Published in Sunday Midday, Devlok, October 14, 2012


I cannot resist saying this. While male directors and male actors continue to cling to youth through surreal films about students and romance and make zillions at the box office, it is a relief to find one sensible lady director getting a matured actress to play a matured role about language, meaning and validation and, bringing a smile and joy to many in the audience. It feels good to grow up!

Now, back to mythology. For very different reasons, the film English Vinglish drew attention to two goddesses: Sridevi, goddess of wealth and glamor, and Vakdevi, goddess of speech and meaning, both referred to in the Rig Veda, so the earliest goddesses known to this land.

Sridevi needs to be differentiated from Bhoodevi or Prithvi. Both are forms of Lakshmi. But while Sridevi means personal wealth, Bhoodevi means universal natural wealth. Bhoodevi is the earth. Sridevi is property and assets and all the glamor and splendor that comes with that. Both are wives of Vishnu, especially in southern Vaishnava traditions. Vishnu takes care of Bhoodevi and Sridevi is the reward he gets for it. Or because Sridevi is his wife, Vishnu needs to take care of Bhoodevi. But Sridevi is not jealous of the rather submissive and patient Bhoodevi, certainly not as much as she hates Vakdevi.

Vakdevi is the goddess of speech, sound and language, closely associated with Saraswati, goddess of knowledge. She is what is uttered. A bit of a snob, she is accessible only to those who work hard to get her, unlike wealth who can favor or not favor, anyone, anytime. While Sridevi is whimsical and can be lost after acquisition, Vakdevi is eternally faithful.

Later Puranic and folktales inform us that Sridevi and Vakdevi, or rather Lakshmi and Saraswati, hate each other. They are constantly quarrelling. So bad was the quarrel that Vishnu had to give up one of them for the sake of peace. In old images of Vishnu one finds the two goddesses standing to his left and right. Even today, in the temple of lord Jagannath, in Puri, Orissa, Sridevi and Vakdevi flank the main deity. But later, Vakdevi disappeared. Where? Popular stories say she became Brahma’s wife. Some say, she hides on Vishnu’s tongue while Sridevi sits in Vishnu’s heart and at his feet.

For most people, knowledge helps you earn money: at the very least you need to learn skills to do labor, and be literate to get a job, and learn the art of marketing and salesmanship and money management to start business. So why would the two goddesses fight? For this, we have to distinguish between Saraswati or she who imparts wisdom from Vidyalakshmi, knowledge and skills that helps us generate more wealth. In the absence of wisdom, only wealth matters. In wisdom, wealth is given its due position in life, not near the head. Naturally, Sridevi is not quite fond of Vakdevi.

The film English Vinglish begins with Vak as Vidyalakshmi: language as a tool that will help us survive in the pecking order of society. This is evident in advertisements of TV channels selling courses on spoken English.  But gradually Vak becomes Saraswati as one realizes it is not about language but about respect, dignity, sensitivity and understanding. All through, Sridevi (the star) plays the role of Bhoodevi, the patient suffering overlooked earth-goddess who sustains the family.