The Mahabharata (Penguin Classics)

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Woman with Power Is Woman Unchecked: Reading Narratives of Indian Women


Raja ne gami te raani
Chaana veenthi aane
Kya karega kaaji
My mother spouted these words during another one of our marriage talks, which seem to be the ultimate tangent in any family conversation now. As more of my friends tie the knot, younger generations of my family dive into romantic exploits, and I near 30, there seems no escaping it.

Roughly translated, the folk saying means:
A king makes a queen [of any who he fancies]
Even if she’s making cow pies
And what can the priests do
In it lies the implied sense of manhood’s rule over anyone he sets his eyes on, regardless of what his educated elders have to say about it. It’s a folksy saying, innocent and dated, but it cuts to the core of where I stand in the world: An Indian-American man, instilled with and expected to live up to societal duties to establish my castle and spread my seed.

The cultural disposition of just “going along” with these things to please the family — as a writer, it feels antithetical. Would I write something just to please the culture?

In speaking of the social role of literature, Indian writer Govardhanram Tripathi wrote in the preface to his novel Saraswatichandra,  “Both women and the novel desire to be beautiful, but our fulfillment of this desire just be a means to achieve higher goals. Striving for mere aesthetic pleasure is not only understandable, it is futile — and indeed it could be harmful — to attain that step and not rise upwards.”

Tripathi’s belief was that the novel should project an ideal future, but should remain in-step with the quotidian, avoiding any real radical divergence. That’s not good for society. It’s not good for the family. Literature, like all art, becomes an avatar of the cultural identity, and in Indian publishing, the country’s complicated relationship with autonomous female narratives continues.

It is no secret that this idea lies at the root of a larger social ill in India today. The headlines are flush with stories that range from men whistling and pawing at women walking down the street, to, at their most vile, incidents like Delhi’s 2012 bus gang rape, or last New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru, where 1,500 police officers couldn’t control thousands of drunken revelers snatching at the clothing of women trying to get home.

I used to have an easy target: Bollywood. Entire plotlines of lovesick boys chasing their consorts through forests and mountains, their affections easily reciprocated after a song-and-dance number, have brainwashed generations into thinking that romance starts with lighthearted stalking, and flourishes through female obligation. But Bollywood, whose male stars are propelled to near-mythic status, revered as Gods walking the earth, gestures towards a deeper ritual of masculinity worship that is central to the Indian condition.

Many cultures are built on a similar patriarchal notions that codified into the social fabric in different ways. In India, many will claim that female equality had been the norm in Vedic times, citing principles like ardhangini, that men and women are complementary halves of a whole. They will point to the images of Goddesses, and professing an insult to wife or mother is unconscionable. Somewhere along the way — Muslim empires, British colonials — it all got messed up.

Literature however, preserves a record of women perhaps, yes, having a voice and role — but one dictated by the whims of men.

The uber-mensch is no doubt Krishna, who toyed with the bathing Gopis by stealing their clothes along the river bank. His love story with Radha is our Romeo and Juliet, without the familial strife. Krishna of course, is a supporting player in the epic The Mahabharata, chronicling the battle between the cousin clans of the domineering 100 Kauravas against the heroic five Pandavas.

The tale’s pivotal moment comes during a game of dice, where the Pandava King, Yudhishthira, is cheated out of his kingdom by his cousins. One by one, he stakes his own throne, then each of his brother’s estates, and finally their polyamorous wife, Draupadi. At this point, Draupadi is dragged by her hair into the main hall, and the Kauravas begin pulling at her clothes, crying that if she can be married to five men at once, what’s the point of covering up? As her linen is torn from her, she prays to Krishna, who blesses her with a never-ending strand of clothing so that she doesn’t experience the ultimate shame of nudity, and in doing so, seals her holiness in the annals of myth.

Now, it’s important to mention that Draupadi is revered across India as a goddess in her own right, and celebrated as a feminist figure. But what of the feckless Pandavas, her husbands, who sit by and watch, unable to act because they’ve “rightfully” lost her?

The Pandavas, we are told, are virtuous, stalwart, underdog heroes — but at every beat they seem to buck their superlatives. They give in to the cheating and hostile bureaucracy of their cousins. Throughout the epic, they all fall prey to various vices: Yudhishthira loves to gamble; Bhima is a bully with seemingly insatiable bloodlust, brutally dismembering, crushing, and decapitating several characters through the story. Arjuna famously has a crisis of faith and confidence moments before battle, prompting Krishna to recite the Bhagavad Gita (and only then fights because Krishna tells him to). And there’s poor pretty-boy Nakula and dutiful Sahadeva, victims of vanity and pride, who barely register in the tale.

