Book Review – Of Goddesses and Women by Shweta Rao Garg

Publisher – Sahitya Akademi. Year 2021

Reviewed by Smeetha Bhoumik

Of Goddesses and Women by Shweta Rao Garg is a luminous poetry collection that stirs up the status quo with new insights – juxtaposing the divine within the quotidian, ancient within the modern, bringing up ripples of reflection that may change the way we think. It explores a wide spectrum of feminine perspectives in the light of poetry, and is a marvelous artistic creation. 

In a series of almost cinematic sequences, it lays bare a bridge between the lives of women, their goddesses, incarnations and avatars, opening up landscapes of belonging for interpretation.

Profane or exalted, calm or conflicted, relationships and identities are unravelled within a feminine poetic.

Take ‘Cliches’:


But why shouldn’t I liken you

To the pimples on my cheeks,

My c-section scars, and

That ruin of a waist?

Poems stretch out languorous, delightful, breathing life into relationships- close, personal, intimate, distant or peripheral, spanning a gamut of emotions and lived experiences. Invariably, the presence of the divine sparks perceptions in intuitive and unsparing ways. It is a devoted congruence with what ‘is’, beneath asymmetric, unreal layers of obfuscation.

In these lines from ‘I Am Your Heart‘, she owns her space like never before:

My womb does not enshrine your lust

But my poetry.



I lie not at fringe or periphery

I am the centre, the container, the chalice

Of meaning….

The fascinating, multi-toned composite that an Indian woman represents, heaves a complex interplay of emotions, vulnerability, resilience, reality and imagination. She is myth and lore, light and shadow, exquisite evocation as well as abominable affect, balanced on fine tipped yardsticks of acceptance within patriarchal norms. A creature of immense forbearance and understanding, she practices patient self-control, stoic restraint and tolerance, in her attempts to find space, to fit in.

At the Hidimba Temple

Feet that stood waiting for the man

As she raised his child

Only to send him armed

To him, in a war which wasn’t hers.

With little agency but vibrant ability, scant space but infinite fortitude, she forges a path at once circumspect, singular, unifying and courageous. Every little act, thought, word and deed, is borne of quiet knowing and prudence. For the labyrinths of patriarchal footholds may prove deadly otherwise.

Break up and Make up

Listen to ghazals in the morning

Apply Kohl to conceal the eyes marinated with tears

Explain hoarse voice

Pretend it’s cold

Eat instant noodles for one week in a row

Cry yourself to sleep

Stop picking phone calls

This assimilation reflects a rich duality, a diverse existence within opposing forces of hope and despair. On one end of her life’s spectrum is light, on the other an opaque shadowy realm, and her years revolve around finding a balance between the two. For the cerebral woman, it’s an even more tortuous path, as this collection exemplifies. 

On a Basant Panchami

This year she is pure glory, in white.

You pray for inspiration, for success, for that rare vision.

You inch towards a divination.

Till you recoil at someone grabbing your arse.

The revelation in this poem, is a nightmare many women have to bear.

In the normal course, a woman tends to tread the safe contours of the middle-zone, far removed from polarized extremes. In this space, she is equable, at ease, conforming, comfortable, exuding her trademark grace and beauty emanating from a calm demeanour. Engaged in comforting ritual, and honouring gender roles.

How do you bake a perfect cake

Not the ‘hey presto’ ones from the instant mix packs,

But one which swells with the labour of love

The Day of Tea

This day would vanish/But there stays the tea/An all-embracing liquid,/A cup of constancy/On the saucer of a day, so unsteady.

When the space tends towards either extreme of dark or searing light, she may lose her footing and feel momentarily nonplussed. But soon, her dormant features activate to enliven in her a cry for justice, for honour, for dignity; or a dire need to stay away from detrimental influences, or from danger…

The Sunset at Colva

You discover a new Kingdom by the beach,

When you feel the hot breath of rum on your cheeks

The scrawny man in red asks if you are alone

And available for a drink, with his moustached friends

You taste thick fear in your mouth

December 2022. It is important to note this, as writing is time specific, and belongs to an era, an epoch, a decade. In this season, this month, this year, and over the last decade, things have come to a head around issues of women’s safety, survival and well-being.

