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The Curse of Gandhari by Aditi Banerjee

Jaya, to give the Mahabharata its proper name, is the true reflection of India’s soul. The core of it was composed thousands of years ago, and it includes within itself the accretions of hundreds of layers of subsequent inclusions of dense material of philosophical significance over the centuries, yet even today, in this age of Instagrams and Snapchats, it does not fail to excite us Indians, to arrest our attention; it still has the power, after all these millennia, to move us to decision, to action. Even today, a word about Bhishma or Draupadi or Arjuna or Krishna has, for the Indian, an import that is immediate. The connect is instant.

Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari, in his preface to his abridgement of the Mahabharata, said: “it is difficult to find anywhere such vivid portraiture on so ample a canvas. Bhishma, the perfect knight; the venerable Drona; the vain but chivalrous Karna; Duryodhana, whose perverse pride is redeemed by great courage in adversity; the high souled Pandavas with godlike strength as well as power of suffering; Draupadi, most unfortunate of queens; Kunti, the worthy mother of heroes; Gandhari, the devoted wife and sad mother of the wicked sons of Dhritarashtra, these are some of the immortal figures on that crowded, but never confused, canvas.”

Aditi Banerjee has chosen to focus on Gandhari as her protagonist. This is an inspired choice. Gandhari is a significant yet enigmatic presence throughout the Mahabharata. In animating the tapestry of rasa and purusartha that the Mahabharata is, her piety and her sins of omissions and commissions were every bit as important as the valour of Arjuna or the stratagems of Krishna or the presence of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa.

In Aditi Banerjee’s uneven but interesting reimagining, the woman behind Rajaji’s “devoted wife” and “sad mother” comes through, yes, but even after finis, I could not shake away the feeling that Gandhari has once again eluded our understanding. We are yet unable to pin her, to pigeonhole her, to ‘get’ her.

But let that not detract us from the merits of the novel. Banerjee’s is an important perspective, the woman’s side, and in this #MeToo era (whatever be the objectives or results of this movement, it is to be accepted that they did jolt the world into sitting up and taking notice of the women in our lives and the world), it is all the more pertinent that these hitherto unexplored aspects and unheard voices be seen and heard and given their due place.

In Banerjee’s novel, the women take the centre stage. Satyavati, Kunti, Ayla (the maid who served Gandhari, and also bore Dhritarashtra a son), Madri, Draupadi – all these women stride onto the pages, each a person in her own right, each with her own significance, each with her own viewpoint, each with her own aims and desires.

In one interesting scene in the novel, Satyavati tells Gandhari that while the men “are out winning wars and conquering kingdoms, and winning name and fame and glory, it’s we women who keep the kingdom intact.” And it is true a thousand times over. Men may make empires, but women make the men who make these empires. Men may fight and wage wars, but it is the women make victory possible. The hand that rocks the cradle does rule the world.

The novel presents a dual-stranded narrative: Dhritarashtra, Kunti and Gandhari’s time in the forest post the Kurukshetra war is one strand (the “Now”), and interspersing it are the flashbacks, as it were, of the life and times of Gandhari (the “then” strand). The Now strand is majorly contemplative in tone, quite in keeping with the Vanaprastha spirit, but bursts into activity at the end when Krishna strides into the frame. The last chapters in the Now strand are excellent indeed–they show an original authorial imagination in the scenes between Krishna, the bhagavan, and Gandhari, the bhakta. They serve as a late but fitting counterfoil to the rasa and pathos in the Then strand, where the real drama occurs.

Early on, we see Gandhari, presented with the dilemma and the bitter reality of being married off to a blind prince, take a vow to be as blind as her mate, in what I personally consider to be her silent and spiteful protest against a benevolent yet unfeeling family and an adverse fate. Now, if she were an ordinary woman, that would have been the beginning of her end, but Gandhari was made of sterner stuff. She may have taken a vow out of bitterness, she may have smitten her eyes to prove a point, but she did not begrudge paying the full price. She moved on to lie on the bed she made, not stoically but cheerfully, and this was not the false cheer that we see today, a smile that does not reach to the eyes and just dies on the lips an instant after it is made to appear, but a pure cheer, a cheer of piety and nobility and virtue. That is a big deal. That is the first indication that while Gandhari may have been a prisoner of circumstances and perhaps bad decisions, she is not a bad woman, not by a mile. 

