benevolent touch from her lord/lover, but not to redeem her of any sin that she never committed! This is the basic argument of the poem, while the persona is open for ‘touch’, both physical and metaphorical, by her archetypal Lord/lover to come and touch her as an elemental man would touch an elemental woman and both would complete each other in the process.


Nandini Sahu is a progressive poetess. Her Ahalya is entirely different from Tulsidas's Ahalya. Because in this context , I can safely say  that Tulsi Das advocated patriarchy. Tulsidas says in The Balkand (210/11, 12) of Ramacharita Manas:


आश्रम एक दीख मग माहीं,खग मृग जीव जन्तु तंह नहीं।

पूछा पुनिही सिला प्रभु देखि,सकल कथा मुनि काही विसेषी॥ (मानस,बाल210/11-12)


(On the way, Ram saw an Ashram in which there were no birds and animals.  Seeing a rock there, Shri Ramchandra asked Muni and he told the whole story in detail.) The essence of the story is,


गौतम नारी श्राप बस उपल देह धरि धीर

चरण कमल रज चाहति कृपा करहु रघुबीर। (मानस,बालकांड-210)

(O Raghuveer! Gautama's woman has patiently turned into a stone due to the curse, she wants the dust of your lotus feet, please be kind to her.)


The detailed story is that Indra and Moon together duped both Gautam Rishi and his wife. She had cohabited with Indra only after thinking him to be Gautam Rishi. Later, on the arrival of Gautam Rishi, when Indra was asked, she came to know that she had been cheated. When Ahalya told lie in such dire situation, the sage cursed her that she would become a stone immediately.


According to the Ramacharita Manas, Ahalya was guilty of two crimes, the first, sex with another man and the second, of lying. She had done the sexual  crime as she was  deprived and the crime of lying was done due to fear. These both crimes made her to remain stone for ages. Is there a single instance or example in all Indian mythological literature, where any Rishi had turned into stone because of someone's curse for such a crime?  After being a stone for ages, when Ahalya became alive by the touch of Ramchandra's feet, she prays,

मैं नारि अपावन प्रभु जगपावन रावनरिपु जन सुखदाई” -मानस,बाल 211/छंद2

(I am an impure woman and you are Ravanaripu who purifies the world and gives happiness to the devotees)


Now it is a matter of discussion that due to this crime, the moon did not become impure, he remained the Lunar God. Indra did not become impure, Indra remained a deity as yet, Gautama did not become impure, he remained Gautam Rishi forever. Then how did only Ahalya become impure? Apart from this, what other reason can be given that she was a polluted  woman?  Ram Laxman's visit to Janakpuri, breaking the bow, Parshuram dialogue etc. are the most focused  events  of 'Ramcharit Manas'. When Shri Ramchandra went Janakpuri, one of Sita's friend expressed her confidence about Ramchandra’s virility and said,


परसि जासु पदपंकज धूरि,तरी अहिल्या कृत अधभूरी।

सो कि रहिहि बिनु सिव धनु चरें,यह प्रतित परिहरिअ भोरें। -मानस,बाल 223/5-6

(The  Ahalya,the sinner, got salvation by touching the dust of  lotus feet of Ramchandra, then How will he remain without breaking Shiva's bow! )

After Sita Swayamvar was over, the king and queen were  hypnotically washing the holy feet of Ramchandra. How those feet are

जेपरसि मुनिबनिता लही गति रही जो पातकमई (-मानस,बाल324/छंद2)

(By touching the Muni wife Ahalya, who was a great sinner, also got salvation, whether she was  saved or not, it can also be the curiosity of a skeptical atheist.) But that is not the question here. The question is, why has the poor Ahalya been remembered here as Pataki so quickly?  Are both Chandra and Indra, who deceived her, being worshiped as Gods? The Muni who was duped by these two Gods also did not become the object of negation. Then why was Vanchita Abla forced to become the only stone?


