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. 
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