by Sanchari Sur

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Hiding in Plain Sight


The man wore his peach sari with grace, the gold sequins embroidered along its train catching the overhead lights as he moved across the stage. The wig cradled his head in its soft, dark mass, as the synthetic hair ran down to his hips. He was Durga, the warrior goddess, out to vanquish the demon, Mahishasur. Everyone watching him play Durga believed that he would succeed. It was a matter of time. And as the dholak player beat onto his instrument with gusto, and Durga’s eyes widened with rage in wait for Mahishasur, the audience too leaned in with anticipation.


I have always been fascinated with jatra. Bengali street theater. There is something immediate about the hot, bright lights. The straight men dressed as kings and queens, demons and goddesses, their slim bodies lithe in their gaudy make-up, the synthetic wigs, the flashy costumes. There is something about the way they played their female counterparts that has always attracted me. There is an ease in the way they slipped into their roles, their temporary guises, hiding in plain sight. I have often wondered how that feels, hiding in plain sight. Hiding. On purpose.  And not being judged. 


I saw my first jatra performance at three. We lived in Calcutta then. When was this – 1988/89? We lived in an apartment in South Calcutta, not far from the railway station, and the slum that lined the rail lines. There was a jatra troupe in my neighbourhood, and they set up shop just a few steps away from the entrance to our apartment building. The voices of the actors drifted over a loudspeaker, the lights holding fascination for me, from what I could glimpse from the bars of our balcony. I wanted to go closer, to see why there was a crowd around the glow, to see what the fuss was about. 


Ma and Baba didn’t think it was a place for their three year old. 


The audience was made up of the people from the nearby slum, the maid servants from the neighbouring buildings, and the drivers who drove cars of the same people who lived in those buildings. Even the security guard of our apartment had abandoned his post for some time and joined in. 


Perhaps, it was no place for me. But I knew if I cried enough, I could have my way. And since I was still their only child then, they let me go with our maid. For ten minutes only, they said. 


And I? I was mesmerized. 


The man playing Mahishasur was in a mask; a painted green face with red rimmed eyes, flaring nostrils, and bared teeth. A bush of messy black hair framed the terrifying face. On his head was a fitted crescent crown, making his head seem much larger than it was. He jumped and leaped around Durga, taunting her. The beat of the dholak slowed and quickened in tune to his movements. The demon dodged the trident Durga pointed at him, its sharp tips missing him by inches each time. 


The stories played in jatras are known ones. Stories taken from Hindu mythologies. Stories of kings and queens, of gods and demons, of good vanquishing evil. The most common story is of goddess Durga slaying the demon Mahishasur. 


In the legend of Mahalaya, Mahishasur is a master of disguises. A shape-shifting demon. He uses his masks to escape each time. But he is no match for goddess Durga. Nobody is. She strips him of his many camouflages, seeing him for who he is. It is she who finally slays him, the master impersonator.


Ask any Hindu Bengali about the story, and they will wax poetic about Durga’s visit to her earthly abode for the ten day festival each year. Ten days of celebrating goddess Durga’s victory over Mahishasur’s defeat, where she slays him again and again, with her gleaming trident. A victory, ad infinitum. 


In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes, “There is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently.” He is looking at a photo of his mother, as he writes this. In this photo, his mother is a little girl, and as he stares at the photo, time collapses for him. He realizes that his mother is both the little girl as well as the woman who recently passed away. In this collapsing of time, he is unable to reconcile himself to the woman he knew, and the girl who exists in the photo. In this collapsing of time, the familiar becomes unfamiliar. In this collapsing of time, Barthes is stupefied.


I wonder if Durga too was stupefied each time she saw Mahishasur in a different disguise. How did she learn to unmask him each time? How did she manage to see him through her stupefactions? How did she know to slay him, and him alone?


All my life I thought I wanted to play a role. Put on make-up, a costume, pass as someone I wasn’t. I failed to realize I was already playing parts. The role of a woman in the body of a woman. The role of a woman who is only attracted to men. The role of a woman who can only love one person at one time.


I want to find a way to slay my inner mahishasurs, to remove my many masks, to stop being stupefied. 


I am tired. Of hiding in plain sight.

SANCHARI SUR is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Their writing can be found in Joyland, Al Jazeera, Toronto Book Award Shortlisted The Unpublished City (Book*hug, 2017), Room, Prism International, EVENT, Quill & Quire, and elsewhere. They are a recipient of a 2018 Lambda Literary Fellowship in fiction, a 2019 Banff residency (with Electric Literature), and Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2020 Critics’ Desk Award for a Feature Review.

Photos Courtesy of Sanchari Sur.

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