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From a woman’s perspective
Author - Madhavi S Mahadevan
Publisher - Tranquebar, Rs 350
Was Kunti just the busy mother whose miscalculated words spelled the doom of a dynasty? Hers is an often misunderstood character that is analysed in The Kaunteyas, writes SHWETA DUSEJA
Madhavi Mahadevan’s The Kaunteyas is a retelling of The Mahabharata from Kunti’s perspective. The novel is written by a woman on the life of another woman from a woman’s perspective. The prologue of the novel ponders upon the silence of the female voices and their stories in the history. Though short, it is crisp in its criticism. It underlines the need for the female voices to be heard. The very prologue is enough for the reader to know that the book will have some promising content. Here is a sneak peek into the prologue: “The best stories have always been men’s stories, and what men regard as the best stories are often war stories…. The tale would be told as men saw fit. Yes, women’s tales, too, have been told by men, but with an important difference: they are cautionary…. I wonder what would happen if women started telling their own stories. Like water that grinds down the hardest rock, would these stories change the shape of the world? Would Truth then become something else?”
The Kaunteyas focuses on three phases of Kunti’s life: before marriage in her foster father’s home, after marriage living as a wife and thereafter as a widowed mother. The novel narrates the same story but expands it at several places and departs from the original narrative at quite a few places. Whereas the epic presents the stories of several women in a factual, cautionary, or objective tone, The Kaunteyas looks for the reasons behind their actions and the emotions attached to various events. So, for instance, the epic does not go much into the details of Kunti’s life before marriage. We only know that she was given away at birth by her father to his friend who was childless. And in her foster father’s home, she devotedly served sage Durvasa. As a result of which, she was given a boon by him. She did not believe the words of the rishi and to test the validity of the boon, she chanted the mantra and invoked Surya who gave her a son. Being a kanya, she had to abandon the child born out of wedlock. Here the first phase of her life ended. The moral of the story is she did not trust the rishi’s words and had to bear the consequences for it.
Madhavi S. Mahadevan tells us the same story but expands on the silences in the epic. Kunti who was named Pritha by her birth-father despises the name ‘Pritha’ because it reminds her of her father and the fact that he gave her away at birth hurts her much. She is not loved much at Kuntibhoja’s house either. Her grandmother always makes it a point to remind her that she is an outsider, that she is living on charity of others, that she is not beautiful enough that a king would marry her, that she would have to make do with whatever comes to her lot. Kunti can see the way her grandmother treats her brother Purujit (Kuntibhoja’s real son). Kunti expresses her pain at being abandoned and neglected. She engages herself in the domestic chores assigned to her, studies shastras and loves to speak to her foster mother who loves her but is herself relegated to the margins.
As far as the boon is concerned, she realises it’s worse than a curse. The ambiguity of Durvasa’s words makes it difficult for a fourteen-year-old girl to make sense of what the boon really means. So, she repeats the mantra given to her in her innocence and not out of ignorance. While she chants the mantra to invoke Surya, she has no idea that the “prasada” Durvasa referred to means an “offspring” through the God she invokes. Despite repeated pleas, the god does not return and she learns her lesson much early in life that gods are more heartless than humans. It is because he threatens to destroy her entire clan if she does not receive the prasada that she reluctantly agrees to mother his child. Gandhari, after she loses her hundred sons in the war, echoes similar thoughts about the boon she received from Lord Shiva being worthless. She says, “Mahadeva! You gave me a boon that I did not ask for. This is what it brought me… Now give me a boon that I want. Raise one of them back to life.” Both the women get the boons they never wished for. In fact, when Durvasa commands Kunti to ask a boon, at first she says, she does not want any. When he is offended at her words, she is forced to ask for one and she intelligently asks him to grant a boon which would help her in her most difficult time. Being mother to the heroes was the best boon that the rishis or gods could give women or they could grant them warrior husbands. Being a mother or a wife is all that a woman could want from the male point of view.
Apart from expanding on the pregnant silences in the epic, the author also reinterprets various episodes. Pandu, being cursed by sage Kindama, could not become a father. Therefore, he asks Kunti to give him sons by receiving Brahmins who would be ready to help them. Kunti is shown as a strong woman who questions her husband’s unreasonable demands. She strongly condemns his idea and harps on the fact that there is a limit to being a dutiful wife. It is then she tells him about the boon. Though it is Kunti, who gives birth to sons for Pandu, they are not named after Kunti in the epic. In that sense, the title of the book is quite apt because it is Kunti’s story. She voices it. And they are as much Kaunteyas as they are Pandavas.
Furthermore, the book presents a complex picture of the relationship various women share with each other which is almost absent from the original epic narrative. It is their common lot that brings them together on the same plane. Despite the obvious rivalry between the two queens, Gandhari and Kunti, they share a special bond which has its ups and downs because of their circumstances. Despite Satyavati’s ill treatment of Kunti, they share a similar background, which connects them at some level. What makes the novel women centric is their strength in the face of difficulties. These women are not blind followers of instructions. They know they can set their limits and break them too. They challenge the human dependence on fate and highlight the importance of human agency. They question the wrong done to them. The epic has glimpses of it whereas the novel artistically expands on those glimpses and that’s what makes the novel a beautiful read. In the oeuvre of retellings on the epic, The Kaunteyas is not just another retelling. In time, it will carve a special place in the epic fantasy genre.
The reviewer teaches at Delhi University
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