Indian children are raised on similar tales of kings wandering the wilds and happening upon village nymphs, struck with cupid’s arrows and picking up new wives. These are our mythical heroes and role models. We’re told they act out of honor and passion; when their actions are questionable, it is waived by divine destiny.

Through time, the examples multiply: the poet Kālidāsa in the 5th century dramatized the story of Shakuntala, another forest nymph who ensnared King Dushyanta. Their offspring Bharata founds the dynasty leading to the Pandavas.

Upon the Muslim invaders, the culture ripens with more stories of star-crossed lovers: Leila and Majnun; Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (of the Taj); or the Hindu warrior Bajirao and his lover Mastani, who commits suicide upon hearing of his death in battle, an act of Sati, where Hindu widows are bidden to throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres. (Let’s add that Sati herself is a goddess, and first of two consorts to Shiva.)

The folk saying Raja Ne Game Te Raani is also the title of a popular contemporary Gujarati stage play, about a middle-aged couple whose three daughters run the household instead of learning wifely duties from their mother. It takes a strong-willed servant — male, of course — to show the daughters their rightful way and bring peace to the home.

Modern feminism in India has often been dictated by men, first by colonialists trying to tame “savage” rituals like Sati, and later by Gandhi and other reform leaders hoping to envelope women’s liberation as a component of Independence. Today as women wrestle control of their own narratives, men tax them by attacking their moral standing. When the women assaulted in Bengaluru reported to the police and caused a national uproar, the politicians were quick with stock answers — they shouldn’t have dressed immodestly, they should have known better, it was New Year’s — what did they expect? Karnataka State’s home minister G. Parameshwara remarked, “They try to copy westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing, so some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen.” #NotAllMen trended the next few days, as if India’s stalwart Pandavas threw their hands up and claimed, “Hey, don’t look at me.”

The lack of women’s agency in their own narratives was chronicled famously by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Madwoman in the Attic, examining writers like Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, and noting that even the most prominent women writers worked under the shadow of their male counterparts. They pose the question, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”

As in most cultures, the Indian woman writer has often been placed in the position of being reactive to male hegemony.  For every Mirza Ghalib there is a Begum Zeb-un-Nisa; both prized Mughal-era poets, only one imprisoned the last 20 years of her life for being too freethinking. For every Munshi Premchand, an Ismat Chughtai; both crafting socio-realist fiction about female sexual identity, yet only one summoned to court on grounds of indecency.

In her autobiography My Story, the late writer Kamala Das characterizes her life living under a conservative father and later a conservative arranged husband. She tries to dutifully please both of them, but they fail to ignite any intellectual and emotional connection with her. Even after achieving literary prominence, she writes in the preface: “This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret writing it.”

There is no shortage of amazing writing coming out of India today. Novels about cultural displacement by authors of Indian descent like Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and their contemporaries have found global success. A diaspora bubble shifts the critical focus of diaspora writers away from gender, and makes it a battleground for class. In the eyes of India’s patriarchal culture wardens, their work is now Western, immoral, published by the big New York and London houses, printed for English-only eyes. It’s not Swadesi, not of this land. Their stories are dictated by a migration and divorce from a culture that then remains untouched, unchanged.

Meanwhile, writers like Arundhati Roy and the late Mahasweta Devi who remain in India are often perceived more as leftist activists than storytellers. It’s a longshot to assume their rich, nuanced works have any traction with India’s cricket-playing, paan-chewing working class. The current Hindu nationalist government staunchly opposes voices that threaten a particular religio-nationalist narrative (in one example from outside the country, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindu sexuality was banned in India). Writers like Anjum Hasan, Anita Hair, and Anuradha Roy battle for bookshelf space against the likes of Chetan Bhagat, whose simple prose about cricket and call centers flies off the shelves. They are competing with Shobhaa De, a former model and Mumbai socialite, dubbed the “Jackie Collins of India,” whose bestselling tawdry Sex-in-the-City-esque tales serve to titillate schoolboys as much as give a feigned sense of female success in books.

Recently Bollywood has trended toward women-centric stories. Films such as Pink, Queen, Gulaab Gang, and Piku have all been smash hits at the box office, yet come with the stamped approval of male directors, male co-stars, and plotlines circling around and back to the women defying fathers, marriage, rape, or ignorance. And again, we find that any directorial voice — say a Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta — looks to markets abroad to find a platform.

