KALI and the Age of Destruction

by Emily Hennessey, November 2016
Written for Storylines Magazine


In the beginning, there was nothing.

Nothing at all. I knew the ending, but not how to get there. I phoned my friend and storytelling guru, Vayu Naidu. “Kali finally appears,” I said, “wild, naked, riding the tiger, dancing on Shiva’s chest. Here it ends. But where does it begin?”

Ever patient and ever generous with her vast knowledge, Vayu explained “it doesn’t end with Kali. It begins with Kali.”

In the beginning there was nothing.

And then She awoke. She breathed the first breath and there was life. 

I love these Hindu myths. I find them deeply fascinating, moving and mysterious. But the world they are from is very different to the world that I and many of my audiences inhabit. How do I connect? Can these stories be relevant in our world today?

A few years ago I found myself in a group of wetsuits. Like clumsy, upright otters we slipped off the boat into the vastness of the open Pacific ocean. A huge pod of dolphins were leaping towards us and I was suddenly filled with fear. This was their territory, not mine. I wanted to get out. But then a dolphin circled me, catching my eye, grinning, splashing, teasing me, wanting to play. I was out of my depth, in a world that was not my own. But we played.

The dice is rolled. Each side represents an Age. They say that this is Kali’s time, the Age of Destruction, a time of darkness and disintegration when the world is destroyed in order for Creation to begin again. More and more these days, this feels apt. In the ego-driven, hate-fuelled, power-hungry red-face of the demon king, Raktabija, I see another – slightly more orange-faced but equally dangerous – leader. These stories speak to us in the here and now, urgently demanding to be heard, demanding a response, demanding that we ourselves ride the tiger and face the demons of our reality.

At Kalighat Temple in Kolkata bells ring, cymbals clash, priests chant and devotees offer red hibiscus flowers to the goddess. A goat is sacrificed. Blood spills across the hot ground.

“We tell lies in order to tell the truth” says Ben Haggarty. In his studio we battle with every story, he challenging me to find the truth in each moment.

“But what is truth?” a young man asked Krishna. 

“Come with me” replied Krishna, and they stepped into the forest. 

I join the throngs, a slow moving river, down the narrow streets lined with chai stops, sweet shops and endless trinket stalls selling glittery bangles and bright Kali pendants.There are flower sellers and goat carcasses side by side. We spill into the temple complex. We take off our sandals. After all, we must surrender our place. We must all walk the same earth. A sign reads ‘Do NOT Leave Shoes Here.’ We add our sandals to the hundreds of neatly placed shoes under the sign. It is guaranteed that anywhere across India where you see this sign, there will be shoes beneath it.

“It’s hot. You must be thirsty” said Krishna. “Go to the river, bathe and drink. But before you do, bring me some water.” The young man reached the river. Forgetting his promise, he leapt straight into the cool water. Emerging from the water, he was shocked to see his body had suddenly become smooth and curved. He had become She. She ran through the forest to find Krishna. But on her way she met a handsome man. “You are so beautiful,” he told her. Flattered, she followed him home and there she stayed. They built a happy life and had three children. But a terrible disease swept through the forest, and one day she awoke to find her husband and children were dead. Distraught, she carried their beloved bodies outside and prepared a funeral pyre. She was about to light the fire when she spotted a gleaming, golden mango in the branches of a tree. Her mouth watered but she couldn’t reach it. And so she climbed up on the bodies of her husband and children to pluck the beautiful fruit. She was about bite when an old sage appeared. “You have touched the dead,” he said. “You must wash before you eat.” 

She bathed in the river. Emerging from the water, she was shocked to see her body had transformed. She had become He once again. Where the old sage had been, Krishna was now standing. 

“You asked me about truth. To know truth we must know illusion” he said. “You have seen illusion for yourself. It was there when you forgot to bring me water. It was there in your husband’s flattery. It was there in your love for your family. It was there in your desire for the mango. See how it controlled you. See how it made you forget. See how it pulled you from the truth,”

“Yes, I see” said the young man. “But tell me now, what is truth?” 

Krishna shrugged, smiled and took the mango from the young man’s hand. He bit into it and the sweet juice tricked down his chin.

“This mango is delicious” he said.

In working with these stories, I’m learning that just like those dolphins, stories want to play, to look us in the eye and laugh and tease and spin us around, turning us upside-down. I’m learning to play in order to connect, to break the rules, inhabit the forbidden places and to go in too deep in order to emerge changed. As for Kali, she herself will keep dancing her dance of destruction. And as for the difference between truth and illusion? Taste the mango. You decide.