Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Karthika Nair - Until the Lions

+HarperCollins India
+Amazon India

Poets flock to write about kings and warriors, their antics are immortalised in verse and passed down the ages till their word becomes the truth.  Legend overshadows fact.  Much of History is nothing but glorified tales being handed down from the centuries.

It takes a sceptical and an inquiring mind to think about those who were trampled down in the path to glory that the great kings took.

Karthika Nair takes up cudgels on behalf of all the unsung heroines of Mahabharata.

Satyavati: A princess by birth but raised by a poor fisherman, Satyavati uses her unparalleled beauty to rise to the level of a queen.  She finds no solace in her life.  She lives to her vast empire torn apart by a rift between brothers.

Amba/Shikhandi: Kidnapped by Bhishma, Amba is released to return to her paramour.  She is rejected by him on grounds of being 'defiled' by the kidnapping.  She returns to the Kuru Prince but is spurned yet again.  Angrily, she asks Bhishma  to marry her, as it was he who had kidnapped her in the first place.  Bhishma is tied to his promise of celibacy and cannot.  Enraged, Amba swears revenge and is reborn as Shikhandi.  Her mission is to kill Bhishma.

Poorna:  Frightened Ambika, not wishing to lay with Rishi Vyasa, sends her servant Poorna instead. Poorna bears the only healthy son from him, Vidur, renowned for his wisdom.

Sauvali:  Dhritarashtra had a son by a servant, called Yayati. Dhritrastra was keen on having a son before his brother Pandu, hence staking his claim to the Kuru throne over him.

Gandhari:  Gandhari and her lame brother Shakuni were abducted from her father's house. Her family was killed as they did not agree to give their daughter in marriage to a blind prince.  She is forced to get pregnant for the sake of her husband's greed for the throne.

Hidimbi: She married Bhim out of love but had to watch him leave with his brothers.  He thinks of his son Ghatotkach only when the war is on and warriors are needed.

Dusshala: The lone daughter of Dhritrashtra, she is left alive to weep for her 100 brothers.

Ulupi: The Naga princess who wed Arjuna.  As is often the case in the Epic, she is discarded till her son Aravan, is required for the supreme sacrifice.

Mohini:  The avatar of a woman that Krishna dons, to become the wife of the doomed Aravan, required for human sacrifice.

Uttara: Abhimanyu's wife.  She has to see her husband go to certain death as he is the only one who knows how to break the Chakravyuha.

Kunti: The mother of Pandavas.

Vrishali: Karna's wife.

All these women finally get a voice in Karthika Nair's wonderful creation.  We hear them, their grievances, their outrage.  The voices will break your heart.  After reading them, you will question the decisions these power hungry men took, all in the name of Dharma and Justice.

Satyavati's voice lingers the most in the Epic.  She is the one who set the wheels of Mahabharata in motion.  She was denied her destiny by a king who gave birth to her and discarded her.

Mahabharata is focussed on the men, their doings and tales of glory. Until the Lions brings them down a few pegs by talking about the unsavoury things that they did in the name of wresting power.

The novel is in verse.  All the women use a different voice, her verse is different, her words are different.

Dusshala's requiem for her dead brothers was particularly touching.  I have read Mahabharata in some form or the other all through my life. Once as a complete book and most often as bits and stories. Never have I heard all the names of  Duryodhan's brothers.  I have heard of only Dushasan.

At the beginning of the book there is a chapter dedicated to the dramatis personae.  It lists the characters of Mahabharata with a tongue in cheek description of their role.

I have read some excellent reviews of the book, people who understand the various verses Karthika Nair uses and their significance.  I am not knowledgeable enough to understand them, all I can say is that the book is wonderful to read.  It is great to have your beliefs shaken up and fresh voices added to a well known narrative.


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