Book review: Memories of divinity past


To go from goddess to mortal is very difficult.” — Rashmila Shakya

When my editor asked me to interview a former Kumari, I was thrilled. Like most people I had heard all the stories. As little girls they are brutally stolen from their parents and thrust in the middle of the night into a room with 108 severed bullheads. There is also a weird sexual undercurrent to the office of the goddess. It’s a female child who must advise a male king in the utmost privacy, but she is brutally thrown out of office when she has her first period. Like most journalists in my situation, I couldn’t wait for the strange stories of brutal mistreatment.

So I was a little disappointed when I met Rashmila Shakya, Royal Kumari from 1984 to 1991. She seemed quite normal and well adjusted. She lives with her family in a modest house about a five-minute walk from Kumari Bahal, her former residence. She is currently studying for her Bachelors in Information Technology. If there was anything different about her at all, and I was looking for any evidence of her former life, she held herself like a queen - or more aptly, a goddess. She wasn’t vain or self-important; she just seemed extraordinarily self-possessed for a woman her age.

She narrated the book to Scott Berry, who set her words to the page. Their book, ‘From Goddess to Mortal,’ is the first of its kind. It is the inside story of the life of a Kumari, as told by a former Kumari. You can’t get more accurate than that. It chronicles her whole life; from a four-year-old Kumari to the woman she is now.

What prompted the book were the piles of inaccurate information out there about the Kumari, told again and again as truth. As you can probably guess by now, the story I had in my head about Kumari before I met her was wrong. Her goal is simply to set the records straight.

Because of that motivation, the book can be a little dry in places. Her life as a Kumari is fascinating from a historical or academic standpoint, but uneventful as a biography. Her life post-Kumari is also interesting as we see her transform from a child goddess to a woman. But anecdotes that could have been hilarious seem to be toned down, robbing them of a lot of their comic impact. She seems so determined to cast herself as a regular person that the differences between her life and ours, the reason that we picked up this book, are almost lost.

What comes across very clearly is her anger and frustration at the media. Time and time again we/they stole her life to make a sensational story that would sell. Her story was appropriated. Her life no longer became her own but part of a twisted argument about human rights/ child abuse/ feminism that was not based on fact, but rather unfounded legend. Her resentment is palpable.

This book is a biography first and foremost. There is little discussion about the implications of Kumari in a larger societal context, and only a few lines devoted to the impact it makes on the development of a child. Perhaps, it was designed to give the reader an unbiased look at her life but the lack of argument is a little unnerving. It is almost as if the questions have not been raised in her own mind.

‘From Goddess to Mortal’ is a quick read and gives insight into a world inhabited by only a select number of people. Next Indra Jatra, when you see Kumari winding through the streets, you’ll know that behind the face of the composed goddess is a child brimming with excitement at the world.