To me, there is only one answer--she was the woman of Tulsi Das's imagination, not the radical ecofeminist Nandini’s.


Different texts have various stories about Ahalya’s salvation, I would like to draw a parallel of this poem with multiple mythical and literary texts. Commentators of Vedic literature have considered it a metaphor. 'Ahalya Bhoomi' means that the land in which the plough has not been carried out, it seems natural as the land is related to Indra, the deity of rain. In later literature, Ahalya’s story developed substantially and the relationship of her salvation was linked to Rama. In the Mahabharata, Gautama is considered to be Ahalya’s husband. In fact, it is written in Vedic literature that Indra used to call himself as Gautama.


There is a story in the book, Shadbish Brahmin ,in which both the Gods and the Asuras were fighting, Gautama was doing penance between the two armies. Indra requested him to become his detective, but Gautama rejected him. Then Indra took the form of Gautama and proposed to become a detective, which he accepted. Perhaps on the basis of this story, it was believed that Ahalya’s husband's name was Gautama and Indra was called Ahalya-Jar.


Valmiki Uttarakanda has presented another aspect in this context. According to it, Brahma took the best parts of other beings and created a woman who completely lacked 'hala' (ugliness). It is equally highlighted by the poetess Nandini in her poem in following lines,


‘Ahalya’ connotes the ‘one with no ugliness’.


The woman beautiful turned into a stone there and then.

Reek of patriarchy with

the social game of victim-blaming began.

                                                             (Sahu, 28)


Sans all ugliness, she was named as Ahalya. Indra used to desire Ahalya, but Brahma kept her in custody of Gautam Rishi. After many years, Gautama returned her to Brahma and Brahma, seeing the accomplishment of the ascetic Gautam Rishi, presented her as his wife.


According to Harivansh Purana, Vaghyasva and Menaka had two children, Dividas and Ahalya. Ahalya became Gautam's wife and gave birth to Shatanand. The Brahma Purana says something else in this context. According to it, to get Ahalya as wife, there was a condition that the God who came to Brahma first after circumambulating the earth, would be given Ahalya. All the Gods went out to circumambulate the earth, but Gautama circumambulated the arddha-prasuta cow Surabhi and Shiva-Linga and got Ahalya as the reward.


In the post-modernist context, Nandini problematizes this ‘trophy-wife’ concept—of awarding/rewarding a woman of flesh-and-blood to someone without taking her will into consideration, and then redeeming her even without her appeal. To quote the poetess,




Father presented me, the puppet, to husband on his free will.

Husband couldn’t fulfil me as a woman.

Indra tricked me to satiate his desire, not mine.

Inept, impotent husband cursed me

with what right, oh, with what right,

to become a stone exactly at a moment

when I was satiated as a woman!

And now why do I need yet another man, you, oh Ram,

to touch me and cleanse me of my uncommitted sin?

                                                            (Sahu, 29)


According to the Paumchariyam, Ahalya is the daughter of Jawalan Singh and Vedvati, who rejected King Indra on the occasion of her swayamvar and chose King Nandimali (or Anandmalakar). Later, Nandimali became disinterested in worldly pleasures and took initiation. Someday Indra had tied that meditating Nandimali, which resulted Indra to defeat by  Ravana. In the Western account, Ahalya is mistakenly considered as  Vishwamitra's wife. In the Skanda Purana and Mahabharata, the example of Gautama's son is Chirkari, who rejects his father Gautama's order to kill Ahalya for being an adulterer. In Chirkari's eyes, his mother was innocent, because Indra changed his form before Ahalya in Gautama's absence. According to the Assamese Balkand, Ranganatha Ramayana, this act was carried out with the aim of obstructing Gautama's penance. Brahmavaibrata Purana considers Indra a misdemeanor and Ahalya as innocent. According to Kirtivas Ramayana, Indra was the beloved disciple of Gautama. Similarly, there are many forms of Gautama's curse.

