Every generation of Indian storytellers has writers who are inexorably drawn to some of its most ancient stories. In recent years, there has been a flowering of retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in Indian writing in English. Shashi Deshpande, writing last month in Scroll.in, recalls a time that she could not place for publication of a story about princess Amba, abducted and betrayed by Bheeshma in the Mahabharata, who was then reborn as Shikhandi to seek revenge. One editor told Deshpande that Amba would not be recognised by readers. “Today such a problem would never arise. We are swamped with books, either retelling the stories of the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, or about a character from the epics—quite often a much lesser-known character, taken out of an obscure corner, dusted and put under the spotlight,” writes Deshpande. “Obviously, neither writers nor publishers worry about readers not knowing any of the characters.”
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Ira Mukhoty’s first novel follows in this tradition that Deshpande characterises as the “zeitgeist” of our times in literature. The blurb for Song of Draupadi says the women of the Mahabharata—“the beating heart of the epic”—are “often forgotten”. But this assertion is beginning to ring false—from Irawati Karve (Yuganta: The End of an Epoch) to Amruta Patil (Adi Parva and Sauptik), to Karthika Nair (Until the Lions) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (The Palace of Illusions), Draupadi’s tale has been recounted in non-fiction, graphic narrative, poetry, and fiction many times over. Mukhoty’s own first book, Heroines, tells the stories of eight women in myth and history from the author’s perspective, and the very first story is Draupadi’s.
Unlike Patil, who centres Ashwatthama (the son of Drona and killer of Draupadi’s sons) in her graphic novel Sauptik, or Nair, whose poetry gives voice to Poorna (who worked for Amba and her sister Ambalika), and the one Kaurava princess among others, in Until the Lions, Mukhoty’s attention is squarely focused on Draupadi. But even in the most focused retelling of the Mahabharata, it is impossible not to consider the many other characters and stories that make up the epic. Mukhoty’s story also intersects with the experiences of Amba, the queens Satyavati, Kunti, and Gandhari, as well as the characters surrounding them.
As in other recent retellings, Mukhoty has changed some events to add her own lens to the old story—for example, in Satyavati’s case, it is she who creates that conditions under which Shantanu can be with her, instead of her father. Largely, however, Mukhoty has told the story straight, like the tragedy that it is. Her immense skill at world-building, and inhabiting the skin of her characters is in evidence throughout the novel. Mukhoty writes in lush, gorgeous prose, with an eye towards the specificity of the natural world that takes one’s breath away. An example: “In the pale, faltering dawn of a spring day, the birds of the twin river basin are abandoning the marshlands of the Yamuna as if sensing a cataclysmic end approaching. In a great blaze of strumming feathers and beating hearts, the huge flocks of fawn and teal geese and mallard ducks leave the grassy marshlands and the sal and rosewood forests in swirling and weaving synchronicity.”
She has a gift, too, for taking the reader through the epic sweep of the multi-generational story, rooting each of her heroines in their own unique background and trajectory. She is able to do this seemingly effortlessly, always returning to the fulcrum of the story, Draupadi.
The beauty of the language doesn’t hide the ugly hierarchies of power and privilege that make up the world of the Mahabharata. Men abduct, rape, assault, and harass women at every turn. Caste-marginalised people, particularly women (since the telling focuses on them), are subjected to cruelty and violence throughout the story.
In Yuganta, Karve wrote about the indigenous woman and her five children whom Kunti and the Pandavas let burn to death as they slept as guests in their home, while they escaped through a secret tunnel, in Lakshagriha Parva of Mahabharata. She criticises versions of the story that demonise the woman (she cites two additions to the Mahabharata, where the woman was described as “cruel”): “This natural sequence of events was distorted by later narrators because they wanted their heroes to be above the reproach of having killed six innocent persons.”
Mukhoty tells the stories in the third person, but with the interiority of the main character guiding the narrative. However, the telling is not always tonally consistent, sometimes embodying the characters (with its attendant biases and belief systems), and sometimes seeming to offer a commentary that stands apart from the character, even as it furthers their story. This is particularly thorny and hard to read when it comes to the most underrepresented and erased characters in the epic—those with the least amount of power.
In the case of the (unnamed) woman who works for the sisters Amba and Ambalika, and is forced to sleep with Vyasa in a twisted ritual called niyoga, Mukhoty writes, with apparent lack of irony, “The maid is a low-caste servant girl, a shadow being. Association with the high-caste, powerful sadhu would certainly be beneficial for her, especially if she were to bear him a son.”
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If the barometer of the novel seeks to resurrect and retell the feminine histories of the epic, it is in these instances that the story fails in its telling. The interiority that is carefully cultivated with Draupadi’s character is absent here, only the sort of description (“a shadow being”) that retains the dehumanisation of the character in the original, and a terse summary that does not explain what, if anything, this woman gained from being with Vyasa. She hardly plays a part in the story after this.
In other instances, Mukhoty-as-narrator clearly steps in to offer more layers to her telling, as in the scene where Sushila, who works for Draupadi’s family, is forced to part with her own family when the princess is married: “Sushila does not say that she had to leave behind her own husband to accompany Draupadi, and her young son, whose soft brown curls and laughing dark eyes she will never see again. These sacrifices are so pedestrian for a servant girl that it would not do to break one’s heart over them.”
In some moments, the norms of those times (which have carried over into the present day) are melded into the narrative, as in the repeated exhortation towards the following of “kshatriya dharma” in the run-up to the 18-day war between the Pandavas and Kauravas. This is harder to read at face value, especially in a novel that takes a special interest in exploring the treatment of one group of people.
There is always the question of how many Draupadi retellings are too many, especially in the 21st century. To come back to where I began, writers will always be drawn to ancient stories—but there are so many other, less-known ones, that have not been explored yet. It would be interesting to see what writers of Mukhoty’s skill would do with them.
Shreya Ila Anasuya is a writer and researcher based in Kolkata.
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