Author: Mahasweta Devi
Translated by: Anjum Katyal
Publisher: Seagull Books Pvt Ltd
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“After Kurukshetra” is a collection of three stories, each of which centres around women in the aftermath of the Kurukshetra war from the Mahabharat. The original, written by Mahasweta Devi, is in Bengali. However, the translation by Anjum Katyal flows smoothly; hence, even though I haven’t read the original, I believe that the essence of the original has got through.
The first story, “The Five Women” tells of five lower-caste war widows who are brought in as companions for the pregnant widow of Abhimanyu , the dead Pandava hero. “Kunti and the Nishadin” deals with a conveniently forgotten shameful act from the Pandavas’ past, drowned out by the cheers surrounding their battlefield victory … until now. And ‘Souvali’ is the story of the woman employed to service Dhritarashtra, patriarch of the Kauravas and father of her son, and her reaction to his death.
The Mahabharat is a rich source to mine from. This book makes one ask the question, “What was so great about the great war?” For someone familiar only with the trite version presented on TV, or in the average story-book or grandmother’s tale, this book, (which does employ a certain amount of poetic license in some sections) could be the spark needed to ignite one’s interest in the myriad by-lanes and hidden corners of mythology. The Mahabharat, after all, is not just one simple one-dimensional story; it is meant to serve as a treatise on Dharma, the study of right versus wrong. But whose Dharma is it about?
Unlike Devdutt Pattanaik’s works, which tend to soothe away any of the more obvious irritations that the modern reader might express (“Why did Karna have to die? How can Rama be the ideal male in spite of having abandoned his faultless wife?”), these stories prompt one to question one’s blind belief in mythological heroes and their supposed heroics, and examine their actions more critically. At the same time, some might feel that the stories themselves are written with a strongly feminist as well as socialist agenda in mind, which, knowing the author’s political leanings, is a fair judgment call. In particular, one may quibble about widow remarriage being brought up in not one but two of the three stories; the author dins into the reader the irony of upper-class women being unable to remarry after their husbands had died and instead being forcibly deprived of enjoyment, while the so-called lower classes could join the circle of life again without any restrictions or taboos.
The third story, “Souvali”, is the most satisfying; the woman in it is confident and secure, happy with her situation and status in life, and is mature enough to not judge her son too harshly for what she considers his foolish hankering after a father who did not openly acknowledge him. At one point, when considering the strictures of society, which would have her fast or display regimental sadness in an overt manner at the death of Dhritarashtra, she counters with “I’m hungry, so I’ll eat”, a simple practical statement which speaks volumes about her contentment with her lot and her common-sense approach to the theatrics around her. A worthy thought indeed.
After Kurukshetra is a great read. It packs a lot of food for thought in an extremely slim volume, and will leave you hungry for more… much, much more.