Until The Lions: Women From The Mahabharata, In Evocative Verse [Book Review]

Posted: March 11, 2016

Karthika Nair’s lyrical Until The Lions: Echoes From The Mahabharata is a re-telling in the voices of its women – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What makes the epics endure? What draws us to them? For me, it is the poetry and the sheer beauty of the Ramayana, the complexity of the Mahabharata. That there is no clear right or wrong, and that every action has far-reaching consequences, is illustrated beautifully in the Mahabharata, a text full of nuances.

The dilemmas faced by the characters hold a mirror to our own lives and conflicts; the world inhabited by the Pandavas and Kauravas feels so close to our experience of the world today!

Strangely, the realisation that these cycles will continue as long as humans exist, gives one solace. There is comfort in knowing that we cannot change the world, only ourselves.

There have been several attempts at retelling the epic in recent times, some from the point-of-view of the women. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions is imagined from Draupadi’s perspective. Then came the breathtaking graphic novel, Adi Parva, by Amruta Patil, with Ganga in the role of sutradhar. Until the Lions goes even beyond, getting you to see the Mahabharata as never before.

Written entirely in verse, in multiple voices, this thought-provoking retelling opens with Satyavati’s chilling warning of the arrival of hate, her prophecy of impending doom.

Next comes a poem by a Padavit (“foot soldiers, the greatest casualty of the Mahabharata, urged to join the war on the pretext that martyrdom on Kurukshetra ensures direct access to heaven, and freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth and caste”, says the author’s note) – the heartrending appeal of a dark-skinned lowborn commoner seeking an equal footing and honour, in heaven if not on earth.

The baton is handed back to Satyavati, who begins by telling us the story of her birth. Spurned by her father, the king, who had no use for a girl; the princess bred as a fisher-maid; known to all as the lowborn one. To her, hate comes easy.

By now it is evident this is no conventional retelling. Karthika Nair speaks for the downtrodden, and how. It is not solely about gender, but oppression of all kinds – caste, class … The epic comes to life with these diverse voices, the stories of those on the margins.

Amba’s tone is scathing, as she speaks of both Bheeshma and Shalva, as also Satyavati.

Then comes the canine Shunaka (the only invented character), who cautions her kin against getting too close to mankind, in the process reminding the reader of the part played by those of her species in the Mahabharata, and the fact that they “have lived, loved, died here, since long before this land became man’s domain.”

Dhrupad, who has forgotten his own mistreatment of a childhood friend, has not overcome his resentment towards Drona. “For hate can outgrow memory”, says Dhrupad’s wife – “woman without a name”. She looks on and laments her children – Shikhandi, Dhrishtadhyumna and Draupadi – being raised as weapons.

There are also the unnamed spouses and lovers, whose suffering we see.

The title of the book borrows from the adage: “Until the lions get their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.” Barring the ones by Padavits, the poems are all in the voices of women. An exception is Krishna – but there’s a reason for that.

Unlike many contemporary retellings which are reductive or no more than an inversion, making the villains the heroes, and vice versa, Karthika Nair’s is a nuanced reinterpretation peopled with characters having shades of grey. She rises above mere male bashing, and shows that the women too have their own motivations. Satyavati is portrayed as a conniving woman desperate to be queen (it is on Bheeshma’s insistence that the blame is placed on her fisherman father). She is not above manipulation to further her line, as we see from her deceit with Ambika and Ambalika.

We witness Poorna’s voluntary union with Vyaasa in a sensuous poem. In stark contrast is Sauvali, raped repeatedly by Dhritarashtra, in his race to have a son before Pandu.

Gandhari surprises revealing her murderous intent. Hidimbi too is relieved that her brother is dead. I loved reading her insightful comments on the Pandavas, all the more enjoyable because of the matter-of-fact way in which they are delivered.

Next comes another favourite. Dusshala, “lone daughter, postscript to a hundred sons”, says of her brothers: “Reduced to a number, a clan name. That cannot be. They must be remembered. Mourned. Reclaimed.” And reclaim she does, naming all hundred Kauravas in her eulogy.

Ulupi is no worshipful wife; the Naga queen considers herself higher up in the hierarchy. It was the clan’s need for the next monarch that drove her, she tells Arjuna, not bothering to conceal her scorn.

Uttaraa’s note to her unborn child, an ode about Abhimanyu, first lulls, then jolts, forcing you to look at every warrior with new eyes.

It is Kunti’s portrayal that I found most refreshing. While the justification of her behaviour towards Karna is predictable, her explanation regarding Draupadi is interesting – “One queen to bind them all: that, my sons will always need, and it must now be other than me.”

Each character has a unique voice, and uses a different poetic form – the Malay pantoum, the Spanish glosa, the Pashtun landay, the Provencal Sestina …

Satyavati’s powerful voice recurs, and serves as a device to fill the reader in on events that have been left out of the narrative. The only bit that sticks out is her return to Hastina and the final conversation with Vyaasa. Could it have been done more unobtrusively? Probably not.

Karthika Nair creates magic with her lyrical monologues, with words you’ll want to savour and verses that give you gooseflesh. Read if you are a poetry lover or a mythology aficionado, socially conscious or politically inclined.

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Image source: youtube.

Arundhati Venkatesh is a children's writer. Her books have won several awards, including the

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