A MONSTER List Of Women Writers Rewriting Indian Epics, Re-Defining Familiar Characters And Narratives

Rewriting Indian epics done by these women writers have brought to us the stories of women and other minor characters in these stories. A MONSTER list for you.

Rewriting Indian epics done by these women writers have brought to us the stories of women and other minor characters in these stories. A MONSTER list for you.

My maternal grandmother has been a reigning influence on me since I grew up solely in her care until I was 8. She used to tell me stories of Draupadi, Arjuna, Krishna, Sita, Bhishma Pitamaha, and at an age like that, stories influence the way you think and behave.

These conversations and stories of my Grandma, ignited a deep curiosity of that period and that time. Those were the times when there were hardly any Indian writers rewriting Indian epics. We didn’t have many picture books either. For many years, I believed that self-sacrifice and being all-submissive is the way of a good woman.

The impact of this thinking on my mind was all pervasive, leading me to screw up a great number of relationships. I blamed Draupadi for the war of Kurukshetra and I adored Rama for being Maryada Purushottam. I had a childhood crush on Shiva and prayed to get a husband like him, until I realized that managing such a short-tempered husband was way out of my league.

It took a long time and lot of reading and education for me to understand

  • that all these stories were written from the POV of the men and the victors, other characters, especially women being just supporting cast,
  • that the women of those times were written by patriarchal men who believed in women as objects to be married off as political pawns,
  • and that there are many sides to any story, and the same story might read completely differently from the POV of women and other minor characters.

That is when I sought out these stories, these re-tellings of epics by women writers, who were the best people to present us these different points of view.

When I read Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, I was intrigued by the depiction of Draupadi. Panchali in Divakaruni’s retelling is a sharp, witty, brave woman, with a dark complexion that breaks the conventional realms of beauty and has an assertive personality.

The book was a pathbreaker of sorts. Many people (including women) didn’t like this depiction because they claimed Divakaruni diverted from the narrative. But was that wrong? Mythological epics are stories told since generations, and what makes anyone think that they are absolute? That there wouldn’t have been any distortion by heresy when they were passed down by generations of other people since centuries? At the end of it, mythology or “mithya” is our interpretation of the stories. In my opinion, newer perspectives can reform ideas.

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Later, I read Yajnaseni by Pratibha Ray and although the book has gained enormous popularity for staying true to the epic and the traditional depiction of the character of Draupadi, due to my feminist ideologies, I ended up disliking a lot of episodes in it,  like Krishna calling Draupadi a gift to be handed over to Karna, or Draupadi giving a page-full of monologue about what it takes to be a good wife. One can read the book, perhaps for the language of it, but then I’d suggest reading it in the original language, Odiya.

With a plethora of women writers taking up center stage now, this rewriting of Indian epics has seen a gradual shift from the ordinary, obedient, ‘sanskaari’ women narrative, to strong, ‘real’ women who are dashing, dynamic, and who stand up for themselves despite the dominating patriarchy of their times.

Anuja Chandramouli through her Shakti: The Divine Feminine, kicks misogyny where it should hurt the most. The ‘flawless’ feminine is challenged and Maya or Shakti, the ultimate Goddess, is brought forth more as a woman, stuck in the rut of testosterone-ridden brats (read Gods) playing havoc owing to bad attitude and decisions. While it is easier to play this narrative in books based on goddesses, Chandramouli doesn’t disappoint even in her other books which have a male central character like Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son and Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior – Prince. Women here are powerful and have some brilliantly penned dialogues. The author is a vocal feminist herself.

Irawati Karve with her award winning Yuganta : The end of an epoch creates a very human persona for the larger than life characters of Mahabharata. She analyses and researches the motives behind actions and highlights the greys of the characters rather than making them black or white. Karve’s book has earned enormous praise owing to the brutal deconstruction of the characters and pointing out flaws that resulted in the ultimate destruction.

