An Instructive Tale of a Girl and Her Goddess
This piece was submitted by Vikas K. Menon as part of the 2015 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Vikas K. Menon’s event: Priya’s Shakti: Augmented Reality Comic Book and Exhibition
A One-Act Play
GIRL Fiercely aggressive. South Asian or person of color.
MOTHER-IN-LAW Brutal and unforgiving. South Asian or person of color.
GODDESS Female, pampered, at times haughty. South Asian or person of color.
THIEF ONE Male, 20-40, venal, courtly yet savage.
THIEF TWO Male, 20-40, Thief One’s partner in crime.
This play is based on a Telugu folk tale translated by A.K Ramanujan (Folktales from India, Oral Tales from Twenty Indian Languages. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.) While the frame story comes from South Asian culture, and so the names, gestures, and cultural references of the characters are South Asian, there is no need for the set itself to reflect any South Asian motifs.
(Lights up on GIRL in a torn sari sleeping in a kitchen. MOTHER-IN-LAW enters.)
MOTHER-IN-LAW: Useless girl. (MOTHER-IN-LAW strikes GIRL brutally with a ladle several times.) Girl, wake up! Lazy! Useless! Why my son had the misfortune of marrying you I’ll never know. What did I do to deserve this? Get to work!
(GIRL gingerly begins to chop, cut, and cook.)
MOTHER-IN-LAW: (Busies herself. Muttering about her daughter-in-law.) Your husband returns tomorrow and you sleep as if you had all the time in the world. I must go out. And eat none of this―otherwise you will grow fatter and even more useless!
(Lights dim to evening. MOTHER-IN-LAW returns.)
GIRL: Mother-in-Law, I have not eaten . . .
MOTHER-IN-LAW: And what of it? There is the rice from yesterday . . .
GIRL: It’s stale.
MOTHER-IN-LAW: Stale! What, have you become a queen? You will eat what we give you. It’s stale is it? Well then, I will throw it out. (MOTHER-IN-LAW does so.) I am going. Do NOT touch the food, or you will get a beating you will never forget. And don’t forget to do puja for Bhagavati. If you forget, you will bring even more misfortune to this home.
(GIRL prepares a plate of food for GODDESS. GODDESS in next room, frozen into a pose.
GODDESS watches GIRL as she comes in, shuts the door, and prepares for GIRL’s devotion.
Instead, GIRL sits and begins to eat the food meant to be offered to GODDESS, her hands flying to her mouth, furiously, ravenously, grotesquely, messily. She burps loudly.
GODDESS’s eyes open in surprise, and prissily, with a choked exclamation, GODDESS covers her mouth and freezes into this new pose.)
GIRL: (Realizes what has happened. GIRL falls in front of GODDESS.) Turn back the way you were. Please. (No response. GIRL rises. GIRL reaches out gingerly and touches GODDESS. GIRL withdraws her hand as if burned. GIRL reaches out again.) Please. I just wanted to eat! (Silence.) Damn you! This is what I get for simply filling my belly. I’ve eaten nothing but stale rice for the past three days! Enough of this. (GIRL runs out and begins packing a cloth bag with foodstuffs.) Mother-in-Law! Croneold toothless hag, skinhanger—she can have her beloved son back. If I can shock Bhagavati, I can do anything. Anything.
GODDESS: They will find you.
GIRL: (Startled for a moment. Gathers herself.) They will not.
GODDESS: If you take me, I will help you. (Pause.) You think I like it here? With that old hypocrite, wheedling, pleading— (GODDESS mimics MOTHER-IN-LAW’s prayers.) M-A-A, M-A-A. Like a goat.
GIRL: (Laughing) She even has the whiskers. (GIRL stops laughing abruptly. Long pause.) You have done nothing for me. My—husband—if that’s what I must call him, he takes what he wants and goes back to sleep. Dog. And his mother you know all too well. And you? When, tell me, when did you ever help me?
GODDESS: But I’m just one part of Her, one cell of skin in this divine world. I am not all of Her. You must help yourself.
GIRL: Of what use are you if you choose not to hear my prayers?
GODDESS: (Insincerely) Maybe you didn’t truly believe. In any event, you must leave soon before Queen Bitch returns. I know where you must go. Take me.
GODDESS: I will show you the way. Do you have even a cent to your name? What will you barter with?
GIRL: Give me money—you should have enough in that damn belly of yours—
GODDESS: A goddess doesn’t carry cash. (Pause.) You need me. And—you must carry me.
GODDESS: Look at me? I’m a statue. I can’t walk.
GIRL: Unbelievable! First I was dependent on a blind cock and his mother hen, and now a—goddess who can talk but not walk, without even a horse, cow, or elephant to ride. No mount, no gold, nothing. (GIRL turns around. GODDESS leaps onto her back and they exit the house.) What paltry divinity!
(GIRL is struggling through the forest with GODDESS on her back. The burden of GODDESS affects the delivery of GIRL’s lines.)
GODDESS: You are a rough mount.
GIRL: My god—
GIRL: How you whine. Are all of you like this?