Admittedly, I am also covering here only the writers who have risen high enough in the Indian literary scene that I, as an American, can identify them. There’s much to be said of small presses like Zubaan and Women Unlimited, as well as authors writing in one of India’s many regional languages. But in an increasingly globalized country, the success of English-language publishing remains the most profitable benchmark, which only threatens to further limit Indian women’s narratives.

In speaking of literature from South Asia, I admit this is a cursory overview of a millennia-spanning history. But as an Ahmedabad-born immigrant in a growing diaspora, my identity remains its product — through literature, through film, through every custom.

We pray to the feminine image with ultimate, unreciprocated piety, but in practice it’s considered a two-way street. We elected a woman prime minister before it was common to do so, then brutally assassinated her at the gates of her own home. Bollywood’s current screen queen, Deepika Padukone, drew scorn for a Vogue short film by proclaiming sex was “my choice.” A woman with power is a woman unchecked. Woman is either heretically subversive or divinely transcendent; there is no middle ground.

In a workshop in my early 20s, my writing was torn down over one prevalent problem: All of my female characters were immaculately beautiful, endearingly personable, cherished by my protagonist — like a goddess, and were just as intangible. I resist marriage, not because I detest the prospect of a devoted relationship (or the lavish wedding party), but because I’m uncertain of my own place in it, suffering from what Harold Bloom dubbed, “the anxiety of influence.” How does one escape the ills of heritage without leaving it behind entirely?

When the conversation arises — and it does with growing frequency — my family talks as if it’s already a done deal. Just say the word and we’ll find the girl. Do it for us. You’re a great catch — you even know how to cook! Most Indian girls don’t bother to learn anymore.

I’ve stood in the corner of those banquet halls, watching grooms draped in dowries, riding in on stallions and carried to the mandap on shoulders of their brothers. It was nauseating.

As of now, even the best of us may have to settle with the fact that we are reserved Pandavas, and no more or less righteous.

The Disrobing of Draupadi, Wikimedia Commons

Kiran Nagarkar: Language, Lore, and Lack of Sales

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Indelible reading experiences are thrilling but rare; in the summer of 1997, I was lucky to have two. An arts foundation in Maine had given me a tiny grant that allowed me to return to India, where I’d been a Fulbright scholar a few years earlier. My official purpose was to do follow-up work on my Fulbright project interviewing Indian women writers. Unofficially, I spent a lot of time reading.

Arundhati Roy was not yet one of India’s best-known authors, although that would change by the year’s end once she was awarded the Man Booker Prize. The God of Small Things had just been published, and I read it in half a day, lying on my bed in Pune as afternoon turned to evening, not even pausing to turn on the light. When I finished, I felt it would surely be the most transporting book I read that summer.

A month or so later, I arrived in the eastern state of Orissa, visiting a generous writer who had invited me to stay for nearly a week. This turned out to be a bit long for both of us, and I found myself sent frequently to my room to rest. I didn’t mind. Kiran Nagarkar’s 600-page historical novel Cuckold had also come out that summer, and it was my boon companion that week. The initial plan was to read 100 pages a day, which seemed reasonable until I actually started. The first day went well. On day two, however, I had to force myself to put the book down after another 200 pages. On day three, I abandoned my plan entirely and finished it in a gulp. I can no longer remember what I read over the rest of that summer. What I do know is that Cuckold remains one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life.

In the years since, I’ve revisited both books. With The God of Small Things, the emotional power diminished on second read; Cuckold, on the other hand, was as satisfying the third time as the first. If Roy’s novel is finely wrought and tragic, Nagarkar’s is bold and bawdy. But hardly anyone has heard of it. It’s not that Cuckold has gone completely unrecognized — it won the 2000 Sahitya Akademi Award for the best novel in English, one of India’s most prestigious literary prizes. But it was never published outside of India, and even there didn’t draw the critical reception Nagarkar hoped for — not poor reviews, but rather hardly any at all. To its loyal fans, Cuckold will always be a brilliant novel that didn’t receive its due.

There may be hope, however. In the past year, The New York Review of Books has republished Nagarkar’s first English-language novel, Ravan and Eddie, as part of its NYRB Lit e-book series (Sonya Chung wrote about them for Bloom in February). And I write this, at least in part, as a fervent plea that Cuckold will be next.