Amruta Patil, a writer and illustrator with an MFA from Boston, in her graphic book Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean explores Mahabharata in pictorial depictions with one liner narratives that strike like a shard. In this, Amruta makes the Mahabharata accessible to international audiences through her rational treatment of the subject and at the same time makes the experience visually stunning by a palette of bright colors. It talks about the pre-Kurukshetra war era and was chosen as one of 2012’s Best Graphic Novels by comic book historian Paul Gravett. It is followed by Sauptik: Blood and Flowers which is a vivid narration of the events that further led to the war and the war itself. What makes Patil stand out is the innovative way in which she chooses to address the story. Sauptik, however, received criticism from contemporary feminists, that its depiction of Draupadi is lackluster. It could have been phenomenal otherwise.

Talking about graphic novels, we also have Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni that tells the plots and subplots incredibly well, discussing along the ideas of love, life, right, wrong, sacrifice, humanity, perseverance, honor etc. Another book by the same author, The Missing Queen weaves an ensemble plot set in Ayodhya, but of the modern day and unravels the mystery that was Sita’s banishment in Ramayana through the eyes of a spunky woman journalist. The Mahabharata: A Child’s View, by Arni, promises to narrate Mahabharata with vivid accessible stories that are bound to amuse kids in a lot of ways.

Krishna: Defender of Dharma is another graphic novel by Shweta Taneja that gives a perspective on Krishna as a God in pictorial depictions. While the major critique of this book is the lack of sensitivity and verbose dialogs, the vivacious Krishna leelas are still worth a read through a riot of colorful imagery.

Sita: Daughter of the Earth: A Graphic Novel by Saraswati Nagpal, gives us a bright, pleasurable art-work, despite the narrative being kept the same. The art work has been especially praised by many readers, while the story has been reviewed as being moderately Bollywood-ish. But if the art-work is going to invite little children to learn more about it, I do not find anything wrong as such.

In Search of Sita: Revisiting Mythology, a compilation of essays, commentaries and conversations, by Namita Gokhale and Malashri Lal, promise to relook at the age-old conventions surrounding Sita’s birth, youth, marriage and her end.

After Kurukshetra by Mahasweta Devi is a set of plays that raise some very important questions after the war of Kurukshetra. It philosophizes about the egoistic nature of the war and about the state of women at that time. Some societal norms, if could have been broken, would the story be different? Perhaps, yes.

Ira Mukhoty, in her Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History, brings about a powerful narrative of the strength and resilience of some very important women of history including Draupadi, Radha, Ambapali, Raziya Sultan, Meerabai, Jahanara, Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal. Women from thousands of years ago, find semblance with their more recent counterparts and shatter the feminine norms of power structures.

In addition to individual books, we have women writers dedicating their time for series of books revolving around rewriting Indian epics. Some of the well-known series are Usha Narayanan’s Pradyumna: Son of Krishna, Falguni Kothari’s The Age of Kali, and Sita’s Fire Trilogy by Vrinda Sheth. The more popular among these is The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udayshankar which comprises of three books, Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra.

Apart from the queens and kings in the epics, there were many other women and men who, through their side roles managed to create space for themselves. Our epics conveniently ignore them with just a few mentions simply with respect to the main characters; which is why The Liberation of Sita by Popuri Lalita Kumari aka Volga, is an important book. It takes us on a tangential journey of certain ignored characters like Shurpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya. There is a chapter dedicated to Rama, wherein he’d have to evaluate his choices and decisions through a feminist perspective and that makes it all the more thought-provoking.

Kavita Kane also explores these ignored characters, sometimes Sita’s Sister, other times Karna’s Wife, trying to find answers like why did Urmila chose to stay behind and endure 14 years of separation? Could she have chosen otherwise? What did Karna’s wife feel about his association with Duryodhana? Did she ever advise him against it? Was it in her hands to bring her husband out from his destruction? Kane’s books (there are more, like Menaka’s Choice, Lanka’s Princess, and The Fisher Queen’s Dynasty, which also re-tell stories from the epics) have been read widely and are known to bring the characters and their experiences alive for the readers.

An interesting tale is woven in Nithya Rao’s Earth & Fire – Sita & Draupadi: Meeting of two Queens where she gets two queens of two different epics to meet with each other, who have a thought-provoking conversation with each other about their lives.

