Thursday, 4 January 2018

Reading Women #1 - A book which is both written and translated by a woman



After Kurukshetra : Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi, Anjum Katyal (translator)

The author, Mahasweta Devi needs no introduction in the Indian academic circles. She is a renowned activist, prolific writer and admired by all as a foremost literary personality. She had been honoured with the foremost national honours in literary achievement as well as the highest civilian recognitions as well. So, a tale coming from her is always sure to pack a punch.   

Originally written in Bengali (one of the most poetic language ever, according to me) this short collection of three tales brings to focus the women in the margins and gives them a hitherto unheard narrative voice. The women in focus are all from the margins and live alongside those whose names we already know from the great Indian epic – the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is immense. It’s a treasure trove of stories both within it as well as the many perspectives that it can generate like this collection. I can only think of Greek Mythology as coming close to this in its immensity and epic proportion.  

The three stories listed in this slim volume (just 54 pages!) becomes even more potent since these are stories of women who though are never part of the main picture are nevertheless affected by the consequences of the war that claimed thousands of lives and rendered many women childless and widowed.

The first story, ‘The Five Women’ (Panchakanya) portrays five lower-caste war widows who are brought in as companions for Uttara, the pregnant widow of Abhimanyu, the dead Pandava hero. Though very young herself, her unborn child is the only remaining hope for the continuation of the Pandava clan. Though they won the war, the cost of the battle has been immense. The contrast between the widows of royal lineage and that of common peasant’s are very stark. Whereas the royal women carry their widowhood with a stately decorum, crushed by their widowhood by generations of systemically held beliefs, the young wives of the dead peasants (who also had been killed in the war) mourn for their dead wearing the accustomed black mourning dress but also have the courage and are willing to put that behind them. These women who sing and talk despite the death of their husbands come as a shock for the young widowed and pregnant Uttara.

“Everything happens outside the women’s quarters, here. Pujas, ceremonial sacrifices, yagnas. There, the world is full of bustle and activity. Here, you white-clad widows float around like shadowy ghosts. We wonder, won’t you ever laugh, talk loudly, run outside on restless feet?”

These are powerful questions that simultaneously shake the puritanical notion of a ‘Dharmayudha’ or Holy war as it was called, and criticize the consequences of it for women from different social strata. Rather than showing a homogenous victimhood of women, Mahasweta Devi interprets the individuality of the suffering women – each with their own courage and strength of beliefs.

In the second story ‘Kunti and the Nishadin’(Kunti o Nishadi) deals with how Kunti accepts her injustice to Karna, her abandoned son but forgets her bigger injustice which ended the lives of six innocents. Kunti is the matriarch of the Pandava clan who had given birth to a son , Karna who she then abandoned out of shame. Now, after the end of the war she has left the life in the palace to seek renunciation in the forest along with her blind brother-in-law (Dhritarashtra) and his dutiful wife (Gandhari). They had lost all their hundred sons in the battle. Together they live a life of penance in the forest.

Kunti now painfully regrets how she committed a grave injustice to Karna by abandoning him and then by denying him his parentage. Though he would always honour the promise she had asked of him, to spare her sons in the battle, Karna himself would have to die in the end without being acknowledged as her first born. While ruminations on this past injustice swells up in her, she is forced to encounter a Nishadin (woman of the Nishad people, considered one of the uncivilized races of ancient India chiefly living by hunting, gathering crops etc.)

It turns out this Nishadin has been directly affected by one of Kunti’s own actions which she engineered to save her sons’ lives. That action had in turn changed the life of the Nishadin standing in front of her. So by the end of her life Kunti comes face to face with unexpected consequences of her actions and compels her to voice her guilt and shame that had remained covered in the past.  
The final tale ‘Souvali’(Souvali) is the story of the woman employed to serve Dhritarashtra, patriarch of the Kauravas and who had also fathered her son, Yuyutsu.  Her reaction to his death and the lifestyle she has chosen is in stark contrast to a the woman of the royal household who are never free. Her slight criticism of her son who aspires to be recognized doesn’t go unnoticed but remains the pertaining insight that we get from these potent tales from the side-lines.

“Who has ever really looked at them? Nothing more than insignificant presences. But now, suddenly those presences have been granted form, granted notice.”

Mahasweta Devi always weaves a compelling story and never fails to recognize the voices behind the mainstream. The translator has clearly done a near perfect expression of what the author must have intended since the language evokes the pain, suffering and resilience of all these women.

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