Reviewed by Brinda S Narayan
Fortunately for Indian readers, many of our myths are being reinterpreted and retold by accomplished and brilliant writers. Among the more well-known reworks, Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s The Palace of Illusions casts Draupadi in a new light, while Samhita Arni’s Sita’s Ramayana reminds us that the epic wasn’t just about Rama’s virtuousness and his forfeiture of the throne.
Shashi Deshpande, who negotiates modernity and tradition with a characteristic flair, evokes a similar discomfiture with the male-centred narrative of the Mahabharatha. In a powerful retelling of the circumstances that fuelled the birth of the two progenitors of the feuding cousins – Pandu, the father of the famously-principled Pandavas, and Dhritarashtra, the blind, remorseful father of the arrogant Duryodhana and his ninety-nine brothers. Deshpande foreshadows the violent battle that was to ensue in the very savage treatment of the two abducted sisters – Ambika and Ambalika. Being the sophisticated writer that she is, she does not explicitly use the word “rape”; after all, women in that era, would not have had modern legal jargon to describe the assaults they had been subjected to. But she depicts in excruciating detail how the two births were seeded in a muffling of female agency, in the outright subjection of female voices and bodies to kingly imperatives. She also derides the conventional notions of “penance” – usually posited as a “male sage” who eschews physical and sexual desires, standing on one leg in a cold, mountainous region or cave. How can such a “penance” compare with the “sacrifices” forced on women – the sexual assaults, followed by an unwanted pregnancy, a painful birth and then the wrenching away of their sons, who have to perform their warrior duties. At every stage, women have had to disregard their own desires to prop up insecure or ambitious men.
Deshpande often writes about people whose lives are buffeted by forces that are not of their own choosing. And who then have to don a pretence of normalcy or contentment while keeping darker currents at bay. While this can very well be the lot of any marginalised group in history, it has been the particular experience of women, who have had to contend with wide gaps between their “masked” public personas and their roiling subterranean selves. But equally, Deshpande is also aware of female power, of Shakti, and how this force, both in emotional and psychological terms, thrashes into male consciousness, by blessing and cursing male oppressors into feeling rashly triumphant but thereafter, abjectly repentant. Or at least subjected to a similar anguish. Or at least women can hope that justice is meted out. In light of the contemporary #MeToo movement, and with punishments awarded or withheld, this tale, narrated with sensitivity and élan, carries a heightened significance.
Reviewer Brinda S Narayan's story @ The Shanghai Tea House appeared in Out of Print June 2013.
#Premise features Narayan's review of Jayant Kaikini's 'The Threshold' translated from Kannada by Pratibha Umashankar-Nadiger.