Her martial life is etched with a womanly sensitivity by Banerjee, never stooping to pander to the baser eye, yet managing to convey the essential. Dhritarashtra, her husband, is portrayed as an inherently bitter and flawed soul, who, despite the pure influence of his wife, manages to remain sunk in the deformity of his mind, and who manages to infect his unborn children with his own failings. Perhaps this was an artistic necessity, and perhaps this could have been presented in a more balanced manner, but it does come out in Banerjee’s novel that Dhritarashtra was every bit a prisoner of his fate and thinking like his wife. The principal difference between husband and wife was that Dhritarashtra did not have the piety and purity that Gandhari cultivated in herself, so while history has dismissed him as a doddering fool of a father, it has given the benefit of a doubt to Gandhari out of reverence for her virtues.

The women in Gandhari’s life are etched with care. Satyavati is the brusque matriarch, Kunti the stoic rival, Madri the voluptuous libertine, a sati to the end, Ayla her servant and her eventual rival in bed. There is some free imagination here, and it is all good.

Under Banerjee’s rapid pen, Gandhari very soon finds herself as the matriarch of the Kuru clan after Satyavati departs, and here she fails signally. Here the entire focus was hitherto on being a wife, and her failure in producing a timely heir and later on in reining in her unruly children was a direct result of her unbalanced focus on her wifely duties.  Here we glimpse her misdirected resolve in consigning herself to a life of voluntary blindness, we see the edge of her early steel getting blunted in the thousand duties of family life. It is indeed fitting that Vidura says, elsewhere in the Mahabharata (Vidura-Niti) that the daily cares of family wear away bit by bit one’s intelligence and sharpness. Gandhari was a wife par excellence, but an indifferent mother and queen at best. Banerjee shows her dilemmas and her deficiencies at appropriate places, and we come to see how her reliance on Shakuni for the upbringing of her sons was a logical outgrowth of that. A note here: Banerjee bases her retelling of the principal episodes of Gandhari’s story on folk legends and recensive retellings of the Mahabharata, and while they add drama to the narrative, they might unwittingly offend the purist. 

We come to Gandhari’s pregnancy, the real beginning of Kurukshetra, and we get to see Gandhari’s self-induced miscarriage as the act of a hysterical woman – or perhaps a real, normal, feeling woman, who knows. She is here presented as a woman through and through, every bit prone to the jealousy and pettiness of the average woman in the family way. It is a departure from the sanitized version of the queenly Gandhari, and we get to see a glimpse of her raw, feminine, prakritic nature in Banerjee’s well-imagined scenes.

Continuing the saga of Gandhari’s failings, Banerjee gives us the episode of Draupadi’s disrobing, brought to life in restrained prose. By this time Gandhari has become a dim presence in her own life and the life of the Kuru clan, retreating to the safety of the ceremonial and the purity of the divine. She can now hardly influence her sons, and is reduced to being a mute spectator when the menstruating consort of the Pandavas is dragged to a public assembly and disrobed. In her failure in preventing this absolute violation of dharma, she is in the exalted company – Bhishma, Kripa, Dhritarashtra, even Vidura, several clan elders and scholars, all share in her shame. But it is only she, in a telling scene by Banerjee, who is snubbed ever so pointedly by Draupadi; Yajnaseni salutes only Kunti and avoids Gandhari altogether before departing for exile. The shot hits home, Gandhari is in turmoil. But it is all too little, too late. Here, Banerjee’s prose is restrained and impactful, which adds to the dramatic effect.