Born in 1942 into a westernized liberal family in Bombay, Nagarkar grew up speaking both English and Marathi, the language of the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is located. Except for his first four years of primary school, his education was entirely in English, and he studied English literature in college. The surprise, then, is not that he chose to write in English, but that he’s written fiction in Marathi at all, which he calls “perhaps one of the happiest accidents of my life.”

The “accident” presented itself when Dilip Chitre, a friend and fellow writer, was recruiting work for his father’s Marathi journal, Abhiruchi. Nagarkar submitted a brief story, which was published. He went on to write his first novel, which came out in 1974, in Marathi as well. Saat Sakkam Trechalis (translated in English as Seven Sixes Are Forty-Three) was a partly autobiographical story about a young writer making his way in the world. With its unconventional narrative style, Saat Sakkam Trechalis brought Nagarkar early acclaim and was pronounced a landmark work in Marathi literature.

Nagarkar followed his novel with the play Bedtime Story in 1978. Based on several stories from The Mahabharata, it addressed the question of modern responsibility in an era of political crises, including the Vietnam War and the Indian Emergency. The play was savaged by the censors — 78 cuts in a 74-page play — and protested by various right-wing Hindu groups; Bedtime Story wasn’t staged in India until 1995.

He went on to work as a professor, a journalist, a playwright, screenwriter; and, primarily, in advertising. He did not, however, publish another book until 1994, and when he did, it was written in English. This was not his original intention: Ravan and Eddie began as a Marathi novel, morphed into a screenplay for a movie that never got made, and eventually became Nagarkar’s first English-language work.

The Marathi critics who had hailed his first book took this as a betrayal. Nagarkar addressed this openly in his Sahitya Akademi award speech, explaining that when Ravan and Eddie was first published,
The publisher sent 36 review copies to various Marathi newspapers and journals. Not a single review of the book has appeared…It slowly became clear to me that I must have committed an unmentionable crime, a crime that was beyond forgiveness…for if you don’t acknowledge an author’s work, it ceases to exist.
Tensions between Indian authors writing in English (which, among other things, grants them access to Western audiences and advances) and those writing in regional languages are perpetual and understandable in a country with 23 official languages and many more unofficial ones. In an essay entitled “A Suitable Text for a Vegetarian Audience: Questions of Authenticity and the Politics of Translation,” anthropologist Rashmi Sadana raises some of the key issues that Nagarkar’s bilingual writing career creates:
Nagarkar’s predicament, and his forefronting of it at the Akademi, is a fairly straightforward example of the way literary writing in English is seen not only as being less authentic than vernacular, or bhasha literature, but also, more specifically, as a betrayal of a particular linguistic community by one of its own…[F]rom the purview of most bhasha literary communities, to write in English is to reject willingly (and perhaps willfully) part of one’s Indianness.
Nagarkar himself has little patience with those who criticize him for writing in English, which he calls his “second mother tongue”: “The critics always made me feel like I did something I was not supposed to do.” He has not published fiction in Marathi since.

His Anglophone career has now spanned 20 years. After Ravan and Eddie came Cuckold in 1997, God’s Little Soldier in 2006, and The Extras in 2012 (a sequel to Ravan and Eddie, published after an 18-year interval). No one can say that Nagarkar doesn’t do things on his own terms.

On the surface, Nagarkar’s first two English novels don’t have much in common. Ravan and Eddie is set in the Bombay of the 1940s and ’50s, and its two eponymous main characters are sworn enemies — who clearly should be friends — growing up in the same chawl (a Mumbai tenement). Cuckold, on the other hand, is set in 16th-century Mewar, now part of the state of Rajasthan but once an independent and powerful kingdom. What both books share is Nagarkar’s joyous use of language, as well as his humor — and the ability to shift between comedy and tragedy in short order. He is also particularly adept at managing large casts of characters. In a wonderful piece in The Caravan, Anjum Hasan writes of Nagarkar’s “ability to create those voluminous and self-contained universes that we are familiar with from 19th-century novels but rarely encounter today. A striking aspect of those Tolstoyan and Dickensian worlds is that there is always more in them than is strictly needed for the purposes of keeping a story going.”

In Ravan and Eddie, the narrative shifts between their viewpoints, but the reader is also introduced to other families living in the chawl, as well as various neighborhood characters. And throughout the novel, Nagarkar steps back to include brief essays on subjects of interest. There is “A Harangue on Poverty,” “A Short Digression on Snow,” (by which he means Afghan Snow fairness cream) and “A Not So Short and Utterly Unnecessary History of Romantic Comedies in Hindi Films in the 1950s and 60s” on the occasion of Ravan selling his school books and stealing his mother’s jewelry in order to go see the Shammi Kapoor film Dil Deke Dekho 17 times.

