Sunday, June 30, 2013

Apsaras and devatas

Bronze apsara
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013

In May 2013, Spinifex published Judy Foster's Invisible Women of Prehistory. The thing about a book like that is that it makes you see the world differently. I have been visiting archaeological sites since 1976, looking at marks in stones, checking the positioning of sites important to women, reading the mythologies behind them and generally keeping my eyes and my mind open.

In late May I visited Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. I had heard about the size of Angkor Wat, I'd heard that there were numerous temples to visit, I heard there were inscriptions. What I hadn't heard about was the huge number of female bas reliefs carved on the walls of temples. I'm not here talking about dozens of female carvings, or even hundreds. There are thousands of them here. Why is this not mentioned in the guide books?

Apsara, Bantei Srei
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013
 Apsara, Bantei Srei
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013

The standard guide books include a few mentions and a few images, but one day I just stood in the blazing sun, overwhelmed by the apsaras in front of me. Most of the figurines are either apsaras or devatas. Apsaras are dancing figures, their legs bent, their arms spread, their hands in a range of positions full of meaning for those who know the secrets of the sacred dances. In English apsaras are sometimes referred to as angels, but my suspicion is that apsaras play a much more important function in the religious pantheon on display in these temples.

Three devatas, Angkor Wat
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013
Fifteen devatas in a corner, Angkor Wat
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013
Devata, Bantei Srei
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013

The word devata means simply a female divinity or goddess. Devatas are divine figures, goddesses. The Cambodian religious world is filled with the names of the Hindu gods and goddesses but only a few of the devatas are given names. There is 
Lakshmi, Durga, Sita, Parvati. And I saw just one reference to Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of writing and knowledge.

Leaves, Sambhor Prei Kuk
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013
By contrast, the male gods are named on almost every occasion. The lingam (a phallus, as every guide will tell you) is pointed to and discussed while the yoni (the vulva) is ignored in spite of vulva images being carved into many places. The vulva is called a leaf, a lotus, and while this is so, the lingam is referred to, visits are made to it, guide books tell you how to visit these shrines.

In 2004, Giti Thadani's book Moebius Trip was published. In it she writes about the destruction of the archaeological sites that are important to women. She writes about how they are destroyed through neglect, how the breasts of statues are damaged and destroyed, how lingams are inserted into places where the yoni had previously been important.

Women are becoming a people without culture. Our historic and prehistoric cultures are under threat, not only from the ravages of war or the passage of time, but by ignorance. Some of this ignorance is caused by guides not being taught to see what is there right in front of them. In the Museum in Siem Reap, the final exhibition space is devoted to āpsaras. It is the only room in the museum to lack signage and a dead screen and no buttons to play videos explaining the history, the symbolism, the importance of these carved figures.

The temple called Bantei Srei is a beautiful temple with extraordinary delicate stone carvings. Bantei Srei is translated as 'the city of women'. In Sanskrit, srii denotes wise woman, someone who understands spiritual knowledge, a sage or a sibyl, a woman of high status. At Bantei Srei there are plenty of devatās, some even named, but what I hear the guide say is that this is a mistranslation, what it really means is that this is a temple to Shiva. So even when women get a guernsey, it is denied.

The word 'apsara comes from ap from water plus srii. It occurs to me that perhaps the apsaras were created at the origins of the world, when the milk was churned (I explore this story in my poetry collection Cow) or are they perhaps the memory of the originating goddess, Aap who came before everything else. The fragmented body of Aap? As Mary Daly pointed out in Gyn/Ecology, the killing of the goddess, the dismemberment of her body is part of the process of dismembering the body of women, the memory of women, of fragmenting meaning and losing history. Feminists have been reclaiming this history over many decades and against many odds, including the impossibility of carrying out research and having that research published. Academic forums are not open to these ideas, indeed they have been suppressed. Perhaps now is the time to refresh our memories, to complain about misinformation and neglect.

