Publisher: Penguin Books India
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I am glad I picked up ‘The Pregnant King’ by Devdutt Pattanaik one day just randomly cruising along the racks of a bookstore. Though I started reading it only after I heard a friend praise ‘Jaya’, by the same author. Reading Devdutt Pattanaik is like listening to an old, wrinkly favorite grandma; who recites the tales of Rajas and Ranis of old, old times, with love and infusing wisdom. He has told the tale simply, beautifully, and keeping all detailing and facts in mind, providing tid-bits of related information wherever he mentions a name or familiar incident. This particular book has some characters that are found in the Mahabharata , but he has added others,changed the chronology of events and fictionalised certain events to create his own, first and only work of fiction.
The book is the story of the life and many other events revolving around the life of a handsome prince, who becomes a king, only to realize that he is not able to father any heirs to his throne; a task without which a king and his kingdom is rendered incomplete, both socially and spiritually. The king then employs the help of two Siddhas, learned rishis with immense magical powers to help him beget an heir to his throne. As fate, or destiny, would have it, it so happens that the king ends up drinking the magic potion himself. What follows is the a very fundamental conflict of a human psyche, between what it desires what it is duty-bound to do; the eternal, most basic conflict of humans from time immemorial.
The king yearns to be called mother, the most tender and the most loving of emotions he has ever felt, to hold the child that is part of his own body and to nurse and love him. (Other such gender-bending stories from Indian mythology are related in Pattanaik’s latest work, Shikhandi.) His mother, and his three queens forbid this though; fearing societal rebuttal and rejection, deeply concerned about maintaining the “dignity” of the crown and for the greater of the people of the kingdom who depend on the king for peaceful stable lives.
The child this grows up, away from his father, away from his one true “mother”. The strict dharma-shastra, which lays the ground rules for living well in an established and stable society discourage individual satisfaction and encourage what is good for the larger well-being of the society that one lives in. This story is about an individual’s strife trying hard to live a seemingly sane life while making a compromise with their inner-most desires.
The book not only tells the core tale of the king and the child he gives birth to, but narrates beautiful many surrounding tales, legends, revolving the king’s life, and the life of his parents and grand-parents and his ancestors. “He wept for his family, his mothers, his brother and for his grandmother, the venerable Shilavati, and for all the pain and suffering that we endure to maintain a façade of order. He wept for his father, the pregnant king, for the imperfection of the human condition, and for our stubborn refusal to make room for all those in between.” The book thus ends, throwing a bright, glaring light on so many such imperfections in the society that was then, and the society that it is now.
Interested in Devdutt Pattanaik’s other works? We have reviewed many of his other books as well, such as Sita, Gauri and the Talking Cow (for children) and Myth=Mithya. For our exclusive in-depth interview with him, click here.