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Hindu myths frequently take centrestage in a number of productions at Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts. Tongue firmly in cheek, poet and performer Pooja Nansi takes a break from her own one-woman show at the festival to give you a crash course in these ancient tales of female self-sacrifice.
I am typing this on my greasy fingerprinted 13-inch Mac Book Pro screen some 30,000 feet up in the air. I am on my way to India, where I was born, where I still have a lot of family, where I tend to eat my own weight in delicious food, where my grandmother would feed me little balls of ghee-soaked rice while telling me stories of warriors and exiled saints, of beggar kings and princesses. And now that I think about it, perhaps this is exactly where my feminism ignited.
If you actually read the Mahabharata1, or if like me, you were lucky enough to have a grandmother to tell you these myths in instalments as you sat there open-mouthed, you’d have realised very quickly that while nobody had it good, the women in these stories were actually lauded for virtues like obedience, purity, chastity and quietly enduring any kind of long-suffering pain. They were celebrated competitors in the Victim Olympics, Even as a little girl, this bothered me.
The problem was at its most apparent when characters were granted boons2.
When men spent years fasting and praying on mountain tops, Lord Shiva would decide to appear before them to grant them a reward for their devotion, and mostly they would get supremely cool things like immortality, or ultimate weapons of destruction.
But everytime a woman meditated or undertook penance for years, Shiva would come down and grant things like a long, fulfilling married life (fine, so far so good), to never deviate from the path of virtue and in the case of Gandhari, he “blesses” her with (get this) one hundred sons. And this is her gift from him. Her gift. Mind you, she eventually witnesses the death of all her 100 sons and dies in a forest fire.
So, poor Gandhari right, before her tragic end, gets married off on instruction of Bhisma (who is very much like that one Indian uncle in every family who loves throwing his weight around) to a blind man and decides on her wedding day, she’s going to blindfold herself for the rest of her life. But you won’t find anything in the Mahabharata about what was going through this young woman’s mind when she’s told she’s marrying a blind dude and has no choice about it.
Encountering this epic in different versions and most memorably watching the episodes of the Doordarshan TV series3 as a little girl, I always thought she did it as an act of love and devotion to share in the suffering of the man she had married. I remember agitatedly pausing my grandmother in mid-feed, my mouth still full of rice, exclaiming “But why would anyone do that?” “Because that’s what women did back then” was her reply, and me, a stubborn and pigtailed five-year-old responding, “Well, that’s stupid. If she didn’t blindfold herself, she could help him around.” My grandmother, impatient, but tenderly shoving the last of the rice on the plate into my mouth, saying “you remember that when you find a husband”.
Years later I read an article by the Indian scholar Irawati Karve, that suggested maybe Gandhari blindfolded herself not as an act of devotion, but as an act of protest, as a statement about her lack of agency. What a beautiful metaphor that would be.
Then as I started reading without the expectations of virtue and husbandly devotion to blind me, I realised Gandhari is seriously badass. She gets pregnant but for some reason never goes into labour. Hearing that her sister-in-law has given birth, she pounds her own stomach in frustration and delivers a grey mass which a well-meaning sage divides into a 101 pieces to incubate in clay pots resulting in her 100 sons and 1 daughter.
She makes a singular exception to her blind state only once to see her eldest son Duryodhana. She removes her blindfold and pours all her powers into her son's body, in one glance rendering Duryodhana's entire body, except his loins4, as strong as iron. This is also the woman who curses the great Lord Krishna because she blames him for allowing all the destruction in the Mahabharata. She vows that his city and all his subjects will be destroyed. And in response Lord Krishna ascends to his heavenly abode allowing the whole city of Dwarka to drown. (#ThanksKrishna)
Joining team #AwkwardBoons are three other women—Kunti and Draupadi, both from the Mahabharata, and also Savitri from the famous tale of Savitri and Satyavan.
For her devotion and purity, Kunti is granted the boon of immaculate conception, so she can invoke any god to bear a child. The sage who gives her this boon when she’s a teenager doesn’t give her very clear instructions, so she decides to see if it works (it does), then panics at being a teenaged, unwed mother and abandons her child, a baby boy she names Karna, by sending him floating down a river in a basket. Of course he later grows up to hate his other brothers, the Pandavas (her five sons with the man she later marries) who are also the protagonists of the Mahabharata.
In a bizarre twist of events, Kunti ends up marrying the king Pandu who (and I really couldn’t make this up) mistakes a couple in the middle of lovemaking in the forest for a deer, and shoots an arrow at them. They then curse him to never be able to have sexual relations with a woman. Conveniently, the combination of boons and curses work out for Kunti and Pandu5. Now you’d think Pandu would not agitate his sexual frustration by marrying a second time, but with all the wisdom that men tend to have, he takes a second wife, Madri. Kunti decides she doesn’t want her husband to die childless and so invokes her boon and shares it with Madri, because you know, she’s cool like that. Long story short, Pandu can’t keep it in his pants any longer (#YOLO) and tries to get it on with Madri; they both die, leaving Kunti to look after the kids.