While I was in Cambodia I found a book by Trudy Jacobsen called Lost Goddesses. It becomes clear when reading this book that there has been a massive shift in Cambodian history in how women are perceived and treated. In the earliest periods for which there is historical evidence women’s power is connected to land. It is they who have a say in how the social matrix works. As power becomes centralised one sees for a while queens being recorded and having significant power in the upper echelons of society. By around the time of Angkor Wat, kings have begun to marry many women, thereby having access to more land. By quid pro quo the families of the women gain some privileges. By several centuries later, around 1400 CE, women have become commodities to trade. Their power has all but vanished and is remembered only in this skeleton way through trade in women. In a relatively short period in Cambodia one can see the demise and diminution of women. That so many female figures are found in the Cambodian temples does reflect their historical position. By now, they are simply carvings and the central temples have been passed over to Buddhism.

Two devatas, Ta Prom
Photo: © Susan Hawthorne, 2013

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Friends at the wrong time

The ones who betray trust, neglect 
nature’s love, that special bond … 
those traitors are eternally devoured.
–Dante, Inferno XII: 61-66 (paraphrased) 

I no longer know what is true. Is memory just an empty space we fill with longing? I don’t know who is hurt most. Who the betrayer; who the betrayed?

I am eighteen.

It’s my first day at teachers college. She is like a queen bee. Her adorers hover. I hear her laugh and I watch as all the others look at her, smile, laugh at her joke.

I can’t tell you her name, but let’s call her Monica. It’s not that I don’t remember, but she might.

I am not a person who finds it easy to make friends. I suspect that my rural upbringing has something to do with this. We didn’t have much of a social life out on the farm. A few cousins. But until school started, it was just me and my siblings, a sister and a brother.

But sometimes I meet someone and I know immediately that I want to be friends. Mostly, they are Leos.

And Monica is just that. A Leo. She could have had a life on stage. We are all drawn to her.

I am standing at the railing of the verandah of the hostel in the hand-sewn dress my mother has had made for me. It is 1970 and the dress is white, navy and bright green stripes. It’s a nice pattern and suits me in a slightly over-dressed way. But I don’t yet have the regulation jeans and yellow T-shirt that I’ll wear once I settle in to student life.

I think it was proximity that fostered our friendship.

I am sharing a room with two others, country girls from Gippsland. The last door I pass on the way to our shared room is hers.

I stop at Monica’s door. She is wearing a fantastic long dress for dinner on the first night. And I am in my hand-sewn white, navy and green cotton dress.

I say hello. After six years in boarding school I know that hello is important. She smiles and makes a joke and then says, Well, coming to dinner? So I walk down with her and we stand around on the verandah waiting for the six o’clock bell.

As we walk in, I miss the chance to sit next to her. Instead I am at a different table and can only watch her from a distance as she entertains all around her.

We are not in the same course. I’m Primary and she is specialising in Art for Secondary students. We meet only at meal times, but our proximity in the hostel means that we also meet in the corridor, in the shared bathroom, at her door. Slowly the friendship builds.

We go the local pub. It’s Thursday night, pay night on our studentships, the scholarship that gets us an education in return for a three-year work bond. Half of Melbourne is paid on Thursday nights. The pub is crowded. The lounge is large, filled with wooden tables and benches. The lounge bar is just a window, behind which is the bar where all the men congregate.

We women had not yet stormed the public bars, so we pay more for our drinks. The pub is only half a block’s walk from our bedrooms, and we are soon stumbling back. Instantly sobering as we walk in the front door and up the stairs. We fall on the bed in her room and laugh.

Thursday nights become a regular outing for us. I get drunk too often. Somehow we manage never to raise the ire of out hostel protectors. We are always quiet as we climb the stairs.

One night at the pub I meet a man. His name is Fotoski. I recognised his strange name as he had been a photographer on the snowfields in the mid 1960s. He took my photo for a weekly pass when I was fifteen.

I don’t recall how it happened but I finished up without Monica at the end of the night and instead Fotoski was saying that I should come with him. Naiveté perhaps. But I went. He drove me to a parking place. And then it’s blank, until I am crawling from the back of his truck and walking away in a state of confusion.