According to Mahabharata, Indra's beard was yellow, according to Valmiki Uttarkand, Meghnad defeated Indra and he got half the fault of human sins, Indra being a snake etc.  as per Valmiki’s Balkand, Balram Das, Kamban Ramayana, Indra became Sahasranayan,  According to Padam Purana, Ahalya got no curse in the myth.


Pashanbhuta Ahalya is mentioned for the first time in Raghuvansh and later in Narasimha Purana, Skandha Purana, Mahanatak, Sarla Daskrit Mahabharata, Ganesh Purana. In Valmiki's Balkand, Gautama said that after welcoming Rama, Ahalya would come to him in her human body as before, that is, Vapurdhariyishasi. Perhaps this is story, from where the notion of Ahalya becoming a rock arises. According to Ramkien, Gautama cursed her so that at the time of Ramavatar, she would be used to build the bridge and should be buried in the ocean forever. A curse of Gautama according to which Ahalya became a dry river, is less prevalent. According to a legend, Ahalya’s daughter Anjana is mentioned here and there. When Gautama learned about Ahalya’s adultery from his divine vision, he asked Ahalya about the reality of the daughter. Ahalya replied that the man was Marjar, which had two meanings--Indra taking two forms or her adultery. On this, he cursed Ahalya to become the rock and Indra to become Sahasrayoni. Anyway, according to legend, Ahalya and Gautama had two sons Bali and Sugriva.


In the story of Pashanbhuta Ahalya, the author of Adhyatma Ramayana connected Ahalya  with standing on the rock and doing penance. In this way, a famous mythological story of Ahalya from Brahmin texts and merged  into the devotion of Ahalya to Ram, taking many forms. The playwrights have had no hesitation in changing the narrative of Rama. In Janaki Parinay, the story of Ahalya salvation comes in such a way that when Rama wants to kill himself by jumping off the rock after seeing the life of the elusive Sita in danger, Ahalya appears from the rock with the touch of lotus feet of Rama and told him the secret of  demonic Maya.


European scholars compare Indra to the Greek myth Zeus. Both are Gods of the sky and are famous for their love affairs with women. Zeus mongoose, impersonating the sun's rays or their husbands, rapes many princesses and nymphs, and gives birth to great heroes such as Porseus and Hercules. Some critics conclude men with the sky  culture and women with earth culture, while some see this story as a symbol of the relationship between Dev culture and Aryan culture.  Narendra Kohli, in his novel 'Ramkatha', attempted to keep the narrative of Ahalya and Gautam in modern perspective.


 Hindi poet Udbhrant speaks about Ahalya in his poetry collection ‘Treta’ that  there was a great  bonding of love between Gautama and Ahalya. But once he set fire to his family life by inviting neighbor King Indra to stay at his place. Indra was the king of the nearby Surpur kingdom. He was fascinated to see Ahalya. In the absence of Gautam Rishi, to fulfill the evil wish of his mind, he tried to go to Ahalya in the guise of Gautam on the night of Amavasya. But Ahalya’s sixth sense caught  Indra's intentions and signaled him to get out, but then the entry of Gautam Rishi made her a victim of wrath. Gautam Rishi became suspicious of his wife and left her alone to live life in a solitude like a rock. The condition of innocent women in the then conservative society was not good. They were expelled from society. When Ram came in contact with Ahilya, who did not go outside from her place, Ahalya again got social acceptance.


