Prime Minister Narendra Modi is well known for his combative mood and reposes great faith in his devastating wit.
Last week he seemed to be using this same wit to silence an ‘unruly’ member of the Lok Sabha, Renuka Choudhury, but it came out as an incensed man showing a ‘delinquent woman’ her place. The operative subtext of the PM’s oblique reference to her laughter, as a reminder of Shurpanakha’s laughter from the “Ramayan serial twenty years ago”, came out loud and clear in the boisterous laughter and thumping of the Treasury benches. Minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju’s subsequent video clip on Shurpnakha’s scary laughter from the same Ramayana serial eliminated any remaining trace of ambiguity from the PM’s commentary.
The remarks came across as an angry man teaching a laughing woman a lesson. After all, other Opposition members were also heckling him, and he let the Speaker of the House deal with them; but the PM was insistent on himself silencing the woman.
The misogynist fear of a laughing – in other words, a confident – woman has been ingrained in all religious and cultural traditions. Misogyny is a natural corollary of the patriarchal mindset, which is not confined to men only. This fact was once again underlined by the fact that women BJP MPs happily joined in the mirth, with the honourable exception of minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman, incidentally from my own former university, JNU.
Mythology being a continuous repository of condensed cultural memories significantly impacts the contours of social attitudes and practices. It is in this sense that mythologies and legends are more than real. They constitute the most important battlefield for struggle against misogyny entrenched in the social psyche. They need to be understood with all their nuances, carefully interpreted and sensitively critiqued.
Shurpanakha is situated in this sphere of “more than real.” For many people she is a constant reminder of a woman transgressing her limits. The assault on her person is a metaphor for the punishment that is deserved for a wayward woman. Remember the Karni Sena threatened to cut off the nose of the woman playing Padmavati, not of the director, hero or even the actor playing Alauddin Khalji.
If you keep this mental landscape in mind, the Shurpanakha reference, however oblique, on the floor of House was dismaying, to say the least.
On the other hand, some commentators present Shurpanakha as one epitomising a rebel, who is unembarrassed about her sexual desire and confident enough to make the first move. But for any one who knows the Ramayana, far from being rebellious Shurpanakha was acting perfectly in accordance with the mores of the time in which the story takes place.
The prevalent code of conduct expected Rama and Lakshman to clearly turn down her proposal. Instead, they chose to have some uncalled-for fun at her expense. But let us not miss the crucial detail that she was assaulted only after she had rushed to kill Sita. Those reading Shurpanakha’s character as the archetype of a woman defying patriarchy must ask themselves: Are they also approving her murderous intent against another woman?
Here is a lesson. There is no need to valorise every character seen in negative light by mythology, even if she happens to be a woman.
Even more curious are references to ‘Draupadi’s laughter in some comments. The question is, did Draupadi really laugh at Duryodhana and taunted him for being a blind man’s son? If so, she represents not a ‘confident’ woman, but a most heartless one.
Well, if you care to know the incident as reported by Vyasa in his Mahabharata, truth is Draupadi never laughed at Duryodhana, never taunted him for being a blind man’s son. Vyasa’s report of the incident covers two chapters in the ‘sabha parva’.
It so happened that Yudhisthira invited Duryodhana to the ‘palace of illusions’—an architectural wonder created by the architect of the gods. Here, Duryodhana, unused to walking around in illusions, banged his head into a wall, thinking he was about to pass through a door; slipped on water thinking it was the floor of a room. The poet here mentions by name those who laughed at him. It is Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahdev; even their servants. Both Yudhisthira and Draupadi are conspicuous by absence in this list.
But, when Duryodhana reports the incident to his father, Dhritarashtra, it is an entirely different story, and emanates from his ‘consultations’ with Shakuni. Now, the old, blind king is told, “They all laughed at me, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakul, Sahdev. Krishna also joined them, even Draupadi along with other women laughed at me, and Bhima addressed me as ‘son of Dhritarashtra.”
Note, even Duryodhana in his cooked up version is not accusing Draupadi of calling him ‘a blind man’s son’; she only laughs at him. It is Bhima who delivers the insensitive taunt, that too in an indirect way.
‘Draupadi’s laughter’, therefore, is nothing but a false report deliberately spread by a crooked man, Shakuni, at least as far as Vyasa is concerned.
The Mahabharata shows remarkable insight into the male psyche here, transcending its times. Duryodhana is conscious of the fact that the laughter or even a taunt by a man will probably not anger the king sufficiently. That an ‘audacious’ woman, laughing at his beloved son, is a must to so enrage Dhritarashtra that he approves of the carefully planned revenge on the Pandavas.
Was this ancient poetic insight not confirmed once more when a ‘proud’ man could take the heckling from men in his stride, but not the laughter from a woman?
The Mahabharata’s Draupadi is a woman of substance, not of pettiness. She is full of moral courage and intellectual competence. She is certainly capable of nurturing her anger for years, but not crass enough to laugh at somebody who has slipped, that too referring to his father’s blindness. In fact, when all the grandees are witnessing her unspeakable humiliation in the royal assembly, Draupadi has the nerve and wisdom to remind them of something of eternal significance.
She says, “An assembly without elders is not worth its name/ The elders who hesitate to speak for dharma are not worth their salt/ The dharma that is not rooted in truth is no dharma/ And the truth pierced by deceit is no truth at all.” Draupadi’s anguished words continue to echo through the ages right up to the present moment, with added meaning and poignance.—“the truth pierced by deceit is no truth at all.”