Kunti is also smarter than the popular narrative of her story allows. Everyone also knows how, when her son Arjun having won Draupadi’s hand in marriage tells her he has something (referring to your wife as “something” is not a good start) to show her, Kunti proclaims that whatever it is, he should share it equally with his four brothers. And so because these are the bravest warriors in the land, with all the wisdom that men tend to have, they decide they must share Draupadi as their wife.
This is the part people don’t talk about though—how Kunti comes out and looks at them in disbelief and chastises them for treating a woman like alms. Do they listen? Of course not. Draupadi’s being shared like a packet of M&Ms. The worst of the lot in this tale for me is Yudhistira, who is the eldest brother and, clearly sore that Draupadi who is supposed to be the most beautiful woman6 in the land wants his brother over him, continues to sulk with devastating consequences. He gambles her away in a dice game, then does nothing as she is sexually assaulted and humiliated in front of him, then throws a tantrum on the battle field when he unknowingly kills his own brother, Karna, and curses all women to never be able to keep a secret.
Thanks, Yudhistira, but we’re not interested in trying to keep them. There’s a reason why girls go to bathrooms in groups. It’s the same reason Kunti tries sticking up for her daughter-in-law Draupadi. We’ve got all of patriarchy breathing down our neck. At least in the girl’s toilet, we can all tell our female friends before they get married that the guy they are dating is a big baby.
Then there’s Savitri who is supposed to be so beautiful that she intimidates all the men in the kingdom and nobody asks for her hand in marriage7 . Her father tells her to look for her own husband, and she falls for the hunky Satyavan, an exiled hermit prince. Unfortunately she finds out he is cursed to die a year after he is married. Despite her father telling her to swipe left, she insists she will only pick her husband once. So she marries him and they live in bliss till the day comes when he is destined to die. She follows him into the forest and as he is hunkily chopping wood, he faints in her lap. Yama the god of death appears to take her husband away but Savitri follows him for a long time. Yama, touched by her love and devotion, grants her a boon (here we go again), anything he says, but her husband’s life. She asks to have children with Satyavan and he agrees. She waits for him to get it, and then after a long painful pause says, “Well, I can’t do it if he’s dead can I?” Predictably, Yama is then stunned by her wit and grants Satyavan back his life.
What I am learning when I read these stories with my own 21st-century perspective is that women, even when living in times of limited choices and permissable desires, would find a way to get on with it, get even, sometimes, even get what they wanted. They found a way to reclaim their dignity and their narratives, their voices.
What I am learning is that if I am ever granted a boon8, if I ever have a hundred daughters, the mealtime stories I tell, and how I tell them will pierce through the blindfolds.
1 Look, all Indian kids are brought up with serious overachievement issues. You get 90% on a test and your mother says “but Auntie Indu’s daughter has 93%. Why do you have to embarrass me?” So when the sage Vyasa, who the Mahabharata is attributed to, wrote it, he not only narrated a brilliant epic tale George R.R Martin would be jealous of, but decided to write it in verse. It consists of over 200,000 individual verse lines in rhyming couplets and is the longest poem ever written. The Mahabharata is roughly 10 times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. I mean, Vyasa was really representing here (leaving his mother no space for questions like “that nice boy Homer in your class? How much did he write?”).
2 Basically in in the world of Hindu myths, if an individual impressed the Gods by proving his devotion or loyalty by meditating hard enough, praying long enough, or imposing some kind of suffering upon themselves, the Gods might come down to Earth to grant them a wish or a blessing known as a boon. After listening to many of these tales as a child, and really wanting a new Nintendo, I decided to try it for myself by depriving myself of chocolate and going out into the balcony. Needless to say I lasted all of 2 minutes and 49 seconds.
3 This 94-episode TV series and its gaudy sets, tacky costumes, melodrama and special effects that were nothing short of comical is ingrained in the cultural intake of every Indian child born before the ’90s.
4 I mean this stroke of genius would really require a whole other article to talk about.
5 M, 25, unable to have sexual relations looking for F, 18-24, who is capable of immaculate conception.
6 It’s important to note here that she is also described as dark skinned. Take that lightening creams and dumb beauty standards.
7 I mean we can all relate to this right? Being “too pretty”?
8 Honestly, if I was granted a boon as I was typing this, it would be to only ever travel first class because the man next to me has both colonised the armrest and is severely manspreading.
Pooja Nansi is a poet and performer. Her last collection of poems, Love Is An Empty Barstool, has been referred to by The Business Times as "a must-read amongst hyper-literate young people across the island".
Devdutt Pattanaik (Devdutt.com) is author and illustrator of 40 books and 800 columns, as well as lecturer and podcaster, with many TV shows like Business Sutra and Devlok to his credit, that have over the past 20 years unravelled the wisdom of mythology to adults and children in India and around the world.