Narendra Kohli took this fact of Udbhrant with a different angle. At that time, the Ashrams were equivalent to modern schools or universities, and the sages were the heads of departments of those institutions like vice-chancellors. As per the contents of Narendra kohli's novel, Gautama gave shelter to  Indra as he was the king of the neighboring country. Ahalya was sleeping with her fever-stricken son Shat, but Indra, seeing the very beautiful woman, considered her futile to suffer association with a poor sage. Indra accepted hospitality at Gautam's place and while drinking alcohol, Gautam wanted to see Ahalya alone in the absence of Rishi. Ahalya was asleep, but could experience that unknown touch well. When Ahalya’s mouth sneezed and her son started crying loudly. The people of the neighborhood gathered, at that time Gautam Rishi returned to his hut, Indra threw a sentence towards the crowd with shameless wickedness, "First she called me and now she is pretending" --claiming this, he sat in his plane and went to his country. The reason behind Vishwamitra telling this story to Ram-Laxman was to present the background of revolution, not only the role of struggle in life. but also to provoke anger against injustice in the public mind.  If a woman calls  a man and the man accepts it and comes to her, then the society will blame the woman only, Indra has done such a trick. By stigmatizing  Ahalya, he wants to hide serious crimes and sins of raping a Rishi's wife. Gautam Rishi put the matter of insulting Ahalya in front of the society and called upon them to remove Indra, the devotee of Dev culture and the guardian of the sages, but even though a section considered Ahalya innocent, but her chastity had been tarnished. Ahalya could not be saved by punishing Indra or not. Due to the devaluation of social status, various questions were raised about Gautam Rishi, being the Head of the Ashram. The question arises that if a sinful man tortures a weak woman, will his Ashram also be considered as corrupt? Not only this, wherever Gautama will go, every person raise a finger towards him as  he is husband of Indra's Bhogya Ahalya and even when his son will grow up, the society will not refrain from sledging him. Such accidents do not unite the people to stand against the ruling class in the general, holding the power of office, the power of money, the power of paramount. The pioneer in the field of knowledge, fame and honor endangered the existence of citizens like Gautam Rishi, who not only fed on their development, but also for future generation. These ideas made Ahalya to go underground for living a lonely life and forced Gautam Rishi to go another place for his future. When a great man like Rama saved Ahalya by finding that abandoned Ashram at the behest of Vishwamitra, she regained social dignity and was freed from living an unaimable, lonely life. On getting the protection of Ram, thinkers, sages, priests, Brahmins stopped considering Ahalya as criminal at the social and moral level. Nandini problematizes this ‘victim-blaming’ syndrome of our society and exposes its hypocrisy:


Touch sensitive, touch deprived,

touch-craving, I would rather wait till eternity.

I prefer to reject your offer of touching me

on the condition of taking me

into the snares of purity-pollution.

I am my own possessor, proprietor, I am my woman.

Let me remain ethically upright on my own terms—

this is my ultimate liberation.

                                             (Sahu, 29)


Here I am reminded about Hindi Dalit Critic Kanwal Bharti. He considers this story as a relationship between Aryan and Dev culture. Ahalya of Ramayana was not innocent. According to the Ramayana, when Maharishi Gautam was not at the Ashram, Shachipati Indra went there in disguise of  Gautam Muni and said to Ahalya, "Always be careful, Sundari! The lover do not wait for  time.  I want to have sex with you. ” Ahalya also recognized Indra in the guise of Muni. 'Hey! Devraj Indra wants me' – Out of curiosity, she accepted the offer to have sex with him. After sex, Ahalya said- "I am grateful to have sex with you, now you leave soon before Gautama comes and protect me."

Then Indra also said to Ahilya, "Sundari! I was satisfied too. As I came, I'll go the same way immediately.  At that time, Gautam came and saw both of them. Immediately cursed Indra that his testicles should fall and he became testicleless. He then cursed Ahilya, “You will lie here for many thousands of years only by inhaling air or fasting and will live in the ashes of  this Ashram by  remaining invisible from all beings.” The poem  of Nandini’s Sahu started with these lines quoted from Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade)

                                                                    (Sahu, 28)


Later, on Indra's request, the seniors Gods saved Indra by putting sheep testicles, but Ahalya was saved by Ram by touching his feet.  The following questions emerge from this narration:

1) Why did Indra say that men who want sex do not wait for an appropriate time ?

2) Did Ahalya recognize Indra even in Munivesh?

3) After recognizing Indra, did Ahalya say that Aho, Devraj wants me?

4) Did Ahalya accept Indra's proposal?