GODDESS: Many names. I have many names.
GIRL: I give you more: backbreaker, spinescracker, neckwrencher—
GODDESS: Your mouth is mean.
GIRL: A barbedblade, yes—it’s whetstone my wit. What else do I have?
GODDESS: You are blessed by me, and therefore a child of God.
GIRL: Pah! Hag! It’s ridiculous that I carry you like this. I should have worshipped Krishna, handsome, skin indigo and ready for anything—
GODDESS: Ha! That’s a joke—he would’ve used you and thrown you away like he did Radha.
GIRL: Or fallen at Shiva’s feet—
GODDESS: Please, he stinks of corpses. And you know he beheaded his own son, right?
GIRL: Or breathe with the silent one, that Buddha—
GODDESS: How can you worship an atheist?
GIRL: Or follow that wandering one, Christ—
GODDESS: If you like that long haired, hippie type. Go to Goa.
GIRL: Or sing with the mosque’s melody . . .
GODDESS: You could worship a god without an image?
GIRL: Or the gentle Jains—
GODDESS: And harm not even a mosquito?
(GIRL slaps at her skin. Looks back at GODDESS.)
GIRL: That was your doing, wasn’t it. A little parlor trick for a goddess. Do they train all of you in that? Did you study that in divinity school? (They struggle up a slope.) Can you at least try to use those legs of yours? (GODDESS lowers her legs and they stumble about like some four-legged monster. Finally, finding it easier, GIRL drags her legs back up.) Worthless, all of you: see? Divinity equals baby. Big babies. Big goddess babies.
GODDESS: I am worth more to you than you realize.
GIRL: If you were gold or even silver, that would be a different matter. Easily converted to a hard currency—a metal at my beck and call—a metal I could sell—
GODDESS: I am worthy far more than any precious metal.
GIRL: Money here, money there, for this and that, for the temple bell for the priest’s new shirt. Did I not feed you each and every night?
GIRL: Bathed and clothed, swaddled and suckled you?
GODDESS: Suckled—now that’s too much—
GIRL: What reparation, what recompense, what payment do you give in return?
GIRL: You can’t even say it. Your tongue stumbles over its own lie.
GODDESS: Can’t you use that mouth to create something beautiful?
GIRL: Beautiful? OK: Your unbelieving tongue rends the last of my believing. You are of the divine that is not divine, antidivinity—
GODDESS: But your words are harsh. Might I even say—ungracious? My love is hard, child.
GIRL: Soulcanker, priestwanker—
GODDESS: As I said I am just one part of Her which is one part of you: when you attack me, you attack yourself. (GIRL drops GODDESS to the ground. GIRL slaps her.)
GIRL: I feel no blood on my cheek— (GIRL slaps GODDESS again.) No gasp escapes my lips— (GIRL strikes GODDESS again.) Nothing.
GODDESS: Literalist. (GODDESS sneezes and GIRL doubles up in pain. GODDESS turns to the audience and winks. GIRL begins to retch, on her knees vomiting.) Well, well. (Mocking GIRL) Dawnsickness! Soon your will belly swell!
GIRL: Such prophetic tongue. Tell me something else. Something I don’t know. (GODDESS remains silent.) Isn’t each little cell of me part of you? Each and every part of the world is divine, is it not? Even my husband—certainly his dick wasn’t divine—
GODDESS: I am not responsible for your other half’s lust.
GIRL: You were his lust and his fists and his mother bitch too. I was never twain, nor two, but one—
GODDESS: And I am many—and none. And few.
GIRL: Many and none, few and some—you sound like a child. OK, so you are many—each my enemy. And some—of worth none.
GODDESS: As you wish. I tire of this game. Look—
(They watch THIEF ONE and THIEF TWO, in suits, shake hands and sit under a tree. They open their briefcases. They pull out their spoils and begin splitting the take.)
THIEF ONE: Some nice jack, here brother.
THIEF TWO: Not bad, not bad at all.
GODDESS: Now that is what you need.
GIRL: I will say yes to you—this once. What should I do?
GODDESS: This is your story, not mine.
GIRL: It is yours too, according to your illogic!
GODDESS: Your mouth is sharp. Use it for more than words.
(Lights up on GIRL and THIEF ONE and TWO in same positions as before. GODDESS has disappeared.)
THIEF ONE: This will buy us more than we need, brother.
THIEF TWO: Sweet excess! The unnecessary, overflowing—
THIEF ONE: —and overstuffed with no thought of the Spartan. You are overripe, my brother. In a word: fat, frankly, and I think beginning to rot . . .
THIEF TWO: I lead the rich man’s life. My stomach attests. I profess my gait is elephantine because of my gun— (Grabs crotch.) My sweet gun.
THIEF ONE: Do you ever shut up about your cock?
THIEF TWO: Of it I never tire. But this of course (grabbing crotch again) is material whose worth is immaterial . . .
THIEF ONE: Do you ever tire of hearing your own voice?
THIEF TWO: Never.
(GIRL steps into their scene.)
THIEF ONE: Well sweet talk It over there—
THIEF TWO: Well, well, it what It do we have here? My dear, at your service, if you will be at mine?
