Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Devdutt Pattnaik - The Pregnant King

After I read the book through, I put it down and cried. Like Jayanta, the king’s younger son, I cried for “the imperfection of humans and for our stubborn refusal to make room for all those in between.” We are limited in our perceptions by our limited imagination, and having learnt about the world from persons of limited wisdom, our intellect is not allowed to form to its fullest. We no longer have teachers and thinkers of high caliber amongst us to challenge our minds. Our education is filled with pre-set syllabus and pre-set ways of understanding it. No wonder, as each generation develops, we find ourselves less tolerant of people who are not like us and pick fights over petty issues of region, religion and class. We follow customs and conventions of the society without trying to understand them, discarding them or adopting them for our convenience.

The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is a tale told of a man, a king of a prosperous kingdom who finds himself bearing a child. Due to this ‘aberration of nature’ he finds his mind in a turmoil. His feelings for his child are more maternal than paternal and he finds himself grappling with issues of Dharma and of existence itself. Although this mythical tale of Yuvanashva is set in time more ancient than Mahabharata, the author takes the liberty of setting it parallel to parable of Pandavas.

Through the tale, we learn the ambiguous roles that many kings had to play. There were both feminine and masculine sides to them, their subjects learnt to revere them for their ability to portray the best of both sexes as an additional blessing instead of a curse for their multi-sexuality. We learn many of the old traditions that were coined for the good of people, the vedic way of life that ensured harmony and prosperity. The caste system which is much reviled now, was a means of allowing people in different walks of life to live with dignity.

However the fissures in this perfect way of life were already evident. When Ashwathama discarded his varna to become king, when Kshatriyas used deceit to win the war, when Dharma was abandoned in an attempt to cling to power. Then, as now, the final message is that it is Love that is most important, in its most sublime form, Compassion.

Here is a gem from the book – “Careful of the word unnatural. It reeks of arrogance. You are assuming you know the boundaries of nature. You don’t. There is more to life than your eyes can see. More than you can ever imagine. Nature comes from the mind of God. It is infinite. The finite human mind can never fathom it in totality.”

The tale is carefully woven. As in Mahabharata when the seeds of discord were sown generations before the actual war, here too we go back to the story of Yuvanashva’s mother, the widowed regent Shilavati and go on to learn life in Vallabhi the kingdom into which she is married. Yuvanashva is a sheltered child and needs to fulfill his primary function, father a son and provide and heir to the throne of Vallabhi before he can become king. It becomes hard to fathom whether Shilavati is hanging on to power for its own sake or as a maternal instinct to protect her son and allow him time to procreate. Kaliyuga is about to dawn and it is indicated when people use dharma to further their own end.

The wisest of Rishi’s Angirasa laugh when the Chief Priest Mandavya wonders why power corrupted the mind of Shilavati, she was a woman after all. “He thinks women are not corrupted by power” they laugh. The Angirasa also descend on the Pregnant King and seek to pray to him as they think he is a special signal from Gods. They open his mind to the ambivalence of human forms. Not all are rigidly male or female.

Myths are philosophic tales to educate us through entertainment and exist to inform us that nature is more powerful than any of us. Those readers who loved reading stories from Chandamama, tales of Mahabharata and Ramayana, Vikram and Betal stories will love this book. I was able to devour the 149 page book in 5-6 hours of continous reading, I found it gripping and unputdownable. The finale was satisfying and disturbing at the same time.

Devdutt Pattanaik has made a career out of studying the ancient myths and decoding them. He has his own website here.

22 comments:

couchpapaya said...

That quote is truly wonderful and thought-provoking - I hate it when people impose their morality on others. And it can be taken in so many other contexts too!! And I must read more about the caste system, it is often difficult for me to understand myself and then explain. Thanks for reviewing avdi, am off to see where I can get my hands on this one!!

WhatsInAName said...

Wonderful review and you sure read the book with an open mind. I was fascinated with the title of the book and hence bought it........ Though I was a bit skeptical about it, but yeah I found it pretty interesting. I admit to not having read the book with an open mind, maybe thats why it didn't appeal as much to me.
It sure has a mythological charm. Totally fable like. I wonder how much is the truth

YOSEE said...

Your review made me glad i bought that book yesterday.Yet to start reading. But i have decided to like it !!!

Smita said...

Hmmm lemme get the book from WIAN!!

Vee said...

Wow, this sure is a different stuff and looks interesting... Not gonna say 'let me pick up' as whenever I say that it never happens... but sure one day it will happen...

avdi said...

CP I think this is available on amazon.

WIAN - ohh... I dont think its really the open mind thing. I enjoyed the intense philosophic discussions. And the deva's watching over the lives of ordinary mortals. I quite fell in love with the astute angirasa rishis. It is almost like everyone knows whats going to happen in your life but you. I liked the way Yuvanashva evolved. And the character of the 2nd son Jayanta, who was so naturally compassionate that he could understand everyone.

avdi said...

YOSEE, I hope you like it. Happy reading !

avdi said...

Smita, how did you resist the temptation of reading it when you had it?

avdi said...

Vee - I sure hope it does. Right time and place eh ;)

Capt. Anup Murthy said...

This is a revelation to me. Your review is again so compelling, I'd put this on my definite list to read. I am fond of this genre and if someone can do proper justice to it, I'd be a fan. Thanks again for this wonderful piece.

avdi said...

Anup - :) It was lovely. There is a good insight into the Vedic way of life.

Yword said...

Browsed this bookawhile ago and found it fascinating. your review is sogood - loved the way you use words so cleanly. will try to pikit up

avdi said...

Thanks Y.

You should like it.

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Amitabh said...

That is an excellent review. I like reviews that make you want to read more.
And thanks for dropping by every once in a while and leaving a comment behind.

Bedazzled said...

i want to pick this book up this minute.. lovely review !!

avdi said...

Daz, hope you will find it edifying. Thanks

penandpaper said...

As an enthusiast of Mahabharata and any book that relates to it, I came to know about this book. Was skeptical about it. But guess, I can surely give it a try. Thanks for the review :-)

avdi said...

Pen and Paper, The books is not really ABOUT Mahabharata, it runs parallel to it. But I loved it.

penandpaper said...

Oh ok! who cares :-) a good book, is a good book, is a good book!

avirandom said...

Beautiful review

Ava Suri said...

Thank you Avinash :)

 
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