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Thursday, August 06, 2020

Vyasa, can you hear us now?

These are the voices of the epic’s female characters, some of them legendary, others known but not much heard from, yet others dimly glimpsed but so far unnamed, and some few invented to bridge lacunae in the narrative.

Written by Ranjit Hoskote | Updated: November 21, 2015 3:57:10 am
The Ordeal of Draupadi, a painting by the British illustrator Warwick Goble, 1913 The Ordeal of Draupadi, a painting by the British illustrator Warwick Goble, 1913

Book- Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata
Author- Karthika Naïr
Publisher- HarperCollins
Pages- 288 pages
Price- Rs 799

Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr’s accomplished retelling of the Mahabharata from relatively unfamiliar perspectives, takes the form of a choric circle of voices. These are the voices of the epic’s female characters, some of them legendary, others known but not much heard from, yet others dimly glimpsed but so far unnamed, and some few invented to bridge lacunae in the narrative.

By turns dissident, marginal, angry, regretful and elegiac, all these women bear compelling witness to the tidal flow of human relationships and the slippages of fortune. Through their testimony, we trace the interplay of authority and vulnerability, insight and foolishness, trauma and ecstasy that has given the Mahabharata its inexhaustible power to move and haunt its readers through the centuries. And, relayed into this choreography by subtle degrees, are the voices of the epic’s foot-soldiers, the padavit, their designation suggesting both the feet that carry infantry forward and the measures of poem and song: subaltern figures usually overshadowed by such heroic, flawed colossi as Arjuna and Karna, Krishna and Duryodhana, Bheema and Ashwatthama.

Sanskrit poeticians have classified the Mahabharata as an itihasa, a history, unlike the Ramayana, which is regarded as a mahakavya, a great poem. The Mahabharata, accordingly, is a palimpsest that articulates diverse accounts and versions of the story of the Kuru dynasty and all those related to it by blood, allegiance, enmity and chance encounter. At the core of what we now know as the Mahabharata is the ‘Jaya’, a lament of the Kaurava women for their fallen warriors; over time, the epic has grown through accretion and redaction, incorporated various strata of cultic practice and philosophical teaching, and changed ideological orientation, so that it is today understood to represent the Pandava position.

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From this palimpsest, Naïr chooses the melancholy, vexed lives of women confronted with difficult choices, who must live through the calamities produced by the arrogance, foolishness and angularity of men. Some of them we know: Satyavati, fishergirl turned queen; Amba, whose quest for revenge leads her to return to the scene of her humiliation in another life, as a man; Gandhari, princess who marries a blind man and spends her whole life voluntarily blindfolded; Kunti, who abandons her first child as an unwed princess, shares the burden of exile with her husband and later her sons; Draupadi, princess who becomes wife to five brothers, and who refuses to be treated as their possession or traded like goods.

Others we have sensed lightly in the shadows of the epic; on these unremarked figures, Naïr bestows the dignity of a local habitation and a name. She introduces us to Poorna, the maid whose son Vidura becomes counsellor to the Kuru court; and to Sauvali, the slave-girl who Dhritarashtra ravishes, and whose son Yuyutsu is a dissident in the Kaurava ranks. Naïr brings to centrestage figures like Hidimbi, the demoness who bears Bheema a son, never recognised as a possible heir but pressed into service during the war, to die for his father’s people; and Vrishali, the generous Karna’s wife, sharer in the anguish of his life — abandoned by the unwed princess who bore him and stigmatised as the son of the loving charioteer and his wife who raised him, Karna remained true to his misguided friend Duryodhana to the end.

Indeed, these women are, in Naïr’s rendition, lionesses. They embody the reclaiming of discursive authority that Chinua Achebe gestures towards, in the anti-colonial observation that gives this book its title; Achebe notes that “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. At one level, Naïr’s treatment draws clearly on the model of Euripides’s classical tragedy The Trojan Women, which attends to the fate of Troy’s royal women after the fall of the city at the end of Homer’s Iliad. For Hecuba, Andromache and Cassandra, theirs is a sisterhood of suffering: some will be borne away as slaves, some as concubines, all have lost their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and havoc has been visited upon their world.

At another level, Naïr works actively in the lineage of Irawati Karve’s classic Yuganta (The End of an Epoch), which engages with threshold figures in the epic, who have departed from the norm and who craft their lives in the grey zones between castes and hereditary occupations, those of no preordained sva-dharma and, therefore, both at grave risk and at precarious liberty: among them Karna, Vidura, Drona and Ashwatthama.

Indeed, the Mahabharata proceeds through irregularities and discontinuities. The Kuru bloodline runs out very early in this epic of the royal Kurus. Most entertainingly, for a patriarchal society such as India, the narrative is literally made and taken forward by the decisions of practical, audacious women who must make up for dead, absent, weak or impotent men. Satyavati flags off this trend. Her sons die without leaving heirs to continue the dynasty; her paladin stepson Bheeshma refuses to set his vow of celibacy aside to procreate. Satyavati then commands the sage Vyasa, her illegitimate son by a youthful liaison, to get her daughters-in-law with child.

So Dhritarashtra and Pandu come into the world: one blind, the other pale, because the princesses shrank from the unwashed, smelly sage. Their maid, however, did not; pushed into Vyasa’s arms as a substitute, she gives birth to the wise Vidura, who grows up to be the resident voice of wisdom. Further, Pandu, under the shadow of a curse that mandates death for him should he engage in coitus, goes into exile; there, his wives Kunti and Madri invoke and are impregnated by the high deities of the pantheon, and their sons, the Pandavas, take on their nominal, non-biological father’s patronymic.

Naïr’s renewal of the epic narrative is sustained by her experimentation with diverse poetic forms. Among the forms she taps is the landay, a Pashto couplet of 22 syllables, sung by women to the beat of a hand drum. This formal choice is also a political one: it reaches into a specifically female lyric tradition that has faced repeated attempts at silencing and repression by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It relays the voice of women past and present into the future, amplifies them against the threats of silence, violence and amnesia.

Ranjit Hoskote is a poet and critic in Mumbai

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