I was in the holy town of Rishikesh on the Ganges in India at the end of last year when I saw a photograph of a woman with long hair and soft eyes, her hand twisted into a mudra – a gesture of spiritual power. The photograph was on the cover of a book called Death Must Die (2000) in the window of one of the town’s many bookshops. It showed the Bengali mystic Shree Anandamayee Ma, a woman born into a poor family in 1896, who became part of a renaissance of Indian saints as the British Raj entered its twilight years. She spent her life as a wandering pilgrim and radiated a serenity so profound that she was often forced to leave without warning in the middle of the night to escape the crowds who adored her, boarding the first train without knowing where it was going, as an act of surrender to the cosmic will.
Death Must Die is a book about surrender. It is the diary of a Jewish Viennese woman called Blanca who became the disciple of Shree Anandamayee Ma in 1945. Blanca writes, ‘I hardly meditate here, but feel that being with Her is one intense, unbroken meditation.’ What is poignant about the diary is the fact that Blanca describes in detail her life in the ashram in Benares, also known as Varanasi, but barely mentions the historic events through which she is living, albeit at a distance: the Nazi defeat and the Holocaust, in which most of her family died. ‘What is evil?’ she asks. ‘Evil is simply to forget God, and in Her presence this is not in the realm of possibility’ (her italics).
Blanca believes that Shree Anandamayee Ma may be an incarnation of the Hindu goddess Kali, the Dark One, whose image so terrified the British colonisers of India because of her long tongue, her nakedness, her wild hair, and her necklace of men’s skulls. Kali drinks the blood of the men who disrespect her. She destroys that which blocks enlightenment. In the same way, Blanca wrote of Shree Anandamayee Ma, ‘She draws out people’s negativity and takes it on Herself and eats it up’.
My trip to Rishikesh coincided with Diwali, the festival of lights, which celebrates the symbolic triumph of good over evil, hope over despair. The air is poisoned by the smoke of firecrackers thrown by children on the banks of the sacred river. They sound like bombs exploding and so the atmosphere of the festival has something of a war about it.
I live in Berlin now, in an apartment building half-bombed by the Allies during the Second World War. The windows of my living room look out onto the missing part of the building. There are no curtains. The former crater has been turned into a sun terrace on which an elderly lady waters the plants and feeds the birds in the summer. In the street below, Syrian mothers push their babies in prams past Woolworths, which still exists here. It sells mini bottles of Jägermeister.
A Woman in Berlin (2003) is the anonymous diary of a German woman writing at the same time as Blanca, during the Nazi defeat in the spring of 1945. It is one of the finest accounts of the war that I have read. Unlike Blanca, this woman is not Jewish. She is neither a member of the Nazi Party nor a member of the resistance.
‘What’s clear is that every threat to your life boosts your vitality,’ she writes. Her nights are spent under Allied bombardment in the cellar of an apartment building similar to mine: ‘the official term is air-raid shelter. We call it cave, underworld, catacomb of fear, mass grave.’ In the park, ‘all the trees are covered in white powder, riddled with bullet holes, badly wounded.’ On the Nazi defeat, she is frank, ‘Deep down we women are experiencing a kind of collective disappointment. The Nazi world – ruled by men, glorifying the strong man – is beginning to crumble, and with it the myth of “Man.”’
The book was met with shame when it was first published in Germany in 1959. The author demanded that it was not published again until after her death, in 2001. Then, it was a success.
I am moving to Lisbon this month and looking forward to visiting Casa das Histórias, the museum dedicated to Paula Rego, who has been my favourite artist since I was a teenager. She is a seer of how power works on women. Her black pencil drawing Dog Woman, made in 1952, is part of the museum’s collection. It is a rougher, more Kali-like image of rage than the coloured pastel drawing of the same name which Rego made 42 years later in 1994. I still look at the latter when I am in need of inspiration.
The Frieze Writer's Prize 2017 is judged by frieze associate editor Pablo Larios, artist and writer Ed Atkins, and novelist and co-editor of Semiotext(e) Chris Kraus. The closing date for entries is 18 July. For more information go here.
Main image: Paula Rego, Dog Woman, 1952, pencil drawing