Decoding Gandhari, the queen of iron will

While Draupadi and Sita have been written about in contemporary fiction, Gandhari, princess of Gandhara and wife of Dhritarashtra in The Mahabharata, finds little mention. Aditi Banerjee, in her novel The Curse of Gandhari , goes beyond the surface story of Gandhari blindfolding herself as an act of devotion to her husband and delves deeper into her character — as a princess and mother.

Aditi, a practising attorney in the US, was fascinated by the complexity of Gandhari. “She is not a conventional heroine, but is more complex and ambiguous than Draupadi or Kunti. She has a lot of strength and an iron will power so that even though she is the first to conceive, when she hears that Kunti has given birth, she is so overcome with emotion that she strikes her belly and she strikes it so hard that this mass of flesh comes out that ends up being her 99 sons and one daughter.”

The other side

Even though Aditi admires Gandhari’s deep sacrifice of blindfolding herself she stresses that she admires the side of Gandhari’s character that is not meek or submissive. “She had the strength and dared to curse Krishna. In another part, after the war is over, and she knows her sons have died, from the corner of her eye she catches the glimpse of Yudhisthira’s feet and cannot help herself. His toe nails become blackened because of her deep bitterness, rage and sorrow (Yudhistira actually jumped back). She was a woman of incredible strength and willpower, who found herself in unfortunate circumstances. Even though she was not good in the conventional sense, she was noble and had this richness of character.”

Even the act of blindfolding herself has been an enigma and has been interpreted in different ways. Aditi explains: “One is that it is the act of a devoted and loyal wife, a symbol of satipratha, which I think is true. But I think other ways of looking at it, in the modern sense, was that it was an act of defiance or rebellion for someone who could not control the state of her marriage. This was her way of taking some form of her control over her own life. The other interpretation is that she is so disappointed that she did not inherit the throne that she blindfolds herself as an act of martyrdom, not wanting to see the world or her life. There have been many interesting questions of if she had not blindfolded herself, could she be the eyes and ears for her husband? Could she have been a more attentive mother and have more influence on her sons?”

Aditi doesn’t consider The Curse of Gandhari as mythological fiction. “For me The Mahabharata is not really mythology. The epic is interwoven into our culture and civilization. I think it is a true source material. But there is always some creative liberty and speculation in The Mahabharata. So I think my book is a speculative fiction as I have taken this kernel of truth from the epic and gone beyond it where it is more speculation.”

Aditi adds the idea that drove the story of her novel was after the war, when Gandhari lost all her sons “Only her daughter remained. Twelve years after the war is over they go to the forest and eventually die in a forest fire. What I kept thinking about is what her last moments or her last phase of her life like? And did Gandhari, who had gone through so much suffering, find peace or redemption at the end of her life?”

She has relied on the unabridged translation of The Mahabhrata. “It was important for me to stay true to the original spirit and character of Gandhari. But I tried to fill in the blanks because The Mahabharata tells us only a little about her and it does not offer any judgements or evaluation. It just presents the facts. So I have based myself on those facts . It was important not to pigeon hole her and make definitive statements, because a lot of times she has been reduced to her blindfold. There is a lot more nuance and depth to her.”

Frenemies first

Speaking about the contrasts between Gandhari’s and Kunti’s relationship, Aditi says: “In some ways they found themselves in similar situations, but they were different, for example their relationship with Krishna. Their approach to life and their personalities have a lot of interesting contrasts. Kunti accompanies them to the forest and looks after them. So to me it ended as a sisterhood, where they are frenemies. They are the only ones who could understand what the other had gone through.”

The idea to write about Gandhari emerged during one of her writing classes. “I started with a short story about Gandhari and that story kept growing and my instructor suggested I turn it into a novel. So I worked on it and that is how The Curse of Gandhari came to be,” says Aditi.

Her future projects include a story on the love between Sati and Shiva and a three-part series on the life of Krishna from Radha’s perspective.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 7:23:28 PM |

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