Arundhuti Dasgupta

If the mute spectators of carnage in the Mahabharata had spoken, what would they say? Would the women, rendered silent by a stroke of the author’s pen, express rage, condemnation and regret? And most importantly, what did they feel as women, caught inside an epic full of battles, bloodshed and chauvinistic hotheads? Such questions drove Karthika Nair to write her book,

Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. Part of the genre of epic retellings that has become increasingly popular in recent times, her book speaks in the voice of minor female characters from the Mahabharata, some who were left nameless in the original epic.

To set the record straight, these retellings are not a modern trend; such contemplations have fired the collective imaginations of a country that is as hooked on its epics as politicians are to hyperbole, for thousands of years. The result is that we have a wealth of literature – folklore, drama, essays – on characters that never received their share of the stage.

Bhasa (2nd C BCE Sanskrit playwright) brilliantly swivelled the lights on a reviled character such as Duryodhana, Irawati Karve’s Yuganta deftly slipped beneath the skin of the epic’s characters and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s fictional account of Draupadi’s role in the Mahabharata in The Palace of Illusions is an impressive account of the one of the epic’s most outspoken women.

Not every retelling works, however, and many authors have failed to present a unique point of view or a radically enlightening one. This book is one such example. In most parts it reads like an overly-dramatised performance. Words are used with such force and deliberation that they lose their ability to engage.

There is an indiscriminate use of italics, word art and repetition; the layout screams for attention by using double columns, single columns, shifting alignments and such other gimmicks.

All this perhaps is an attempt to make the process of reading a more entertaining one for new readers but it distracts and deters one from following the verse/prose narratives to the end. If the author wanted to break the monotony of reading, she would have done better to infuse more life into the dialogue and the women rather than the style and form of the book.

Until the Lions is meant to be a feminist reading of the Mahabharata. But there is inherent contradiction here – the epic was told and written at a time when women were relegated to a secondary role. Thus imbuing characters within a patriarchal framework with contemporary sensibilities of feminism creates a clash between the context and the story. The dialogues and the narration, therefore, seem jagged and unreal and even pretentious at times.

Consider the manner in which Ambika, mother of Dhritarashtra, describes her encounter with Vyasa (the writer of the epic). Ambika’s husband had died without an heir and Vyasa was summoned to provide her with one. Vyasa was not quite the epitome of feminine desire and Ambika had to shut her eyes throughout the ordeal, which brought about the curse that rendered her son blind. Ambika talks to her maid about this experience, calls it as being nothing more than “sanctioned rape”. She is right, but could Ambika, who is no more than a child at the time she bears one, speak in this voice?

Satyavati, mother of Vyasa, step-mother to Bheeshma and great grandmother to the Kauravas and the Pandavas, has a stellar role in the book. In the epic, Satyavati is condemned for her ambitions to the throne. She forced Bheeshma into a lifetime of celibacy. She was a strong woman, had strong opinions and put up a good fight when it came to the crunch, but she never questioned the fact that men were masters to be served (and manipulated and ridiculed from time to time) and women were their property.

The book sees Satyavati as a wronged woman, driven by hate. It imagines her as a strong woman who believed in the power of sisterhood but had to act against it out of circumstance. It makes excuses for bad behaviour that the original epic never felt the need to. Perhaps the author wanted to give Satyavati the chance to have her say and thereby explain her actions. But the unexplained bits in her character was what made Satyavati so powerful; by removing them, the book does her as much of a disservice as it does the readers

UNTIL THE LIONS: Echoes from the Mahabharata
Karthika Nair, HarperCollins, 263 pages; Rs 799.

Courtesy: Business Standard

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