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The winds of Hastinapur, by Sharath Kommaraju, explores The Mahabharata in a way that has never been done before – through the eyes of an ensemble all-woman cast.
The Mahabharata is the story of a war of humongous proportions, fought mainly by men. The women, in traditional versions of the epic, seem to be incidental, suffering the consequences of the men’s actions. We don’t yet know if the incidents in the epic really happened, whether it was history or fiction, but the possibility of it being history makes it obvious why the stories of the women in it were left relatively unexplored.
Ancient history, after all, was an account of the players from the point of view of the victors, often told in praise of the high kings by bards. The women characters, though important, were often glossed over, explored only in relation to the major male characters. Surely they had their own back stories? Surely, the male characters too, had their own back stories, those that were not originally a part of the narrative?
Women characters, though important, were often glossed over, explored only in relation to the major male characters. Surely they had their own back stories?
Sharath Komarraju’s The Winds of Hastinapur attempts to re-tell the early Mahabharata in terms of the two major women characters – Ganga and Satyavati. “For the story of the Great War is also the story of women, of Ganga and Satyavati and all who came after…” says the blurb on the cover page of this book, which is narrated in two parts, The River Maiden, and The Fisher Girl.
The first part begins with a very young Ganga. Prabhasa, the Vasu cursed by a sage’s wife, comes with a request – to bear him and his brothers in her womb, as the curse ordained that they are born as humans. The current river maiden is too old to bear any more children, so the onus falls on her not yet teenage daughter, who would be the wife of Shantanu, king of Hastinapur.
As the future river maiden, and keeper of the memories of past river maidens, she is passed on the legacy of her grandmother’s feelings and actions – it was that lady who had felt the desire for a mortal, who had been born as the future king Shantanu. When old enough, Ganga duly goes to earth from Meru, her birthplace, where reside all the celestials. Celestials who become immortal on account of drinking the waters of the Crystal Lake, and the ability to transfer ancient memories to subsequent generations.
The story of Ganga and Shantanu then meanders on lines familiar to readers of the Mahabharata. We are, however, given an entry into the early years of Devavrata, the one son that survives, among the celestials on Meru. The Mahabharata that we know merely speaks of Shantanu encountering his son one day on the banks of the Ganga, already a teenager. Why, though, did he come back to him? What were the dark secrets of the celestials associated with the Crystal Lake?
The second part begins with Kali, the daughter of the Fisher king, a girl whose person stinks of the fish that is their livelihood. She is a girl who knows what she wants, and knows how to get it. Blessed with the secret of fragrance from the sage Parashara, after she acquiesces to his desire for her, she catches the attention of the high king, Shantanu. Satyavati, as she is named after becoming the queen, displays a keen nose for practical politics, giving us a glimpse into all that might go on behind the scenes, which can even change the course of events.
The juxtaposition of the two women in the book is interesting. Satyavati embodies all that a truly empowered and smart woman can accomplish.
The juxtaposition of the two women in the book is interesting. Satyavati embodies all that a truly empowered and smart woman can accomplish. She brings prosperity to her kin by her choices and changes the course of the story as it would have unfolded without her hand in it. Her story is not just about power, it is about absolute power, and how that can render powerless all other players. Ganga’s story, on the other hand, is about the powerlessness of the apparently powerful, about the unwitting loss that women often suffer while supposedly gaining from their circumstances.
I also found interesting the way matrilineal inheritance of genes and circumstances was handled, as well as the agency of the women in matters sexual – it was interesting that there was much sexual freedom outside of matrimony, even celebration of sexuality, though this was denied to those in positions where the paternal lineage was a concern.
The Winds of Hastinapur is an interesting, empathetic, and perceptive retelling of a familiar story, and the abrupt ending, that does not quite explain the very first event that happens, might point to sequels, hopefully with more of the women of the Mahabharata carrying the narrative forward.
Publisher: Harper Collins India
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