5) Did Ahalya say after sexual intercourse that I was grateful for your intercourse?

6) Did Ahalya ask Indra to run away immediately after sexual intercourse ?

7) Bhadet Anand Kausalyan thinks differently, If the touch had to be done, what could not be done by hand ? why by legs ?  


मुनि तिय तरी लगत पग धुरी, किरति रही भुवन भरी पूरी


The only answer to these questions is that Ahalya and Devraj Indra had a physical relationship with mutual consent. Indra was recognized by Ahalya because she was already aware of his  coming in Munivesh. Ahalya herself was willing to have sexual intercourse with Indra. So she accepted Indra's proposal and both of them got complete satisfaction after intercourse.


All the above questions of critic Kanwal Bharati are, in a way,replied in this poem by Nandini, using ‘touch’ as a powerful metaphor. As per her, Ahalya did not want touch by hand or legs, but by sentiments,language and reverential behaviors, which can be seen in the following lines of poem,


Your touch should be your creative language,

your behaviour, your basic attitude.

With my touch, stars ought to dance across your skin.

Your touch must take away my fears of

all Goutamas and Indras.

Love, soothe my anxiety and

fill my senses with your compassion.

Touch my cognizance and you can redeem the stone.

Make me your Muse.

You know, touch is where miracles arise

And exchange of the light and dark begin.

The curse of Rishi Goutama may be immobilized

with your touch, with this assertion.

                                                         (Sahu, 28)


All the Indian litterateurs, whether Hindi poet Udbhrant was writing his poem on Ahalya in his collection 'Treta', whether novelist Narendra Kohli was writing  'Ramkatha', no matter how much mythological literature, all men were supremacists and believed in man’s dominance in society. No writer has shown the courage to read Ahalya’s inner voice. It is not only right for the writer to raise questions of any character, but also to find the psychological reasons behind it. Nandini has dared to discover these reasons in her poem in these lines:-


Father presented me, the puppet, to husband on his free will.

Husband couldn’t fulfil me as a woman.

Indra tricked me to satiate his desire, not mine.

Inept, impotent husband cursed me

with what right, oh, with what right,

to become a stone exactly at a moment

when I was satiated as a woman!

And now why do I need yet another man, you,oh Ram,

to touch me and cleanse me of my uncommitted sin?

                                                         (Sahu, 29)


Nandini problematizes the situation when woman has been considered as an attractive figurine and nothing more than that. In moments of rest, she is the beloved, otherwise she is an the object. The deep abyss of inequality between the male and female has been questioned by the poetess. Our country is debauched even today, despite we  talk so much about sexual parity, but our ideas about marriage and sex  are hypocritical. It is true that throughout the globe, only men have framed protocols about the ideals of chastity, purity, specifically about women. Regretfully these ideals are limited to woman’s body. Before marriage, It is prohibited. Later on, touch is permissible only by husband. Once she is married, then no person other than her husband should not come into picture in any condition. By religion, by formula, by social organization and finally by body systems, it is engrossed in our mind that marriage is only solution to transform the girl into a pure woman. Unless the girl is sanctified by marriage, she has to spend her life in infinite loneliness—or become a stone!  For thousands of years in Indian history or mythological works, poets have created strange inequalities between man and woman, while the poetess Nandini’s “Ahalya’s Waiting” gives the message about fundamental right of womanhood. Nandini's 'Ahalya' is a symbol of the woman who understands her body and mind, who respects herself, with conviction.  According to her, unless the lost souls of  women do not awaken in our country, no matter how hard you try, human civilization cannot be revived. She writes,


My redemption lies not just in your touch

but in zero tolerance of

any marginalization.

I need a rejoinder from the society

and from you, oh the most knowledgeable one,

for my quintuple patriarchal relegation.

