Novel Excerpt: The Ladies of Hastinapur

A version of this appeared as a guest post on my friend Soumya’s blog last week. I’m re-posting it here (almost verbatim) since many of you must not have read it.

The Hastinapur series (of which Winds is the first book) aims to tell the story of the Mahabharat from the viewpoints of all the prominent women characters. This doesn’t mean just Kunti or Draupadi, but also those women whose voices we rarely hear in popular retellings and movies. For example, in Winds, the tale is told by Ganga and Satyavai, two incredibly strong women (albeit in different ways) who occupy little more than a paragraph each in the canon.

In this post I will give you a little glimpse into the second book of the series, tentatively titled ‘The Three Queens’. Chronologically, it begins around the time of Pandu and Dhritarashtra’s birth and ends with their marriages to Kunti and Gandhari. The three women who narrate this part of the tale are Amba, Kunti and Gandhari. (Like in Winds, the main narrator is still Ganga, and she will remain in the story until the end of the series.)

Amba

amba

In the introduction to Book One, Ganga, the Lady of the River, has this to say of Amba:

Her tale is a long and tortuous one, but in the end it is she who had a bigger say in the fortune – and fall – of Hastinapur. Fortune because she brought about the great marriage alliance of the age which merged Kuru and Panchala, the two great kingdoms, into one. Fall because the son she sired would grow up to be the warrior who killed Devavrata, my son, the undefeatable champion of the throne of Hastinapur.

I used to hear it being said that no warrior in North Country could drive a chariot as swiftly as Devavrata. No one could fight with a sword as skilfully as he. No one could shoot arrows as rapidly as he. He read the scriptures and understood them; he debated with Brahmins and was hailed as their equal. In politics and battle strategy he had no peer. It warmed my heart to hear such things, yes; but I was also wary. I was wary that Devavrata’s destruction would come about from that one place men scarcely care to look: from within him. He would be destroyed – as all powerful men eventually are – by the consequences of their actions, by the ache they cause people around them by their choices.

Amba’s tale, then, is also the first chapter in the tale of Devavrata’s ruin.

In some versions of the story, Amba undergoes a gender change and becomes Shikhandi herself. But since in my novel I am trying wherever I can to stick with realistic life spans, it made more sense to assume that Shikhandi is the son of Amba. This opened up possibilities, because if Amba had a child who has a claim to the throne of Panchala, then she must have been, at some point, Drupada’s mate. The other man in her life is Parashurama, the sage who takes her under his wing when the world shuts down on her. How the three men shape Amba’s life forms the crux of book one.

Kunti

paint_6289kunti

Little is known of Kunti’s childhood. She enters the Mahabharat as a prominent character only after her wedding with Pandu. Of her youth, though, one incident is often talked about: her giving birth to the son of Surya, and then abandoning him. But Kunti must have had a life before she met Durvasa (who would give her the boon to summon the gods), and indeed, she was born into the house of Shurasena as a sister of Vasudev, the biological father of a cowherd who would grow up to be Krishna.

Once again, there are possibilities here. When Kamsa imprisoned Vasudev and Devaki, did Kunti not feel duty bound to rescue them? She must have, though the epic is silent on the matter. Did she have a hand in Vasudev escaping from Kamsa’s prison to rescue his son? Maybe, maybe not. Her childhood and early youth must have been spent in a highly politically charged atmosphere between Shurasena, the kingdom of Kunti, and Mathura, that lay across the Yamuna, ruled by Kamsa. With a little bit of imagination, one can think up an interesting story for the princess, a story of adventure, love and loss.

In her own words:

I do not remember much about the day on which I first met Sage Durvasa, much like I do not remember the first time I must have gazed upon the face of my mother. But I remember certain flashes, of sight and smell and sound. As I think back now, I see a flash of brown, almost orange fabric that the sage wore. My nose seems to know the faint, sweet taint of wet sandal paste, and my ears still prick up at the gruff voice of a grown drunkard on the face of an innocent babe.

[…]I do not know where I got the courage to say such things to a man I had only met once, and perhaps I was no more than a lovelorn girl in pigtails. But there was something about the glow in Sage Durvasa’s face – whose mystery would be revealed to me later, when it was too late – which seemed to feed my soul and spirit, and I could think of nothing but to breach Mathura’s walls, break open the prison that held Devaki and Vasudev if need be, and bring them back safely to Shurasena.

