From the back cover:
Servants of the Goddess weaves together the heartbreaking, yet paradoxically life affirming stories of five devadasis – Women, in the clutches of an ancient fertility cult, forced to serve the gods. Catherine Rubin Kermorgant sets out attempting to make a documentary film about the lives of present-day devadasis. Through her, we meet and get to know the devadasi women of Kalyana, a remote village in Karnataka. As they grow to trust Kermorgant and welcome her as an honorary sister, we hear their stories in their own words, stories of oppression and violence, but more importantly, of resistance and resilience. Kermorgant becomes a part of these stories and finds herself unwittingly enmeshed in a world of gender and caste bias which extends far beyond Kalyana, all the way to Paris, where the documentary is to be edited and produced. Servants of the Goddess is a testament to women’s strength and spirit and a remarkably astute analysis of gender and caste relations in today’s rural India.
For some reason, I thought that the cult of devadasis was over. I was wrong. Through this eye-opening book, Kermorgant draws the readers’ attention to devadasis and their plight.
Forced into the tradition due to poverty, kept there due to their superstitious beliefs, devadasis have largely been pushed out of temples except during traditional pujas and ceremonies. They’re forced into a life of prostitution, plying their bodies either in their village or in red light districts in Mumbai and Delhi. And every year, thousands of girls are dedicated to the system, a majority of them by their own families.
The book shows us glimpses of their life and their beliefs, but it falls somewhat short.
I tend to compare any book of this nature with Mayank Austin Soofi’s absolutely brilliant Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. He creates an emotional connect with the people who populate his pages – right from the prostitutes to the pimp – without moralizing or philosophizing. And this is exactly what Kermorgant’s book lacks. It reads more like an essay on “this is why I could not present my documentary the way I wanted to – the reason: an Indian partner who could not overcome his prejudice against untouchables and devadasis.” And so, she portrays herself and only one of her translators as sympathetic to the devadasi cause, while everyone else was blinkered and blinded by their own prejudices. And while that may be true, her constant lament against them takes away from the hard-hitting story that this could have been.
The sad thing is that there are kernels of hard-hitting writing throughout, but they get lost in her larger narrative of the documentary shooting and editing process. Had she focused on the devadasis, telling us about their lives and their stories, the book would have had a much more profound impact.
Having said that, I would still recommend this book – just go into it knowing that there are hiccups to the tale.