                                                              (Sahu, 29)


I read “Ahalya’s Waiting” as an epic poem; a heroic character like Ahalya creates this estimation. Ahalya is  a woman of strange distinctions, she disrupts our very sense of equilibrium and commands respect. She is the victim as well as the eradicator. She is virtuous, yet she has a much-questioned moral and social status. She is dutiful, and yet she commands dignity in her own terms. She is sovereign, yet she is the slave, the puppet in the hands of time. The metaphor ‘touch’ defines both the physical and the metaphysical woman, Ahalya, in the powerful poem “Ahalya’s Waiting” by Nandini. Such poems are the need of the hour where a woman looks in the eye of patriarchy, speaks clearly and openly about her body and her sovereignty, the multi-layered dignity thereof.

Works Cited:

Sahu, Nandini. A Song, Half & Half, Black Eagle Publications, Dublin, USA, 2022.

About the Researcher:

Dinesh Kumar Mali is a researcher, writer and translator of repute. He has translated more than 25 seminal books which are published worldwide. He has academically contributed to the MA in Folklore and Culture Studies programme of IGNOU, New Delhi, India.


  1. Congratulations dear Nandini. An excellent analysis of the poem.

  2. Dinesh Kumar Mali ji You did great work .

  3. Dinesh Ji, with due respect, I beg to differ with your interpretation of Ahilya Uddhar chapter of RamCharitManas. I am no scholar, no fanatic, no critic, no proponent, no opponent of anyone's one. Ramayana, as Sage Valmiki wrote, was the events he saw going back in time after Lord Brahma's wish, so did Ved Vyasa, Kamban, Tulsidas and anyone else. Often, when expression (poetic or otherwise) lags far behind in pace when imagination coupled with Bhakti propagates. On similar lines, Einstien opined that Imagination is more powerful than knowledge. The only way to really enjoy these texts is to keep a budget for exemptions for what you find contentious. Exemptions for limited expressions of a humanly effort of writer. Then think of act, unjudgmentally. Do some time travel, take your mind to social state of the time in story. Now you would be able to see the act as it was better than before. If add a little purity to the character of people in questions associating right weightage, and go with the flow of story, you would enjoy it the most.

    Now to briefly comment on why Ahilya got the sufferings but not moon and Indra or even her cruel husband. Note that it only and only she to whom Lord came walking before even meeting Sita...remember? Did you note the sequence? He goes to her before meeting Sita. And touches her, bringing her back to life and to liberation! He who has a 'vrat' of having just one lady in his life. He kind of breaks the vow here...doesn't he? Remember he declined the requests of his father (even if it meant loosing him) to keep the 'vow' even at cost of lives. But here, he not only goes to her but breaks the vow. Vishwamitra doesnt ask him to touch her. The sage only narrates the situtation and Rama knows what he should do. And mind you, he touches not the most beautiful woman in the world which Lord Brahma had created, but he touches a soul whom he found 'Ahilya (free from guile and blemish) in lierary sense' in listless stony appearance with an age of countless years, just waiting unconditionally with no expectations.
    Is there anyone else inclduing Sita, Dashrath, Bharat, Lord Hanuman, Lakshman or anyone else who could earn such an exemption from Him? If anything they only saw his iron resolve to keep the 'vow'.
    Indeed, it was Ahilya's purity of character, her selfless unconditional love of thousand years which expected nothing in return, draws Rama himself at her doorsteps sponteneously. Even if it meant to break the vow, maybe by going in his Supreme form which is free from vows, to librate a pious soul as her, he would do it unhesitatingly - actually granting her the rarest of the previleges which are unattainlable to mortals and immortals alike.
    So, wasn't Ahilya the most fortunate one in the Ramayana, who actually got highest distinction of receving a touch from supreme form of lord! Then in retroinspection mind wonders: was it actually a curse at all? Answer is anyone's guess!

    See what Tulsidas says at end of it:
    'As prabhu deen-bandhu prabhu, kaaran rahit dayaal...'
    Rama moves without reason, spontenously as a saviour to down trodden and blameless victims...why to make our heart attched to him?
    With regards,


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