In the vivid narratives of new-age retellings of Indian epics, we also have Trisha Das’ Ms Draupadi Kuru: After the Pandavas, in which Draupadi visits earth along with her companions, Amba, Gandhari & Kunti. The book takes a satirical route, by looking at human societies through the eyes of these women, and creates an intriguing version of modern events through older eyes. The book is categorized under “humor” and makes for a very entertaining read.

Two other books worthy of special mention here are Abhaya and Avishi by Saiswaroopa Iyer. Iyer strongly believes in ensuring her women are strong, not by short-changing men, but by acknowledging their strengths and using them appropriately. This thought is very empowering.

Kartika Nair’s Until The Lions is another powerful Indian epic rewriting that tells the entire story of Mahabharata through the lesser known women from it, like Hidimba, Ulupi, Amba, Satyavati, Draupadi’s mother Dusshala, and the maid Sauvali. Nair has used verses to narrate the story and that is a very novel experience for readers like us who would probably never read the original Mahabharata in the verse form.

Some more books in this category written by Indian women are:

Ganesha goes to lunch: Classics from Mystic India by Kamla K. Kapur which is a collection of tales from mystic ancient India that has many side stories of adventures of great Gods and Goddesses told for the modern readers.

The Serpent’s Revenge: Unusual Tales from Mahabharata by Sudha Murthy, which is a short story collection and is a brilliant read for children.

Bharatham lo Neethi Kathalu by Ushasri, which is a Telugu book with moral-based stories from Mahabharata.

Shakuntala by Namita Gokhale, explores the life and struggles of Shakuntala, whose tragic story is a reflection of the times that women survived in those days.

Three Indian Princesses: The Stories of Savitri, Damayanti and Sita by Jamila Gavin takes us through the journey of the three princesses mentioned in the title.

The Kaunteyas by Madhavi Mahadevan is told from the viewpoint of Kunti thereby creating a persona for the reader of the woman who had to give up her firstborn to the shackles of society.

Sita’s Ascent by Vayu Naidu illustrates Sita’s journey after her exile and as the title suggests is a story of tremendous courage and hope.

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana  is a compilation of anthologies with stories contributed by some of the powerful women voices like Sharanya Manivannan, Pervin Saket, Swapna Kishore, Lavanya Karthik, Manjula Padmanabhan to name a few.

The Ramayana for Children by Bulbul Sharma has been written in a language friendly to little ones making it simpler for them to get the nuances of the stories.

Uttara: The Book of Answers, a translation of Valmiki’s the Uttara Kanda by Arshia Sattar makes for an interesting read in terms of the little details of the lineage of Ravana and the abandonment of Sita and the later reconciliation of Rama with his sons. Her book Lost Loves also imagines what might have been the thoughts and feelings of Rama and Sita as they lived through the tumultuous events of the great epic. The essays in this book explore what happens to love because of separation, and how public lives and private desires collide to devastating effect.

Dark Things Between the Shadow and the Soul: Fractured Fairy Tales from Indian Mythology by Sudha Kuruganti is written in a fantastical way by modernizing the characters of the epics.

Sons of Gods — Mahabharata by Sharon Maas is another retelling which is recommended by many international readers of Indian epics.

The decisions that lead to ultimate devastation, when looked at through the eyes of the protagonists are always defensive and one sided, whereas their enormity and impact is better known from people who stayed into the white spaces of the paragraphs, incapable of doing anything but to watch and hope. The rewriting of Indian epics is essential not because it highlights the other characters, but also because it gives us a well-rounded multi-dimensional view of the characters that constitute a significant portion of our culture and personalities.

To those who believe that epics should remain untouched, that they are sacred, I’d just like to say that times change, the ideas in the epics are supposed to be universal and all-empowering. How else are we going to reach out to next generations if we keep the same old form intact? The histories have always depicted everything as a battle of good v/s evil. What if it never was between good and evil? What if it was between two ideologies and both had their pros? What if we have just been looking at a flat surface painted black and white? In order for us to think, rewriting of Indian epics and reading them is essential.

Image source: Amazon

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