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26 June 2021

Unheard Voices

The Mahabharata, considered the world’s longest epic, is a sprawling tale that enfolds myriad frametales and secondary digressions around the core theme of the internecine struggle in the Kingdom of Hastinapura. Various retellings of the great epic have taken place in various languages, from the straightforward retelling of C Rajgopalachari and Kamala Laxman to narratives from the perspective of Bhima (Randam Muzham /Second Turn by MT Vasudevan Nair) and Draupadi (Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray and Yuganta by Irawati Karwe) and perhaps many others.

As one well knows, the same event can seem different when viewed through a different lens. Karna’s view of the epic would differ vastly from Arjuna’s, for instance; Bhima’s would diverge from Duryodhana’s. Who’s to say which is the truth? For “Until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Or so claims an African proverb.

Pages 288
HarperCollins India
ISBN-10 9351772829
ISBN-13 978-9351772828
Author Karthika Nair borrows from that proverb for the title of her book: Until the Lions.Echoes from the Mahabharata” reads the tagline. But her focus is not on the ‘heroes’ and the solitary heroine of popular imagination. No. Her primary interest lies in the voices on the periphery, voices consigned to the footnotes of history, sometimes even unnamed, definitely unsung  mothers, daughters, spouses – whose voices are seldom heard, let alone listened to.

Young women who are made bait by their fathers; abducted by would-be suitors or by those who would do so on others’ behalf; married off against their will for the sake of political expediency or to slake the blood-lust of their male kin; ‘sanctioned’ rape within or without a marriage. These are their voices, their stories – from queens to maids and everyone in between. Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, concubines.

Until the Lions tells their stories. But it does not merely echo their voices, tagline notwithstanding. Every sigh and unshed tear, every quiver of anger and hate, every tremble of helplessness and grief is gathered close and sharpened until the words ring loud and clear like a clarion call – brushing aside every assumption of divinity, every pretence of a dharma yudh (righteous war), every bulwark of patriarchy that deems women mere chattel, denying them their lives, their loves, their likes and dislikes.

Every fault line in society is laid bare – caste, class, gender, privilege. The words strike swiftly, surely, rapier sharp; the hatred flows off the page into your veins; the pain numbs your very blood. And the voices ring out, sharply poignant as they beg you to listen to them – hear what they have to say, since the only stories that the world knows are those that the men chose to share. Here, then, are their voices – marginalized, forgotten, rendered mute by men who chose to depict their helplessness as their devotion, their sacrifice, their honour.

Where does one start? With Satyavati? The young fisher woman, the object of Shantanu’s lust and the reason for Devavrata’s oath? Hastinapura’s Queen, Queen Mother, Dowager Queen? Who still remains ‘Daseyi’ (maid) to her step son who can scarcely bring himself to respect her?

Victim? Or perpetrator? Both, perhaps? After all, she sanctions the razing of Kashi and Gandhar, and plots the rape of her daughters-in-law… But, she is also witness to the rage and anger and the hate that festers and roils; the book begins with her mourning:

"Old hate, descended from heavens, leavened on my land. Old hate, diffused through blood and womb and semen. Old hate that I too begat, old hate bequeathed and bartered, won in battle, given as bride-price, hate that blighted six generations of this clan, deforming husbands, grandsons, aunts and nephews, brides and celibates..." 

Or later as she notes: 

In Kurukshetra
The Earth swathes her face in blood
Death begins to dance.

Amba – fiery, feisty Amba. Princess of Kashi. Abducted on the eve of her swayamvara to the man she loves – the Prince of Salwa. Why? Because Kashi did not invite the Princes of Hastinapura to the swayamvara of their princesses. She dares voice her objection to not having a choice, but is forsaken by the very man who had promised to honour and protect her. Her hatred leads her to forsake her womanhood to rise again as a man – so she can prove to be her abductor’s nemesis.

Gandhari – the proud princess of Gandhar. A kingdom razed to the ground, like Kashi before her. Why? Because her father refuses to marry his daughter off to the blind prince of Hastinapura. Gandhari comes blindfolded, and is hailed for her fealty to her future husband. This is her chance to reclaim her narrative.

