The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
Mythological Art and the Creation of Sacred Narratives

As a child, I was told stories such "lying down and eating will make your food go into the donkey's stomach" or "if you swallow a watermelon seed, a watermelon tree will grow inside you". There I was, sitting upright, imagining a miniature donkey drool in hunger.
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By Waylon D’Mello, Issue 8, Mythological Art, April 2012
The following is an imagination of a story that surrounds  photographer Tejal Shah's Waiting I & II series, written as if the subject of the photographs was the Mahabharta's Arjuna / Brihannala.

Arjuna, son of Indra of covered in vaginas fame, waits for when he too will be regendered.

So great is the son of Indra that he can traverse the heavenly realm even in his mortal form. On one such traipse into the heavens the libidinous apsara prima nachni in Indra's court and daughter of the primordial sage Nara, Urvashi, drunk on Arjuna's masculine prowess declares her desire to raise his shaft of kama. The warrior of profound dharmic legend is horrified at the thought of sleeping with a woman who had already bedded one of his ancestors and so deflects her advances, not without difficulty. The dejected apsara curses Arjuna's masculinity: he will live out the rest of his life as a eunuch.

But who are we kidding? This is Indra's son. Daddy, unable to completely erase the apsara's curse but still able to wield some power as God of gods makes it so Arjuna will only spend the last of his 14 years in exile as a woman. Now, Arjuna waits.

Timely after sunset on the last night of his 13th year in exile, his uncle Ashvin appears in the twilight sky. In a few hours, Urvashi will appear and begin the procedure with her celestial scalpel. Arjuna decides to call his-herself Brihannala, meaning 'large reed' or 'having a reed', in an attempt to invoke her previous gender. The euphemism for his manly assembly itself being a comforting secret. Upon Krishna's suggestion, Brihannala and her brothers would live incognito in King Virata's court with the former serving as instructress of the arts to princess Uttara. He recites “Asato ma sadgamaya, tamaso ma jyotrgamaya, mrtyoma amrtam gamaya,' to prepare his mind, body and soul for this transformation. All Arjuna can do is stare at the pink walls of the parlor.

Without warning, there is a blinding flash of light. Arjuna's vision turns black, green and purple like a film negative as he notices two figures emerge. It must be Urvashi, at last, he thinks. But who has he brought with her? As if the apsara was listening in on his personal dialogue, she announces herself and the documenter Tejal whom she has brought with her to immortalise his liminality in a picture.

Tejal instructs Arjuna to disrobe and stand against the pink wall on the far side of the room. Urvashi looks on from the distance as Tejal unfolds a three-legged stand and proceeds to mount an immortaliser onto it. Arjuna continues to chant, 'lead me from the asat to the sat (existence, reality, truth), lead me from darkness to light, lead me from death to immortality.' Urvashi is unperturbed by the fear in Arjuna's voice.

He begins to disrobe and immediately feels a rush of blood run through his assembly as it begins to harden. In spite of his devotion and penance, he had spent narcissistic hours developing his archer's build. He didn't aspire to the burly stature of his brother Bhima, but instead was content with a lean frame, a muscle-incised trunk, rippling between the shoulder blades and forearms and biceps the girth of a fully developed birch, ready to string and release arrows at lightening speed. She tugs at the piece of fabric fastening her dhoti and takes one last glance at her torso. Her hands seem no smaller than they used to be but the gesture in her wrist and fingers already seem changed. The gold kadas around her wrists hang loosely still. As the fabric unfurls at her waist, her shoulders narrow and thighs shrink. Her assembly is no longer stiff and the muscles in her stomach give way to a malnutritioned bump beginning at her solar plexus, triangulating towards her hips and reflecting down to her loins.
Urvashi, already late for her matinee performance chez Indra, impatiently orders Brihannala to remove the loincloth that obscures her gender. She coyly hooks her thumbs into the space between her soft skin and the fabric and gently pulls downward. Urvashi is satisfied with the transformation and unceremoniously exits the mortal realm. The documenter and subject are left alone. The transformation is complete but Brihannala is still anxious about her time in front of the immortaliser.

The documenter is the first to break the ice, “You should be glad she stopped at one vagina. Your father wasn't as lucky.” Tejal takes Brihannala's hand and guides her to stand back against the pink wall in front of the immortaliser. She stands there with her hand clasping one wrist behind her back and her legs crossed to obscure the space where her assembly used to be. As she walks to her place behind the contraption she continues, “He had had his eye on the powerful sage Gautama's wife for a long time and even disguised himself as Gautama to get into her pants. To his bad luck, Gautama finished his ablutions a little earlier that day and returned to find your daddy, Indra all over his wife like sticky rice.”

Brihannala was still rigid with embarrassment. Even more now that the image of her father sexing Ahalya had entered her memory. Tejal focused the immortaliser on her subject, carefully leaving out the head. These images that would go into the Vishvakoshah Bhagavat Atikrama or Encyclopedia of Heavenly Transgressions were meant to document not ridicule and therefore including the face was unnecessary.

"Of course Gautama was livid! He turned Ahalya to stone and cursed Indra to be afflicted with vaginas all over his body". Brihannala's shoulders slack and her waist cocks as she relaxes at the image of her father blanketed in ladyparts. The immortaliser clicks. Tejal looks up from the viewfinder and reaches into her pocket and produces a candid photograph of Indra trying to obscure the many renderings of female genitalia that cover his bare torso and arms. She hands it over to Brihannala for a quick look-see. The two ladies giggle together, easing the tension suspended in the room. Tejal retrieves the photo and moves back to the immortaliser.

By now Brihannala has shed her embarrassment and confronts the immortaliser. She stands comfortably with her buttocks pressed against the cool wall, her hands hanging loosely by her side. She trusts the operator of the immortaliser and opens her legs to lay bare the space between her loins. The immortaliser clicks once more. But the waiting has still not ended.

Brihannala bids farewell to the documenter. The rush of transformation is wearing off and her body begins to feel normal, heavy. Tomorrow she will begin her journey to Virata's court where she will instruct princess Uttara in dance and music. Though she waits, she is no longer anxious about assuming her new identity. She falls asleep with one hand snuggled under her pillow of goosefeathers and the other nestled between her legs.

Waylon D'Mello is a writer breathing-in Pune.

Tejal Shah was born in 1979 and lives and works in Mumbai.

Also in this issue

  • World’s Away.
    At heart, the circus is a place of stories – of travel and ragtag nomadic flights, of carnivalesque joy and careful performance, of sad/smiling faces and masks, masks, masks.
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  • Real Myth.
    I feel the subconscious is aware of, and holds, deeper truths to life and existence that are not always physical but exist nonetheless deep beneath our social obligations and reflections.
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  • Wait and Lightness.
    The flow of the action emphasises abbreviated story elements and acting rather than a linear plot with beginning, middle, and end. A one-act Sanskrit drama which takes half an hour to read takes many
    Read More

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.