Why I Was Disappointed With Kavita Kane’s “Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen”

Posted: October 29, 2015

A very interesting take on Kavita Kane’s book “Karna’s Wife: The Outcast Queen.”According to the writer, the book is  tribute to Karna, more than his ‘wife, the outcast’s queen.’

Kavita Kane, an accidental author by self-admission, is prolific nevertheless. Her second book, “Sita’s Sister”, is one that proudly adorns my bookshelf. Her corpus of work, though not vast, carries on the recent, rather necessary trend of resuscitating the tales of marginal female characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

However, my initial sense of admiring excitement at her debut novel “Karna’s Wife: The Outcast’s Queen”, soon turned into sulking disappointment by the time I got to the end.

The main reason was fairly simple. The eponymous wife of Karna, Queen Uruvi, was more a result of ‘dramatic license’, as she herself put it, rather than a real character named within the epic. According to the primary text, Karna’s first wife belonged to the same caste/class as him, and was called Vrushali. By most accounts, they had ten sons together. His second wife, though scarcely mentioned in most versions and re-tellings, was called Supriya.

Uruvi, his high-caste bride who fell madly in love with his valour, is perhaps loosely drawn from, if at all, from a Tamil retelling, which mentions ‘Ponnuruvi’ as one of his wives. Karna being the king of Anga, a northern kingdom, many scholars are of the opinion that ‘Ponnuruvi’ was perhaps more of an epithet for either one of his queens, and not the name of another wife. By all accounts, the story of longing, love and marriage as described in Kane’s debut novel, is fictitious.

My problem with creating a fictitious character as Karna’s wife, and narrating her story, is that the real wife, marginalised and rendered mute in the original epic, fails to get a voice even in remembrance. Vrushali, the actual wife of Karna, the real Queen of the ‘outcast’ King, plays a marginal role in the novel, as the docile, compliant co-wife trying to make peace with her husband’s waning interest in her. Such a portrayal of a woman heavily silenced in the classical epic, hardly does any service to the way she is memorialised.

From the little that one can glean about Vrushali, through the Mahabharata, she certainly has a story to be told. She lost her son Sudama in a freak battle, when her husband appeared as a suitor at Draupadi’s swayamvara, and was insulted for being a lowly ‘sut-putra.’ Of the remaining sons, only one, Vrishaketu, survived the bloody battle of Kurukshetra. She lost her husband through an act of unfair war practice.

She was the wife of a man forever in anguish, on account of his ambiguous origins, a man who had vowed to aid and abet Duryodhana’s vile schemes despite being known as one of the kindest and most righteous men otherwise. Vrushali was the wife of a man, who, blinded by rage and a desire for revenge, had encouraged Draupadi to be disrobed publicly. She was a rare woman indeed, a queen, but of lowly origins just like Karna’s father Adhiratha.

However, her story remains untold in Kane’s novel. Her experiences and  anxieties are all loaded off to Uruvi. This narrative manoeuvre not only makes Vrushali invisible again, but also paints her, at times, as a jealous co-wife, dependent on a young brother-in-law to make a case for her. We hear nothing of her personal emotional crisis.

The only other person this novel pays tribute to, is Karna himself. A lot is written about his righteousness, virtue, charitable disposition, adherence to Dharma and moments of redemption brought about my Uruvi’s interventions.

In the end, it becomes a story of a high-born Kshatriya, abandoned at birth and wronged throughout his life, and his remarkable high-caste wife. This also problematises the caste question within Karna’s world. While all the dazzling wit, enchanting intelligence and extraordinary healing powers are attributed to the fictitious Kshatriya queen,  Vrushali, the real queen, and mother of his sons is hardly allowed dash of any substance. Her portraiture is as conventional as it gets.

Besides this, the portrayal of Draupadi is also severely flawed. A major feature of her character, as shown in the novel is how she has always secretly loved and longed for Karna, but how Karna has totally stopped thinking about her since his marriage with Uruvi.

Besides this, the portrayal of Draupadi is also severely flawed. A major feature of her character, as shown in the novel is how she has always secretly loved and longed for Karna, but how Karna has totally stopped thinking about her since his marriage with Uruvi. More shocking than that is the fact that Draupadi is shown as quietly forgiving Karna for his role in her disrobing, for the simple fact that she loves him. Not only is this another highly inaccurate intervention on Kane’s part, it is also evocative of a dangerous patriarchal narrative around women facing sexual abuse- the twisted excuse of love used for normalising and legitimising rape, stalking and molestation; the excuse of pure passion used for overlooking the woman’s consent.

Ultimately, the book pays tribute to Karna, more than his “wife, the outcast’s queen”. Women like Vrushali, Kunti and even Draupadi are all portrayed as foils to Uruvi’s intellect, strength and virtue- they are found severely lacking in comparison. All these other women, remarkable in their own right, have cut a rather sorry figure before the fictitious Uruvi, their complex narratives often over-simplified. As a young woman always curious to find deeper meaning in the portraiture and memorialisation of marginal women characters in the classical Indian epics, this book unfortunately did not fit the bill.

Cover images via Facebook

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