The Queens of Hastinapur
Author - Sharath Komarraju
Publisher - Harper Collins, Rs 350
This retelling of Mahabharata paints comprehensive pictures of the mythological queens who are believed to have ‘sealed’ the fate of many, says Shweta Duseja
In the last few years, we have seen several retellings on the Mahabharata. They are a focused study into the psyche of individual characters from the Mahabharata. Since, the epic in its entirety cannot be reproduced in the novel form, the authors have had to make selections and deletions from the original narrative. The presence of the pregnant silences in the epic has been an advantage to the writers of the modern retellings. Sharath Komarraju modestly admits during an interview “with due modesty” that his Hastinapur series expands the epic rather than just retell it.
The third book in his Hastinapur books series, The Queens of Hastinapur, is a narrative which tries to understand the complicated and arduous lives that the select women during the times of Mahabharata had had to live. The original epic is a male-centred story of warfare where their dreams, ambitions, victories and defeats are narrated. Women’s stories do feature but from a male lens in their voices. This book, however, focuses completely on the narratives of important women who played a major role in changing the direction of history. These women include the two celestial women: Ganga and her foster daughter, Jahnavi. The narrative of the pre-war times begins in the voice of the river goddess, Ganga. Framed within her narrative are the narratives of the three queens of Hastinapur: Gandhari, Pritha or Kunti, and Madri.
Saying that the novel is a fresh take on the epic would just be a repetition considering the number of retellings on the epic flooding the market lately. However, I would still emphasise that the author has done justice to the book that looks at important women and their narratives (which remain absent in the epic). The novel is divided into two parts. The first part of the novel is about Ganga and Jahnavi. Ganga, who had been the queen to Shantanu for eight years, narrates the story of her love, sacrifice, and regrets as the lady of the River in Meru. She belongs to the world of the celestials who are shown very much like humans with all their fears, ambitions, tricks and manipulations. What keeps them above humans is the fact that they have a little more mysterious powers than the humans on Earth. Otherwise, they are equally scared of being annexed and overpowered by the rulers on Earth which makes them perform deeds that change the course of history for worse.
And all this they do in the name of the will of the supreme Goddess. The name of the Goddess is not mentioned in this book. The previous book in the series, The Rise of Hastinapur calls her Goddess Bhagavati “who is present in a drop of water, in a grain of sand, in a mite of dust” (the quote is from The Rise of Hastinapur). She is the Shakti who knows everything and who has plans for every individual on earth and in the world of the celestials. She is shown as above the Tri-Shakti: Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. Many of the high sages and celestials claim to know her will, which Ganga reiterates time and again, is “unknowable”. Ganga, the lady of the River, is treated as a pawn in the hands of the celestials like Vishnu and sage Vasishtha. She is the one with foresight and despite several warnings against meddling with the workings of the men on Earth, the celestials do not listen to her.
The first book in that sense clearly presents a picture of the two women who were wronged the most because of the interference of the gods in the life of the humans on earth. Ganga had to go on earth to save the eight Vasus for which she takes Shantanu as a husband. She bears him a son, Bhishma or Devavrata whom she adores dearly. When Bhishma grows into a fine youth, he decides to leave Meru forever and inhabit the world of humans. The book is successful in painting the picture of the pain of the mother who could not stop her son to stay with her while the original narrative of the epic is silent on this aspect of Ganga’s story.
Jahnavi, Ganga’s foster daughter, is similarly wronged. As a mere fifteen year old girl, she is sent on earth to accomplish a mission of empowering the Kingdom of Kamsa because the gods fear that Jarasandha, the king of Magadha, who was on a mission to attack and seize Mathura, might win and ultimately pose a threat to the kingdom of Gods. Jahnavi, who was but a girl, in her enthusiasm goes to Mathura but does not come unharmed. To top it all, during the fertility rite, when the virgin maidens on Meru could choose to lie with any celestial, she is not given that liberty and the novel does not remain silent about her pain.
The author has beautifully portrayed these characters. Ganga with foresight is the very picture of wisdom. She is a part of the supreme Goddess. However, she has her moments of insecurity mixed with fear of losing her title of the lady of the River. But, when Jahnavi is brutally injured, the spirit of the mother reigns supreme and she adopts Jahnavi as her daughter and nurtures her to health. Jahnavi is shown as an enthusiastic and innocent girl who is keen to begin the mission. She is completely unaware of what is in store for her. This is what one would expect from an adolescent.
The second book begins with Jahnavi’s voice who has become the lady of the River and is thus called, Ganga. She has been given the vision to witness the lives of the Queens of Hastinapur by the author. Through her we hear the tales of Gandhari, Pritha and Madri. The focus is mainly on Gandhari and Pritha. Madri’s story does not find much voice in the text. Having said that, we as readers, do have glimpses of her complex character.
The novel does not romanticise their portraits. They are shown with all their weaknesses, ambitions and fears. Gandhari, who has been wronged by Bhishma, in attacking her kingdom (Gandhara) and marrying her to the blind king (Dhritarashtra, the first born son of king Vichitraveerya), burns with anger. Not just that, Bhishma declares Pandu (the second son of Vichitraveerya) as the King of Hastinapur. These insults are too much to bear for Gandhari. The author in the novel rightly highlights that the status of the kings was measured by the strength of their arms and the number of kingdoms they win over. But, for queens the only way to maintain their status was giving birth to sons who would be the heirs to the throne.
In the times when the Kings had several queens, it became all the more important for the women to maintain their status and importance in the lives of their husbands. The first queen wished for the first born among all the wives the king had. The younger queens also wished the same so that they could ascend their status as the mother of the first born, as the queen mother, as the mother of the son who would be the heir to the King. Motherhood, then, became the only means of their power, their only attempt at sustaining the love of the king towards them. Komarraju highlights how the miserable condition of women, and queens in particular, forces them to their villainies. Their baseness, then, does not seem unjustified. Sage Bhrigu and High Sage Kindama, in the novel, reiterate the fact that no wishes can ever be right or wrong. Only the actions for those wishes are contemptible.
Pritha and Madri, Pandu’s wives and Gandhari, Dhritarashra’s wife, all three of them wish to give birth to the heir to the throne. Through their sons, they wish to regain, sustain or ascend their status as the queen mother. All three of them compete against each other sometimes covertly and sometimes overtly. They pretend, they confront, they fight. Gandhari has been shown as the calculative queen but justified in her actions because she has been wronged by Bhishma and her husband. Pritha feels alienated and ignored by her husband in favour of his second queen, Madri who is more beautiful than her.
This, in turn, makes her bitter and she seeks to maintain her status through her unfair treatment of Madri. But, again she is not labelled as someone who is to be called a villain in the house. Because she is not as beautiful and attractive as Madri, the king does not spend his time with her out of love but duty. Madri, the younger queen is a girl of fifteen whose childlike behaviour at times brings out the innocence in her. But, as she becomes enmeshed in the politics of power, she too becomes cruel and bitter.
The author leaves it for the readers to read and understand the painful stories of these women who unknowingly “sealed” fates and destinies of their children. For those who love mythology, I would highly recommend this novel. Those who do not have much interest in it, may also begin to like reading the fresh take on the epic.