GIRL: I am neither wench nor lady, so I shall not serve or be served.
THIEF ONE: God, another logorrheoic. You can have It, brother.
GIRL: Must we have an audience?
THIEF TWO: Give us space to breathe, brother. (THIEF ONE exits.) Well, well, the gods have blessed me with a toy.
GIRL: You are an object to me, and I to you—
THIEF TWO: It should not speak. It is unbecoming.
GIRL: If an “it” cannot be heard, how is it you hear me?
THIEF TWO: There is a four letter word I am thinking of, and it is not what we are doing now—
GIRL: Listen to me and you will hear the future.
THIEF TWO: In the future are my moans, certainly, and your screams.
GIRL: You will hear what you want to hear.
THIEF TWO: (To audience) It is a tasty morsel, is it not? Shall I partake?
GIRL: Partake or rape?
THIEF TWO: Rape so grates against the grain of my tongue—I prefer ravish—
GIRL: (To audience) —a flower by any other name—
THIEF TWO: Ripe for the plucking. May I offer it a gift? (THIEF TWO holds out a necklace. GIRL turns around. THIEF TWO gently places it around her neck, and fondles her. When she pulls away, he begins to choke her with it and drag her down.)
GIRL: (Gasping) Wait, wait. Let me serve you first, as your wealth deserves.
THIEF TWO: Such a sudden change of heart, just like a woman: It deserves to serve.
GIRL: (To audience) I refuse his taste. Betel leaf will sweeten the blood. (To THIEF TWO) Sit, sit. Let me prepare some paan for you. (GIRL prepares the paan as THIEF TWO lolls against the tree. GIRL coquettishly places it in his mouth and watches as he chews. She leans into him, slowly, and initiates a kiss. He leers at her, spits out the paan. She nudges his mouth wider and their tongues intertwine.
She pulls back teasingly, and then leans into him again. She pulls her head up, bringing him up with her, and then she takes full grip of his tongue, dragging him up as she shakes her head violently in his mouth and he struggles against her.
They wrestle, with her clamped onto his mouth. She bites and tears out his tongue, spits it out onto the ground. Released, blood pours out of his mouth, his screams hoarse and guttural.)
GIRL: Did I ravish or rape? O, how sweetly you once spoke.
(THIEF TWO crawls offstage mewling, leaving a trail of blood. GIRL hastily collects the gold and jewels, places them in the briefcase. She pauses and picks up THIEF TWO’s tongue, puts it in the briefcase, and shuts it.)
(GIRL rocks herself in front of the fire.)
GIRL: I cannot eat. I cannot sleep. I feel that thing in my mouth, what I stole from him, he who deserves no mercy. Weakwilled weakened. And the goddess, she who conveniently disappears. I am again alone. Worthless bitch.
GODDESS: (Offstage) I can hear you!
(GIRL rocks herself in front of the fire. GIRL keeps spitting.)
GIRL: I can taste him. Still. (GODDESS appears and sits beside her. Long silence.) I thought you couldn’t walk?
GODDESS: I lied.
GIRL: Yes. You lied. You always lie.
GODDESS: You got your money, did you not? Quite creatively, I might add.
GIRL: Was it your tongue I severed? I wish it were.
GODDESS: I am neither thief nor rapist.
GIRL: How can you not be?
GODDESS: You misunderstand, you are a cell of me. I am a cell of another. Whatever you accuse me of rebounds to yourself.
GIRL: How could … he and I be alike?
GODDESS: You both tried to take what you wanted—
GIRL: And I had a choice?
GODDESS: It is not about choice. It is that we all share of both. (GODDESS keeps talking but we can’t hear her. GIRL listens.)
GIRL: (To audience) Her theology does not console. And so is of no use. (To GODDESS) And so I must accept this?
GODDESS: You must accept nothing. But if you want peace of mind—
GIRL: (To audience) This is what I have been given, by whom it no longer matters. (To GODDESS) I will live to serve, then. Let me serve you, my liege, my lord, my lovebump. (The same coquettishness as with THIEF.) My girl, my boy, my child, my mother.
GODDESS: Ahh, you have come to your senses. (She lolls in GIRL’s devotional ardor. GIRL pulls tongue out of the briefcase, and prepares it, and roasts it over the fire.) And what, my little devotee, my sweet pet, my munchkin, my catnip—what is it you are cooking?
GIRL: A surprise. (GIRL pulls out the tongue that has been roasting on the fire. Places it on a plate, garnishes it. She serves GODDESS. As GODDESS tears into the tongue, GIRL watches impassively.) Pickle? (GODDESS continues to eat, swallowing with relish. She finishes, licking her lips, and settles back. Then she begins to groan, clutching her stomach.)
GODDESS: O— (Pause.) What have you fed me? (GODDESS is bent over in pain.)
GIRL: Just another piece of you.
(GODDESS writhes and retches, the sounds of her retching mixing into thunder and cracks of lightning. Winds rise into monsoon fury. GIRL walks offstage with the GODDESS still vomiting storm after storm.