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The book ‘Valmiki's Women’ By Anand Neelakantan, tells the tales of five women characters – Bhoomija, Shanta, Manthara, Tataka & Meenakshi.
I am always game for curling up with a good book in my hand, more so when it revolves around the fascinating genre of mythology. Epics like the Ramayana & the Mahabharata are a vast repertoire of tales, each episode bubbling in the huge cauldron, and eager to make its presence felt, and its voice heard. Authors like Amish & Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni are hugely popular, boasting an enviable fan base.
Anand Neelakanthan is famous for his ‘Bahubali’ trilogy, and I have been wanting to read a book of his. This title intrigued me, and I ordered the paperback edition. Many modern readers think that women in our epics have got a raw deal. They are mere pawns in the hands of the Gods and the men alike. Well, in the defense of the epics, I have to say that the era they were set in is different from that we live in.
Bitter wars were fought, sons were sought after to carry forward the family lineage, and women were accustomed to polygamous husbands. Like it or hate it, but that was the unpalatable truth. Having said that, both the epics have their regional versions in different Indian states, which deviates a bit (or a lot) from their more orthodox counterpart. Being open to interpretation, many weave tales around lesser-known characters, often retelling the story from their viewpoint.
The book tells the tales of five women characters – Bhoomija, Shanta, Manthara, Tataka & Meenakshi.
The name of the first character is a dead giveaway. Sita was born from the Earth. However, the story is more about how Valmiki came across the idea of penning down his magnum opus. The pair of krauncha birds teach the sage a thing or two about nature and her cycle. Do we blame a tigress for killing a fawn to feed her cubs? Who are we judge a mother who cooks a bird to feed her starving child? In the age of social media, where judgment is delivered at a mouse click, this story teaches us to be non-judgemental.
I had little knowledge about the second character, having read about her in bits and pieces. She is a classic example of a person being born at the wrong time. In a country where the birth of a male child is still celebrated with much fanfare, I felt this story was not exactly that ‘out of place’. Shanta is the son Dashrat never had. She is skilled in warfare, but she is a prisoner of her gender. Her existence in the epic has a purpose, and she stoically comes to terms with it. This was easily my favourite episode. But I did have a lump in my throat and felt for Shanta.
Manthara is no stranger to us. She is the much defiled ‘vamp’ of Ramayana. The author hasn’t tried to put her on a pedestal but has sketched her in varying shades of grey. She is ugly, uncouth, drinks alcohol, and spews out cuss words randomly. But the opulence of the palace and the ‘power’ she holds get to her head. But her humane side is revealed when she cares about Bhairava, a soldier now disillusioned with war and life. He is the voice of logic and reason in this episode. I enjoyed their interactions for the novelty factor they provided.
Tataka had an interesting premise. Her husband Sunda’s predicament is that he composes joyous songs, the ones which nature carries to other places – in the form of gurgling brooks, whispering winds, and stirring leaves. But the trends have changed. The demand is now for blood, violence, and gore. Does it ring a bell, readers? I have a minor grouse with this chapter. The eponymous character gives way to her son Maricha somewhere down the line, and it becomes his story of ‘getting even’ with Ram. Wasn’t it supposed to be her story?
Meenakshi – a woman with beautiful fish-like eyes. How did such a character transform into the one with sharp talons – Soorpanakha? Ram might have conquered Ravan, but for the poorest of the poor in Ayodhya, all that matters is a morsel of food. The paeans sung by the wandering minstrels mean nothing to them. However, this chapter treads on an ‘over the top’ and filmy path, with Sita exchanging niceties with Soorpanakha.
The language is simple sans flowery expressions. The tales keep us engaged and bring some unknown facets to the table. There is always the danger that these can irk the conservatives. On the other side, these are lauded by modern thinkers. I have always maintained this simple fact. It’s absolutely fine to rewrite epics from a different perspective. It’s literature that gains from this. But in the end, let’s admit that one cannot expect feminism and anti-casteism, as we know them now, here. Do deviate a bit, but remain true to the essence of the story, is what I say.
All in all, this book made for an entertaining read.
Image Source: Amazon.in
I am an IT professional, lost in the monotonous world of Excel. So, I seek refuge in Word, pun intended.
I write for various literary platforms and have quite a few anthologies to my credit.
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