Sunday, April 1, 2018

Book Review: After Kurukshetra by Mahasweta Devi

Title: After Kurukshetra
Author: Mahasweta Devi (translated by Anjum Katyal)

Publisher: Seagull Books
Pages: 49
Price: 120
Genre: Fiction / Mythology / Women's studies
Rating: 8/10
Format: Paperback

‘After Kurukshetra’ is a collection of three short stories, originally written in Bengali by Mahasweta Devi and translated by Anjum Katyal. All of 49 pages, though a short read yet this book attempts to explore the impact of the epic war on common women. When we talk about Mahabharata, the narrative is usually about the men and women of the Kuru clan and people directly related to them; but this book actually makes us sit up and acknowledge what it meant to the common folk. Was it really a war for justice? Was this inevitable? Did this war justify the deaths of so many people, many of whom couldn’t even choose whether they wanted a war or not.

These stories are the offshoots of the main story of Mahabharata. They are born out of the author’s imagination. All the three stories are about women. Each story has ordinary women standing up to the royalty for what they think is fair and justified. All these women have been wronged in the hands of the royal folks. They felt used by them for their own greed and selfishness, in one way or another.

The first story is about five ordinary women, also widowed in the war, who have been brought into the palace to keep the pregnant and widowed Uttara (Abhimanyu’s wife) company. The story depicts the contrast in which women of royalty and common women are expected to deal with the loss of their husbands. Common womenfolk have more freedom, they will remarry and have children because that’s what nature expects of them; while royal widows will live a life of rules and regulations, there life will be spent in shadows, inside the corners of the women quarters.

These women are not of the rajavritta, women of royalty, nor are they servants or attendants. These women are from the families of the hundreds of foot soldiers – padatiks – from various other little kingdoms. They had been slaughtered every day, in their thousands, their function being to protect the chariot – mounted heroes. They were issued no armour. So they died in large numbers.

The women make no bones about questioning the need for war. When the head dasi (servant) of the royal women quarters call the war a ‘disaster’, they argue:

 ‘Disaster? What disaster? Huh, old woman? Was this some natural calamity? So many great kings join in a war between brothers. Some chose one side, some cross over to the other. It wasn’t just brother slaughtering brother. We know of quarrels – jealousies – rivalries too. But such a war for just a throne? This, a holy war?! A righteous war?! Just call it a war of greed!’

The war meant nothing to the common folks but there wasn’t a way to get away from the war. They had no choice. If they were called, they had to go.

‘This was not our dharmayuddha. Brother kills brother, uncle kills nephew, shishya kills guru. It may be your idea of dharma, it’s not ours.

It implores us to reflect on what true victory is. Was it truly a victory for Yudhishthir? The war sacrificed so many people and cost so much in terms of people and matter. The dead included farmers and traders. Their pyres burnt for several days, from which arose a sickening stench. The city was covered in gloom because of so many deaths. Who was happy? Even Pandavas lost all their children. None was left except Uttara’s unborn child.

Subhadra can’t hold back her tears. Slapping her forehead she laments, the sons are dead, their fathers are alive. Daughters-in-law have lost their husbands, while their mothers-in-law are still married.

 “So many hundreds of widows! So many homes in which mothers have lost their sons!

The second story is about Kunti. After the war, Dhritarashtra, Gandhari and Kunti retreated into the forest. Karna’s death intensified Kunti’s guilt of abandonment. It gnawed at her during her last days and made her restless.   

What irony! What irony! Not one of the five Pandavas is sired by Pandu! Yet they are Pandavas. And Karna? A carpenter’s (sic) son.

While she mourned how she always failed her firstborn, a Nishadin (tribal woman) accosted her in the forest to remind about her gravest sin which she never acknowledged. She accused Kunti of abetting the deaths of a Nishadin and her five sons for her selfish interests; and that it was typical of the royalty to think nothing of the lives of common folks.

You couldn’t even remember this sin. Causing six innocent forest tribals to be burnt to death to serve your own interests. That was not even a crime in your book.

This story touches upon the conflict between the people from the royalty and common folks (specifically the tribals, in this case); what was the attitude of the kings towards ordinary people and how they only looked at them as means to their ends. The people from royalty certainly considered themselves as superior and therefore thought nothing of the sacrifice.

The third story is about a woman called Souvali, a vaishya (trader) woman, who was brought in the palace to serve Dhritarashtra while Gandhari was pregnant. She bore a son called Yuyutsu (or Souvalya). She was never accorded the respect and dignity fit for the mother of a king’s son and her son was also always considered and treated like a ‘dasiputra’ (son of a servant). And yet he was the one who did the final rites of his father Dhritarashtra as his only surviving son.