There is no question that Ravan and Eddie is an accomplished, entertaining novel, but Cuckold is more ambitious in both size and scope. It’s a love story, a war story, and a family story, whose origins come from centuries of lore and a bit of known history: in the early 16th century, a princess from the kingdom of Merta was married to the eldest son of the Rana of Mewar. In the early years of her marriage, she scandalized her in-laws — and made herself beloved to the public — by declaring her love for the god Krishna in the most passionate and earthly terms. For Krishna she sang and danced, composing poems and songs known and loved to this day. The princess — Mirabai — is considered one of the most significant poets and saints in the bhakti (devotional) tradition.

At the true center of Nagarkar’s tale, though, is the prince she married, the Maharaj Kumar, about whom hardly anything is known. Told by his wife on their wedding night that she is promised to another, he is the cuckold of the title, in love with his wife who is in love with Krishna. But that is only part of the story. He is also the eldest son of a one-armed, one-eyed aging king, with multiple younger brothers vying for the throne, and is a wonderfully sympathetic character – a testament to Nagarkar’s skill, since in addition to his civic interests he is also leader of the Mewar army, specializing in brutal guerilla warfare. The scene where his men lead thousands of Gujarati soldiers — and their horses — to their deaths in a quick-sinking bog is particularly gruesome.

The novel is mostly narrated by the Maharaj Kumar himself, interspersed with occasional third-person sections about his relationship with his wife, who is never called by her name but only the Princess, the Little Saint, Greeneyes. Some of Nagarkar’s loveliest prose comes in these passages. Here, the Princess is back in her own home for the last time after her wedding:
She knew what she had to do on this visit. She must brand in her memory the images of her village, of her house, of her horse, of her favourite people, of the well, of her father and grandfather and aunts, of the god in the temple, of the sands and the trees and the kumatiya, khajri and kair of the desert. And the sound of the school bell and the sound of a sandstorm and of rain hissing into the sand, her aunt beating the water out of her hair with a thin towel, the bucket at the well hitting the water some hundred feet below. And the smell of the sun burning the sand, of dry kachra frying in oil and spices, the powdery, bleached smell of her father’s armpit when he came back from a long day of surveying their lands, the fierce smell of the kevda leaves in their garden. All these she must etch on her memory. They would have to last her a lifetime.
This green-eyed princess is not a simple saint. She may go into ecstatic trances while singing to her beloved Krishna, but she is politically savvy, devoted to her earthly husband in her own way, and a terrible cheat at cards. While it might sound like a quintessential “boy book” (battles, strategy, infighting among brothers over the crown), one of Cuckold’s strengths is its complex female characters (just as in Ravan and Eddie, where the mothers of the title characters are as memorable as their sons): the princess, of course, but also Kausalya, the prince’s first lover and trusted advisor; and Leelawati, granddaughter of the Jain finance minister, the woman who is the prince’s most fitting match and one he can never marry.

As in the best historical novels, Nagarkar creates an engulfing, vividly peopled world, entirely convincing in its multitude of details. And he does it in modern language, which he announces in his preface: “One of the premises underlying this novel is that an easy colloquial currency of language will make the concerns, dilemmas and predicaments of the Maharaj Kumar, Rana Sanga, and the others as real as we ourselves are caught in.” The story may be taking place long ago and far away, but Nagarkar makes sure that we are right there with him and with his characters, and he doesn’t let us go.

Reading Nagarkar, it’s hard not to notice two things — the exuberance of his language and the patience of his storytelling. Cuckold, at 600 pages, is a hefty work, but he also spends more than 800 pages over two books chronicling the lives of Ravan and Eddie. Small wonder, then, that in more than 40 years he has only published five novels. Nagarkar has said in multiple interviews that he doesn’t want to do the same thing twice. And in challenging himself as a writer, he is challenging his readers as well, tackling religion, history, and current events no matter who might take offense. Ravan and Eddie, with its portraits of Catholics and Hindus living (literally) on top of each other in multicultural Mumbai, was criticized as being both anti-Catholic and anti-Hindu.

Nagarkar is fatalistic about the success of his writing career, joking that he is in the “Guinness Book of [World] Records for the worst sales of a book ever,” but he also holds himself — and other writers — up to high standards and doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels. “You are only as good as your next book,” he told an interviewer in 2006. So far, he has not disappointed.

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