Utkarsh Patel: Shakuntala—the woman wronged, RUPA, 2015, pp.276, Rs. 295/-
Shinde Sweety: Arjun—Without A Doubt, Frog Books, 2015, pp.306, R? 195/-
The new millennium seems to have ignited fresh interest among the young generation of professionals-turned-novelists in the heritage of India, heralded in 2003 by Ashok Banker’s brilliant re-invention of the Ramayana in a heptalogy. That led to a rash of novels drawing upon the vast repertory of Indian mythology—a trickle that is fast becoming a gushing fountain.
Patel, a former corporate professional who lectures on comparative mythology in Bombay University, has written his first work of fiction, recreating Shakuntala as a woman of substance as in Vyasa, rather than the helpless romantic heroine Kalidas turned her into. The attempt is fairly successful, with evocative descriptions of the beauty of the forest, the suspense of Dushyant’s hunt, the intense mutual attraction the young couple feel. There is, then, an abrupt change with Dushyant’s departure and silence over long years. What Shakuntala passes through has been well portrayed, the ups and downs of her varying emotions brought out sensitively. Patel has attempted criticism of social mores in the arranged marriage of Shakuntala’s sakhi Priyamvada to a much-married old widower, providing a contrast to the strong-willed Shakuntala who stands out as unique in refusing to let men get away with using her as they wish. To bolster this picture, Patel makes innovative use of the stories of Ahalya and of Madhavi, each at two different stages of Shakuntala’s life. Her reactions to hearing the tales reveal her as a self-empowered woman, thinking and feeling for herself, independent of male society’s preferences. Patel’s Menaka develops from a mere instrument of Indra for seduction to lover of Vishvamitra and then a grieving mother. She persuades the king of the gods, with help from his wife Indrani, to make the skyey proclamation vindicating Shakuntala in Dushyant’s court. In a triumphant climax, Patel has Shakuntala stride away from Hastinapur after handing Bharata over to Dushyant as his heir-apparent, scorning to live with a husband who, having denied and insulted her publicly, has the gall to say he forgives her.
The novel would have benefitted from professional editing. The glossary is not easy to use, not being alphabetically arranged. The bibliography is defective, lacking publication details. There are some stylistic problems. Further, Gautam was not one of the Seven Rishis, as mentioned. Patel could have lent the characterisation some more depth by applying the Jungian concept of Anima and Animus.
Apart from these minor defects, the novel reads well and succeeds in establishing Shakuntala as a woman who stands firm on her dignity against all attempts at browbeating her into submission. The foreword by Satya Chaitanya is written beautifully, placing her character in perspective. The epilogue portrays Bharata’s revolutionary decision to deprive his nine unfit sons and enthrone Bhumanyu, son of sage Bharadvaja. Patel claims this sowed the seeds of a democratic monarchy where merit received precedence over lineage. Unfortunately, the dynastic genealogies show this to be a figment of the romantic imagination.
Shinde Sweety (intriguingly putting her first name last) an MD joins the ranks of the many young professionals from India who have rediscovered the treasure of their mythical heritage. What sets her apart is her feel for the language, the ability to evoke emotions and bring epic characters to life in a manner that speaks to the modern reader. Like Vyasa, she adopts the dialogical format, her two main speakers being Arjuna and Draupadi. Their love, frustrated by Kunti, forms the core of the novel. In-between Krishna speaks in short bursts, providing not only a change of pace but also insights that are piercingly psychological and detachedly metaphysical. Of interest, and quite novel, is the unsympathetic portrayal of Kunti as a mother fixated on Yudhishthira, exploiting Draupadi. Shinde ignores Vyasa’s repeated mention of Sahadeva, the youngest, being her favourite, and overlooks Kunti’s role in burning the Nishada family alive in Varanavata, as also the puzzle of her leaving her sons preferring to die in a forest-fire with her in-laws whom she ought to have hated. Shinde’s Kunti provides Draupadi a choice: all five brothers, or only Yudhishthira. Draupadi, having fallen for Arjun, chooses the former! “Women were taught to tolerate co-wives. Who was ever taught to tolerate co-husbands? Women could reject advances from men with righteous anger. When I did it, I ended up cursed.”