Gandhari

Gandhari

Perhaps the most under-represented female character in the story is that of Gandhari. She brims over with potential in a storyteller’s eyes, whether it is her life in Gandhar before she got married to Dhritarashtra, her choice to go blind herself, or her role in the events that followed between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, here is a woman who could have been a strong, memorable character if only Vyasa thought otherwise. But he didn’t, which means people like me can.

Ganga again:

In Pritha’s tale, by the time of Durvasa’s visit to Shurasena and Mathura, Dhritarashtra was already married. Hastinapur had already taken her spot atop the pyramid of Great Kingdoms in North Country. But it was not always so. There exists a rocky land to the far northwest, beyond the lands of Madra and Kamboja, which first settled on the bank of river Sindhu but later migrated inward. They call this kingdom Gandhar, the city of gold.

[…]At that moment we come to know that it was all but futile, and we forgive. We forgive all. On her deathbed I found Gandhari smiling and tearful, and her eyes told me that she had made her peace with the world, that she had come to see both those she vanquished and those who vanquished her with the same eye. But she was not always thus. I remember the time when she sat on the throne of Gandhar and ruled with great hope and wisdom. I remember her and her brother, who were just children but fought with more valour than the bravest of warriors for the good of their land.

I must beckon the reader westward now, and a few moons back in time, so that he can peer through my eyes into the royal castle of Gandhar.

Images Courtesy: Asia Society, Oil Paintings Online, Inquisition

Comments

  1. hi Sharat,
    I am sure you must have researched well, Pritha, was the daughter of a Yadava I have forgotten his name, she was adopted by king Kuntibhoja, hence she is Kunti. believed to be very politically savvy, She was also quite androgynous in nature, it is believed that is why pandu was more drawn to the ultrafeminine Madri.Kunti is believed to have been present during Kuntibhoja’s court proceedings hence she was educated in statesmanship.
    Now coming to Amba you have explored an interesting option, I used to contemplate over the possibility of Draupadi, and Dhrishtadyumna being Amba’s offsprings through Parashurama, given the kind of volatility.
    Looking forward for the book.

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    • Interesting that you propose Draupadi and Dhristadyumna to be Parashurama and Amba’s children. But does that explain how they became Panchala’s prince and princess? Still something to ruminate over, for sure. And yes, Kunti and Gandhari were both supposedly good at statecraft and well-versed in how to govern a kingdom. Thanks for the comment, Parwati. You’ve given me some food for thought.

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      • 🙂 Draupadi and Drishtadyumna are believed to have emerged from an Yajna and Drupada’s wife was not present. They emerged adults. The only thing that shoots my musings is the fact that being Amba’s offsprings, would put them in the same peer as Pandu and Dhritarashtra while they are generation next..My devious mind is still exploring possibilities.

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      • That hurdle is easily conquered. You can have Amba bear D&D when she’s in her forties or so. Given that women gave birth in their early to mid-teens in those days, you can skip a generation that way 🙂

        But I think a harder question to answer is this: If D&D were Amba and Parashurama’s kids, how did they become heirs to Panchala’s throne?

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  2. Nice read, learned many new facts, will try to catch up more on these ladies, grab a copy, suggest me few more good books to read on History & Mythology in a different perspective. Wud appreciate. good wishes.

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    • Hi Ruchi,

      One book you must read is ‘Yuganta’ by Irawati Karwe. If you want to read Indian modern history, Ramachandra Guha’s books (India after Gandhi and Gandhi before India) are good. For Medieval history I am reading Abraham Eraly’s ‘Emperors of the Peacock Throne’. I’ve not made my way to ancient history yet 🙂

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  3. So , another interesting novel is on the way… I like your take on Amba and Kunti..as for Gandhari , as you’ve said , she is really the most underrated female character. But she had a strong , integrated mind and she tried to be neutral in her judgements .

    Best wishes for the upcoming novel… 🙂

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  4. Atika Srivastava says:

    It’s so good to read the same story from the perspective of different characters. Recently read Samhita Arni’s “Sita’s Ramayana” lended by my English Professor.

    I like your insight. I always wondered that Amba underwent some physical changes and became Shikhandi. What if he was her son? I asked the same to my mother who said Bhishma Pitamah was an undefeated warior. He lost against Shikandi, only because he knew she was Amba and his moral values didn’t allow him to fight against a woman. What’s your take on this?

    Very excited for the Hastinapur Series. Congratulations!

