“I am Hidimba!” I roared like a beast and laughed, flailing my arms.
My mom and I were watching an episode of The Mahabharata on a rented VHS tape from the Indian grocery store. The character Hidimba — dark-skinned, standing 20-feet tall, with long, scraggly hair — wore a Halloweenish costume: a brown fake leather dress with silver studs, beaded necklaces, and a headband with feathers. Her face was a caricature. Her gestures were monstrous. I couldn’t help but mock her.
I was 15. I sat on my pink beanbag chair in the family room, and my mom sat next to me. She hovered over a coffee table filled with sales pamphlets and to-do lists while making sure I learned about the “good” and the “bad” in Hindu stories. She laughed at my imitation, and I laughed back. Despite her frequent criticisms of how I looked, my clumsiness, and my work ethic, I yearned for these moments of connection and consensus. And we could unite in our laughter at the hideousness of Hidimba.
Hidimba is a demon goddess called a rakshasi in Sanskrit, a savage and a literal maneater who scours the forest looking for humans to eat. Once she finds them, she uses her powers to become a giant and trap them. I may have been a teenager, but I knew that remotely resembling Hidimba wasn’t going to win me a husband. “No one wants to marry a dark, chubby girl” could be the official motto for South Asian women. Hidimba threw her weight around, angry and impulsive, destroying things for no reason. This was the opposite of ladylike, the opposite of what my mom wanted me to be.
So it was easy to make fun of her because when I did, I was on the right side for once. I bellowed “I am Hidimba!” as the butt of my jokes when I was hangry or when my mom gave me a sour look because of my outfit. I used her primal ferocity to get away with daal and turmeric stains on my shirt. Hidimba and I had the same barbaric disorder. I evoked her name when I shuffled my feet while walking, one of my mom’s chief complaints. While I shuffled mine, Hidimba stomped with hers.
When we meet Hidimba, we see that she is not as huge and monstrous as my mom and I made her out to be. After her brother comes home at night, she is subservient to him, tiptoeing around to meet his demands. When she gives him water, he throws it out and growls that he is starving. On his orders, Hidimba ventures into the forest to bring back the Mahabharata’s protagonists to eat for dinner.
When she finds them, she turns herself into a giant to trap them but her ravenous plan gets sidelined as she becomes smitten with Bhima, one of the sons. As she stares into his eyes, she fantasizes about marrying him. And in this imagined scene of wistful holy matrimony, Hidimba’s skin is three shades fairer. She is suddenly petite. She walks toward Bhima in acquiescence, ready to place a garland around his neck.
Six years after my divorce, I have a lot of feelings while re-watching this scene. I wince at how Hidimba’s fantasy made her more submissive and as a result attractive. Years ago, I was preoccupied with her ugliness, and now I was preoccupied with her prettiness. Poor Hidimba couldn’t seem to catch a break from the people in her life — or from me.
As Hidimba dreams of marital bliss, her brother suddenly shows up and challenges Bhima to a fight. Instead of helping her brother, she switches allegiances, using her powers to help Bhima win. She watches her brother die. Hidimba begs Kunti, Bhima’s mother, for refuge and asks if she can marry her son. Her brother was dead and she had no husband — she knew that being a woman without a man was dangerous.
Poor Hidimba couldn’t seem to catch a break from the people in her life — or from me.
Kunti hesitates because Hidimba is from a low caste. But she reluctantly consents to their marriage with the caveat that Hidimba will leave Bhima after they have children. Kunti even says, “May you have sons.” And she does have a son, one who inherits her magical powers and sacrifices himself in a war to support Kunti’s family, while Hidimba is left in the forest to fend for herself.
After watching this episode, wrought with casteism, colorism, and sexism, I no longer found Hidimba so easy to mock. I saw her as a victim of her circumstances and division that was made up by society and a fierce woman who fought for her survival. She was either endangered by her demanding brother or she was wedded to a family who wanted to use her for her progeny. Hidimba was caught in a web of patriarchy. And I understood—it was the same web my mom and I crawled through.
Initially, I thought my story mirrored Hidimba while my mom paralleled Kunti. I married someone I fell in love with, sacrificing myself, acquiescing to his needs. I was even willing to bear his children even though I never wanted them. After liberating myself from that relationship, I battle myself daily to be a woman who asks for what she wants and takes up space. I felt for Hidimba, a magical woman who did what she needed to do to survive. I initially assumed she was the malicious one and Kunti was her savior, but my position has since reversed — as did the way I saw my mom in what has become our collective story.
While my mom entered a mutually agreed upon arranged marriage, and my parents loved each other, her passion and love for art was often secondary to “circumstances.” Whether it was my dad wanting to leave the state for another job while she had an opportunity to do work in the fashion industry or her decision to leave her job as an artist because she felt she wasn’t present enough for my brother and me at home, her decisions were guided by patriarchal norms. Though she still pursued her art through projects at home, I couldn’t help but wonder if she felt cheated, compromised, and coerced, as many anti-heroes do.
So here we were, two products of the same system. Two facets of Hidimba under the same roof. Her criticism was her own way of protecting me and herself. So, today, I choose compassion because my reclamation requires it.
And I feel redemption because, after more research, I learned Hidimba was able to find some.
During Navratri, the nine-night Hindu festival some celebrate Goddess Durga’s defeat over a buffalo demon and others celebrate Lord Rama’s defeat of the demon king Ravana, a group of people in Manali, a town located near the Himalayas, worship Hidimba. In Manali, she has her own pagoda-shaped temple close to where she and her brother lived. The priest of this temple says Hidimba is a goddess to them, not a demon — she is a manifestation of Durga. And in this region, they do not start one of their religious processions until Hidimba’s chariot leads the way.
It’s vindicating to find this. But it doesn’t erase what I went through, what my mom passed down to me, and who knows what was passed down to her. During my last visit, I noticed less criticism and more acceptance. And I saw a tired woman where I used to see an authoritarian.
She was self-sufficient, dictating her own direction, and I was too – a feature that patriarchy resists. It’s a blissful resistance that has guided us to places we’ve never been, places where we are sometimes a demon and sometimes a goddess. Always parallel and never divided.