It is as if the very air and environment, the norms and covenants of a society have yielded space to an increasingly violent, destructive dominant presence that’s out on a rampage. There may not be a single woman, girl, teenager, wife, sister, mother who is not looking over her shoulder while out alone, whether it is day or night. Front page newspapers reports of the past few weeks have revealed incidents that are surely detrimental to the mental and physical health of more than fifty percent of the population. It is impossible not to have fear instilled in the mind and conveyed to the body, after reading the actions of people who deem themselves immune, for how else could such brutal acts occur so frequently?

You taste thick fear in your mouth

You pace up, call for help,

….point at a man drinking alone in a shack

“Shall I call my…’

You turn around and look at the sky

Can you enter your lost empire?

Presence of mind, courage and a flair for thinking on one’s feet, are prerequisites for survival. Every woman prays for the safety and survival of the young, vulnerable, who are easy prey for the depraved. 

“Shall I call my gharwala ..?”

Even flaunting a false marital status, acts as a talisman!

And so, the poems travel through fraught frightening trials or move into joyous earthy jubilation, with her relationships swaying on thresholds : close-liminal-distant, adored-liminal-husband, mother-estranged-stranger, stranger-luminous-God-sent; often in incomprehensible reversals, with no fixed-forever traits. Just fluid transitions born of today’s stressed immediacy, where she must walk a tight-rope.

Desires at Kamakhaya’s Door

You shall confine me in a tiny crevice in your heart

And be mal-adjusted for the rest of your life

You’d deserve it dear, for smearing ash

Over the prospect of my being a goddess in my afterlife



Let parts of me disintegrate, one by one,

Drop willingly like petals onto the ground?

Let my parts be one place, thud-

Lo and behold the landscapes change

In the expansive scholarly foreword by Navamalati Chakraborty, she mentions that it refers to, quote – Lord Shiva’s tandava when ‘temples sprouted like grass/From each of her fallen parts’, …… It was Rudra’s fury born of love, that had created countless goddesses from the one woman he lost. Unquote. 

The transition from periphery to the core, from liminal to central, is a journey of reclaiming the self, freeing it from untenable expectations and strangle-holds taking one small step at a time. It is living up to your own strengths.  

English Studies in the Age of Engineering

I look to these geometrically precise structures/

through my world inside the cave

where i try and sieve

mimesis from Reality

I faithfully indulge in the game

of deciphering shadow patterns

from the unnatural obstruction

of the one natural Light

Emerging from shadows into the light of unfettered, grounded womanhood, is a path one seeks and finds for herself. A unique personal journey, hinted at in the poem ‘Buddha Head‘.

Finally, i give up my rant

I mirror him- i close my eyes

Breathe and smile a Monalisa smile

Stay likewise for who knows how long

I feel my ear enlarge, my body stony cool

My scalp relax

For a flicker of a moment. Buddha enters my head

Embracing in its eloquent verse a many-hued divine within the embodied earthy real woman, this tour de force traverses landscapes of the mind – temples, rivers, museum, womb, notions of belonging, alienation, aesthetics, art, artist, films and scripture in search of the elusive self…the eternal one, and somewhere along the way, finds it home –

Deep within oneself!

From ‘Georgia O’Keeffe

The artist reminds

Stop, stand, stare

Open your eyes

To beauty 

Paint your inner canvas

This is an exploration that portrays women as sure-footed, brave, afraid, resilient, vulnerable, aware, all knowing, foolish, kind, compassionate, strong, gifted and intelligent creative individuals…in other words, capable of finding the Goddess within herself…

Kali, Come for Tea‘ is one of my favourite poems, that I had the privilege of translating into Hindi.

Defining the essence of this collection, is once again: 

I Am Your Heart

I lie not at fringe or periphery

I am the centre, the container, the chalice

Of meaning….

Much of the time, women exist in liminal spaces, hovering on the periphery – of relationships, homes, norms, decisions, identities; it is an uncertain belonging, so easy to dislodge or deny!

She is mostly perceived vis-a-vis.

This is a direct contradiction of the actual reality. That of her centrality in creation and existence, of life itself!

More important than ‘how she is perceived’, is the affirmative act of ‘how she perceives herself’. A slow painstaking process of redefinition.

Filmy prayers

Let my body not be

Subjected to being an object

If the thoughts offered here appear to contradict prevailing notions, then they serve their purpose quite well – to awaken, empower, redefine, and pave the way for greater understanding between genders, between people, between the vast spectrum of multi-hued existence on earth. 

The benefits of such an unfolding encompasses everyone in its ambit, as the luminous effects of equality bring peace, love, progress, mental health, physical well-being and mutual respect.

Winning back lost empires begins with tiny little steps.