Kunti, adopted daughter of Raja Kuntibhoja, married to Pandu, the younger prince who is crowned King of Hastinapura, who is never asked what she thinks of her husband’s second marriage to Madri, the princess of Madra. When a series of mishaps leads to Pandu renouncing the throne and remaining celibate, she’s forced into niyoga with the Gods, so her husband can have an heir. Like Satyavati, Kunti too perpetuates the patriarchy her daughter-in-law, ‘won’ by Arjuna, is forced to be the wife of all five Pandavas, thanks to Kunti, who is striving to keep her sons united.

The queen of Panchal – wife of King Drupada, mother of Dhrishtadyumna and Draupadi, she remains nameless in the Mahabharata. Rendered mute by her husband’s boiling hatred for Drona, she can only watch as her husband’s prayers bring forth a radiant son to avenge his humiliation, and a dark, lissom daughter who springs forth from the fire to become the perfect bait.

"Dhrista and Draupadi too dream," she mourns, "though theirs is hate inherited: its contours blurred, origin roiled in the story they've learnt by rote. For hate can outgrow memory."

Uloopi – proud Naga princess, bedded and forgotten by the great archer until it is time for her to send her 16-year-old son so his warrior father can win a battle. She willingly entered into a union with him because her kingdom needed an heir. But what about the son who has never known his father, but is asked to fight a battle that isn't is? To make the ultimate sacrifice?

Dusshala – lone daughter, "a postscript to a hundred sons", she says. She knows her worth. Or lack of it. A sister who mourns her kin, all hundred of them, naming each one so they would not die twice.

Uttaraa, the princess of Matsya, married to Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s teenage son. Finding love and companionship for a little more than a fortnight in a young man who has no wish to be a warrior but who makes the ultimate sacrifice – so his uncle can be king.With her husband dead on the battlefield, she makes a promise to her unborn son so he will not forget.

They will tell you he was a hero, child, your
father, my husband. They will swear he lived
a glorious death, swift and valorous.

Here he lies, he that most wished to be
not hero – this, they will not tell you child – but father.

These are queens and princesses. But there are other voices – Poorna, the maid, whose compassion makes her take her mistress’s place in a stranger’s bed, and whose courage allows her to excoriate another powerful queen for sanctioning rape. 

"It wasn’t threat to life, greed, nor lust as the hazel, restive moon is witness that thrust me last night through the doors of your son’s chamber," she says. "Why and when does a saviour you were no less, damn our innocence to one turn traitor, oppressor, to another?" she wonders.

Sauvali, the maid who bears the thrusting lust of a blind king in his bid to birth an heir before his brother does, and who is told how lucky she is that the king chose her to bed. 

When the king decides to take
you, there’s nowhere to run.
The land is his, the rivers are his – the sky
too, the birds dwelling there bemoan.
When the king decides to take
you, there is nowhere to hide, with earth
and heaven and hell his turf.
When the king decides to take you,
no one comes to the rescue: the gods
Are his, myth and legend,
Too, his own.

Hidimbi, the rakhsasi or demoness, who falls in love with Bhima, understands him better than anyone has ever done. Like Uloopi, she too sends her son to help his warrior father in the battle against his uncles.

Vrushali, the wife of Karna, and Bhanumathi, Duryodhana’s wife – women who love their husbands despite their flaws but cannot change the course of their lives or their own.

Mohini, the enchantress, Krishna’s alter ego, who cannot grieve for Aaravan  "for Krishna will not spare me a morsel of memory nor the comfort of mourning nor the covenant of a married name."

These voices – and others – clamour to be heard, so that history does not remain a song of the victors by the victors. The grief, the hate, and the anger flow in verse forms that range from glosa (a Spanish verse form), the Malay pantoum, the Provençal sestina, the Pashtun landay, among others. Until the Lions is a book that begs to be read aloud; the cadences of your voice echoing the feelings that bleed through the print onto your fingertips, leach into your skin and flow into your veins, imprinting themselves in your sinews and your bones, until they are carved into your brain.

They are the voices not just of these 14 women – and others – but of generations of women – before and after. They are the voices of children, male and female, who are sacrificed on the altar of their progenitors’ whims and desires. They echo – not just from the Mahabharata – but through different ages, different lands, different ethos. They beg to be heard, to be listened to, to be validated. 

They beg to live, so they may not die. 

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