Never went near him, never called him ‘father’, and today I did the tarpan for him.

In this story also, a common woman of vaishya (trader) community, Souvali, was embittered by the injustice meted out to her and her son. She felt used and never acknowledged. She thought her son was foolish to behave like the men of royalty inspite of being the son of a common woman. She herself is not disillusioned to follow the rituals expected of the royalty.

She thinks to herself, if you must learn, learn from your mother. I was nothing but a dasi in the royal household but here, amongst the common people, I’m a free woman.

Though quite a thin book, it sparks a lot of thoughts. For a book that has to offer interesting facets of the war, the editing was a dampener. I have already written a lot about the stories. I do think that reading the original would make a bigger impact, so if you know Bengali, please read the original.  

Undoubtedly, it is a must-read for Mahabharata enthusiasts.

Check out my compilation of Books on Mahabharata here.  

Text in italics have been quoted from the book. 
Image credit

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: The Mahabharatha - a child's view by Samhita Arni

Title: The Mahabharatha - a child's view
Author: Samhita Arni

Publisher: Tara Books
Pages: 288
Price: Rs 650
Genre: Children's books / Mythology / Religion
Rating: 10/10
Format: Paperback

This book has been with me for a really long time. I bought it before my son was born, may be even before I was married. At that time, I bought this book for myself. 

Recently, we (I and my 6.5 year old) were discussing about Ramayana and the conversation veered off to Mahabharata. Mahabharata is so exhaustive and full of so many characters that I could not decide where to begin. The next day, I chanced upon this book in my collection and thought it was a perfect time to introduce him to this book.

According to her website, Samhita Arni started writing this when she was 8 and it got published first when she was 12.  This assured me that the story will not be complex and, moreover, when the book is written by a child it will strike the right chord with children. I also did not worry about what kind of details the story would have captured about adult relationships.

He took to it immediately. When he likes a book, he gets possessed by it. He would read it every waking minute.  It has been over 2 weeks. He has already read it twice. Mahabharata is a story that deserves to be read again and again. It always opens up multiple dimensions to the story or you start thinking about some different character every time. I am personally a Mahabharata fan too and I know my Mahabharata and Ramayana collection will be the last to go (considering I am no longer the hoarder I used to be).

No doubt, this is a fantastic book for kids who have started showing interest in Mahabharata. The best aspect of this book is its ability to narrate a complex story in a simple way. 

Samhita Arni writes in her foreword:  "There is much that we lose in growing up.As one grows up, we feel a little less strongly about things. Sensations are blunted. We develop a terrible habit of refashioning the world around as we want to see it, and ignoring that which makes us uncomfortable. There is a freshness in the way children see things, in the instinctive, individualistic reactions they have.Unfortunately, many think that the best way to instruct children is mot to encourage them to reveal their own, innate reactions and thoughts, but to teach them the right (and only) way to think, to see, to respond. This seems to be the goal of education - not to allow children to ask questions but to indoctrinate them; to let them learn by rote. I think there is much e, adults, can learn from talking to children, from their own, strongly individual reactions ad perspectives."

There are many things which work in this book:
- The pictorial family tree at the beginning helps in understanding the relationships between all the characters. Especially, in a story like Mahabharata, it is very important. Naturally, it came extremely handy to my son while reading the book. 
- The neat pictorial layout at the end captures 'Pandava Alliance' and 'Kaurava Alliance'. This was also very useful in understanding who supported whom in the battlefield.
- The illustrations, created when the author was a child, capture the essence of the story beautifully. A child reading the book identifies with it and it certainly aids understanding. 
- Spread over 55 Chapters, the story captures everything from Santanu to Janamejaya and everyone in between. 

Sometimes children point out such simple and obvious things which we unknowingly overlook. My son pointed out that Hidimbi wasn't shown in the layout showing Alliances; even Draupadi wasn't shown. I had to finally explain that during those times women did not enter battlefields. He found Amba's story quite interesting. He also asked if Ghatokacha looked the way he was shown; I said it was the author's imagination. Nobody has seen him! 

These days, we are having such discussions all the time since we have also added few more books to our collection. It is interesting how both of us are reading different versions simultaneously and even fighting to read the same book. 

This book certainly worked for us as the first book on Mahabharata for my 6.5 year old, and I highly recommend this book to the enthusiasts of Mahabharata - young or old. As someone rightly said 'a children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.' 

Note: Here is the link to the page on Mahabharata inspired books. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list.

Image credit (except the page on Alliances): Author website