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  5. Actually I feel that Gandhari as depicted by Vyasa was a strong character. But then, definition of strength is also subjective! 🙂

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  6. Ayelita Ray says:

    I have always been a dedicated reader of the Mahabharat, multiple times, multiple retelling. While I have considered pretty many variations from the usual canon the consideration that Shrikhandi could have been Amba’s son never occurred to me. Though the possibility seems quite high given parents are thought to live on through their children going by the Indian school of thought. Also, Shrikhandi was never acknowledged as an heir to the panchal throne, something that would seem odd given he is stated to be the biological son of Dhrupad in Mahabharat. Yes, many tales have sprung up that Amba underwent some physical changes and became Shrikhandi or even of re-birth but if we are to read the critical editions of the Mahabharat by BORI (which given it is a publication by a research institute seems pretty reliable) Shrikhandi is mentioned as a son of Dhrupad and this change is nowhere mentioned. Also, the one minded and dedicated rivalry of Shrikhandi with Devavrata might be explained in this way given he was the reason for the plight of Amba (a son is more likely to feel this amount of emotional engagement for the destruction of his mothers life than for feudal reasons).

    Now coming to Draupadi and Dhristyadhyum; Dhristyadhyum was like Shrikhandin dedicated to his rivalry to another man, Dron. If he were indeed the son of Parashuram and Amba, why would he feel the intense rivalry? Dron was after all well loved and respected by Parashuram. Also, yes the legitimacy to the panchal throne too comes up. The first claim does go to the biological son and even by your story that would be Shrikhandi. While the king is free to choose an heir, going by the chaos surrounding Yudhistir and Duryodhan(or Suyodhan as both names are mentioned in the Mahabharat) would the council accept it?

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    • Hi Ayelita. Thanks for your comment. You raise some interesting questions. As I take the story forward in Books 4 and beyond (Book 3 is in the process of being edited), I will try and keep this issue of the Panchal throne in mind. If nothing else, I think it will give me good material to set up some geopolitical tension. Let’s see 🙂

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      • I do look forward to your books. I would also like to make a suggestion for one woman who would make a beautiful addition to your collection of strong yet decadent women, the serving lady, Parashrami. While you have brought out the stories of the women in the story, all the ladies mentioned thus far have been of royal lineage or having some ties with the celestial world(Ganga). Parashrami is none. She bears a child alongside Ambika and Ambalika by the same sage, she is a serving lady, yet it is her son that is the most learned among the brothers. He is through and through a person of ethics yet he is regularly insulted or overlooked throughout. Parashrami sees all of this and yet has never either complained or pushed her son to defiance. She therefore is one of the most neglected yet interesting characters to me. A mother who delicately builds her sons character and not his future, What do you think??

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      • Hi Ayelita. From what you say, I think you’re referring to the mother of Vidur. From what I know, the original Mahabharata does not give this lady a name, so I’ve heard her being called different things in different stories. Parashrami, I guess, is as good a name as any. In my Winds of Hastinapur, she appears under the moniker of Shubha 🙂

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      • Sorry yes, actually I am more used to the name Parashrami, but I am referring to the mother of Vidur. 🙂 She did have one of the more interesting characters. But, even in your stories that brings out the women, she is pushed to being just a minor character. That is why I thought it might be nice to hear her story. What she felt about her son’s wisdom, his life and the insults he faced in that life. 🙂

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      • Yes, you’re right, even in my story she’s a bit of a minor character. I am afraid she might not have the depth to hold a novel on her own, but I’m certain a good short story could be told about her. Of course, that’s not to say one could not DEVELOP her story from scratch and write a whole novel featuring her. I’m making a note of this. Let’s see if something comes out of it. Thanks, Ayelita 🙂

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    • Mention not. I loved some of the perspectives you put forward. While I will not say I agree with all of them, I love reading all alternatives available and yours is definitely a very different one. You have neither removed all divinity nor drowned in it. I look forward to book 3 🙂 Oh yes, on another thought, I have a out of blog context question for you. I have read that Radha, mystically disappeared after a time period post Madhav’s departure. I have many a times speculated on this. Have you come across any references regarding this that could explain the sudden disappearance?

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      • Hi Ayelita. Accepted scholarly wisdom is that the story of Krishna’s childhood was written much later date-wise compared to the Mahabharata, and the writers made no attempt to connect the two. So after we see Krishna leaving Vrindavan, he never comes back, nor is this part of his life ever referred to again the Mahabharata. That includes Radha. So it’s almost like Vrindavan as a place disappears after Krishna’s departure. It plays no further role in the story.

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