As a mother Gandhari is a failure, yet, under the influence of Banerjee’s pen, we are goaded to consider the fact that perhaps she was trying to make the most of a bad situation, perhaps she was trying to avert the inevitable. Duryodhana (Suyodhana) was the dutiful son only as long as his ambition and his plans were not objected to, it was his inherent nature, none could influence it. His brothers are more his brothers than Gandhari’s sons. We get the sense perhaps he was incorrigible, perhaps the war was inevitable.

We come to Krishna. Krishna is a looming presence in Gandhari’s life. She is his elder in age and relation, yet also his devotee, and this dual relationship informs all her interactions with the Lord. She sees what he does with the censorious eyes of the defeated clan senior, yet at the same time, she cannot get enough of him. She is both his mother and his slave, a moth voluntarily on the way to the flame, as it were.

It is not a normal relationship, almost ‘toxic’ in today’s supercharged point-of-view, and in these anti-‘patriarchal’, instant-judgment times, such things would result in clamor for police action against the man and his social media shaming, but it is a literal God who’s on the page here, and the relationship between God and his devotee is beyond media and the Indian Penal Code, thank God.

But Gandhari does what no judge, no media anchor cannot – she curses him to oblivion, alongwith his entire clan. That’s indeed something, and what makes it all the more poignant is that God accepts her curse without demur. It is a moment like no other. If I love you to bits, I can damn you to hell too. Indeed.

Striding and sliding through all this is Vyasa, the creator of Mahabharata in both the literal, metaphorical and authorial sense. His seeds develop into the warring clans, his counsels bring things to a close, his pen (or Ganesha’s pen, for today is Vinayaka Chaturthi) record everything for posterity and our edification. 

Anandavardhana, in his Dhvanyaloka, says that the two subjects intended by Vyasa in the Mahabharata as primary are the rasa of peace and moksha. The other rasas and other purusarthas are subordinated to these. The adventures of the Pandavas and others which are recounted in the Jaya, since they come to a miserable conclusion, represent the elaboration of worldly illusion, whereas it is blessed Vasudeva, representing ultimate truth, who is glorified in the Jaya. Purify your minds, he says, in blessed God, the all-highest. Form no passion for insubstantial glories, not let your minds dwell whole-heartedly on virtues such as statesmanship, modesty, courage, or the like, so as to regard them as sufficient in themselves. Look farther, says he, and see the limited worth of all worldly life.

Banerjee’s work cannot but amplify this sentiment. Gandhari may have succeeded as a wife, failed as a mother and a queen, but she succeeded without doubt as a woman, a woman who loved and succeeded in attaining the highest – the lotus feet of Sri Krishna. 

It is fitting, also, that I conclude this review with the Bharata Savitri, for the Jaya is about Dharma, and the life of Gandhari was one illustration of the subtlety of Dharma. 

मातापितृसहस्राणि पुत्रदारशतानि

संसारेष्वनुभूतानि यान्ति यास्यन्ति चापरे |

Thousands of mothers and fathers,

And hundreds of wives and sons,

Are experienced in several births,

And are going to be experienced in the future.

हर्षस्थानसहस्राणि भयस्थानशतानि

दिवसे दिवसे मूढमाविशन्ति पण्डितम् |

Thousands of experiences of happiness

Hundreds of experiences of fears,

Afflict the dimwitted man,

But will not affect the wise man.

ऊर्ध्वबाहुम्विरौम्येश कश्चित् शृणोति मे

धर्मादर्थश्च कामश्च धर्म किं सेव्यते|

I am shouting this loudly,

Raising my hands above,

But no one listens to this,

“Wealth and love comes out of Dharma,

But no one is bothered to practice his Dharma.”

जातु कामान् भयान् लोभात्

धर्मं  त्यजेज्जीवितस्यापि  हेतो

नित्यो धर्म: सुखदुखो त्वनित्ये

जीवो नित्यो हेतुरस्य त्वनित्य: ||

Dharma should not be forsaken,

Either due to desire, fear or avarice,

Dharma is permanent but pleasure and sorrow are temporary,

Like soul is permanent but body is temporary.

For bringing this subtlety of dharma to life in the story of Gandhari, I give my thanks to Aditi Banerjee. 

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