Arbitrarily, Arjun’s exile is changed from twelve months or years to three years to fit in with Draupadi’s annual turn with each husband. His rescue of five cursed apsaras, his peculiar marriages with the Pandyan warrior-princess Alli and the princess Pavazhakkodi of Thembur are not included as also Minnoliyal who has to be persuaded by Alli and Draupadi to consummate the marriage. Why does Shinde spell Chitrangada as “Chitrangadha”? The superb vignette of how Subhadra wins over Draupadi and the latter’s expression of injured self-esteem to Arjuna are opportunities that could have lent sheen to the telling that Shinde has not utilised. So too, Draupadi’s longing for Arjuna expressed to Bhima during the forest exile, how her husbands rub her feet and hands when she collapses climbing a mountain. Her seduction of the somnolent Bhima for killing Kichaka is replaced with a dreary argument between Draupadi and Arjuna. Shinde never manages to explain Arjun’s eunuch-hood. His debacle at the hands of staff-wielding Abhiras who abduct the Yadava widows is another occasion for introspection and realisation that is lost. There are puzzling references to Balarama’s daughter having married Duryodhana’s son, whereas southern folklore has her (Vatsala or Shashirekha) married to Abhimanyu.
Very cleverly, instead of attempting a portrayal of the Gita epiphany, Shinde weaves its core message into the dialogues on different occasions, making it run through the novel instead of being a one-off experience. She averts the attempted disrobing of Draupadi by making Gandhari intervene and has Draupadi refuse to allow co-wives to live in Hastinapur, except Subhadra, for whose marriage Shinde has Krishna extort Draupadi’s permission by refusing to let Arjun return unless she agrees! Vyasa, however, shows all the wives in residence for the horse-sacrifice. Shinde has excellent insights, such as Arjun realising that the Bharata dynasty ceased with Bhishma, that Karna’s skin-armour was hardly impenetrable, for he fled from the Gandharvas and was defeated by Bhima in the Rajasuya conquests. In the Gandharva encounter, Arjun realises how their women are empowered, whereas the Pandavas have not treated Draupadi in that fashion. Shinde gives Draupadi, not Yudhishthir, the final say in sanctioning the rescue of Duryodhan begged for by his wife Bhanumati. There is a lovely touch in Indra being surprised at Draupadi welcoming Arjun’s return from Swarga with tears of joy—the lack of tears in heaven is the price paid for immortality. Shinde surprises with felicitous sentences like, “Arjun, war doesn’t decide who is right—it just decides who is left.” Again, “Vows cannot become the core of a clan’s destruction.” Possibly no other author has taken pains to portray Draupadi’s relationship with Abhimanyu.
Since the novel is about Arjuna, why does it leave out Arjuna’s conquests for the horse-sacrifice? This is where he expresses his bitter disillusionment with the fruits of the fratricidal massacre on meeting his cousin sister Duhshala, and where he requests Krishna to repeat the Gita as he has forgotten it. The unique incident of Arjun drawing his sword to kill Yudhishthira is missing. These offer exciting opportunities for exploring character, which have been ignored. Why is Krishna’s resuscitation of stillborn Parikshit omitted, when it is of crucial significance to his protagonists? If Shinde had read Jaimini’s version of this Ashvamedha Parva, she would have had a treasury of Arjuna exploits to enrich her telling further.
At the end, Shinde provides an interesting appendix on “Whys and Why Nots” dispelling popular misconceptions about incidents, another showing similarities between Arjun, Achilles and Alexander and a list of the supernatural weapons Arjun uses. However, in that process she commits a blunder common to many Mahabharata aficionados. The original “Jaya” did not have 8,800 slokas. That is the number of knotted verses Vyasa created for Ganesh to mull over, while he proceeded to get on with composing the story.
Published in the 8th Day literary supplement of The Sunday Statesman dated 8th November 2015.