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Indian epics get a feminist makeover

Modern retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana show a different side

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's book "The Palace of Illusions" examines famous Indian epic the Mahabharata through a feminist lens. (Nikkei montage/Source photos from the author and Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- In Indian American writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's book "The Palace of Illusions," the central female character of Draupadi says, "I would no longer waste time on regret. I would turn my face to the future and carve it into the shape I wanted." It is not surprising that Divakaruni would give Draupadi such a strong voice; she is one of the small but growing group of writers who are sharing their own version of popular Indian epics through the feminist lens.

Draupadi is a unique figure in Indian mythology. According to the Mahabharata epic, she is married to the five Pandava brothers who have blindly followed their mother's dictum that sharing is caring. The turning point in the story comes at a point where she is humiliated in the royal court of her husbands' fierce rivals, the Kauravas, who have her disrobed in front of a large audience. Her husbands vow to take revenge, and a long bloody war follows.

In the story, Draupadi is portrayed as a bit of a troublemaker, an arrogant woman who invited her own downfall. In other words, she asked for it. It is not surprising that the original creators of the Mahabharata -- all men -- would paint such a picture of the story's key female protagonist. Indeed, it is not just Draupadi, but also other women in Indian epics who have served as warnings for readers across the ages -- behave like women, or else.

There are two great epics that Indians (Hindus) love and revere, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both of them are stories of kings and kingdoms, momentous wars and the eventual victory of good over evil. Even as these epics were passed down the ages through oral traditions of storytelling -- as dramas and discourses, as well as bedtime stories by mothers and grandmothers -- the broad stories remain largely unchanged.

The minor variations may reflect the sympathies of the various original authors, but there is no doubt these sympathies lay entirely with the male protagonists. The masculine point of view is constant, unflinching, and sings praises of the hero's valor and virtues. The women are side characters, put there to move the story along while staying in the shadow of their men, content to be mere pawns in the larger game of power and greed.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of "The Palace of Illusions." (Photo by Krishna Giri)

As Samhita Arni, author of "Sita's Ramayana" (illustrated by Moyna Chitrakar) says, "We all know the Ramayana as told by Tulsidas and Valmiki, but we don't hear much about the folk renditions where the Ramayana is told by a women narrator, from a woman's [point of view]. Alternate versions have always been ignored because they hold some uncomfortable truths." Indeed, glaring moral defects in the leading men are brushed aside, even presented as facets of their pursuit of a righteous life. Questioning the wife's chastity and pawning her in a game of dice are all part of the game for the larger good of the people.

In the last couple of decades though (one of the earliest was Pratibha Ray's "Yagnaseni: The story of Draupadi" in 1995), there has been a lot of work, particularly from women writers to rectify this. Divakaruni herself has written both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana from the perspective of Draupadi and Sita, the respective "heroines" of these two epics. She says that she wanted to correct the popular misconceptions about them -- the former as uninhibited and arrogant, and the latter as meek and voiceless -- and show them for the strong, courageous and inspiring women that they really are. In Divakaruni's versions, they both go through immense hardships, weep and feel pain, and even express anger, but they get up and go on with their lives. She adds, "I wanted to tell women that it is all right to feel those human emotions. We need human heroines, not impossibly perfect role models."

These renditions are significant, not just for the much-needed freshness they bring into these age-old stories, but also for how strikingly relevant they are to the current world we live in. For instance, after the humiliation of public disrobing in the royal court by her husbands' enemies, Draupadi declares, "Why should I care? They and not I should be ashamed for shattering the bounds of decency."

In a brilliant parallel, in The Forest of Enchantments, when Rama tells his loyal wife Sita that he cannot take her back because his people will not accept her as their queen after she has lived with another man (even only if as an unwilling captive), Sita counters him with, "How is it my fault when I was abducted against my will?"

"[W]e don't hear much about the folk renditions where the Ramayana is told by a women narrator," says Samhita Arni, author of "Sita's Ramayana." (From Amazon)

"She is speaking on behalf of women down the ages who have been victims of such violence," states Divakaruni. "I hope that both these books and my depictions of their heroines will give my readers the encouragement to stand up and speak out when necessary."

Not just in India, but all over the world, victim blaming has always been the norm, and it is the woman who bears the brunt of not just any aggression or abuse by men, but also the burden of proving herself innocent: What was she wearing? Why was she drinking so much? Why did she go out with those men? Many such questions continue to float in the air around women who have already been traumatized by their experiences.

It is not as easy as taking a story and flipping it on its head though. Jayapriya Vasudevan, veteran publishing agent and owner of Jacaranda Agency, says that readers are already deeply engaged in the lives of the protagonists, and therefore any new rendition needs to stay true to the original story while bringing in nuance and newness. "Especially in the case of the female characters -- that requires delving deep and finding ways to highlight how they not just survived so much strife but also came out shining at the end of it all," she says.

Interestingly enough, there have been books focusing on not just the main characters, but also several other interesting women who are typically presented in minor roles. For instance, "The Liberation of Sita" by Volga (the pen name of Popuri Lalitha Kumari) brings to life women like Ahalya and Surpanakha, who have been victimized by the men in their lives, but have not been shown any sympathy by traditional storytellers so far. In the book, such women say, "Write our story, too. For always we've been pushed into corners, trivialized, misunderstood, blamed, forgotten -- or maligned and used as cautionary tales."

Given the growing strength of the #MeToo movement that has taken the world by storm, these stories become increasingly important in today's world. Arni asserts that such renditions help readers grapple with the flawed legacies of our belief systems in terms of gender roles, social systems and so on, and challenge us to decide "which aspects of this legacy we want to carry forward and what we want to let go of." As she says further, "All the women in these stories are ultimately choosing themselves over the men in their lives, and the roles they plan in the lives of these men. This is often overlooked or ignored, but modern retellings being this truth to the fore, and that is why they are so important."

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