Ahalya | The Lady of Stone

I am on a journey this year to travel in the footsteps of Sita. Literally, I shall be visiting the modern-day places associated with her. Metaphorically, I am reading various translations and versions of Ramayana in a bid to explore Sita’s tale. I would love it if you came along for the journey. Do help me in my mission to better understand Sita. Sita, the wife, the queen, the single mother. Sita, the warrior, the learned one, the feminist. 

This post is the first in the ‘In the Footsteps of Sita’ series.

I read Ahalya’s tale as the sun set on yet another International Women’s Day. Here are the bare bones for those not familiar with her story:

Once upon a time, there was a woman of celestial beauty called Ahalya. She was married to a sage named Gautama (whose full-time job was being an ascetic, leaving little time/desire for husbandly duties). Indra, the king of Gods, with his roving eye spotted our pretty protagonist and consumed with lust, he hatches a devious plot. He waits till Ahalya is alone, and then disguising himself as Gautama seduces her. Ahalya succumbs to his charms – fairly willingly – and they make merry. But as all illicit pleasure has to be punished, Gautama returns to find himself cuckolded. Not one to forgive and forget he curses both Indra and Ahalya. Indra becomes a eunuch. Only temporarily, the Gods conspiring to gift him a pair of ram’s testicles. Ahalya, meanwhile, for giving into the sins of passion and the body, is turned into stone. She is liberated by Lord Rama, many moons later, and now ‘free of stain’ having done penance for her sins, is reunited with Gauatama.

I first heard a censored version of the tale from my mother as a child. I was incensed for Ahalya – that poor chick, she did not even know she was being hoodwinked! How could she know that Indra was playing tricks on her? Gautama should have punished only Indra!

Now there are a couple of versions if you read the text – there being no one definitive Ramayana. In some accounts, Indra is cursed and marked by a thousand ‘lady bits’. He whines his way into converting them into a thousand eyes. In some tales, Ahalya turns into stone, in others she becomes formless. In most, she sort of knows that it is not Gautama but Indra that she is doing the deed with. I speed read the tales – Valmiki’s and Kamba’s – eager to discover the ‘truth’. Had Ahalya guessed it was Indra? Did she know? I felt incensed once again, this time, by Ahalya. She allowed herself to be slut-shamed! And she willingly returned to the husband who shames her so! Why did she not put up a fight? Why did she…. and so the questions tumbled on.

In a bid to look for answers, I turned to modern day interpretations and commentary and chanced upon this wonderfully made short film by Sujoy Ghosh, titled (surprise, suprise!) ‘Ahalya’. Our Ahalya is still beautiful but decidedly more liberal – flaunting her curves with a fair bit of elan – as she opens the door to a stranger. The stranger is none other than Indra, a police inspector, investigating the disappearance of a young male model. He comes to question Gautom, an old gentlemanly artist who is married to his nubile young muse, our lady of the manor. The men chit-chat over tea, and Gautom reveals to Indra, the mystery of a stone that can help a man change is his appearance. (Warning! Spoiler alert) Indra, sensibly, refuses to believe him, but Gautama eggs him on and dares him to try the powers of the stone. And that’s how our lady gets pimped out, this time by her own husband. For his sins, it’s Indra who gets punished and is turned into a miniature stone doll – one of Gautom’s artistic creations. Turns out he is not the first, remember the missing male model? As the film ends, and our pretty lady is prancing again in a carelessly attractive way, you know he is not going to be the last.

The movie is a great work of cinematography, and has some brilliant acting. Being set in my home town, I can ‘see’ it even more. It all added up to make me even more angry. This time, for poor Indra. The husband-wife are a pair of complete scamsters! I liked the modern-day Gautama even lesser than the righteous ascetic version from the epics.

I have been living with the rage and confusion for a couple of weeks now. I read a few other versions of the text which only added to my questions. What was the truth? Why did Ahalya suffer so? What should she have done? Was Ahalya in the wrong?

I had all but given up when I stumbled onto Volga’s The Liberation of Sita. A young Sita converses with Ahalya and hesitantly asks whether Ahalya knew about the truth behind her lover’s identity. Ahalya answers, ‘each one to their own truth. Does anyone in this world have the power to decide between truth and untruth?’ She goes onto say that all men are alike, which an innocent Sita defends, saying her Rama will enquire into truth and untruth. Ahalya questions her, “what does conducting an enquiry imply, Sita? Distrust, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be better, instead, to believe in either your innocence or guilt?’ Ahalya goes onto clarify that if she accepts she made a mistake (by sleeping with Indra), people can perhaps forgive her. If she instead claims victimhood, she can become an object of pity. It is only when she refuses to let others judge her, right or wrong, is when people are unable to tolerate her. She exhorts, ‘Never agree to a trial, Sita. Don’t bow down to authority.’

To those who know Sita’s story, you can guess that these words would come back to haunt her. Words that help me sleep easy though. I am no longer worried about Ahalya. She doesn’t need my rage. She’s pretty sorted.

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