Where was Monica? Where did she go? What happened to her the night I was raped?

We did not speak of it. I never saw Fotoski again. I’ve wondered about all the photos he took. How many others did he rape on the snowfields and in the pubs?

Just as we had not yet stormed the bars, my own life was not yet touched by feminism. My most radical action in this my first year out of school was to attend the Moratorium marches. Vietnam was on my radar, and the bombing of Hiroshima. It was easy to be against war. The Women’s Liberation Movement was only a whisper in my life. The men I knew thought it was all about access.

Monica and I begin to go ice-skating once a week and we meet up with the boys who speed skate. Sometimes Monica and I dance together. We have little in common with these boys other than rebellion and our weekly skating.

Some months into the year, Monica is visiting her parents, going for the weekend and I go to parties. I’m soon in a relationship, not because I am in love, not because I am enthralled, but simply because I think that is what you do.

It’s mid-year and Monica has deadlines to meet and not enough time left. She is making a mobile with tiny pieces of copper. She is writing an essay on design due at 9 am. The artwork is due at the same time.

You can do it, she says.

I take the fishing line and the copper pieces to my room and begin. Before you tie it on, you can’t tell if it will balance. It’s guesswork and takes time. From midnight to 6 am I am tying, placing, balancing, retying, replacing, rebalancing until every piece is in position and it doesn’t hang more one way than the other.

Monica gets her work in on time and I stumble around the day.

Winter has come and I marvel at the glamour of Monica’s plastic maxi coat. It gleams as she strides by in her long boots.

I get up one morning and her hair has turned red. She’s impulsive and capricious. I am drawn to her and fascinated by what prompts her to do these things in the middle of the night.

I spend some weekends with my boyfriend. I’ve had enough of institutions for girls: from boarding school to this hostel where they are forever checking on you. I am escaping the routine and the rules. I’d rather spend weekends with Monica but she has other things going on.

My boyfriend, Eddie, has a friend, Terry, who runs a car yard. Terry likes to drink. He offers us whiskey. It would be sensible to refuse. But we are not in a mind to refuse. Refusal becomes less and less likely as the whiskeys are downed.

Eddie and I stagger home.

Another blank.

I am woken by someone turning on a light. I don’t know these people: a man and a woman. I get up and throw my dress over my head. We stand in the hallway and I say, I’ll get a taxi. What’s the address here? He tells me. Oh, I’m just in the wrong flat, I say and walk out the door across the way to Eddie’s flat. Eddie looks at me. And the others too. Where have you been? Oh, just next door.

It’s Monday and I’m back in the hostel at Monica’s door telling her how I climbed a balcony, went under the washing and lay down in the bed of the flat next door. I laugh. She glares at me. Worse. She stands up, directs me to the door. I turn to speak and she slams the door in my face.

I don't get it. I’m okay. No one raped me. I wasn’t hurt. Why isn’t she pleased to see me?

Silence. I now know the meaning of getting the cold shoulder.

I am hurt. But no one can tell me what is going on. Monica won’t tell me.

The year finishes and I leave Melbourne to get away from daily reminders.

I did not put myself in Monica’s shoes. My boyfriend had thought I’d been raped. He’d walked on the beach, called my name. It is hard to imagine all that going on when you are unconscious. He’d called Monica. She was the other side of town. I did not call her the following day. After all I’d be seeing her on Monday. I was fine. Everything was okay.

Monica vanishes from my life. Her course has finished. Our friendship has finished. But there is a great gaping hole.

I write her a letter over the summer holidays, send it to her parents’ address. No response. I return to Melbourne, move into a flat with friends. It’s not the first time I’ve had a friendship end, but the others have been about circumstance: leaving the farm; leaving school.

I turn around and there’s a space, a silence, unanswered questions.

I am in the Gas and Fuel Corporation showroom and I hear a voice. I turn, see her from the back and stand there listening to the sound of her speech. It resonates through me. It is like a lost sound. No mistaking her. I wait. I’ve waited five years, five minutes more won’t kill me.

