Retelling Books

The queen of Dharma: Review of Ira Mukhoty’s Song of Draupadi

Real woman: Anita Salim plays Draupadi in the play ‘Yudhistra and Draupadi’.   | Photo Credit: Mohammed Yousuf

The 3,000-year-old Mahabharata has proved to be immortal like Ashwatthama. It has been retold again and again, from the perspectives of characters like Bheem, Karna, even Duryodhana. Goodreads claims to have 116 books based on the epic. Of them, 73 are based on Draupadi.

And yet, there’s still not enough debate on the women in the Mahabharata. Or indeed, enough women in the Mahabharata. There are some 28 women mentioned in the epic, in a cast that stretches over time and space (not including goddesses but including apsaras and nymphs).

In her 2017 book, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth & History, historian, researcher and storyteller Ira Mukhoty points out the reasons why Draupadi is arguably the most important female heroine across Indian myth and history. While historical figures like Meerabai or Rani of Jhansi have acquired semi-divine status, Draupadi is as real to modern-day Indians as any historical figure.

Problematic woman

She is a problematic woman who has walked the tightrope between being villainised as the cause of fratricide and idealised as the one who occasioned the Dharma yudh against injustice. When Draupadi says, “I shall never forgive the Kauravas for doing what they have done to me. I shall not tie my hair until I wash it in Dusshasana’s blood,” the violence inherent in her words is undeniable.

Draupadi uses two powerful symbols, unbound hair and blood, to flaunt her disgrace for the remainder of the Mahabharata till the end of the Kurukshetra war, when the scale of her personal losses more than makes up for the violence she unleashes as retribution for the injustice done to her.

The other reason Mukhoty gives for Draupadi’s importance is that she maintains her claim for vengeance

The queen of Dharma: Review of Ira Mukhoty’s Song of Draupadi

and justice although it makes her stand alone against all the forces of patriarchy. She claims justice in the name of all women. Like Mahasweta Devi’s Dopdi, who vows to continue the fight against injustice, Mukhoty’s Draupadi too is relentless. Ravi Varma’s submissive, fair Draupadi praying for rescue is a far cry from Mukhoty’s Draupadi who questions Krishna when she says, “I have no husbands, no sons, no brothers, no father, no relatives, not even you, Madhusudana. As if free from all grief, you all stood by while vile men insulted me.” She’s the one who can cynically point out that at the end of the war, the only clan left unscathed is Krishna’s and the only child left to the Pandavas is from Krishna’s sister, Subhadra.

Forceful studies

Mukhoty falters in handling time in Song of Draupadi, which is perhaps excusable given this is her first attempt at fiction-writing. The Mahabharata uses Time or Kaal as a narrative device to justify the knowledge of events happening over generations. In Song of Draupadi, we are left wondering about the identity of the narrator, who is present simultaneously during the childhoods of Ganga, Satyavati, Amba, Gandhari, Kunti and Draupadi, all of whose stories are narrated in the present tense. The age-defying narrator’s intimate access to the minds of the women is baffling too.

Mukhoty, however, excels in the depiction of space. She expertly builds up the locales of which these six women are a part. The descriptions of Gandhari suffering in the heat of U.P. after having come down from Kandhahar or of the foods of Panchal, where Draupadi grows up, are indelible. The examination of an age where queens are almost as powerless as sakhis/ dasis reminds us that the Mahabharata was written around the same time as the Manusmriti.

Kunti’s life as an unloved foster child or Ganga’s postpartum depression are forceful studies into what makes them the women they are. At the same time, women are not idealised — there’s the pettiness of Sudeshna as she sends Draupadi to Kichaka or the ineffectuality of Ambika, Ambalika and the Kaurava wives.

But the condition of women at the time hardly gives them any options. They can only take the routes of cunning, defiance, submission, death, or actually become a man, like Amba.

It is, of course, Draupadi who stays with you. From her birth through black magic as an instrument of revenge to the time she is left alone in the cold of the Himalayas hoping that at least the dog will return to keep her warm to her voiceless submission to the disgrace of being a wife of five men; from her careful, constant stoking of the fire of vengeance in her husbands to her final quiet days in the palace as the Queen of Dharma while the Pandavas move on with their other wives, Mukhoty’s Draupadi is a living presence. The book establishes why Draupadi is the conscience of the Mahabharata and a hero far beyond the men who fought the battle.

Song of Draupadi; Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company, ₹699

The reviewer is the author of the fantasy series Weapons of Kalki, and an expert on South Asian art and culture.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 5:32:12 PM |

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