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Reading The Epics As An Adult, I Wonder, What About The Women?

Posted: January 7, 2021

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Though I have always been a fan of mythology, I often wondered if the plight of women has changed since then. And I ask, what about her?

Like any other Indian child, I grew up listening to the tales of Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Paeans were sung in praise of the ‘Maryada Purushottam Ram.’ The valour and righteousness of the Pandavas never failed to impress us. And then came the Doordarshan era, which ushered in the long-running weekly series of our two epics. Life came to a standstill every Sunday at 9 am.

I had always been drawn towards the Mahabharata. Why? Was it because it boasted of a strong female protagonist? And again, why was she strong? Was it because she had five husbands, disregarding all the rules of monogamy? I was intrigued. Why did people advise women not to be like Panchali? I discovered it much later.

Sita was meek, docile and submissive. And Panchali, well, she was the cause of the Great War of Kurukshetra. Why should women be like her and cause destruction in the world? Ah, there I found the reason.

The younger and the naïve me dismissed Sita with scorn. She deserved what she got, I reasoned. If she had retorted, she would not have the miseries she was subjected to. In her place, Panchali would have made her husband hang his head in shame and dared him to test her purity.

As an adult, my perceptions changed and I asked different questions

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee brought to the front a hitherto unknown Panchali. Here was a woman with flaws. A princess camouflaged her insecurities by daring to ask questions. Panchali was a woman who nurtured a secret love for Karna. She was a woman trapped in a man’s world. Boy, was I mesmerised by the book. So, when The Forest of Enchantments released, I grabbed it with glee.

Ramayana – The story of Ram. What about the women, without whom the epic would be incomplete? Sita – the ever-suffering wife. Urmila – the unsung heroine of the tale. Kaikeyi – the mother with the fury of a tigress out to protect her cubs. Soorpanakha – the girl who transcended morality and paid a heavy price for it. Mandodari – the stoic queen silently enduring the ignominy of her husband wanting a woman young enough to be his daughter. Ahalya – the chaste woman who waited for Ram to relieve her of a curse, for no fault of hers.

Chitra B asks pertinent questions. What is love? Does one have to undergo the test of fire to prove one’s fidelity? And does endurance signify the strength of character of a person? A woman is a daughter, a wife, a mother, a queen. But when does she draw the line and say ‘enough is enough?’

Now I wonder has the plight of women changed?

Our epics have different versions in various regions of our country. As a result, they have been open to interpretation. Hence, we have authors like Chitra B and Kavita Kane who come out with female-centric versions of the epics.

While I agree that the bygone era is different from the times we live in, has the condition of the woman changed? How many Panchalis are stripped daily? And how many Soorpanakhas are shamed daily, just because they crossed the ‘lines’ dictated by the patriarchal society? How many Ahalyas suffer due to circumstances on which they had no control?

As I contemplate, I discover that I continue to love both the epics. I feel for Ram, who had the dilemma of ‘society vs. family.’ And I still love the five Pandavas, who destroyed the evil Kauravas. Like Ram, they too had the difficult task of choosing between ‘Dharma and Family.’ But an older, wiser me asks – what about her?

A version of this was earlier published here.

Picture credits: Still from Star Plus’ show Mahabharata

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