Okay, she says to the man. Thanks for your help. In slow motion she moves her head like Janus. I can see two of her. Then she is looking at me.

Hello, I say. I heard your voice. I knew it was you.

Time is slowing down. Eventually, she smiles. I can’t be sure if it real.

And then we are talking as if no time at all had passed.

We agree to meet for dinner at her place in a week’s time. She is still calling the shots.

My feet do a little hop as I leave the Gas and Fuel Corporation showroom which I’d walked through as a shortcut.

When we meet the following week we have a lot of catching up to do. We talk of our lives. She is teaching. I am still a student having managed a scholarship to university. She seems weighed down by domesticity, her own. She remains formally unattached though she talks of a man whom she’s been seeing for a while. They ski, they go out, sometimes they go on holiday together.

By contrast, I have become political. I’m a feminist. My lover is a woman.

Before I leave I say, I’m sorry. When I came back that weekend I didn’t know that Eddie had rung you and that you’d been worried shitless for me. That you thought something awful had happened to me. I really am sorry.

She doesn’t say, That’s all right. Just nods her head.

We say goodbye, but the space between us remains unbridgeable. Now I am asking myself, What is it?

Out of the blue Monica rings me. I’m having a party at my place next Friday, want to come?


Maybe this is her way of making up.

Friday night arrives. I am at her door. Music is playing and a young man opens the door, welcomes me in. I see her. She is surrounded as always. Still the queen bee.

She turns, moves towards me, kisses me, takes my hand and leads me to the group. This, she says, is a very old friend of mine. We were friends at university. I think, Don’t they even know it was teachers college. Slippage. She talks loudly. She’s nervous. Around us people are dancing. I walk away towards the kitchen to find a drink. A clean glass, and a splash of the nearest beer.

When I return to the group she puts her arm around me. I wriggle. This is not why I came to her party.

The voices are loud, the music is loud. I would rather not be here. Time is whizzling again. She takes me in her arms, kisses me there in front of all those people. I say, It’s not five years ago. Don’t.

I leave.

I no longer know what is true. Is memory just an empty space we fill with longing? It was all wrong. All of it. Who the betrayer; who the betrayed? I can’t tell.

The night I was raped. Where was Monica? Why wasn’t she with me? A young woman, vulnerable, naïve, left alone with someone who went by a false name.

How could I tell her? It took me four years to recognise it for what it was.

I worked at Melbourne’s first Rape Crisis Centre. We talked. We spoke of many things in our CR group. Consciousness-raising. A place where your brain opens out, makes connections. You realise that what happens to you is not just personal history. It connects. You realise there is a structure here. You realise that it really was rape.

I ride the waves of consciousness. I am a particle. I am a wave. Time intersects with itself. It is a matrix. It expands and contracts sometimes without reason. I watch as she turns her face that day in the Gas and Fuel Corporation showroom. It takes forever. Like one year finding the doorway into the next. Time overlapping. The frogs chanting like Brahmin monks. And then I wonder, is that what happened? Which is real? Which is dream?

I’d like to rewrite history here. If I could, I would make sure that I left the pub that night with Monica. I would make sure that I’d have spent the weekends with her. We would not have made it, but it should not have broken so easily. We could have had more time.

But that was before feminism.

It wasn’t possible.

Our bodies fall away from us. Our memories clamour for consideration. The article I am reading speaks of the way in which a dream is soteriologically binding, salvaging the self. It strikes me as a useful concept. The dream, the waking life. How each affects the other.

The dream helps. I know it could not have worked. We were friends at the wrong time. I had other things to do. Other experiences to have. I needed to take off on those on my own.

The memory remains strong, the pain of loss. Dante says that the betrayers should be found in the deepest parts of hell. Did Monica betray me, not being there the night I needed her? Or did I betray Monica, seeing only the humour the night she thought I’d been lost? Was there something more? Something I am missing? We were young. We had no real experience of love. That would come later. That’s another story.