As some of you may know, I’ve just begun a series of novels telling the stories of some of the ‘bit-part’ players of the Mahabharata. The first book, The Winds of Hastinapur, looks at Ganga and Satyavati, the two people who, as mothers of Bhishma, sire the race of the Kurus. The book ends with the births of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidur, so calling a retelling of the Mahabharata would not be completely fair, I realized a little bit into the piece, because when someone mentions the epic the first thing most of us think of is Draupadi being disrobed in open court.
To those whose expectations were thus dashed: well, sorry.
I intend to continue this trend, though. For instance, the second book of the series focuses on Amba, Kunti and Gandhari. While we hear a lot about Kunti’s travails with the Pandavas and how noble and long-suffering she was, we never get to see how her childhood was, what she must have gone through as an adopted daughter who has a child out of wedlock. Amba is also similarly distanced from the reader, and in the canon she’s dispensed with in a few quick paragraphs.
But perhaps the unfairest of all is how little space Gandhari is given. Has any main character in any story been treated with such disdain? After all these long years of analysis on the tale, have we had one character sketch of Gandhari? We hear of Draupadi ad nauseum, about Krishna, Arjuna, Karna and Duryodhana, but why, I ask, do we confine the mother of the Kauravas to the backstage immediately after she blinds herself?
During some launches and interviews people have asked me who my favourite character in the Mahabharata was. I’ve taken to reply that it’s Gandhari. Maybe it is the kind of love a mother feels for her handicapped, forgotten son. Nonetheless, if market forces allow me to complete the series, I do hope to have looked into Gandhari a little bit more closely than at the usual public disrobing scene, the Bhagavad Gita scene, or the oft-mentioned revenge of the fire-born Draupadi.
If that dashes your expectations some more, well, sorry again.
But I asked this question in a book club meeting a few weeks back and got some interesting responses. There are some people, I saw, that were interested in the underdog. So I will ask it again here: who is your favourite female character from the Mahabharata whose story you’d like to know in greater detail?
I will leave you with a timeless picture of Satyavati and Shantanu at the banks of the Yamuna. My Satyavati is a little less bashful than the lass that Ravi Varma chose to depict, but hey, why argue in the face of such beauty?